Conferences dedicated to picture frames are rare. Those dedicated to a
particular, historic frame type are exceptional.
‘The Auricular Style: Frames’ conference was initiated and developed by
Gerry Alabone and Lynn Roberts. It has been their objective to promote the
significance of this important frame style, which has been largely overshadowed
by the earlier Italian frame designs of the Renaissance and the
French frame patterns of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, both of
which have tended to dominate frame making throughout Europe to this day.
The programme for the two-day conference was extensive in its approach to
presenting an understanding of the development of the Auricular style
throughout Holland, France, Germany, Italy and Britain. The lectures were
given by curators, historians and conservators from these countries. Each of
the presentations was distinctly enlightening, allowing the audience to
appreciate the various influences and developments in a diversity of media
from the late sixteenth century through to the late seventeenth century.
Developments, which ultimately led to the formation of the Auricular frame
style and to the decorative elements thought to be particular to the
Auricular frames in each country.
The speakers acknowledged that there are various opinions as to when the
Auricular style began and how, and what defines an object as being in the
Auricular style. At the same time they also pointed out that a finite
definition of the Auricular style might never be feasible.
The conference initially focused on the development and use of the
Auricular style in both the arts and architecture in Holland. These talks
introduced the concept that the Auricular form could have emerged from
the Grotesque Movement of the sixteenth century in stark contrast to the
preceding formality of Italian Classicism. Consideration was given to the
idea that the style was primarily developed and indulged to its utmost by
the Dutch silversmiths whose patrons encouraged them to create
exceptional pieces of unnatural, flowing, amorphic forms with little
distinction between shape and ornament. One particular gilt-silver vessel
made by Adam Van Vianen, in 1614, was highlighted in several talks. It was
of such high status and regard that it was portrayed in over fifty paintings in
the early seventeenth century in Holland. Pictures of this period, including
those by Rembrandt and his followers, also depicted furniture with similar,
imaginary, carved ornament: furniture, which also existed in reality. It was
felt that from the 1630s onwards the use of the Auricular design became
progressively more desirable in the production of artefacts, furniture and
architecture: ecclesiastical architecture and furniture were sited as being
an important source for such evidence.
Each of the presentations took into account the significance of the
dissemination of the Auricular style throughout Europe, not only by way of
the royal courts and patrons but also by artists, craftsmen and pattern
books. This circulation of the style was demonstrated in the paper on gilt
leather, drawing examples from book bindings to embossed leather shields
and leather wall hangings. Patents were taken out by the craftsmen and
designers to protect their designs, which distinctly incorporated Auricular
motifs. The commissioning of such remarkable artefacts demonstrated, and
enhanced, the wealth of the patron.
We learnt that the French appeared to be less enthusiastic about the
Auricular style because of its fluid, seemingly uncontrollable forms and,
thus, they were late in adopting Auricular elements in their artworks. It
would appear that the French felt that the use of the Auricular needed to
be more clearly defined, incorporating more naturalistic features such as
the peapod motif, the significance of which was addressed in detail in two
of the talks.
In another lecture, it was thought that the Auricular style might not have
been so popular in Germany, even when taking into account its close
proximity to Holland. It was felt that there was less evidence of the
Auricular than elsewhere in Europe. The reason was described as possibly
being due to German politics of the time and the considerable influence of
the Italian Baroque on the arts in Germany. This lecture highlighted the
importance of social context when looking at the history of artworks.
A number of the talks were illustrated with slides showing that engravings as
well as pattern books became an important means of publicising the
Auricular style. Portrait engravings often showed the sitter surrounded by a
contrived frame including Auricular motifs. Seventeenth century paintings
were also described as being a useful guide as to the importance of
Auricular frames to artists at this time: for example, as seen in the picture
of ‘Man Writing A Letter’ by Gabriel Metsu, circa 1664. At present, it is
difficult to ascertain the extent to which contemporary artists used and
encouraged the use of the Auricular frame style to surround their own
There seemed to be consensus amongst the specialists speaking at the
conference that the fashion for Auricular frames reached its zenith in the
second half of the seventeenth century in Europe. However, it was also
explained that Auricular frames did not dominate the frame market during
this period: in Holland, for example, Classical style frames and ebonised,
profile frames were equally desired by the artists and their patrons.
In addition to describing the origins and development and characteristics of
the Auricular style and Auricular frames, the subject of how the frames
were constructed and finished was explored. It was interesting to hear how
the woods favoured by different countries could affect the style of their
frames – it was felt that the use of linden in Holland accommodated a more
voluminous appearance whilst the use of oak in England, a harder wood,
resulted in a more restrained ornament. It is anticipated that over time our
knowledge about the composition of the gilded schemes on the face of the
Auricular frames will develop further with more extensive expert analysis
and scientific investigation. Such work is currently being undertaken in Italy
and was addressed in two papers focusing on the history of Auricular frames
in Florence, where the Auricular frames in the collections of the Medici
family and the Palazzo Pitti are being carefully assessed and catalogued. In
another paper we were informed how the Medici’s frames appeared to
adopt Auricular motifs, which were more anthropomorphic and zoomorphic
The second day of the conference gradually drew us further towards the use
of the Auricular frame style in Britain. During the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries the artists and craftsmen of the Lowland countries
frequently travelled to and from London to work. With them they brought
the patterns and skills to make Auricular frames. Anthony Van Dyck’s
interest in framing and his close association with Charles I and his court
exerted a strong influence on the use of the Auricular frame style in the mid
to late seventeenth century. A series of papers presented us with the
splendour of the ‘Gallery Of Beauties’, a group of female portraits encased
in small Auricular frames, which are in the collection of Her Majesty The
Queen, and the dignity of the Auricular frames surrounding the ‘Fire Judges’,
a collection commissioned by the Corporation Of London after the Great
Fire in 1666, many of which have since been damaged or removed from
British Auricular frames tend to be referred to as Sunderland frames, a term
not introduced until the nineteenth century. We were reminded of how
significant the taste of the Netherlands and Northern Europe had been on
the Auricular style and frame making in the latter part of the seventeenth
century in Britain.
‘The Auricular Style: Frames’ conference skilfully progressed through an
intertwining series of lectures: too many to acknowledge individually.
These comprehensive papers can be accessed on the website: https://auricularstyleframes.wordpress.com/about.
Throughout the conference there was an inspiring openness for the
exchange of ideas both in the lectures and the discussion sessions. Such
information enhanced our growing understanding of the Auricular frame
style. Each lecture was thought provoking, reinforcing a desire to continue
exploring the subject, both academically and technically.
The realisation of the conference was also due to the support of Arnold
Wiggins & Sons. They complimented the conference with a display of
seventeenth century Auricular frames at their London premises.
Ultimately, the success of the conference was due to the commitment of
Gerry Alabone and Lynn Roberts as well as the Icon Gilding and Decorative
Surfaces committee and their volunteers, who ensured that each day was a
particularly rewarding and enjoyable experience for everyone.
Annie Ablett, ICON (Accredited), Conservator-Restorer Of Historic Frames