The frame currently around Ophelia may not be original. The frame is decorated with moulded flowers such as daisies, wild roses, poppies and ivy.
John Anderson, one of the Tate’s Frame Conservators, said the following about this unique frame:
The current frame was specifically designed for Ophelia in the middle of the 19th century.
It is made from pinewood that has been thickly coated with a mixture of chalk and gelatine known in the 19th century as whitening. Over this has been glued the decoration (flowers, leaves etc) made from a putty-like material pressed or rolled from metal and wooden moulds called English Composition.
The frame was then painted with coloured clays (black, red and yellow) and gilded with 23.5 carat gold leaf. The gold leaf was hand beaten to a thickness of about 0.0001mm, cut into 80mm squares and guilded (stuck) to the frame. The gold leaf was handled with special flat sable brushes known as Gilder’s Tips.
This frame may not be the frame the painting had when it was exhibited for the first time in 1852. An original frame would probably have been simpler in design, reflecting the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s interest in the medieval.
The design uses flowers from the painting to decorate the near outer edge of the frame.
The scrolling design used in the hollow (the curved part of the frame from the near outer edge towards the inner frame) can be linked to the painting with its Shakespearean theme. It is termed an “Elizabethan Ornament” in a ground breaking design book, The Grammar of Ornament, published in 1856 by Owen Jones. It is because of the similarity of the hollow decoration to that in the book that a later date for the frame is suggested. The same design, although on a smaller scale, can be seen on a number of frames dating from the early 1860s, in the National Portrait Gallery, London. This book was extensively used and copied by designers from the moment of publication until the end of the century.
It is therefore possible that the picture got a new frame when it changed owners, as it did four times between 1851 and 1864. It could be that the frame was changed because the old frame was in poor condition. However, it is equally likely that the new owner wanted to give a new look to the work in order to reflect his own taste.
The frame was adapted at some point in its history to include an outer and an inner frame. The picture was covered with glass to protect it from London’s pollution in about 1855. The inner frame holds the glass in place and could be easily unbolted and the picture removed in case of an emergency such as a fire or flood.
The history of presenting pictures is often difficult to trace because of reframing so perhaps we should be thankful that this splendid frame has survived at all.