Love in the frame: or, Eros gets everywhere…

by The Frame Blog

The portraits and frames of John Brett, Pre-Raphaelite landscape painter

Brett detail

John Brett, Lady with a dove, 1864, Tate, detail

John Brett (1831-1902) was Pre-Raphaelite in his growth and development, and remained probably the most important Pre-Raphaelite landscape painter throughout his life. By the time that he was drawn into the compass of the PRB in the early 1850s, they were developing  – as well as a radical art – innovatory picture frame designs, ranging from the purely ornamental to attributive patterns which reflected or enlarged upon the subjects of the paintings they contained. Innovatory materials were in use, as well: oak mounts or friezes which were gilded directly on the wood, allowing the grain to show through, silver leaf as an alternative to gold, branches of natural ivy leaves which the framemaker copied.

Brett was a craftsman as well as an artist; he had designed a ‘sketching apparatus’ in his early twenties, and seems to have made his own frames at first, for his pictures and for those of others: ‘Today a guinea from Mrs Cary for restoring & framing a little picture has cheered me’, he notes in his diary entry for 16th April 1854[1]. Both practices came about under the pressure of extreme poverty in the early years of his career; one of his most famous early works, Val d’Aosta, did not sell in the R.A exhibition of 1859, and he writes that, ‘I must take it out of its frame to put the new one in or else get further into debt’. His own experience and inclinations therefore made him peculiarly alive to the practices of the Pre-Raphaelites and their wider circle, and the custom of designing his own frames grew and continued throughout his career.

Brett The Norman Archipelgo 1885 Manchester City Galleries detailJohn Brett, The Norman Archipelago, 1885, Manchester City Galleries, detail of frame

Brett used several distinctive designs for his frames. Like Brown, Rossetti, Hunt, and later Burne-Jones, he seems to have seen the framing of his paintings as integral to the presentation of the work of art as a whole. By c.1859-60 he had begun to use a charmingly decorative design of vine leaves, applied to the wide shallow convex frieze of the frame, and surrounded by narrow reeds and hollows. It may have been influenced by the ‘ivy’ frames of the Pre-Raphaelites; Arthur Hughes, for instance, designed a group of frames wreathed in ivy between 1852 and 1860 (e.g. The Eve of St Agnes, 1856, Tate).

John Brett Portrait of Mary Brett sm

John Brett, Portrait of Mary Brett, ?1880s, Sotheby’s, 11 Dec 2007, Lot 23

From around 1875 Brett seems to have settled on the pattern which became his ‘trademark frame’, and, together with the style and handing of the painted image within, marks a picture as indisputably his. The main element of this frame is an outer narrow cushion, decorated with a zigzag fillet infilled with alternating triangular palmettes. It forms part of a complex moulding which Brett used in combination with a wide gilded mount or flat, the whole setting off the brilliant colouring both of his land- and seascapes. Many of these, still retaining their ‘Dolman frames’ complete with the stamped pattern number on the back, are in the possession of his descendants. This pattern appears, above, on a portrait of his wife (or possibly common-law wife), Mary Brett.  Earlier versions of the ‘Dolman frame’ have mounts which have been gilded directly on the oak, in the manner of Ford Madox Brown’s and Rossetti’s designs, but from the late 1870s the mounts are gilded smoothly over a layer of gesso or whitening. Later still the loss of texture in the oak mounts is remedied by a small run of moulding between the zig-zag frieze and the mount; this looks rather like a continuously repeated fan of barley grains, and can be seen on the frame of Mary Brett.

Brett Christina Rossetti detail

John Brett, Christina Rossetti, 1857, Private collection, detail of frame

During the early part of his life, and before meeting Mary, Brett seems to have been a susceptible romantic, prone to falling in love; and for much of that time he was also a portraitist (if a private one, of his friends and family). He recorded many of the objects of his love in paint or pencil, one of the first being Christina Rossetti, sister of Dante Gabriel, whom he depicts as little more than a pair of huge, coolly observant eyes against a background of detailed feathers. This small, striking portrait remained unfinished, possibly the victim of an unsuccessful proposal by Brett to Christina; William Michael Rossetti, Christina’s brother, linked her 1860 poem, ‘No, thank you, John’, to Brett[2]. The portrait remains in Brett’s family, and has an unusual composition frame on a miniature scale, decorated with buttercups, daisies and roses. This combination suggests a symbolic reference: in the Victorian language of flowers, riches; innocence or simplicity; and  love/ friendship/ a broken heart…

Brett Lady with a dove Tate smJohn Brett, Lady with a dove, 1864, Tate

Another of Brett’s heartthrobs seems to have been Madame Jeannette Loeser, the subject of Lady with a dove. He met her in Italy in 1863, and drew both her and her companion, the composer J. Blumenthal, many times over the next year or so. This small, full-length portrait of Mme Loeser was probably produced in Britain, when Brett had returned home; the dove in the painting may be an attribute of Venus.  He gave it a scotia or hollow frame, smoothly gilded, outlined with the barleycorn moulding and decorated with a winged cherub’s head in each corner. The cherubs peer (rather grumpily) down into the painting, brooding over this exotic femme fatale, whom John Addington Symons described as, ‘the lady with the wild bush of grey hair whom Brett has painted for her strange and picturesque beauty’[3]. Like the vine leaves in which Brett framed his landscape paintings, these are attributes of the subject: tiny Erotes, with which this romantic artist extended the theme of his work onto the surrounding frame, in the manner of a true Pre-Raphaelite.


This post is taken from a much longer essay, ‘John Brett’s Picture Frames’, by Lynn Roberts, in  John Brett: Pre-Raphaelite Landscape Painter, Christiana Payne and Charles Brett, Yale University Press, 2010. I am grateful to Christopher Gridley and Charles Brett for their patience and help with this latter essay, and to Jacob Simon for allowing me to use it outside the bounds of the National Portrait Gallery website, for the Picture Frame section of which it was originally written.

Part I: Pre-Raphaelite frames > here

Part II: More Pre-Raphaelite frames > here

Part III: A final look at Pre-Raphaelite frames > here

Restoring a Pre-Raphaelite frame > here

Poetry & the frame: Rossetti’s Blessed Damozel & its altarpiece setting > here

What artists, critics & collectors say about frames: Part 2> here

Poetry & the frame: May morning on Magdalen Tower > here

Two Pre-Raphaelite paintings from the Leverhulme Collection> here

A Victorian Obsession…The Pérez Simón Collection > here 

[1] John Brett: Diary 1851-61, 2002, unpublished, has been transcribed, edited and annotated by Charles Brett, the artist’s great-grandson.

[2] See John Brett: Pre-Raphaelite Landscape Painter, Christiana Payne and Charles Brett, Yale University Press, 2010, pp.42-43. Christina Rossetti’s poem, ‘No, thank you, John’ is the supposed prototype of the ‘Dear John…’ genre of letter.

[3]  Ibid., ppp.80-81.