Framing It

The entrance of the building, displaying a replica of a Bristol 'Boxkite' aeroplane
 Walking under the wings of a Bristol Biplane replica and encountering two Chinese dragons, I am introduced to the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. Its rooms are filled with eclectic collections ranging from Assyrian artefacts to wetland wildlife. On my first trip, however, my destination is the Old Masters gallery at the back of the building.

The Old Masters 

Our assignment as part of the ‘Approaching the Object’ module was to focus on two particular artworks in the collection, but focus on an unusual characteristic of them: their frames. One was The Madonna Adoring the Infant Christ by a Follower of Botticelli (about 1505), the other the Withypool Triptych by Antonio da Solario (1514). Although frames are of course a hugely important element in the display of  art, it is not something I normally consider for a large amount of time. If one is particularly interesting or eye-catching, I will normally look at it, but I have never had to answer particular questions about them. Interestingly, when I tried to find photos of these paintings online, in most photos, their frames are not included, showing how they never seem to be as important.

 For this assignment, we were told to consider whether the frames were originally made for the paintings they now display or whether they were later additions. We were asked whether the frames communicate anything about where the artworks originally resided. It made me really attempt to dissect the relationship between frame and painting.

he Madonna Adoring the Infant Christ by a Follower of Botticelli (about 1505)

I could see that the Madonna Adoring frame must have been made for the painting. They were perhaps joined together, made from the same panel. The frame also seems to be a reflection of the Madonna herself. The arch of the frame seems to mimic the bend of Mary’s body. The colours of the frame are also complimentary to Mary, with navy and dark reds. Most convincing of all is that the small star on Mary’s breast is painted over and over again around the frame. Therefore, this frame reflects and compliments the key figure here. It is interesting that it really draws attention to Mary here, rather than the Christ child. As well as this, the frame draws the two away from their harsh surroundings. The frame shows them to be divine. The colours and stars could be used for royalty. This shows that, despite their rustic surroundings and the harsh grey brick behind Mary, they are two very important and divine characters.
Withypool Triptych by Antonio da Solario (1514)

Comparatively, the triptych was less clear. I felt the wood used in the panels looked in far too good a condition, and must have been a later addition. But were they replicating the original frame used? I also felt it was interestingly plain. Most triptychs from this period are found in Catholic Churches and so often are highly decorated, golden affairs. Yet this was made of plain painted wood. Rather than overshadowing the painting, or even really enhancing it –as the other frame did- this one really lets the painting speak for itself.

British and European Art (The Age of Enlightenment and the Birth of Romanticism)
In general, I really enjoyed my first experience of the museum. It gives the impression of being half exhibition space, half curiosity-cabinet, filled with various and often very disparate items of interest. Wandering around taking it all in, I found my favourite room dedicated to the works of the Romantics. The whole room evokes fantastical, beautiful, dream-like thoughts. The pieces perfectly compliment each other. For instance, this sleeping sculpture (1859) seems to have rolled out of Burne-Jones’ The Garden Court (1890).

Young Girl Sleeping (1859) 

 I also paid more attention to the frames in this room than I would have normally. A thought-provoking use of the frame is seen here in Hughes’ The Guarded Bower (1864). The words inscribed on the gilt frame ‘over my head his arm he flung, against the world’ are taken from Robert Browning’s poem ‘Count Gismond’ (1845). 
Arthur Hughes, The Guarded Bower (1864).

Interestingly, the man in this painting holds a sword up ‘against the world’ which is a far more aggressive take on this action than the poem. The woman looks out a the viewer, almost uninterested in the dominating, possessive stance of the man next to her. The painting alone is quite unnerving, and perhaps does not suggest a happy relationship. But the words above completely change the tone.

Read more about a particularly engaging sculpture here

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