A Million Pound Commission

Framing a recently discovered Van Dyck portrait for the Bowes Museum

One of the great features of the carving course is the regularity of commissions which come our way. Sometimes these are suitable for group projects (for example the Southwark Cathedral and St.George’s Chapel Windsor commissions).  Sometimes they are taken on by individuals, particularly as part of their final year work.

The latter was the case for a recent commission , to carve a frame for a Van Dyck portrait in the possession of the Bowes Museum near Durham.

The painting depicts Olivia Bottler Porter, lady-in-waiting to Charles I’s wife Henrietta Maria. Although in the possession of the museum since its foundation in the 19th century, it was not exhibited as it was not thought to be significant and in a bad condition, being covered in layers of dirt and varnish. However, in 2013 it was spotted by a sharp eyed connoisseur, and after an investigation by BBC Two’s Culture Show, was verified as an authentic Van Dyck by expert Dr Christopher Brown. Originally valued at around £3 – 5,000, for insurance purposes it is now valued at around the one million mark!

When the possibility arose for a collaboration between the Bowes Museum’s new Art and Design Center and the Historic Carving Department, we jumped at the opportunity to work together on thisimportant and prestigious commission.

Third year woodcarver Borys Burrough is tackling the project, and it’s an exceptional fit with his skills and ambitions.

Borys joined the Diploma woodcarving course following work as an art handler for Christies and as a gilder for west end picture frame Rollo Whately, and it is Borys’s ambition to work in the framing business. What better way to kick off such a career than designing the frame for one of the most famous painters of the 17th century?

Anthony Van Dyck is in the news right now. As the resident artist at the court of Charles I, he produced the most iconic portraits of the ill-fated monarch, and they are currently the centerpieces of the latest blockbuster show at the Royal Academy, bringing together the famed art collection of the king for the first time since his execution in1649.

The idea of the commission is that the frame should be historically appropriate, so it’s also fortuitous that the Auricular Style of frames common at this period is the specialism of the Art School’s conservation tutor Gerry Alabone, head of picture frame conservation at the at theTate Gallery from 2004-2016, now the Head of Furniture and Frame Conservation at the National Trust, and organizer of a recent conference on the subject at the Wallace Collection. Alongside the carving tutors, Gerry has also been able to advise on the project as it developed.

Borys’s design, whilst true to the Auricular style, also makes subtle reference to the life of the sitter portrayed, as well as to the north eastern location of the museum. The carving is now complete, and after gilding and exhibition in the Diploma Show, will be placed around the painting and displayed at the main entrance to the museum for public viewing in September.

Borys says,

“This dream commission has really tested all of the skills I have developed whilst studying here at the Art school and the challenge of designing a historically faithful auricular frame whilst at the same time giving it a contemporary perspective has been one that I have really enjoyed. There are even a few hidden references to the story of Olivia Porter in the frame which I hope the viewer will have fun spotting! I feel honoured to have been given this opportunity and can’t wait to see my frame up in the Bowes museum becoming part of the life of this remarkable painting.”


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