A Suitable-for-Framing History of Framing. Far be it from me to write about something esoteric, but when a fellow contractor working for EasyFrame raised the prospect of an article on the history of framing we both realised that we knew nothing about it. Accordingly this article, the 1st of 3
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A Suitable-for-Framing History of Framing.

By Paul Dunwell, writing for EasyFrame
© Copyright EasyFrame 2019

Part I: How it Probably Started.

Far be it from me to write about something esoteric, but when a fellow contractor working for EasyFrame raised the prospect of an article on the history of framing we both realised that we knew nothing about it. Accordingly this article, the 1st of 3 because the history proved to be more complex than either of us had imagined, is a walk-through of some rather intriguing facts. It will take you from what is the first known frame to medieval framing and what Da Vinci would have expected in the 15th century. Without wishing to put ideas into your head, you may feel that its learnedness and utility make it suitable for framing. (And, since there are going to be 3 of these, you could make them a tryptic!)

In the Beginning – 2nd Century Roman-Occupied Egypt

We have a problem here. Because framing very probably had prehistoric origins i.e. it was occurring before written records, and even possibly before the oral tradition of recording events by committing them to memory then recounting them as songs and poetry.

We also have the issue of preservation. The earliest frames would be likely to be created from organic matter that should be subject to decay wherever there is any humidity.

Having said that, we can speak of a contemporary awareness of the earliest surviving frames. And, given what has already been said, we shouldn’t be surprised that they have been preserved in Egypt.

Fayum mummy portraits

Fayum mummy portraits are also known as Faiyum mummy portraits and originated in Egypt’s Faiyum basin, a depression containing an oasis in the desert south of Cairo and to the west of the Nile. This is an area that was inhabited not only by the Egyptians but also the Romans (after 30BC Octavian (later the emperor Augustus) defeated Mark Antony and set up a colony there in what had hitherto been the Ptolemaic Kingdom (named after Ptolemy). Hence Fayum mummy portraits are both Egyptian and Roman though predominantly the latter, and they’re executed in Greco-Roman style. Despite the name Fayum mummy portraits have been found right across Egypt. But the Faiyum Basin is the geographic epicentre.

Fayum mummy portraits were painted on wooden boards and attached to the wrappings of upper-class mummies. There was probably a lot of panel-painting occurring in that era, spanning the first 3 centuries AD, but the tombs they constructed were hot and dry so ideal for preservation. And, although Fayum mummy portraits are almost invariably unframed, at least one has been found at Hawara which was still framed when it was left on the mummy and the thought is that it had been hanging like that on a wall in the 2nd century before the subject passed away so the painting was repurposed.

Frames Used to Sub-Divide Art – Framing Borders

Ancient Greek and Egyptian wall-painters as well as mosaic and pottery artists used frames to separate scenes in the same way as we do today with cartoon-strips. But these frames (aka ‘framing borders’) were obviously delineated in the same media (e.g. paint, tiles or clay) as the art itself and were assisting the audience to focus rather than providing a protective and decorative edging in the way that a modern frame does.

The Evolution of Single-Panel Art into Diptychs, Triptychs and Polyptychs

This tradition evolved, though art continued to be often painted on wood rather than canvas (though sometimes canvas could be glued onto the underlying wood and then painted upon). In the 12th century panels might be single. But soon carpenters constructed multipaneled screens on which diptychs (with 2 panels), triptychs (with 3 panels) and polyptychs (with more than 3 panels) were painted, usually depicting religious scenes which were foldable for the purposes of security and to make it easier to transport them.

Single-Panel Art into Diptychs

The First Carved Wooden Frames

The very first carved wooden frames that we know of were one-piece affairs that surrounded small European panel-paintings during the 12th and 13th centuries. Here, instead of a frame being added, the whole shebang was in one piece. So the area to be painted was carved out to leave a a proud border around the outside.

The whole piece was then primed using a white paint mixture called ‘gesso’ (which means ‘chalk’ in Latin) and which was made of a binder (perhaps egg) combined with any combination of chalk, gypsum pigment. Then the frame would usually be gilded. Ironically, and in stark contrast with what we do today, only after the frame was finished would the image be painted on the flat panel in the centre. Accordingly at that time the framers often enjoyed more status than the artists!

The Advent of the Frame Proper

It was only a matter of time before it was realised that the aforementioned combination frame-and-art solution using a single slab of wood was a poor one. Its creation was labour-intensive, making it costly, and the frame was likely to get in the way of the artist.

So they looked for a more practical and economic solution.

The answer was the so-called ‘engaged frame’, employing mitred moulding strips which could be attached to a flat wooden panel after the artwork was completed. These became progressively more elaborate. Thus, by the time Leonardo da Vinci was working in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, any artist who was successful could well expect to have their work presented in gilded frames.


Framing has come a long way since the 2nd century AD. And companies like EasyFrame, which uses the most advanced machinery and materials available, are in the vanguard.

Sadly, along the wayside, artists have unaccountably become more important than framers. But, as any artist will tell you, if a framer botches the job it detracts from the artist’s achievement.

In the 21st century, unless you know your stuff when it comes to state-of-the-art picture frames and mounts, it’s always worth going to experts. EasyFrame is an obvious and affordable supplier, whether you want to source all you’d need to do the job yourself or have them do it for you.

Any good framers will be able to show you a vast range of different solutions and advise on what might be the most suitable given the work and its proposed location.

EasyFrame is on 01234 856 501 and emailable via sales@EasyFrame.co.uk.

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Article Posted: 01/11/2019 12:28:43

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