Published: 22/03/2016 10:08:48

A History of Picture Framing

Picture frames, along with sliced bread, chip & pin and Harry Potter, are one of those things it's difficult to imagine living without. Walk into any home in the UK, and you'll be hard pressed not to find at least one or two framed family photographs or artworks. As well as protecting the picture from damage, a frame helps draw the eye to the image, and can accentuate its best features. But when exactly did someone have the bright idea to start framing pictures, and how has the picture frame evolved over the years?

Early Frames

According to the experts, picture frames date back to at least the 1st Century AD. This wooden-framed portrait of a woman was discovered in Hawara, Egypt and has been dated to between 50 and 70 AD. In this case, the frame is purely functional, a primitive square used to protect the (now perished) image inside. It wasn't until much later, in Medieval Europe, that frames began to be used for decorative purposes.

Separate Picture Frames

Backed by the wealth of the Catholic Church, artists in this period painted religious scenes to decorate the walls of church buildings. It was initially popular to paint onto a single panel, carving the edges into a frame. However, this practice soon developed into the creation of separate frames, which were easier and less time-consuming to build. As religious art developed, frames became more elaborate and heavy (a good example is this well-preserved altarpiece by Bellini), but a change came with the Italian Renaissance of the 15th and 16th Centuries.

Signs of Wealth

During the Renaissance, art made a movement towards the secular, slowly growing as a sign of wealth and nobility amongst the richest families. There was a new demand for framed paintings that could be easily moved and hung within private homes. Though there was a greater need for portable frames, elaborate gilding and decoration was still popular; the more lavish the frame, the more loudly it signalled the wealth of its owner. The decadence of the Italian Renaissance cooled slightly as the art movement migrated to Protestant Northern Europe. However, there was a resurgence in the popularity of ostentatious frames during the Rococo period of the 18th Century. Later, with the advent of easily reproduced prints and the invention of photography in the early 1800s, a need developed for more basic frames.

The Rise of Simplicity

As the industrial revolution brought new wealth to the masses and allowed for more sophisticated printing technology, the popularity of simple, affordable picture frames grew. Suddenly, it wasn't just the upper classes who could afford to have artworks hanging in their homes. The middles classes might not have the money to commission family portraits, but they could certainly brighten the walls with a few cheerful prints in simple wooden frames.

In the modern day, anything goes when it comes to framing. For the average person, there's a wide selection of framing options available, from multi aperture picture frames, to box frames, to the most simple of clip frames. At the same time, there's still a lot to be said for the most basic wooden style. Looking back at that original frame from 50 AD, they really weren't too far off...