The History Of Photo Frames

Over time frames have evolved from rough and ready wooden frames, to today’s materials of glass, metal, slate, plastic, and of course wood. More striking perhaps is the move to personalised photo frames, and there are frames with designs for babies, weddings, Multi aperture photo frame, family photo frames – there are even designs specifically for particular members of the family, and for special events like a Graduation, or special days like Mother’s Day.

When did framing a picture, rather than leaving it to stand alone, become desirable? Actually, the practice dates back to the times of the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Works of art found on walls and pottery have been found that clearly have borders, of frames, added to the scenes. There is something aesthetically pleasing about framing a work of art that adds to the sense of completeness.

As far as frames that are separate entities to the image itself are concerned, an example dating from the Second Century has been discovered. It was discovered inside an Egyptian tomb and the frame is made of wood. It surrounds a picture of a mummy and, having been kept in the sterile conditions of the tomb, is well preserved. So the idea of creating a frame that was then added to an image dates back a long time.

Since wood was a readily available substance that was easy to work with, it’s not surprising that it remained a popular material for frames for many centuries. However, we must move forward to the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries to find examples of wooden frames that were carved into beautiful objects in their own right. It was in Europe that wooden frames that were carved first appeared. They were made to enhance works of religious art in churches. The technique used was for a solid piece of wood to be hollowed out in the centre, leaving a flat area, and the edge ornately decorated through intricate carving and sometimes gilding. Often, the design of the frame would reflect the architecture of the church or cathedral where the work of art was to be placed. When the delicate work on the outside frame was completed, the piece of wood was passed to the artist to paint his work in the central, flat area. Many artists became famous over the next centuries, but little attention was paid to the highly skilled woodworkers who made the elaborate frames with such skill.

The problem with this kind of frame was that, when large paintings were produced, they became part of the structure of the building. Many were impossible to move and it meant that the devoted were only able to view them in church. They were also very expensive to make because of all the work put in by both frame-maker and artist. It became recognised that people wanted to have religious pictures in their own homes and so another solution had to be found.
The idea of mouldings became popular. This was where the flat work of art was framed by strips of wood that were added once the painting was completed. The pieces of wood were mitred at the corners to make a pleasing join and they could be made much more easily and cheaply than their ‘all in one’ predecessors. The wealthy, such as the Medici family, were now able to commission works of art for themselves to hang in their grand houses and it was that artists flourished thanks to this development in the art of framing. They usually instigated works of devotion, but portraits began to be popular amongst these classes.

The kind of wood used to make the frames varied. By the Sixteenth Century it was still most common for picture frames to be made from oak, a solid and long-lasting wood. However, as the notion of having pictures inside people’s own homes caught on, pine became more popular. This was a lighter wood that was also easier than oak to carve. Anything that made the task of frame mak8ing easier brought down the cost and made pictures more accessible.
So by the Seventeenth Century different woods were used depending upon where the picture was to be displayed. Heavier woods were still used for churches where the works of art, if large enough, might have a structural role to play, but lighter woods were more likely to be used in people’s houses. There was also the effect of painting the frames or gilding them. It was recognised that the best woods were not necessarily needed if the wood itself, in its raw state, was not to be displayed.

Sometimes, the quality of the wood used reflected the painting and this was particularly the case for portraits of royalty or the wealthy and powerful. To make the person appear even grander in their portrait woods such as tortoiseshell, ebony and walnut would have been used for the frame. There may even have been an ivory inlay. The carving would be very intricate to show that the person could afford the high cost of this very time-consuming work, but once again, as more and more people wanted to display pictures in their homes, the art of framing developed to meet the need.

Papier-mache was introduced as an alternative to wood. This was a much lighter substance and it produced impressive results. Very involved designs could be created simply by pressing the papier-mache onto the frame. Fruit, leaves and other patterns from nature were copied and sometimes intertwined with cherubs and the like. For several centuries the boldness and intricacy of these frames was a source of pride at what the owner could afford. The more elaborate the picture frames in a house, the wealthier the owner must be. However, by the Nineteenth Century, things had changed.

The Victorians preferred simpler designs and this was also the era when the post industrial revolution middle classes established themselves. Picture owning became more democratised and straight-forward frame designs could be manufactured easily to meet the growing demand. Compo, a casting material became popular. Frames were made by pressing this substance into a mould and the skilled wood carvers who had previously made their living working directly with the frames instead turned their attention to making complex moulds. The beauty of these moulds was, of course, that they could be used many times before the details began to be less clear and so the mass production of picture frames was possible for the first time.

The fact that artists had always become famous for their work, whilst the very skilled picture framers did not, was perhaps the reason for the lack of copyright on frames. Anyone with enough skill could make a mould based upon a frame they liked from any era of the past and so copies of elaborate Renaissance frames could be made in little more time than a simpler, later design, especially once the mould had been carved. Towards the end of the Victorian age some artists began to counter this movement of copying earlier works and having very elaborate frames with ease. For example, Degas designed frames for his pictures that were very simple.

Even though picture frames had become increasingly affordable, it was still quite expensive for a middle class family to have portraits of themselves painted. The invention of photography was to change that. The rapid adoption and expansion of the whole photographic industry can be put down to this desire of the comparatively well-off to have their own images on the walls of their houses. In the early Nineteenth Century the first photograph took eight hours, or perhaps even several days for the image to be fixed, but this was a landscape of an estate in France. People were not captured on a photograph until an image of a boulevard in Paris that took seven minutes exposure caught those who had stayed comparatively still during that time. It was in 1839 that a self-portrait was taken by photography with an exposure time of just over a minute and then it began to be possible to think of taking photographs as portraits.
By the middle of the Nineteenth Century a whole new industry had grown up around photographic studios. Whole families would go along to the studio and pose in front of grand backdrops or in contrived settings of staged drawing rooms and the like. The exposure time was still quite long and so straightforward poses were the norm. When the resulting photographs were printed, often they would find their way into special family albums. However, special photographs would be put into frames to stand on the mantelpiece.

The idea of adding a kind of mount to the photograph became popular. Often and arrangement of pressed flowers would be arranged around the image before it was put into the frame and the frames themselves were personalised in some way too. Wooden frames could be covered in material that could then be embroidered and this was especially popular when the photograph was to be presented as a gift. The fashion for decoupage meant that cut out pictures of flowers replaces real, pressed ones.

Even when photographs of landscapes and views became popular features on the walls of the middle classes, the frames for photographs were generally still plainer than those for paintings. Thus the whole business of photography was so much more accessible than paintings. The idea of card mounts really took off in the Twentieth Century when photographs began to be taken for all occasions. The photographer would send the prints out sandwiched by these cardboard sheets and then the purchaser would choose their own frame for the whole composition. This idea of having a few frames around the house with the pictures inside them being changed when new photographs were acquired lasted for most of the century.

Now, of course, frames are much cheaper and readily available. This has led to it being increasingly popular for a photograph being given as a gift inside the specific frame that has been chosen to show it off to greatest advantage. Replacement photographs are then often in new frames all of their own. This notion of the frame belonging to the picture harks back to the earliest frames that were integral parts of the works of art. It has also opened the door to very specific personalisation. The photograph of a new baby, presented in a frame that is for new grandparents will always be treasured and kept in that particular frame. Wedding photographs can now clearly bear the names of the couple and the date of the event, whilst special anniversary frames are made in ‘ruby’ and ‘gold’ colours. Once again the frame is clearly part of the picture.

Photographs can now easily be framed for special events such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and Christenings and Baptisms can be recorded on the frames of special pictures. The frame has become a main feature with special messages relating to the photograph being permanently marked upon them by printing methods that have only recently been developed. Digital printers that are programmed by computers make personalisation easy and affordable. Why buy a plain frame when it is possible to have a personal message added to a frame for a specific photograph? The frame has become as much a part of the photograph as it once was a part of the painting, but now the work is carried out by computers and special printers rather than by skilled crafts men, but this does mean that personalised frames are available to everyone. An item that was once the preserve of the wealthy and the church is now something that everyone can buy to enhance their own portraits and works of art.

Another factor that has once again led to the frame belonging to the specific picture has been the increasing use of different materials to make the frames. Wood is still popular, but not usually with ornate carving and silver and gold frames always look classy. However, the ability to print effectively on glass has made this a popular choice for personalised photo frames and even cheaper materials have their market. Resin can easily be moulded, much like the Victorian compo and many beautiful personalised photo frames for babies and young children are produced in this way. Even plastic can be used to make charming and easily accessible personalised frames in this era of picture frames being available to all.