Framing Matters: Unveiling the art of conservation and loans

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
5 min readFeb 21, 2024


Ana Flynn-Young. Head of Painting Conservation, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

‘Roman Widow’ or ‘Dîs Manibus’ , 1874, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. From the Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico.

In February 2024, the San Domenico Civic Museum in Forli will offer a major exhibition dedicated to the Pre-Raphaelites with over three hundred works on display. The aim is to reconstruct the profound impact of historical Italian art on the British Pre-Raphaelite movement.

This exhibition, like all large exhibitions (the Laing Art Gallery included), has been years in the planning. The list of paintings they wished to loan was discussed with curators and the conservation staff so as not to impact on our own visitors’ experience and not put any of our works at unnecessary risk. The final three chosen were ‘Portia’, ‘The Lady with Lilies’ and ‘Hypatia’.

Left: ‘Portia’, 1887, Henry Woods RA. Centre: ‘Woman with Lilies’, 1876 , Thomas Armstrong. Right: ‘Hypatia’, 1885, Charles William Mitchell.

My main priority was to make sure they were all safe to travel. ‘Hypatia’ is a large painting and was in store but was only in her slip frame. A slip frame is a smaller plain frame that fits inside a larger and more ornate frame. In this case the outer frame was missing, but I had seen it in our frame store some time before and made it my mission to reunite the two halves of the frame.

When I looked on our records, the picture had been out of its frame since 1977, so there was at least 25 years of dirt on it (and that’s assuming it was clean when it was removed from the painting).

On the left, you can see the bottom edge of the frame with its layers of dirt and missing pieces.

In the centre, you can see the left edge of the frame which had obviously been standing in water at some time in the past, and had lost almost all of the edge decoration. At some point an attempt had been made to repair it but this had been abandoned (probably due to time pressure).

On the right you can see the bottom left corner as the cleaning begins. The areas of red are where the thin layer of gold has been rubbed off the surface (you see this often on the bottom edge of the frame where years of dusting has left its mark).

Surface cleaning the frame.

First the frame was given a good vacuum to remove 30 years of dust. Then the ingrained dirt and discoloured glue layer was removed from the thin gold leaf surface. This had to be done with extreme care as the moisture from the cleaning fluid was also likely to remove the water gilded finish. I found myself holding my breath quite a lot!

Casting of new mouldings.

Moulds of the remaining decoration were taken using the same silicon mix used by your dentist (which smells of bubblegum). Plaster of Paris casts were then made (three at a time) until I had enough to repair all the losses.

Left edge of the frame after moulding repairs.
Detail of repaired mouldings.

All of the missing areas were reattached. The losses were filled and sanded, and filled and sanded again until they weren’t so noticeable.

Frame prepared for gilding.

The repairs were painted with Bole (a mixture of soft clay and rabbit skin glue) which provides a good surface to gild on.

Adding gold leaf.

24ct gold leaf was water gilded to the repaired areas (not as expertly as I would have liked, but needs must).

Painting and frame after repair.

The painting and its inner slip frame were fitted into the outer frame. When looking at the exhibition labels I noticed that this painting had been on loan for the Royal Jubilee Exhibition in 1887 and then again in 1977. Isn’t that cool?!

Left: Label from 1887. Right: Label form 1977.
Back of painting and frame.

The back of the painting was sealed to protect it from humidity changes, which might cause damage whilst on loan.

Museo Civico di San Domenico, Forli.

I was lucky enough to go to Forli to install our paintings and make sure they arrived in the same condition they left our care. After a day of travelling, I was too tired to even go out for a pizza. I sat in my hotel room, eating crisps and watching Italian TV. The next day I arrived at the Museo Civico di San Domenico. It is a converted church and monastery. Our paintings were amongst the first of the 300 paintings to arrive, which was a bit of a shame, as I would have loved to have a look at the other paintings in the exhibition. I did get a glimpse of some of the other treasures that had arrived from England though. I worked with a small exhibition team of technicians and a conservator to get our paintings unpacked, checked and up on the wall.

Left: On arrival after acclimatising overnight, out she comes from the case. Centre: Many hands make light work. Right: Up she goes!

Happily all of the paintings went up with out any problems. ‘Hypatia’ was a bit of a tight fit but we got her in position with a lot of help. The next morning I was back on the planes, trains and automobiles to get home, with just enough time to buy a frog in Bologna for my daughter’s birthday. Job done!



Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Major regional museum, art gallery and archives service. We manage a collection of nine venues across Tyneside and the Archives for Tyne and Wear.