Cleaning & Care of Gilded Frames
By April Hann Lanford
Cleaning and Care of Gilded Frames
By April Hann Lanford
Paintings and gilded frames frequently come to our studio that has sustained damage from improper cleaning. While clients attempt to their artwork with the best of intentions, sometimes cleaning can do more harm than good.
All cleaning processes involve contact with the surface of a piece, which causes friction on the surface. This eventually leads to abrasion, which cumulatively can damage the frame. Oftentimes, it is better to have a light accumulation of dust rather than risk inadvertently damaging the frame that you are trying to care for.
Sage advice-Don’t be afraid to allow for a little accumulation of dust.
Always Check the Condition Prior to Cleaning
Before any attempts at dusting or cleaning, you should first check to make sure that the surface is stable. If you are concerned about the condition of your frame, it is always best to first document the condition. The easiest way is with images. First, take an overall image, and then take details. Don’t forget about the back as well.
Losses of gilding or gesso, lifting cracks, or lose ornamentation, discoloration, are all indicative of underlying complexities that should be further assessed by a conservator to determine the best approach for proper care.
If you find any detached fragments, always keep those in a bag with the piece so that they can be incorporated in with repairs or conservation in the future.
Cleaning Gilded Surfaces is Not a One Size Fits All Approach
Unless you are a trained conservator, never attempt to use any liquids or chemicals on a gilded surface. Gilt frames have complex surfaces that may involve multiple layers of gold leaf, pigmented toners, wax, etc. Add that to how the frame has aged over time, or varying environmental exposures, damage, or previous repairs, illustrates that each frame is unique.
Some gilding techniques are sensitive to moisture, and the desirable gold surface can actually be wiped away when touched with a damp rag. Contact with glass cleaner can also be extremely detrimental to a gilded surface and its bole and gesso preparatory layers.
Beware of Previous Repair
If you see areas of darkening or discoloration on an antique frame, it is likely a previous repair that has aged and darkened over
time. In the past, it was common for people to paint over areas of damage on a gilt frame with radiator paint. The paint was brass base which at first had a comparable gold tonality to gold leaf. Over time, the brass elements in the applied paint would oxidize over time and turn to a brown tone. This is often mistaken as the gold having a dirty appearance.
However, it cannot be addressed through general cleaning. The good news is that after careful testing, it is often possible to remove this discolored paint and reveal the original gold leaf underneath. We have revitalized frames completely overpainted to reveal the original gold leaf beneath.
Unique items and surfaces require individual care, which means, that there is not a single tried and true single approach.
Light Dusting-Less is Best
For care at home, gilded frames should only be lightly dusted with a very soft-haired brush. A large natural hair watercolor mop brush or cosmetic brush is preferable. When using these brushes, be sure to cover the metal ferrule to protect the painting from accidental contact with the metal. Dusting should be undertaken with very little pressure or contact with the gilded surface.
Dusting should never be undertaken if there are cracks or flaking evident on the surface. Dusting may further weaken the bond of the gesso/gilding to the wood support and cause further loss to the surface.
Never Use Feather Dusters
Feather dusters should not be used as the ends of the spines can scratch and abrade the surface. I frequently find the small tips of feathers that have broken off from dusters caught in the crevices of cracks in surfaces in works.
Don’t Overlook the Back
The back of the frame is frequently overlooked. That is likely where the bulk of the accumulated dust will be found. The backs of frames often are unfinished wood and can be cleaned in a more straightforward manner. If a light dusting with a mop brush does not do the trick, a slightly moistened microfiber cloth should suffice.
When cleaning, please watch for provenance labels on the back that are sensitive to handling. These should be not be cleaned and left in situ.
While you have full access to the back, it is also a good time to review the stability of the hanging hardware. Make sure that it is securely mounted to the frame and if there is wire, that it is not corroded, and well affixed to the hardware.
When cleaning gilded frames, it is important to always remember that “less is more”. A subtle buildup of household dust does not necessarily warrant a full cleaning. However, other exposures, such as construction dust, smoke, or mildew should not be taken lightly. Losses of gilding or gesso, lifting cracks, or lose ornamentation, discoloration, are all indicative of underlying complexities
Before attempting to address a concern yourself, you should contact a specialist in the field or conservator. Working with a specialist can confirm the optimal approach to maintain the frame’s historic charm, integrity and avoid the risk of further damage.
If you have any questions about the care of your piece, please contact us at:
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