In 1984, after 14 years of research, Dr Pieter J.J. van Thiel opened an exhibition of Dutch frames, the likes of which the world had never seen before. It was and remains the first and only scientific and academic appraisal of picture frames further to the question he asked himself all those years previously: “what is a Dutch Frame?”

For a number of years there had been a new fashion in the art market to reframe Netherlandish paintings with “black frames” of various types and decoration, all of which were indiscriminately described as “Dutch” or “Dutch Ripple”.

Museums were equally culpable, often falling back on the maxim – “important painting: needs important frame”. Basically, the simplest and least expensive way a curator could make his/her stamp on a museum was a reframing programme – and there were many.

By contrast, and to answer his own question, Dr. van Thiel set himself the Herculean task of finding Dutch paintings and frames that had never been separated – but – and here came the rub – that had contemporary archival evidence to prove the case.

The result was the Exhibition “Prijst de Lijst” which classified the Dutch Frame.

Prijst de Lijst

In 1986 I received an invitation from the Rijksmuseum to meet C. J. De Bruyn Kops to discuss the possibilities of framing some paintings.

Bruyn Kops led me through to a gallery displaying a number of Dutch paintings and frames, opened a copy of the Prijst de Lijst catalogue and started quizzing me about profiles and parts of profiles, using Dutch names that were well beyond my understanding. I was then ushered over to a frame on the wall and shown enlarged drawings of the site edge and asked if I could provide the detail.

This inquisition lasted for about half an hour although it seemed much longer at the time. He then suggested we should sit down and discuss costs.

Now I knew where I was!

Perhaps my greatest work ambition would transpire for me – an Englishman – to make a Dutch frame for THE Dutch museum that I perceived as the pinnacle of aesthetic integrity, in the same manner that Dr. van Thiel had tirelessly laboured for 14 years to find the true identity of the Dutch frame.

Gallery bench

The bench was high backed and not so dissimilar to the one in the photo above. We sat down side by side and Bruyn Kops opened the Prijst de Lijst catalogue at a page selected with a book marker. He pointed to a cross section and requested an on-the-spot quotation for a frame of such-and-such a size with the width the same as the cross section.

I made my calculations but then I couldn’t resist the ex-schoolteacher’s mindset for testing the reality of the situation.

I can hear my words today – “Well, it’s like this Dr. Kops: to make the frame exactly like the cross section and bearing in mind all the quirks and nibs, I would have to make cutters that would need to be hand filed to provide all the detail. That and preparing thin Indian ebony laminate would cost about £1500 – but – I do have a model that is very similar and without all the extra work would cost £1250.” “Oh”, said Dr Kops, “I think we will settle on that then.”

CRASH! and a sudden feeling like somone you loved had rejected you and that a world of such high principles could be swayed by £250. Little did he know that if he chose the higher cost I was going to say it would be free, it being the first order from the Rijksmuseum.

That offer never happened!

And so it came to pass that for all future orders I would meet with another of my heroes, Dr. P. J. J. van Thiel. Initially I found him quite daunting with a measured response and steely demeanour that made me feel I was being examined by a psychiatrist. Maybe I was? But as time went by I found his stance softened and each visit was accompanied with some precious reminiscences of art, his travels to find frames and even his hobby of bookbinding. He was a craftsman as well as an academic.

After several years I found the courage to say that in my opinion, the significance of the information in the Prijst de Lijst was lost to all those who didn’t speak Dutch. To my amazement he agreed and went futher to admit that in some respects his patriotism was one of his shortcomings, just like the fact that his catalogue starts with frames from after the separation of the North from the South Netherlands!

I offered to pay for the translation if he could see a way forward that the museum would cover the publication, since all the artwork and copyrights had been covered by the 1984 catalogue.

Eventually in 1995 the Prijst de Lijst was published under the title “Framing in the Golden Age” – and to this day, in my opinion, I think much of his research and findings are overlooked by the frame game.

To his word, he kindly gave credit to the company for the translation on the dust cover and included a number of examples of our frames in a “before and after” presentation in the forward to the original exhibition entries.

Framing in the Golden Age

A few original, unopened hardback copies of Framing in the Golden Age are still available from us – contact us to enquire.

 

Addenda

Behind his stoicism Dr. van Thiel was generous and quietly emotional.

A big regret of mine was that out of the respect I held for him, I dared not request that the original title was kept – “Prijst de Lijst” – Praise the List. or , Proclaim the Frame which summed up his 14 year search.

Personally, I think that the cold academic title “Framing in the Golden Age” drew a veil over his daunting quest.

After each frame I delivered, with typical Dutch efficiency, Dr. van Thiel would write to me with his comments. A beautiful age without email but with personally signed letters.

Letter from the Rijksmuseum

 

 

Copyright John Davies