An Auricular frame amongst the Founder’s Collection of the Ashmolean Museum

by The Frame Blog

Timothy Newbery and Jevon Thistlewood discuss seven Auricular frames in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum. One is an early 17th century English pattern on a portrait, two are late 17th century Dutch frames on still life paintings, and the remaining four are on oil sketches by Peter Paul Rubens. The histories of the frames are noted, and evidence of gilding and regilding.

The Ashmolean Museum opened in 1683 with a bequest of items from Elias Ashmole [1]. A list of these items was completed in 1685 [2] and it included a number of paintings which still appear in to be in their original frames. One of these, a portrait which was believed to be of Sir John Suckling [3], a Cavalier poet in the reign of Charles I, is housed in an English Auricular frame made c. 1635-40.


British School, Portrait of a youth, said to be Sir John Suckling, c.1625 -40, o/c, 84 x 69 cm, F676; ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

This frame is carved from oak which is two and a half centimetres (or one inch) thick, with mitred and lapped Northern European cassetta construction at the front, and an applied tenoned back frame. There is a vertical line of symmetry through the frame which is almost exact, except for elements in the lower left and right sides. The rebate has been crudely opened, probably when the canvas was relined onto a larger size of stretcher.


Reverse of the frame on F676; ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford


Details of the frame ornament on F676; ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The motifs around the frame comprise a lion’s head in the centre of the top rail, supported by its reversed front paws; claws in the upper corners; eagles biting serpents, with wings and tentacles on the lateral rails; and bird in the centre of the lower rail, supported by the lion’s back paws. The wings of the bird form a shape similar to that of a pilgrim’s scallop shell. The strongly zoömorphic nature of this decoration indicates an influence from ornament at the Medici Court.


A sample from the frame on F676 (a) showing the layers of decoration in cross-section, (b) the same illuminated with UV light at 480nm, (c) the same viewed through a 720nm infrared filter, (d) the same stained with Acid Fuchsin, (e) the same stained also with Sudan Black B ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

At the bottom of the cross-section we can see the earliest scheme of gilding, which consists of gesso, a yellow bole and gold leaf. It is most likely that this is the original decoration. The adhesion of the gesso to the carved oak is very poor, and has a crystalline appearance – possibly suggesting that the picture suffered from a damp environment in the past [4]. It is followed by at least three subsequent schemes of gilding, each of which replicates the process, beginning with a thick preparatory layer. Staining with Acid Fuschin suggests that, of the first and second regilding processes, the preparatory layers do not contain any substantial amounts of protein. These layers also contain spherical translucent voids which can be an indication of lead soaps. This resonates with the apparent use of a lead-based white oil paint being used for this purpose in the late nineteenth century [5] and its similar occurrence on other frames in the Founder’s Collection [6]. The overall result has considerably thickened and filled in the carved detail on the frame.


Attributed to William Mouse II [7], The Ashmole Cup, ©Robert Yardley, with permission of Lichfield City Council

Ashmole’s wider appreciation of the Auricular style can be seen in his record of the (since destroyed) work of Christian van Vianen for the Chapel at Windsor [8], and in his gift of an English silver drinking vessel to the Bailiffs of Lichfield in 1666 [9].


Elias van den Broeck, A Vase of Flowers, o/c, 90 x 71 cm, A540, ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Further Auricular frames were added to the collection of the Ashmolean Museum in conjunction with two major bequests, two Dutch frames carved in limewood arriving in 1939 as part of the Daisy Linda Ward bequest of nearly one hundred still life paintings [10]. In contrast to the English frame, the carving on these frames is much deeper and more three-dimensional, and includes naturalistic motifs of fruit, flowers and leaves. The frame on a still life painting by Elias van der Broeck, made in Amsterdam c. 1660, has been made from much longer lengths of architectural moulding, which has no specific sight edges. It was probably originally applied over paintings set into panelling. Rejoined in a smaller format, it has left the lower corners in particular poorly resolved.


Details of the frame on Elias van den Broeck, A540, ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The whole frame appears to have been oil gilded, and regilded once or twice in some places, on a base of thick white gesso.


A sample from the frame (A540) (a) showing the layers of decoration in cross-section, (b) the same stained with Acid Fuchsin and Sudan Black B, (c) the same illuminated with UV light at 480nm; ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford


Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Still Life with Fruit and Oysters, 1643 o/panel, 65 x 87 cm, A559, ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The second Dutch frame contains a still life by Jan Davidsz. de Heem. It was probably made in Utrecht c. 1670. The ornament includes fish, birds, reptiles, sea creatures, flowers and leaves. At the top of the frame there is an asymmetric bird facing to the right, indicating that this was one of a pair of portrait frames: thus the present horizontal format appears to have been created from a portrait frame which has been significantly reduced in height.


Details of the frame on Jan Davidsz. de Heem, A559, ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

This too seems to have been oil gilded, and regilded; however, certain elements appear only to be thinly covered in places. (A modern gilt slip or inlay has been added at some point, possibly as a former glazing spacer.) The surface has extensive fine contraction cracking throughout.


A sample from the frame (A559) (a) showing the layers of decoration in cross-section, (b) the same stained with Acid Fuchsin and Sudan Black B, (c) the same illuminated with UV light at 480nm, ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

 In both of these Dutch frames, the three-dimensional naturalistic foliage and ornament increase the illusion of realism in the still life paintings. Whilst they are not original to the paintings they now contain, they are contemporary with them, having been applied some years later. The marine ornament is derived from Florentine and Roman fountains, probably brought north by craftsmen trained in Italy.

Four oil sketches by Peter Paul Rubens came to the Ashmolean Museum as part of the Chambers Hall bequest of 1855. In contrast to the previous frames discussed, the frames on these 17th century paintings appear to have been made in the 19th century.


Sir Peter Paul Rubens, St Barbara pursued by her father, c.1620, o/panel, 15.5 x 20.7 cm, A157, ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford


Sir Peter Paul Rubens, St Clare of Assisi, c.1620, o/panel, 14.6 x 22 cm, A156, ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

These paintings may not have been framed originally, as they served as preparatory sketches for a scheme of c.1620, for ceiling paintings in the Jesuits’ Church in Antwerp. (The ceiling paintings were destroyed by fire in 1718). The first two frames (A157 & A156) are of a similar size and design, and were made in England c. 1855. They are based on the ‘Sunderland’ pattern of the 1660s, moderated by the influence of the mid-19th century Rococo revival, as can be seen from the rocaille ornament in the cartouches, and in the centred ornaments on the lateral rails.


Details of the frames (A157, above; A156, below), ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford


A sample from A157 (a) showing the layers of decoration in cross-section, (b) the same stained with Acid Fuchsin and Sudan Black B, (c) the same illuminated with UV light at 480nm, (d) sample from A156 showing the layers of decoration in cross-section, (e) the same stained with Acid Fuchsin and Sudan Black B, (f) the same illuminated with UV light at 480nm; ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

One of these frames (that on St Barbara…, A157) has had the sight edge crudely extended inwards, leaving a broad bumpy step. It has also been gilded with a thicker imitation gold foil after this adjustment, which rounds and fills the ornament. Below this foil there is off-white preparation with very finely ground pigment particles. In contrast, the other frame (on St Clare…, A156) appears to have been oil gilded, although there also seems to be a layer of glue flowing between the oil size and the white gesso. Given the fact that samples are taken in areas of existing damage this could be a consolidant.


Sir Peter Paul Rubens, The sacrifice of Noah, c.1620, o/panel, 18.7 x 28.8 cm, A158, ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford


Sir Peter Paul Rubens, The Annunciation, c.1620, o/panel, 14.2 x 26.4 cm, A159, ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The remaining frames in this set of four (The sacrifice of Noah, A158, & The Annunciation, A159) are of different dimensions from each other. They are British, and appear to have been copied from A156 and A157 at a later date, c.1890, as can be seen by the Art Nouveau influence, with its more metallic and serpentine lines. A succession of bumps at the corners has been translated into unconnected pear shapes.


Details of the frames (The sacrifice of Noah, A158, above; and The Annunciation, A159, below), ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

 Samples from these frames show very similar layers in the gilding to those on the frame of St Clare of Assisi (A156). They even have the same apparent glue layer beneath the oil size in places.


A sample from A158 (a) showing the layers of decoration in cross-section, (b) the same stained with Acid Fuchsin and Sudan Black B, (c) the same illuminated with UV light at 480nm, (d) sample from A159 showing the layers of decoration in cross-section, (e) the same stained with Acid Fuchsin and Sudan Black B, (f) the same illuminated with UV light at 480nm; ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

In an article to mark the acquisition of the Chambers Hall letters by the Ashmolean Museum[11], it was noted that,

‘…in February 1828 (Chambers Hall) told (David Charles) Read that he had bought a set of small tools, and for several years kept him informed about the frames he was making. It is not certain whether he made the frames for his small sketches by Rubens or the frame for Zoffany’s Garrick but if not they must have been carved for him…Since 1855 many of his frames have been taken off and lost. The frame for Miss Keppel, which took many months of laborious carving, was removed in 1867. Others were cut up and reused. The best documented of his surviving frames is on Reynold’s Charity. This rather fanciful and irregular frame, as he described it to Read, was constructed by him out of existing lengths of moulding with added ornaments which he carved in limewood.’

The choice of this frame pattern may have been inspired by the fluid brushwork of the sketches themselves, or by 17th century kwabwerk. It may also reference the appearance of Roman grotesque elements in some of Ruben’s works: for example, the lions’ skins seen worn by Roman soldiers in the Decius Mus series, which is thought to be one of the origins of Auricular ornament.


Timothy Newbery studied picture framemaking and the history of frames with Paul Levi between 1978-87. In 1987 he established a workshop in London making and restoring picture frames and sculpture bases for Old Masters. He has catalogued frames in the National Trust and in museums in Europe and North America. His publications include Italian Renaissance Frames (with  George Bisacca & Laurence B. Kanter, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990), Frames and Framings (The Ashmolean Museum, 2003) and The Robert Lehman Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Volume XIII: Frames (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007).

Jevon Thistlewood received an MA in the Conservation of Fine Art from Northumbria University in 2000, specialising in easel paintings. His previous qualifications include a BSc in Chemistry and a MA in Sculpture Studies from the University of Leeds. In 2007 he was accredited with the Institute of Conservation and came to the Ashmolean Museum as a Paintings Conservator. His research interests centre on the examination of techniques and materials used in painted surfaces.


[1] [Feb 1683]15. I began to put my Rarities into cases to send to Oxford … ‘  [Mar 1683] ‘14. The last load of my Rarities sent to the barge,’ in R.T. Gunther, The Diary and Will of Elias Ashmole, Oxford, 1927, p. 124

[2] AMS 8 [1685a] Liber Domini Decani Aedis Christi (Book of the Dean of Christ Church), pp. 33-66, published in Arthur MacGregor, ed., with Melanie Mendonç and Julia White, Manuscript Catalogues of the Early Museum Collections, 1683-1886, BAR International Series 907, Oxford, Archeopress, 2000.

[3] ‘676 Pictura Dñi Johannis Suckleing Militis 103′

[4] It is not clear where this frame would have been located in the Old Ashmolean Museum. If framed pictures were displayed, they were hung on the staircase, or above fireplaces and cases. The building in Broad Street relied on several large coal fires for warmth until the end of 1885.

[5] For example, ‘Oil Gilding. Prime the work first with boiled linseed oil and white-lead; when dry, do it over with a thin coat of gold size, consisting of stone-ochre ground in fat oil,’ in A. Jamieson, A Dictionary of Mechanical Science, Arts, Manufactures, and Miscellaneous Knowledge, H. Fisher, Son & Company, 1829, vol. 1, p.389.

[6]  See ‘Restoring a Grinling Gibbons frame‘.

[7] The attribution of William Mouse II (b. 1643) is mentioned in a catalogue entry for a silver tankard.  More on William Mouse II can be found in E. J. G. Smith, ‘Jacob Bodendick’, The Silver Society Journal, 13, 2001, pp. 66-80.

[8]  ‘And now at length (a considerable sum having been collected) the work began to beset on foot, and the Workman made choice of, was one Christian Van Vianan of Utrect, a man excellently skilled in chasing of Plate : and to give him due praise in this undertaking, he discovered a rare ingenuity and happy fancy ,as the skilful did judge while the Plate was in being, and the designs of each piece yet to be seen (among the present Sovereign’s rare collection of Draughts and Sketches) can sufficiently manifest’, in E. Ashmole, The Institution, Laws & Ceremonies of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, first published 1672 by Nathaneal Brooke, p.492

[9]  [1666]  ‘Jan. 17. I bestowed on the bailiffs of Lichfield a large chased silver bowl and cover, cost me £23 8s. 6d’ , in R. T. Gunther, The Diary and Will of Elias Ashmole, Oxford, 1927, p. 124. The cup is a form commonly found among the plate of the City livery companies, decorated with monster faces in the Van Vianen style. M. Hunter, Elias Ashmole, 1617-1692: The Founder of the Ashmolean Museum and His World : a Tercentenary Exhibition, Ashmolean Museum, 1983, p. 33-34.

[10] F.G. Meijer, The Collection of Dutch and Flemish Still-life Paintings Bequeathed by Daisy Linda Ward, Ashmolean Museum, 2003.

[11]  J. Whiteley, ‘The Chambers Hall Letters’, in The Ashmolean Magazine, no. 64, Summer 2012, p. 26.