Composition (compo) picture and mirror frame making
The making of composition (compo) ornament picture and mirror frames using traditional techniques.
|Historic area of significance
|Composition ornament frames were mostly produced in the UK, North America and Australia. During the first half of the nineteenth century they were favoured by prominent artists such as Lawrence, Turner and Constable and were made for elite markets.
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
|Composition ornament frames started being made in the late eighteenth century and became increasingly widespread during the nineteenth.
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
Conservators/Restorers using compo: 35-40
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
Conservators/Restorers using compo: 5-10
|Current no. of trainees
Conservators/Restorers using compo: 2
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
In the late eighteenth century composition was used to ornament elite interiors and frames in the neoclassical style. In the early nineteenth century composition frames were favoured by many important British artists such as Sir Thomas Lawrence, JMW Turner, and John Constable.
Frames heavily enriched with composition ornament became increasingly fashionable and available during the Victorian era. Their popularity steadily declined towards the end of the nineteenth and throughout most of the twentieth centuries.
Although interest in them increased again toward the end of the twentieth century, the skill base has been eroded and few people can now make them to their original standard and complexity. Skilful restoration typically costs considerably more than the frame’s monetary value.
Composition is based on a mixture of animal glue, linseed oil, conifer resin and powdered chalk that , whilst warm, is screw-pressed into intaglio moulds to make pliable ornament that hardens upon drying. Composition, also known as ‘compo’, differs from cast ornament containing plaster of Paris made from gypsum, or ornament containing fibre, i.e., papier mâché or carton pierre etc. Press moulds were traditionally hand carved in hardwoods, commonly boxwood (a separate craft now extinct in the UK).
- Machining timber profile mouldings.
- Whitening up timber mouldings using powdered chalk in warm animal skin glue – now mostly known by the Italian term gesso.
- Cross hatching whitened mouldings.
- Cutting and joining mouldings.
- Mould making.
- Making, pressing, and mounting composition ornament – including the use of wire armatures, associated particularly with mirror frames.
- Oil and water gilding, burnishing, and matting.
- Glazing, fitting, and backing frames.
Hand carving intaglio moulds in hardwood for pressing composition ornament – is now extinct in the UK.
Making and selling fresh composition for customers to press into ornament – is now being made and sold by one person in the UK.
Selling composition ornament for customers to mount onto objects – is now being done by one firm in the UK.
Manufacturing lengths of whitened and composition ornamented mouldings – is provided, to the trade, by one firm in the UK.
Gold beating – is now extinct in the UK.
Manufacturing coloured bole – is now extinct in the UK.
Manufacturing oil gilding mordants – is done by at least two firms in the UK.
Silvering, cutting and bevelling mirror plates – bevelling by hand is now rare in the UK.
Manufacturing associated fittings – i.e., mirror plates, plate hooks, s-hooks, chains, hanging rings, and rails etc – has generally declined in choice and quality in the UK.
Frames conservation/restoration – is viable but difficult to earn a living from.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Market – long term declining demand has led to the lowering of financial viability and quality. An ongoing reduction in the number and size of workshops is resulting in a shrinking base of craftspeople. There is competition from poor-quality simulations made overseas. Some workshops carve replicas of composition ornament frames rather than using the same materials. Some conservators/restorers make composition ornament frames for specific projects, but this is not a substitute for a dedicated trade of specialist makers.
- Training – there are not many places teaching the craft. Most of the available educational opportunities are focussed on conservation/restoration rather than making. Firms making picture and mirror frames train their own staff in-house as there are few formal training routes.
- Short courses – It is difficult to run comprehensive courses in framemaking as there are many stages that require drying times, as well as the necessary workspace and specialist equipment.
- Lack of training in conservation/restoration – A specialist conservator/restorer needs to have a detailed working knowledge of the craft skills required to make, ornament and decorate a frame. There is little specialist training available in either making or treating frames.
- Sourcing of materials – Most makers and conservator/restorers prepare their own composition from increasingly expensive materials. Readymade fresh composition for customers to press into ornament is sold by only one maker in the UK. Pressed composition ornament sold for customers to mount onto objects is retailed by only one firm in the UK – the trade used to rely upon framemakers sourcing different ornaments from each other (see Coibion).
- Tools and equipment – The availability of original hand carved press-moulds is declining, and much depleted compared with the nineteenth century, as new ones are no longer being made. Antique moulds are often now sold as treen to collectors, rather than being kept together and in use as tools by the trade – pairs and sets of moulds tend to be split into separate lots at auction, thereby the means of production are becoming disassociated and dispersed. Instead, makers and conservators/restorers rely upon modern mould-making materials and technologies, if financially viable.
- City & Guilds of London Art School.
- Gilding and Decorative Surfaces Group of the Institute for Conservation (Icon).
- The Frame Blog
- National Galleries of Scotland
- National Portrait Gallery
- Royal Oak Foundation Conservation Studio, National Trust
- University of Lincoln
- Victoria and Albert Museum
Craftspeople currently known
- Frinton Frames Ltd – supply the trade with composition frames in the white or finished, and lengths of composition mouldings in the white.
- Joseph McCarthy (incorporating the Bloomsbury Frame Works collection of carved moulds) – make finished mirror and picture frames to order.
- Sudbury Picture Frames – make finished composition frames to order.
- Tate – frame conservators make finished replica composition frames for the Gallery.
- Victoria Fine Art – make finished composition frames to order.
- Kingswood Frames and Mirrors – make finished composition frames to order
Over forty specialist frames conservators/restorers throughout the UK make and/or use composition, and some occasionally make finished composition frames.
- George Jackson Ltd (trading since 1780 and holding a large collection of carved moulds) – make pressed composition ornament for architectural interiors, and for customers to use on their objects.
- Ruth Tappin – restorer who also sells fresh composition for customers to press into ornament.
There are no specific training courses or apprenticeships available in composition picture frame making.
Degree and postgraduate study conservation courses:
- City & Guilds of London Art School BA Conservation: Stone, Wood & Decorative Surfaces and MA Conservation
- University of Lincoln BA Conservation of Cultural Heritage and MA Conservation of Cultural Heritage
- Coibion, Victoria, ‘From “real composition” to “higher matters of taste”: exploring the value shift from materials to design in early British composition ornament’, in Thirteenth International Symposium on Wood and Furniture Conservation. Stichting Ebeniste, 2016, pp. 74-87.
- Directory of British Picture Framemakers, 1600-1930 British picture framemakers, 1600-1950 – National Portrait Gallery (npg.org.uk)
- The Frame Blog – online magazine devoted to the study of antique picture frames https://theframeblog.com/
- Miller, William, Plastering, Plain and Decorative (‘Compositions’, chapter XIV, pp. 393-406). Routledge, 2010 (originally published by Batsford, 1897).
- Payne, John, Framing the Nineteenth Century: picture frames 1837-1935. The Images Publishing Group, 2007.
- Pinto, Edward, ‘Moulds for the Decorator’, in Country Life, January 1968, pp. 37-38.
- Simon, Jacob, The Art of the Picture Frame. National Portrait Gallery, 1996.
- Wetherall, Judith, ‘The History and Techniques of Composition’, in Gilding and Surface Decoration. The United Kingdom Institute for Conservation, 1991, pp. 26-29.