How often do we hear the phrase ‘all that glistens is not gold’? And who recognises its Shakespearean origins and knows that what we hear is a misquote and a translation over time? The original: all that glisters is not gold. [1]

glis’ter, v.i., & n. (arch). Sparkle, glitter. [ME. f. MLG glistern, MDu.-eren, cogn. W. prec.] [2]

Gold is redolent with symbolism. It’s something to ponder and reflect upon. Its use is ancient and continuous; its significance endures. It is the incorruptible surface, the perfect material, and so the cautionary tale expressed by Shakespeare retains its relevance.

Even the precious may not be what it seems.

Beware of false surfaces.

I ponder this at times.

Those of us who have gilded a picture frame take an interesting position on the gilded surface and particularly the surface that glisters but is not gold.

False gold, imitation gold, schlagmetal, metal leaf, bronze leaf and brass leaf are all terms applied to such surfaces. These terms are used a bit disparagingly, but for those of us interested in the authenticity of frames and the integrity of surfaces they define what a surface should look like at a given time, at a particular place, in a particular context. What at one time were cheap alternatives to the ‘real’ surface over time come to have their own value. The nuance of a carved surface gives ground to the nuance of a cast composition surface. The uniform sheet lines of gold leaf give way to broader, more economical spacings of false gold leaves. And in time the quality of casting and the colour and texture of these surfaces are valued for their own sake, particularly as these skills become rare or are lost.

And then we lose these surfaces altogether, as well.

The diminishing role of the frame through the twentieth century brought forward a re-evaluation of the previously discarded frames of the nineteenth century and a grudging respect for their means of manufacture and the materials of their construction. Frames have been the most vulnerable part of the presentation of paintings. They are changed with changes of ownership. They are transitory records of changing taste in decorative arts. They have been easily damaged and quick to be discarded or very shoddily repaired and worked over.

Even real gilded surfaces have changed over time. I’ve never beaten a piece of gold into the micron-thick (thin) sheets that form gold leaves. Centuries ago they were a lot thicker than they are now; original gilding from the eighteenth century is thicker as a surface than the gilding we would provide for a reproduction of the same frame in the twenty-first. The original gilding that miraculously survives on the French frame from c.1710 currently presenting Poussin’s Crossing the Red Sea is sufficiently robust to have weathered 300 years. Who can imagine what that means? How many soft cleaning cloths, how much care, before our generation and our time?

More curious is the thought of this surface in candlelight. The articulation of burnished, matt and textured surfaces that play out on this frame were intended to glisten and fade in flickering, subdued, warm light, casting shadows and highlights, animated not static. We never see this surface as it was intended and we may never do so again. It would be a brave soul who set up live candles in the gallery to illuminate the work.

In the nineteenth century those commissioning particularly expensive frames would specify ‘double gilded’ to give depth and strength to the surface. [3] Some of these frames were intended to create the illusion of solid metal, literally as if cast in gold. It’s an extraordinary thought and a form of representation that we struggle to appreciate. Significantly, if we dig into the actual production of frames and gilded surfaces, it is clear enough that the ‘raw’ gilded surface has seldom been the final presentation surface. The use of size layers to matt surfaces is common. The shiny surface created by burnishing gold leaf is used sparingly and with consideration of the impact of these passages of the frame to the presentation of the painting. The use of bole layers varying from red to black sitting underneath the gold leaf contributes to the colour of the gold.

Toning and patination of new surfaces has long been a factor in the production of frames to reduce glare and bring the frame into harmony with the painting.

To add complexity, what we contemplate today when we look at an old frame is a surface that has lived a life. A surface that is aged and worn and several steps removed from its original state. This is the aesthetic we have come to embrace and the surface we have come to respect. So now when we chase the illusion of an empathetic relationship between frame and painting we chase a relationship between surfaces. The surface of the frame needs to find its way toward the age of the painting, to strike an immediate note of harmony rather than discord. It’s fascinating to see a reproduction of a frame in the gilded state. Incredibly clean, glistening, more like metal than a mixture of wood, glue, chalk and incredibly thin gold leaf, the simple materials that actually make it what it is.

It’s the treatment of the surface that does the work. ‘Finishing’ is the hardest part of reproduction frame production but the most critical. The notions and potions frame makers use to turn gold leaf into something other than glister are to this day serious trade secrets. Seeing the perfection of the making as the measure of the craftsmanship is a misreading of the process. The real craftsmanship is in making the frame look like it’s been around since the time it represents—false surfaces of a different kind.  It’s a world of alchemy in reverse, of turning pure metal into something else, taking off just enough shine to shift the impression from new to old, from glister to subtle reflection, so the surface that does not glisten may be gold after all.

John Payne is Senior Conservator of Painting at the National Gallery of Victoria and author of Framing the Nineteenth Century (Images Publishing Group, 2007).

  1. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice: The line comes from a secondary plot of the play, the puzzle of Portia's boxes (Act II, Scene VII, Prince of Morocco): All that glisters is not gold; / Often have you heard that told: / Many a man his life hath sold / But my outside to behold: / Gilded tombs do worms enfold. / Had you been as wise as bold, / Young in limbs, in judgement old / Your answer had not been inscroll'd / Fare you well, your suit is cold.
  2. The Concise Oxford Dictionary, OxfordUniversity Press,  London, fifth edition, 1970.
  3. The invoice for the frame for Edwin Long’s Queen Ester, 1878, made by Vokins in London, specifies 'an ornamental Persian pattern frame in oil and burnished gold with part of ornament picked out in green gold and double gilt matt flat for picture of Esther put together with bolts and screws'.