In a parable recounted in the New Testament, Christ described how a traveller, stripped and beaten half-dead by robbers, was saved by a Samaritan, while a Priest and a Levite 'passed by on the other side' (Luke 10: 25-38). The flasks in the painting are for the oil and wine which the Samaritan pours on the traveller's wounds. The distant city is the artist's native Bassano. This work is also known in other versions.
Miranda Hinkley: Frames are a ubiquitous presence in galleries, but few of us know that they’ve often got an intriguing history in their own right. One man who does is Nicholas Penny, Director of the National Gallery (and the author of a pocket guide on the subject). Leah Kharibian went to find out more.
Leah Kharibian: Nick Penny and I are standing in Room 9, one of the most palatial rooms in the National Gallery, surrounded by some of the collection’s most grandiose works from 16th-century Italy. Now, Nick, few people here, it has to be said, are looking at the frames surrounding the pictures, and I know that you think they’re fascinating objects and you’d like us to take a closer look, but as beginners where should we start?
Nicholas Penny: Well, I think people are looking at them even though they don’t know they’re looking at them, because frames affect the way you see a picture; they isolate the picture; they separate it from things around it, and so that even if you don’t know that you’re affected by a frame, you probably are. And one question that one should always ask is, what colour really is this frame? Most people will say – well, it’s gold, isn’t it – and you can actually then point out that there are different colours to the gold. I don’t just mean that the gold is often dirty, or often tarnished, or deliberately toned. I actually also mean the gold itself can be a different colour. And when one becomes alert to that, one also tends to become more alert to what gold does to the actual colours in the paintings themselves. It certainly and most obviously always makes blue more brilliant…
Leah Kharibian: Blue?
Nicholas Penny: Blue is a very important colour because it’s the sky – you know, you like to know when you’re in the sky – and blue is a very important colour because the Virgin Mary wears it and so on, but blues are always affected by gold and so of course in a different way – not by contrast, but by affinity – so are all the oranges and reds in a picture. They can seem more radiant, more jubilant as a result of the gold frame.
Leah Kharibian: Now we’re actually standing in front of a really very beautiful frame that surrounds a portrait by Jacopo Bassano of 'The Good Samaritan’ (helping the wayfarer who’s been beset by thieves), and this is actually quite interestingly a very pale gold, isn’t it?
Nicholas Penny: Yes it is, it’s a very beautiful gold – it’s the original gilding and it’s a beautifully carved 17th-century frame. Now it’s not the type of frame that Bassano would have had around his pictures, but it is an old Italian frame of the kind a picture by an artist like Bassano would have acquired in the 17th century. So what we’ve got here is a great old painting and a great old frame and they look well together. It’s the type of frame which is fairly expensive now and we don’t have a special government grant for buying old frames, so we are dependent on private individuals who contribute to helping us buy frames. This was bought by Dr and Mrs Horren for us and they’ve bought other frames for us and we’re very grateful to them – it’s a very imaginative thing for a supporter of the Gallery to do.
It’s a very ornamental frame, every surface is carved, as you can see. Only after a while do you realise that it contradicts one of the really basic things about frames, which is a very important elementary structural purpose of enabling you to carry a picture around and protecting a picture, especially if the picture has glass in it or something like that. Now this frame is very very vulnerable because it’s got all these little points, like the ends of tongues or shields, and then the little ends of leaves…
Leah Kharibian: All round the edge…
Nicholas Penny: All round the edge and of course when we acquired the frame it was in very good condition, but many of these were broken; they had to be restored in our framing workshop – it took ages – but it just reminds you that this designer was much much more interested in the aesthetics of the frame, than in the practical uses of frame making.
Leah Kharibian: And are you hoping that in the future there will be more information available about frames in the Gallery?
Nicholas Penny: Well, both in the galleries, and of course on the website, where it’s perhaps easier to provide more information. I think it would be very good if we always told the public whether or not they’re looking at the original frame, and in exceptional cases it would be good if we’re telling them that we’re looking at a really important and beautiful frame.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Special thanks to Nicholas Penny. The National Gallery ‘Pocket Guide to Frames’ is available from Gallery shops and online at www.nationalgallery.co.uk.