The first stages of conservation commenced in January 2015 on the enormous frame for Benjamin West’s Devout Men Taking the Body of Saint Stephen. The frame stands 18 feet tall when upright, but is designed to be dismantled at the corners through the removal of long iron bolts. Conservators disassembled the frame into four pieces, making it easier to work on all 62 feet of the carved and gilded surface. Conservation of the frame is being carried out on view to the public in gallery 208.
The frame is 239 years old and had been hung in the same church, St. Stephen’s, in the London neighborhood of Walbrook for its entire existence. The painting is depicted in an 1801 engraving of the church interior (below left). At this date, it is located at the east end of the church behind the altar, and there is a fabric drapery across the top of the frame. One hundred forty years later, it can be observed in a watercolor of St. Stephen’s (below right), painted by Dennis Flanders after the 1940 London Blitz. The watercolor shows the painting now occupying a wall in an archway on the right, and the frame without its drapery. The church dome is severely damaged, but the painting and frame have miraculously survived unscathed.
The frame is constructed in the classic Carlo Maratta style—long individual pieces of wooden molding carved with complimenting repeating patterns, before assembly together on the same frame to appear as one unit. In the profile of the frame below, each detailed component part is attached to the one beneath it. When every element is carved by hand, this was a method to increase the efficiency and therefore productivity of a frame shop.
The following diagram shows the construction of the frame at the miter joint. The different colors designate individual pieces of wood.
Conservation in Action
See below for updates as conservation progresses.
(Click here to learn about the painting.)