How are gold leaf frames made?

Charles Prendergast (1863–1948) was a successful framemaker and produced highly prized, hand-carved frames for many artists of his time, including John Singer Sargent and his brother Maurice Brazil Prendergast. You can read longer biographies of the brothers on the Prendergast section of our website. The Williams College Museum of Art has 68 hand carved frames by Charles Prendergast. You can view them in an online collection here. The museum also has archival materials, including letters that discuss his process of designing and creating frames, photographs of Charles carving the wood, and sketches of frame designs. Here are a couple of the frame sketches:

As you can see if you explore the online collection of Charles Prendergast frames, Charles Prendergast used the process of gilding using gold leaf. I learned about the process of gilding when I audited a class at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center last spring. Hugh Glover, Conservator of Furniture and Wood Objects, taught the class on frames, and even mentioned Charles Prendergast in his discussion. The first step in creating a hand-carved gilt frame is to carve the wood, which will serve as a foundation for the gesso, clay, and gold. Here is a photograph from the Prendergast Archive and Study Center (A.1.47) of Charles Prendergast carving the wood. You can see the gesso container on the right side of the photograph.

Then, after the wood is carved, the gesso is applied. Gesso is traditionally a mixture of calcium chalk and animal glue. Several coats of the gesso are applied to the wood frame. Once the gesso is dry, it can be polished and any carvings in the wood that have been subdued by the gesso can be redefined. Once the imperfections are sanded down, the gesso is ready to recieve the clay or bole. Clay is softer than the gesso, which is important in the burnishing process (if it was too hard the gold leaf would just crack). The use of red clay influences the tone of the gold and can help bring out the warm tones in the artwork. After the clay has been mixed, it is applied on the frame to sufficiently cover the gesso using multiple coats.The clay then needs to be polished, like the gesso, and once the clay is dry, the frame is ready to receive the gold leaf. In the following image (detail of frame for “Circus Rider No. 9”, 91.18.29.FR), you can see where the gold leaf has rubbed off and the red clay and white gesso layers are visible.

Applying the gold is a difficult step because gold leaf is very, very thin. It must be picked up with a gilder’s tip (a wide, thin brush). The gilder must wet an area of the clay with a mixture of water and alcohol. The glue is then floated on top of this layer. After the frame has dried partially, the burnishing step can occur. Based on the design, the gilder can choose to burnish only certain elements they would like to emphasize. When the burnishing tool is ran along the surface and some texture is applied, the gold takes on an extremely reflective surface. The gilder can also distress the gold leaf on purpose in a way that shows off the bole layer, and makes the frame look much older than it is (it seems likely that Charles Prendergast sometimes employed this distressing technique). It is important not to touch gold leaf frames with your bare hands, as the sweat on your fingers can easily damage the gilding. It is also especially important to never clean a object that was water gilded with liquid cleaners as the gold leaf will likely come right off. You can see the whole process demonstrated in this video Stockholms Förgyllning & Bildhuggeri. Frames themselves are generating an increased amount of interest in recent years (as was mentioned in an article in the Yale Daily News), including a Yale Center for British Art initiative to make an online collection of frames.

Feel free to browse through our online collection of Charles Prendergast frames!

2 Responses to How are gold leaf frames made?

  1. Scott says:

    Really interesting, thanks!

  2. medialark says:

    Wow, really cool.