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  • juliet graham

How to Unframe a Work on Paper

Updated: May 21, 2020

When Marmie Hess (our namesake) donated 1200 artworks to the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery some of them needed a little work.

I’m going to show you how we take care of works on paper that have been in the same frame for a long time, and why they might need to come out of their frame. Since I’m working from home, this isn’t actually an artwork from the U of L art collection and it isn’t a work donated to the U of L by Marmie Hess, it’s just an example artwork to look at some of the types of things we see while working at the U of L art Gallery.

The first thing to do is to look closely at the front to trying to find any problem areas like water damage, tears, or spots where I need to be extra careful when unframing the work! I can see right away that the artwork is right next to the glass in the frame. This is a problem as it can lead to dust and moisture buildup inside the frame and on the surface of the artwork. Sometimes the artwork can even end up stuck to the glass. Not only does that not look very good but it can also can cause damage when you decide to take the frame apart. It’s best to design the frame to have either a spacer that hides under the frame edge or a good quality mat to keep the artwork from being right next to the glass.

We spend a lot of time looking at the backs of frames and the backs of artworks! Sometimes people ask me what I have been working on and I have to think really hard about it since I’ve been working from the back for hours and don’t actually remember what the front looks like! As you can see, there are a few problem areas with the back of this work! The frame backing paper’s job is to keep out dust, moisture, insects, and other enemies of artworks on paper and, as you can see, this backing paper is ripped, brittle, discoloured and held together with tape so it won’t do it’s job very well.

Sometimes the back of the frame has little labels or handwritten notes that can be hard to make out. Sometimes they are important! Turns out that the label on this frame is the title of the work, “Love’s Echoes”. That’s going to come in handy because I don’t know anything about this little artwork. I’ll make sure to save that little label.

The brown kraft paper that was used for the backing paper is very commonly used by framers. It’s not a very high quality paper, and I can see that it is discoloured and torn. After folding over a little part of it to test how brittle it is, I found this paper is so acidic that it snaps when you bend it! This tells me a little bit about what to expect inside this frame - the embrittlement of the paper indicates that, at some point, the framed artwork has been stored where there was lots of moisture in the air and some high temperatures. Also it’s been in this frame for a number of years, probably at least 50 years, if not more.

Almost all my tools are at work, so I have to be resourceful: tweezers can help me unwind the eye hook holding the hanging wire.

Now that the wire is off, its time to take the backing paper off the frame. I’m carefully pulling it up in case it is stuck down anywhere with adhesive.

There: all done!

And I saved that little label.

Looking up close you can see that the frame nails have rusted indicating too much moisture where this work has been stored. Aged, yellowing adhesive is also evident.

Again: being resourceful! I don’t have the pliers I would normally use, so I’m bending the nails up instead of removing them with pliers like I had planned to. The “bumper” I have installed between the retracted utility knife and the cardboard in the frame is a piece of paper, folded over four times, and held in place with the frame nail. If my tool is going to make a scrape or dent, it will land on that instead of on the backing board itself. I can also use paper or lightweight cardboard as a bumper in the same way to protect the frame if my tool is going to cause any scratching there.

All the nails are bent or taken out now, so holding the whole art sandwich (frame, backing board and artwork) firmly together, I’m going to flip the whole thing.

Gloves can protect the artwork from fingerprints, and a towel over the work surface can protect the frame from scratches while you work. Clean hands also work fine (and we're all washing our hands 100 times a day these days anyway!)

I want to be able to see the work while I take the frame apart, that’s why I flipped it right way up. Now, if anything is happening as I take the different parts off, the artwork is right in front of me.

This image shows how dirty the glass has gotten, and how the glass was definitely right up against the artwork.

Time to look the artwork over again, because now there’s nothing in between me and the work. You can see the cardboard backing board peeking out at the right side. I’m going to carefully investigate if the artwork is just sitting on that board or if there is any adhesive of any kind holding it in place.

I’m going to look really closely before I touch it. Knowledge is power! If there are any tears or areas of weakness, I’ll find out where they are before I handle the work so I can prevent potential further damage.

Starting from the right side where I can see the backing board, I’m carefully lifting up one corner, using the tweezers to lift the corner as my fingers might cause creasing. The artwork seems to be just lying on top of the cardboard backing board. Remember that crusty yellow adhesive on the back of the frame? Turns out there was a little bit holding one small section of the artwork to the board, you can see it on the cardboard at the bottom right, it must have squeezed onto the inside of the board by mistake when the framer put the whole thing together. I found the stuck area by running a thin strip of card in between the artwork and the backing board to investigate before I lifted up.

This is the back of the artwork next to the cardboard backing board. The horizontal stripe pattern of the corrugated cardboard has transferred onto the back of the artwork. Another indication that this frame has been on the work for a long time!

Detail of the signature.

Hold on … there is a signature on this artwork, but there’s also a copyright symbol? And the name of a company, is this an original artwork I am looking at? I don't think so!

Looking really closely with the magnifying glass, you can see a uniform overall pattern – what does that mean?

If I had a really good magnifier, it would help. Of course, my really good magnifiers are all at work!

After doing some research, I found out that this printing process is called a Collotype, which has an overall patterning, visible under magnification, that is described as “wormy”.

It is a very accurate reproductive printing method and was widely used from 1885 until the 1960s , but now there is only one printer in the world that makes colour collotypes, in Japan. You can find out more about the process here : , and here:

More research is required about my artwork, now that I know the technique. Having the artist name and the title helps me find out a little bit more about it. After some hunting around, I’m concluding that the frame is original to the work, making it 100 years old! The artwork is valued somewhere around $50 - $100.00 and it is from circa 1920, which is the time period when the John Drescher Company of New York was making mass-produced colour collotypes for consumers looking for a low cost way to brighten their walls. There isn’t much info about the artist, Henri G Reynard, but there are lots of copies of this print out there. Love’s Echoes is an Art Deco print, a very popular style of art and design around the 1920-30s.

Because it’s a low-value and mass-produced work, the U of L Art Gallery wouldn’t be interested in a work like this, but if we acquired a work that was framed like this, we would have done the work I have described. The steps that would follow these would be museum-quality matting and storage so it would be all ready to put up on the art gallery wall.

Once there are people in the building to put it up.

And people in the building to visit the Art Gallery.

I found it interesting that one of the copies I found of this print for sale on the internet actually listed the original dank, old cardboard and torn backing paper as a feature of the work, the value being that they authenticate the vintage appeal of the work. This authenticity of dust and dirt and proof of age is interesting to collectors, as you can see in this article about the market for dusty old cars that still have the original oil in their engines: true vintage machines.

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