Framing the Collections

September 10, 2014
Harvard Art Museums’ frame conservator Allison Jackson has performed conservation treatments on more than 100 frames for works of art that will be on display in our renovated and expanded facility this fall.

Gilding is an incredibly delicate process—the gold leaf that frame conservator Allison Jackson uses for water gilding is so thin it disintegrates when it’s rubbed between the fingers. She works in an enclosed area of the Harvard Art Museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies while gilding, to reduce the danger of drafts absconding with the gold. Before transferring individual leaves of gold from their packaging to a frame, she wipes a squirrel-hair brush across her cheek, as the natural oil from her skin helps the gold stick to the brush. This is just one of the many techniques that Jackson has learned as a frame conservator.

A studio art major in college, Jackson learned the trade from her mother, who runs a frame conservation studio in Harvard, Massachusetts. Her father owns a hardwood flooring business, and through the years she has called on the expertise of his employees to help her construct frames. After working with several private furniture and frame conservation studios in Massachusetts, Jackson apprenticed with a woodworker in Hawaii before returning to New England. She took a job at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where she conserved frames for the opening of their American Wing and catalogued their frame collections. In July 2012, she joined the Harvard Art Museums to prepare a selection of frames for works of art that will be on view when our renovated and expanded facility opens this fall.

In her time at the museums, Jackson has performed conservation treatments on more than 100 frames. Each project has been unique, ranging from making new gilded frame liners for the museums’ Wertheim Collection to re-creating a 14th-century frame for the Master of the Fogg Pietà’s The Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c. 1330). Jackson works with her curatorial and conservation colleagues to determine treatment plans for each frame. For instance, when old photographs of Max Beckmann’s triptych The Actors (c. 1941–42) were discovered, they revealed that the frames were not originally painted black, but had a clear finish. After consulting with curators, Jackson stripped off the paint—a simple treatment that changed the painting’s appearance significantly, returning it to its original presentation.

But not all treatments were so straightforward. Corrado Giaquinto’s Presentation in the Temple (c. 1764–65), a massive painting that is 113 in. by 71 ¼ in., was due for a new liner, but when Jackson and her coworkers removed the painting from the frame, they realized that the painting was holding the frame together, not the other way around. The stained mahogany frame was constructed in sections to accommodate the painting’s size and arched form. Over time, the frame’s joinery had either broken or become unstable. While preparator Steve Mikulka stabilized the frame, Landon and Lavinia Clay Curator Stephan Wolohojian suggested adding a new molding to the outside of the frame to make it more architectural and, ultimately, more appropriate for the painting. Jackson then gilded the whole structure—a major undertaking, given the frame’s size and the care and accuracy that gilding requires.

She has also reached out to her rich network of artisan woodworkers and framemakers to construct new frames. She worked with Brett Stevens, a framemaker in Groton, Massachusetts, to make new frames for Joos van Cleve’s Saint Jerome in His Study (c. 1521) and Scipione Pulzone’s Michele Cardinal Bonelli (1586) and did the finish work herself. She coordinated with John Davies Framing in London on the fabrication of a frame for Gaspar van Wittel’s The Colosseum Seen from the Southeast (c. 1700), and with Gill & Lagodich in New York City on Charles Bird King’s The Vanity of the Artist’s Dream (1830).

In the coming weeks, she will be working on a large-scale frame for Paolo Finoglia’s painting Joseph and Potiphar's Wife (c. 1640). Brett Stevens and Steve Mikulka will collaborate on the project, and Jackson will gild the frame.

With the aid of Jackson’s expert framework, our collections will look better than ever when our galleries open to the public on November 16.