V&A Podcast - Framing
Season 1, episode 15
Housed in the V&A are thousands of frames of all shapes, sizes and types. The importance of a frame to present and protect an object should not be overlooked. In this episode, Robert Lambeth, head of technical services at the V&A, discusses the processes involved in making sure objects are looked after at the museum when on display. He is joined by Matt Jones of John Jones Framers; a London based family business with decades of expertise in framing to a high standard both from a conservation and aesthetic perspective.
GA: Welcome to the V&A podcast, bringing you behind the scenes of the Victoria and Albert museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design. I’m Glenn Adamson, Head of Research at the V&A. In this episode we’ll be talking about the framing of art works in the collection. It may not occur to you but when you go to a museum, nearly every painting, every print and every photo you see has a frame. At the V&A, at any given time we have thousands of them hanging on the walls. We frame our artworks to protect them of course but also to set them off visually. In most cases we don’t necessarily want you to notice the frame itself; it’s meant to be unobtrusive. But behind the scenes we have a dedicated team of highly skilled people devoted to preparing our works for display. We also sometimes work with outside specialists to help us make our work look its best. In this episode of the podcast, you’ll meet two of these talented people: Rob Lambeth – Senior Technical Services Manager at the V&A – and Matt Jones of John Jones framers here in London. They’re a family business that has operated for forty years. So Rob, you’re part of the technical services team at the V&A. Can you tell us a little bit about that department and the other things that it does in addition to framing?
RL: Ok. Technical services consist of twenty-six technicians, two managers and myself - the technical services manager. We look after the handling and the installation of all the artworks so anything to do with the collection, technical services has a hand in it somewhere. So, we pack, we install, we mount and we transport all the objects. We also get involved very much with outside companies like John Jones for making frames or we might deal with other companies that make brackets or any other form of support that’s required for hanging the objects or installing the objects. Technical services deals only with the objects. It doesn’t deal with other forms of support in the museum. It doesn’t deal with the fabric of the building or the cases or any other form of support. It’s really, really based on the objects.
GA: Right. So, it’s very interesting because the V&A of course is among other things a museum of crafts – historical crafts – and you’re essentially the craftspeople on the premises aren’t you?
GA: Ok and how specialised is the team? Do you have, say, three people who do framing, three people who do mounts, three people who install work?
RL: It used to be split up in that way, it no longer is and that’s mainly because we have such big projects coming forward with FuturePlan like exhibition road and Clothworkers’ that we need to have larger groups of technicians we can put towards difficult projects. So, we may have a big packing project so I’ll need a lot of people who can pack or we may have a big mount-making project so I’ll need a lot of people who can mount-make. So as we go forward, we’re training more and more people to have a level of skill across the board. Some people obviously are highly skilled to a certain degree in some areas so it’s a greater area of skill, but we expect everybody to be able to do the work of a technician at the V&A. This gives them a very broad outlook and makes the V&A very fluid in the way it can put on its exhibitions.
GA: So you’re quite a big team and a very flexible team. Matt can you tell us a little bit about John Jones framers? What kind of business is that?
MJ: Well we have team of experts; we’re up to about one hundred and two members of staff now. We’re very much split into levels completing the sort of start to finish of the process. So we’ll have a team of seven designers who will be with the work and understanding what the work needs from a protection point of view, working side by side with a team of conservators now that we have on board. And then we see the frame all the way through from the manufacturing of the actual moulding through to it being produced, cut, joined and then finished. And then we have a final department that will take care of the assembly, so working very closely with the team who take care of the specialist mounting and hinging of the works.
GA: So you’re actually more specialised than the team at the V&A it sounds like.
MJ: I suppose we’ve always had this need of the work not having to do too much of a journey so for that reason we pretty much do everything in house. All the way from conservation of the work to the specialist finishes of the frames.
GA: So the work is disturbed as little as possible?
GA: So Rob, can you just walk is through a typical job of putting a frame on a piece of work and then getting it on the wall? What has to happen and in what order?
RJ: Well we have a request that comes in as a requisition to frame x amount of works and that can be for an exhibition, it can be for display, it can be for FuturePlan or any kind of display. When the requisition comes in then it’s assessed by a technician to look at where the works are, if they’re ours or if they’re coming in from outside and what kind of framing is required. So we interact with the designer of the show or we interact with conservation. Conservation will tell us what we can and cannot do to that object, what kind of frame is required and lots of things to do with the inside of the frame rather than the outside of the frame – the air gap, the sealing of the frame, what the glazing is going to be, whether it’s going to be acrylic or whether it’s going to be glass, UV (ultraviolet) or low reflect. So there are lots of aspects to that frame. Once we know all those things then we don’t make the frame, we draw the frame out or we send out a set of dimensions to a framer like John Jones and they will be made for us and they will come in. We don’t spend time making things where we don’t need to because we have so many other things to make that are very close to the objects. Once those frames come in, if it’s painting it’ll go to the paintings department and they will drop the painting in. If it’s a flat work it will go to paper conservation and they will either hinge it in or it might be in a paper mount/window mount and they will put it in from there and once that’s done then it comes back to technical services to be hung in the gallery or to go on loan.
GA: Right. Ok. So Matt, something Rob said there was that in fact most of the time you’re working with us at the V&A you actually don’t have the art work in your hands, you get a drawing like a computer drawing.
MJ: Absolutely, it really does rely on actually what’s been a long relationship now between one of our senior designers at John Jones and Rob and his team. It’s very clear as to what needs to be achieved from the instructions and it’s a case of having that great relationship being clear what needs to be produced.
GA: So Matt, can you tell us a little bit about some of the more unusual things that you might have to face at John Jones, things out of the ordinary?
MJ: I suppose, I mean, it’s interesting listening to Rob…we work to a very similar way in that the first thing it’s all about the work and what’s expected of the work so we spend probably more time now looking at the protection and what has to happen for the work within the frame before then looking at the frame itself. We never know what’s going to come in so every day is different, every day is a challenge but it’s actually making sure what we do is there to protect as well as present.
GA: So what would be an example of a very difficult thing? Something that’s very large, perhaps?
MJ: Yeah. I think we haven’t been beaten yet by something that’s oversized! It’s an interesting question because my immediate thinking is to think about all the things that have been framed very oversized but I think because conservation is very at the forefront of where we are at the moment I’d really like to talk about something that is quite a small object. This was being called in to see a collector who had a work on the wall and it was purely to have it reframed, on viewing the work on collection we were actually looking at a piece that was crumbling. It was disintegrating. We had to put up the big sort of warning signs to stay away from it because it had and then it actually then went through about six months of conservation work. I think what’s really nice is that when you make it very clear to the client what needs to be achieved they’re on that journey with you so they get their weekly phone call from us as to what we’ve tested and what we’ve proven and what’s worked and the outcome. I suppose I was more proud about how we’d been able to save this work and how good the work actually looked at the end as much as the frame itself.
GA: Rob can you think of examples where the V&A has had to frame up something that has seemed almost impossible to begin with?
RL: Nothing is impossible but there’s always a cost element and a time element and you are dealing with various opposing factors, not opposing, but factions pulling in different directions: if conservation want something and the designer will want something else and the budget holder will also want something else. So it’s actually trying to bring all those things together. But thinking about very large things there were some very, very big posters for the theatre museum when that was revamped; huge, huge posters and we were trying to get acrylic actually big enough to put it in the frame and we couldn’t get it, it was too big. I think we couldn’t get it in this country, I think John Jones might have supplied it and got it from France, I can’t quite remember. But the frame cost would have been prohibitive so in fact we literally just bought the acrylic to the right size and bought some aluminium L-section and cut it up in the workshop and had it powder coated and literally just screwed it round it. Now that you might think looked a bit shoddy but in fact the huge size of it, you just don’t notice and it looks good, it looks very good. So there are ways around these issues where you can make something look quite slick for not very much money.
GA: So Matt, how do you think about the aesthetic quality, the visual quality of the frames that you’re producing? Is it often just a case of trying to make the frame something that you don’t notice?
MJ: I mean, it’s there to enhance, at the end of the day, the focus is, has to be about the art piece. So once you’ve tackled the protective side the frame is there to highlight the work. And I think what we tend to do is when we’re working with clients where there’s always an idea that’s actually there in the head but it’s a case of actually looking at all options really on the frame. And sometimes I actually don’t rush a decision. You know, you have to; you’re there to live with the work. So the frame, you have to live with the way in which then it’s been framed. So sometimes I’ll just, I will sort of leave a work and see how it sort of behaves with different types of frames until finally it really clicks. But at the end of the day it’s there to make it look as good as it could.
GA: So Rob we mentioned earlier that of course once the frame is done it needs to be installed. Can you just tell us a little bit about that part of the process? It’s probably not as simple as just throwing a nail in the wall and hanging the thing right? It’s a complex procedure in its own right.
RL: Well more than likely the frame will be one part of a whole range of three dimensional objects that are going in to an exhibition so that would all be planned through a lead technician. We always appoint a lead technician on an exhibition or a display so they can be the focal point and then everything is assessed for transport: where it’s going to go through so we can get things through doors, that we can control the weight – if you’ve got pieces of sculpture you might want to control the weights of things where they go over the floors. We have a lot of hollow floors in the V&A and also a lot of very beautiful ceramic floors which can get cracked. Big framed things we have to decide how we’re going to hang them, , especially in the medieval and renaissance we have some huge framed objects in there which John Jones framed for us – very heavy laminated glass and thick frames. The walls in the V&A are not that brilliant everywhere, often the walls are made of just lumps of brick and plastered over; they’re not that strong so we might have to figure out a way of taking the weight all the way along the length of the object and not just hanging it on two points. So everything is assessed, everything has an assessment to how we’re going to do it: how we’re going to hang it, how we’re going to get it there, that’s even before we’ve started thinking about how we’re going to get it made.
GA: Matt could you tell us a little bit about the materials that are used in frames? We’ve been talking about the fact that this is quite a conservation-sensitive process, so what kind of things can you actually put in to a frame?
MJ: Well we’ve always worked to what’s called conservation standards. We actually reassessed a lot of our standards in 2004 I think it was, where we just took a complete review of everything we were doing. We now only use what’s called a museum board. So, in a way, acid free is kind of known everywhere now, we in a way ignore that, we just make sure that the boards we are using are made of one hundred percent cotton, the boards are buffered, the difference being the alkaline level that’s in there - depending again on the work - depends on what type of mount board is used but we will only use one type for mount board now. The hinging is incredibly important. Very commonly we will only use a hinge made of Japanese paper rather than the other forms of hinges which are called acid free. I mean, acid free seems to be everywhere. We do the same thing before we frame anything – we have a conserver to actually sign the works off as to what is the best solution.
GA: Can I just ask one last question, given all the expertise that you’re bringing to this task and the fact that all of our visitors are walking past these hundreds or thousands or frames every day. What would you say is your hope in terms of what you’re bringing to the experience of the V&A?
RL: I think the V&A is superlative, its collection is overwhelming. When you look at what’s gone in to those galleries and how they’ve changed in the last few years, our collection is used so well. And we’re sending exhibitions round the world all the time and they’re well received and I get very good feedback about how good our galleries look and the way we treat our works, and I feel very proud to be part of that.
GA: And Matt, what about you?
MJ: I have to say proud is very much... I was at the V&A a few days ago and it just looks very well considered and it’s set off in a very, very dramatic way and it’s a proud moment to be able to say, you know, we have the V&A in London.
GA: Ok, thank you both very much Matt Jones from John Jones Framers and our own Rob Lambeth from Technical Services department. I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to this discussion of how this craft brings so much to the visual experience of the museum. Perhaps not something every visitor has thought about but hopefully if you have been listening, next time you look at one of the frames that we have on display or at another museum you’ll know what’s gone in to it. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and also hope you’ll join us again next time for another episode of the V&A podcast, bringing you behind the scenes of the Victoria and Albert museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design.
Listen to the V&A Podcast on iTunes U.The 'sting' heard at the beginning of each episode of the V&A Podcast was created by sound artist Jason Singh: www.jasonsinghmusic.com