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Conversations in the Art World

An Interview with Frame Conservator Nancy A. Newton

by Michele Seekings

Nancy A. Newton is a specialist in traditional gold leaf water gilding process with a conservative treatment approach. I first met Nancy through a referral by the Gibbes Museum of Art when I had an antique gilded frame in need of conservation. This careful artisan is a gilder, conservator, and restorer of antique frames with experience working on museum, college, municipal, and private collections. She’s been awarded the Samuel Gaillard Stoney Craftsman Award from The Historic Charleston Foundation, and we’re lucky enough to have this talented conservator call Charleston home.

When did you become passionate about frames?

We had a portrait done of our two children when they were young. Someone recommended a gallery studio for a frame, and when I went I saw a girl working very meticulously on something. She was water gilding, which I didn’t know what that was at the time, so she brought it out and showed me. Honestly, I was completely bitten by the gold bug. I became completely hooked. It is such a fascinating process.

How did that experience transition to frame conservation?

That was probably in 1993. I couldn’t find any information about water gilding other than in Martha Stewart books, and they were generally using a synthetic size for oil gilding.

A few years later, my husband called from work and said, “I don’t know where this came from, but there’s going to be a restoration convention in Boston. Do you want to go?” I went and met other gilders and traveled to some of their studios for short-term apprenticeships. I took several classes through the Society of Gilders and decided I just had to practice what I’d learned. So I did that.

The water gilding process started my love affair with frames, but I’ve never been interested in making new frames. I thought it through and realized old frames are beautiful and need to be taken care of.

How did you get your first client?

One day I decided to go to antique stores on King Street and look at the styles and gilding of frames. I walked into one store and he said, “Can I help you?” I told him I was interested in gilding and frame conservation. He said, “What do you think about those two little frames up there?” They were little portraits of Martha and George Washington, so I said, “Sure!” I had no idea what to charge, of course, and I probably spent three weeks working on them, but I didn’t charge him a day’s worth.

I kept working, and they gave me more. I ended up gilding a large sofa for them, which they were very pleased with. One thing just led to another and that’s sort of how it all began.

Can you explain your process when you start working on a frame?

I start with a wooden frame and sand it until it’s completely smooth. Rabbit skin glue is then applied to act as a binder between the finished product and the wood. Everything in between has rabbit skin glue in it but with different strengths. Next, I’ll apply several layers of gesso that I also make with rabbit skin glue. Some frames are oil gilded, some are water gilded, so I’ll match what I find on the frame.

Sometimes if there’s been previous conservation work on a frame there will be multiple colors on there. I research or do what I can to find out where the original is. Sometimes I can tell by the period, but I generally let the frame tell me.

There is a difference between restoration and conservation. Conservation is more of bringing the frame up to where, under the best circumstances, it would be at this point in time. I tend to think less is more, and I really let the frames dictate to me what to do.

That is the big difference between conservators because you have to know when to stop. You have to have an innate feeling. I don’t know how to explain it. I just feel like I have to let the frame tell me when I’m finished and not overdo it.

I want the history to remain. Some people will bring a piece back to the way it was when it was first made, but that’s not generally what I do. I try to make the repair. Let’s say a frame has fallen from a wall and the corner is missing. If there are other elements on the frame that are identical, I can make rubber molds of those and put those on, cast a new piece, and apply it. If not, I would have to carve, actually make the piece itself, and manufacture it with my hands.

Why is this work important to you?

Frames are works of art in themselves. Sometimes they are original to the painting. Sometimes they are not. It’s kind of a detective discovery. I just think they’re worth saving.

How well known is this career?

I feel it’s a little under the radar. I’ve been doing it for over 22 years, so I certainly have a client base. But there are so many people that when they hear what I do are like, “What?” Sometimes they give a glazed over blank stare, and they’re even afraid to ask what that is.

What do you think about the future of your profession? Are there more conservators like you out there?

There are others out there. There’s an international network through the Society of Gilders if anyone is interested in learning. There’s a mixture of a lot of different ways people use water gilding. Some use it in their paintings, and some use it to design frames, or furniture, or architecture. As far as frame conservation goes, they’re more tied into museums up North than they are here.

Does each frame present a new challenge?

I always say they are like children. They’re all unique. They all have their different challenges. What works for one may not work for another.

What’s been your most challenging project?

One was a pediment for a pier mirror. The mirror was built in such a way so that it would lean out a little and finally gravity got the best of it. It just broke off and crashed into a million pieces, and it arrived to me in a box. I only had a partial photograph to work from, so I told them to let me work with it. If I started putting the puzzle pieces back together and it appeared as though I could continue and finish it, then I’d give them an estimate. If not, there would be no charge and I’d give it back. I ended up being able to do it. It was from Georgia so I went back with it and stayed two weeks to refit it back on the frame. Sometimes when frames are more broken, I enjoy the process even more. It’s something about the challenge of “I’m going to get you back together.” That one was fun to do.

Do you receive items that have maybe not been conserved well?

All the time. If you take off a repair and you smell peppermint, it means someone has used chewing gum. That doesn’t happen very often, but it happens enough.

There’s a lot of radiator paint people have used that’s quite challenging to remove, and sometimes it’s impossible to remove. People have their best intentions, but they generally create more work for a conservator if they mess with things. Or if frames are left in the attic for the seasons. It just hurts them and even kills them.

How do frame conservators fit into the art world?

I just think frames are works of art themselves. I find myself in a museum being completely blown away by the frames. I’m supposed to be looking at the paintings, but I’m just fascinated with the frames. The craftsmanship and the creative mind that has gone into it, and, of course, there are different periods and things. It’s just fascinating.

Do you have a piece of advice for collectors?

Yes. If something happens to your frame please do not try to fix it on your own. Unfortunately, it’s going to create more work for that piece later.

How does someone find a qualified frame conservator?

It’s been word of mouth for me. You need to talk to other people – a museum, maybe other conservators that are in a different field, people that have had work done – so that you find out the reputation of the work someone has done.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just that frames are beautiful and to appreciate them. Take time to look at those in a museum and not just the work of art!

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Posted in Mixed Media on November 15, 2019 (Issue 44: Fall 2019) by Matt Mill.

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