Events reviews

Auricular Style: Frames: Wallace Collection: 5 to 6 October 2016

Conferences dedicated to picture frames are rare. Those dedicated to a particular, historic frame type are exceptional.

Annie Ablett ACR, Conservator-Restorer of Historic Frames writes:

‘The Auricular Style: Frames’ conference was initiated and developed by Gerry Alabone and Lynn Roberts. It has been their objective to promote the significance of this important frame style, which has been largely overshadowed by the earlier Italian frame designs of the Renaissance and the French frame patterns of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, both of which have tended to dominate frame making throughout Europe to this day. The programme for the two-day conference was extensive in its approach to presenting an understanding of the development of the Auricular style throughout Holland, France, Germany, Italy and Britain. The lectures were given by curators, historians and conservators from these countries. Each of the presentations was distinctly enlightening, allowing the audience to appreciate the various influences and developments in a diversity of media from the late sixteenth century through to the late seventeenth century. Developments, which ultimately led to the formation of the Auricular frame style and to the decorative elements thought to be particular to the Auricular frames in each country.

The speakers acknowledged that there are various opinions as to when the Auricular style began and how, and what defines an object as being in the Auricular style. At the same time they also pointed out that a finite definition of the Auricular style might never be feasible. The conference initially focused on the development and use of the Auricular style in both the arts and architecture in Holland. These talks introduced the concept that the Auricular form could have emerged from the Grotesque Movement of the sixteenth century in stark contrast to the preceding formality of Italian Classicism. Consideration was given to the idea that the style was primarily developed and indulged to its utmost by the Dutch silversmiths whose patrons encouraged them to create exceptional pieces of unnatural, flowing, amorphic forms with little distinction between shape and ornament. One particular gilt-silver vessel made by Adam Van Vianen, in 1614, was highlighted in several talks. It was of such high status and regard that it was portrayed in over fifty paintings in the early seventeenth century in Holland. Pictures of this period, including those by Rembrandt and his followers, also depicted furniture with similar, imaginary, carved ornament: furniture, which also existed in reality. It was felt that from the 1630s onwards the use of the Auricular design became progressively more desirable in the production of artefacts, furniture and architecture: ecclesiastical architecture and furniture were sited as being an important source for such evidence.

Each of the presentations took into account the significance of the dissemination of the Auricular style throughout Europe, not only by way of the royal courts and patrons but also by artists, craftsmen and pattern books. This circulation of the style was demonstrated in the paper on gilt leather, drawing examples from book bindings to embossed leather shields and leather wall hangings. Patents were taken out by the craftsmen and designers to protect their designs, which distinctly incorporated Auricular motifs. The commissioning of such remarkable artefacts demonstrated, and enhanced, the wealth of the patron.

We learnt that the French appeared to be less enthusiastic about the Auricular style because of its fluid, seemingly uncontrollable forms and, thus, they were late in adopting Auricular elements in their artworks. It would appear that the French felt that the use of the Auricular needed to be more clearly defined, incorporating more naturalistic features such as the peapod motif, the significance of which was addressed in detail in two of the talks.

In another lecture, it was thought that the Auricular style might not have been so popular in Germany, even when taking into account its close proximity to Holland. It was felt that there was less evidence of the Auricular than elsewhere in Europe. The reason was described as possibly being due to German politics of the time and the considerable influence of the Italian Baroque on the arts in Germany. This lecture highlighted the importance of social context when looking at the history of artworks. A number of the talks were illustrated with slides showing that engravings as well as pattern books became an important means of publicising the Auricular style. Portrait engravings often showed the sitter surrounded by a contrived frame including Auricular motifs. Seventeenth century paintings were also described as being a useful guide as to the importance of Auricular frames to artists at this time: for example, as seen in the picture of ‘Man Writing A Letter’ by Gabriel Metsu, circa 1664. At present, it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which contemporary artists used and encouraged the use of the Auricular frame style to surround their own pictures.

There seemed to be consensus amongst the specialists speaking at the conference that the fashion for Auricular frames reached its zenith in the second half of the seventeenth century in Europe. However, it was also explained that Auricular frames did not dominate the frame market during this period: in Holland, for example, Classical style frames and ebonised, profile frames were equally desired by the artists and their patrons. In addition to describing the origins and development and characteristics of the Auricular style and Auricular frames, the subject of how the frames were constructed and finished was explored. It was interesting to hear how the woods favoured by different countries could affect the style of their frames – it was felt that the use of linden in Holland accommodated a more voluminous appearance whilst the use of oak in England, a harder wood, resulted in a more restrained ornament. It is anticipated that over time our knowledge about the composition of the gilded schemes on the face of the Auricular frames will develop further with more extensive expert analysis and scientific investigation. Such work is currently being undertaken in Italy and was addressed in two papers focusing on the history of Auricular frames in Florence, where the Auricular frames in the collections of the Medici family and the Palazzo Pitti are being carefully assessed and catalogued. In another paper we were informed how the Medici’s frames appeared to adopt Auricular motifs, which were more anthropomorphic and zoomorphic in form.

The second day of the conference gradually drew us further towards the use of the Auricular frame style in Britain. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the artists and craftsmen of the Lowland countries frequently travelled to and from London to work. With them they brought the patterns and skills to make Auricular frames. Anthony Van Dyck’s interest in framing and his close association with Charles I and his court exerted a strong influence on the use of the Auricular frame style in the mid to late seventeenth century. A series of papers presented us with the splendour of the ‘Gallery Of Beauties’, a group of female portraits encased in small Auricular frames, which are in the collection of Her Majesty The Queen, and the dignity of the Auricular frames surrounding the ‘Fire Judges’, a collection commissioned by the Corporation Of London after the Great Fire in 1666, many of which have since been damaged or removed from their paintings.

British Auricular frames tend to be referred to as Sunderland frames, a term not introduced until the nineteenth century. We were reminded of how significant the taste of the Netherlands and Northern Europe had been on the Auricular style and frame making in the latter part of the seventeenth century in Britain.

‘The Auricular Style: Frames’ conference skilfully progressed through an intertwining series of lectures: too many to acknowledge individually. These comprehensive papers can be accessed on the website: Throughout the conference there was an inspiring openness for the exchange of ideas both in the lectures and the discussion sessions. Such information enhanced our growing understanding of the Auricular frame style. Each lecture was thought provoking, reinforcing a desire to continue exploring the subject, both academically and technically.

The realisation of the conference was also due to the support of Arnold Wiggins & Sons. They complimented the conference with a display of seventeenth century Auricular frames at their London premises. Ultimately, the success of the conference was due to the commitment of Gerry Alabone and Lynn Roberts as well as the Icon Gilding and Decorative Surfaces committee and their volunteers, who ensured that each day was a particularly rewarding and enjoyable experience for everyone.

Historical Bole Workshop: Guildhall Art Gallery: 18 to 20 June 2018

Course Tutor: Rhian Kanduth (Oil & Water gilding Specialist and Tutor at City & Guilds Art School)

Claire Irvine, Frame Conservator writes:

This three day workshop focused on the techniques used in production, application and finish of Historical Bole colours used in the preparation of gilded surfaces.  The course provided the opportunity to make a test panel with an array of colours, both traditional and bespoke from a variety of bole suppliers.  It was also a chance to learn about colours used during particular periods in decorative art history and the countries that favoured them.

Bole is coloured pipe clay that is applied to a gesso substrate before gold leaf is applied.  The platelet structure of the clay used, combined with a cushioning gesso layer enables gold leaf to be burnished to a high shine.  One of the key aims of this course was to experiment using different bole colours under different shades and thicknesses of gold leaf and how the finish can differ when burnished or distressed.  It is key to understand the subtleties of gold leaf, the underlying bole colour as well as the finishing method applied, particularly if these are to be used to create invisible repairs to decorative surfaces using these techniques.


The course began by preparing a dry bole from a London based stockist, AS Handovers.  These dry boles require grating and soaking in a small quantity of distilled or deionised water, preferably overnight, to soften them.  At this stage, the soft clay (a walnut sized amount) can then be mullered to ensure the pigment particles are as fine as possible.

Once mullered, the resulting paste can be blended with blood warm rabbit skin size 1:12 (rabbit skin glue granules: water) to make a solution that is approximately the consistency of milk.  Once the mixture is well blended this should then be strained at least once to remove any remaining lumps or larger particles – fine nylon stockings are perfect for this.  A ‘glass test’ can also be used at this point - lift the brush loaded with the mixture up the side of the beaker or jar – if the bole is suitable for use it should not be too translucent and there should be very few pigment particles remaining – if there are, try straining again.

Once the warm rabbit skin size has been added to the pigment/clay paste, only a minimal amount of heat should be applied in order to keep the bole liquid.  Sitting the jar of prepared bole in warm water is enough to prevent the size from gelling.  The bole should not be allowed to overheat as the protein molecules can lose their original properties, preventing the bole from functioning as it should. This could cause the finished gilding to deteriorate over time.


To apply the bole, use a soft sable brush or ‘mop’ in sweeping brush strokes.  Avoid a quick succession of repeated strokes as the size within the bole dries quickly and can create drag marks.  The first couple of coats are likely to look unsatisfactory, however, as the coats build up, so do the layers of pigment and size creating a smooth opaque finish.

Black bole shades often require more layers of application as the pigment particles are not as opaque.  Avoid using Lamp black pigment when making bespoke bole colours as its production method introduces oil and therefore the bole can become greasy and unusable.  4-6 coats of bole should be ample depending on the colour being used, but this also depends on the desired effect. 

Yellow and red are the most commonly used clay bole colours and have been used by the Ancient Egyptians, the Romans, and Victorians and are still commonly used today.  Red provides a distinct effect when the gold leaf is distressed and shades of yellow are commonly used as an initial base primarily as the similarity in colour to gold assists with the gilding process because skips or losses are more difficult to see which makes gilding complex shapes and ornament much easier.

Several traditional shades of red and yellow were made during the workshop, followed by a range of bespoke colours which were created by using carefully measured blends of the traditional shades. For example - ‘Georgian Orange’ - a combination of Sinopia Yellow and Spanish Red.


  1. Sinopia Yellow. Wet (Sinopia San Francisco)
  2. Sinopia Yellow Wet + Spanish Red (Gilding Supplies) = ‘Georgian Orange’ 50:50 Ratio
  3. Spanish Red. Wet (Gilding Supplies)
  4. Wet Red (S. Stevensons)
  5. Wet Red (S. Stevensons) + Dark Blue Dry (Handovers) = ‘Victorian Plum’ 2:1 Ratio
  6. Dark Blue. Dry (Handovers)
  7. Black Dry (Handovers) 1-2% + Light Blue Dry (Handovers) 2-4%+ White Dry (Handovers) 95% = ‘Cold Grey’.
  8. Baroque Brown Wet (S. Stevensons) 6 - 8% + White Dry (Handovers) 90+% = ‘Warm Grey’
  9. Sinopia Black. Wet (Sinopia San Francisco)
  10. Green. Dry (Handovers) 5% + White. Dry 95% (Handovers) = ‘Adams Green’
  11. Light Blue (Handovers) Dry = ‘Adams Blue’
  12. French Red (S. Stevensons) 3 % + Baroque Brown. Wet 1% (S. Stevensons) + White. Dry 95% (Handovers) = ‘Georgian Pink’

The two bespoke shades of grey would most likely have been seen in the English Regency Period and the pastel colours that were made (particularly the Adam’s Green/Blue and Pink) would commonly be used during the Georgian Period.  Darker colours, such as Plum and Black are seen regularly beneath the burnished and distressed water gilding of the Victorian Period.

It is common to see yellow bole with red highlights on high points of decoration, and this was done as the suggestion was that red bole could be burnished to a particularly high shine due to the nature of the particular clay particles, which is true to an extent, however, yellow bole can also be burnished to a high shine as long as the pigment particles are suitably ground.  The Sinopia Yellow trialled here perfectly highlighted this as it produced a beautiful base for gilding and actually burnished better than most of the other colours sampled.  Often, where red bole is used, it can be lightly distressed allowing the red to show through, so the effect that this creates is perhaps as much about the colour used as the high shine that could be achieved.


Once the layers of bole are dry, the surface of the bole must be prepared.  Although bole is relatively smooth at this stage it is advised that the rough edges are taken down.  There are several ways of achieving a suitable finish.  Lightly rubbing the surface with fine grade sandpaper or using bristle brushes that have been cut flat have a similar effect.  Avoid using wire wool to polish bole, particularly on lighter colours as it can be greasy and this can affect the application of the gold leaf.  It is always advised to avoid touching the bole layer as much as possible to avoid adding oil from your hands for the same reason.


Once the bole layer is ready for gilding the gold leaf can be applied.  I tested three gilding water solutions at the workshop:

London Dry Gin or similar inexpensive supermarket own brand gin (this has a higher water content!)

  • 225 ml of water with ¼ tsp of 1:12 Rabbit skin size + 1 tsp of IMS (WEAK)
  • 225 ml of water with ½ tsp of :12 Rabbit skin size + 1 tsp of IMS (STRONG)

The gin worked the most effectively – the gold adhered evenly and dried to a very smooth finish without having to tamp down any lifting areas.

Adding a small amount of rabbit skin size can help if the gesso/bole layers have been left a little while before gilding.  We were gilding 24 hours following bole application which is an ideal amount of time to leave between these two stages.  Adding size to gilding water can also stain the gilding upon drying, and this is particularly difficult to avoid if faulting small areas of missed gilding so should be avoided if possible.

For my test panel I trialled two types of gold leaf over each bole sample.  Firstly, Wrights of Lymm 23.5 Ct Finest Quality Gold and secondly Handovers 23ct Extra Thick Gold.  Extra thick is approximately three times thicker than standard leaf.  This is particularly useful if gilding a slightly rough or complex surface, for example punch work or sanding, as it moulds around the surface textures more readily.  The two colours sampled were almost identical in tone however handling this type of leaf is quite different – something I had not noticed before.  The thicker gold is ‘heavier’ and so is much quicker to attract to the size water and it distresses fractionally slower.

Applying a sweep of gin with a soft brush to the prepared bole surface the leaf was applied and left to dry for at least an hour before faulting any missed areas or where the gold had not taken.

At this stage, lightly tapping the surface of the bole enables the gilder to tell if the surface can be burnished. The sound should not be too dull, as this will mean there is still moisture there.  A light tapping sound should suggest that the surface is ready for burnishing – the longer you leave it from this point the less burnish you will achieve.  A useful tip here is to run the agate burnisher over the surface only lightly initially in one direction only, increasing the pressure until the desired burnish is achieved. ‘The gold then becomes almost dark from its own brilliance’.

Overall, the two types of gilding trialled here both burnished really well on all of the bole colours sampled, however, the finer burnish was achieved on the 23.5 Ct gold samples.  In relation to specific bole colours, by far the greater burnish occurred on the two Sinopia colours, yellow and black.  An extremely fine, high shine finish was achieved here.   


Distressing the gilding was an important stage of the workshop.  This is where the surface of the gold can be lightly worn back to reveal the underlying bole colour.  Here we used very small amounts of dry pumice powder and small cotton wool swabs lightly brushed over the surface in a circular motion.

Alternative distressing techniques are entirely dependent on the desired effect.  Another dry method would be to use Micromesh fine abrasive sheets which are available in several different grades.  Wet methods can also be used – such as swabs with saliva or very weak rabbit skin size – these methods are slightly more difficult to control however so should be approached with caution.  


This workshop was so enlightening.  It provided an opportunity to make and test a variety of bole colours that I would rarely get to use, and compare and contrast their performance. It was also an opportunity to meet with like-minded individuals working in the field (predominantly Frame and Furniture Conservators) to discuss alternative techniques and methods for surface preparation, gilding, burnishing and distressing. I am looking forward to using my knowledge on future projects at the NPG – in particular the Jonathon Swift (NPG 6191) Frame Conservation project where I will be replacing a large percentage of the yellow bole, as much of the original has been lost before a later gilding scheme has been applied.  This project has been generously funded by the Elizabeth Cayzer Charitable Trust and there will be more updates on the progress of this project over the coming months.