Turner’s Picture Frames: Part 1

by The Frame Blog

…the frames chosen by the artist, his patrons, and for public and private collections since his death.

George Jones Interior of Turner s Gallery The artist showing his works Ashmolean sm

George Jones, Interior of Turner’s Gallery: The artist showing his works, c.1852, © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Picture frames have always been vulnerable to the low esteem in which they have, until recently, been held; and the settings chosen by Turner himself for his paintings have suffered further from a periodic cooling towards 19th century objects and works of art, so that very few of his original frames survive.

Fortuitously, his working life coincided with a decline in the art of hand-carving frames which began with the Napoleonic Wars and accelerated during the first half of the 19th century. The general movement at this time from workshop to factory production, the fluctuations in the economy, and the emergence of new middle- and lower middle- classes of consumer all had an effect upon the types of frames demanded, and those which were available. Lengths of wooden mouldings turned by machine could soon be produced more rapidly and inexpensively than by hand, and decorated with relatively cheap applied composition ornament. Mass-produced frames became the preferred choice for work exhibited in the Royal Academy of Art, London, and the European Salons, as well as for commissioned paintings, and Turner’s choice of contemporary settings may therefore have been seen by later generations as disposable packaging, rather than as an integral part of the art work.  However, an examination of the remaining authentic examples, together with paintings which include depictions of Turner’s framed pictures, and contemporary comments, indicates that he employed carefully-considered solutions to the question of presentation.

Turner’s original training, at the age of 14, had been in the offices of various late 18th century architects. He quickly graduated into the Royal Academy Schools, but he retained enough from this early stint as a draughtsman to help him design his own studio, and also his house in Twickenham[1]. This training may also have shown him how to use depth and proportion in the picture frame mouldings he chose, in order to offset the image, throw light onto the picture surface, and project his composition from amongst others.

DolbadernCastle in frame RA sm

Turner, Dolbadern Castle, 1800, Royal Academy of Arts, London

The earliest surviving frame[2] which is unarguably Turner’s own choice contains his Diploma Work, Dolbadern Castle (exh. RA 1800), presented on his election to the Royal Academy, where it has remained almost undisturbed ever since. Its principal feature is a deep concave moulding or scotia, bordered on the top edge by a bundle of reeds or fasces bound with a gesso ribbon, and at the sight edge by an acanthus-&-shield ornament in composition (compo). It was originally water-gilded on a pale mauve Regency bole, but this was destroyed by the oil-gilding applied to all the frames in the collection of the Royal Academy in the 1860s [3].

This basic scotia frame, varied by the addition or subtraction of decorative elements, was one of two main styles used by Turner throughout his career.  It is a version of the late 18th century NeoClassical or ‘Morland’ frame, so-called because it is frequently found on paintings by the artist George Morland; during the early 19th century variants were used by John Constable, amongst others.  Although this design did not originate with Turner, it does stand out from the Diploma frames of his contemporaries, which tended to be flatter interpretations of NeoClassical patterns. The deep hollow or scotia is a device for focusing attention upon the image and enhancing its perspective, whilst also helping to reflect light onto the surface of the painting.  The overall weight of the frame makes it particularly appropriate for larger landscapes, and by isolating the image from the surrounding wall gives it importance and emphasis. Turner’s early architectural training may possibly be seen in the choice of this type of frame.

Turner Bridgewater Seapiece 1 sm

Turner, Dutch boats in a gale (The Bridgewater Seapiece), c. 1801, private collection, on loan to the National Gallery, detail of frame

A decorative version of the plain scotia frame, its hollow filled with cross-cut acanthus leaves moulded in compo, was used for The Bridgewater Seapiece (exh. RA 1801). Joseph Farington mentions it in his Diary entry for Tuesday 17 July 1804:

‘Edridge… spoke of the narrowness of Turner’s mind and said C. Long had mentioned that after the Marquiss of Stafford [sic] had pd. Him £250 guineas for “the Fishing boats” He afterwards applied several times to have 20 guineas for the frame, but it was not paid Him’ [4].

When it was newly gilded, the hollow with its acanthus ornament radiating outwards from the sight edge would have created a halo of flickering light around the painting, lending it vitality and movement, and perhaps justifying Turner’s claim for further payment.

Works such as this would have been executed in Turner’s London studio from oil studies made on the spot, and the frames would also have been made in London[5], although it is uncertain which framemaker he may have used. In or about 1800, he had taken a studio at 64 Harley Street, very near Charles Street where Joseph Green the elder set up his carving and gilding workshop almost simultaneously in 1801; Turner’s gallery was built in the garden of his studio in 1803, and later had an entrance installed onto Queen Anne Street.

Map of London 1804 Wallis s via MapCoNet detail

Detail from Wallis’s Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster in 1804, via MapCoNet; Turner’s studio is marked by the red dot to the left; Joseph Green’s workshop by the dot to the right (with thanks to MapCo.Net)

The convenience of this mutual location, allied to the fact of Green’s framing the work of prominent Academicians such as Beechey and Etty, make Green a possible candidate for Turner’s custom during the first third of the 19th century[6]. Green’s probable skill as a designer of mouldings and composition ornaments also suggests his attraction to an artist such as Turner, who put such value on the design of his frames[7].

Turner Bridgewater Seapiece 2 sm

Turner, The Bridgewater Seapiece, detail of frame

However, the only framemakers directly associated with Turner in the first decade of the century are John Williams of Oxford, with whom he stayed in 1800; James Wyatt, also of Oxford, who commissioned two paintings of Oxford and framed them for Turner to send to exhibition[8]; and Charles Gerard (see below).

Turner Tabley final version sm

Turner, Tabley, the Seat of Sir J. F. Leicester, Bart, Windy Day, 1808, Tabley House

Another painting still, like The Bridgewater Seapiece, in its original acanthus scotia frame is Tabley, the Seat of Sir J. F. Leicester, Bart, Windy Day, commissioned in 1808 (exh. RA 1809). As with The Bridgewater Seapiece, the radiating effect of the acanthus leaves helps to enhance the spatial depth of the seascape, and besides its decorative richness and versatility, the pattern boasts a classical resonance which Turner would have appreciated.

Frontispiece to the 'Liber Studiorum' circa 1810-11 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Turner, Frontispiece to the Liber studiorum, c.1810-11, etching & watercolour, Tate

For the frontispiece of his Liber studiorium, which was published in 1812, he created a self-conscious amalgam of classical motifs, the centrepiece of which was a framed representation of his own painting of The Rape of Europa. The pieces of fallen masonry, capitals, and other fragments of antiquity which surround it, as well as the myth it depicts, all point to his wish to root his own art in a classical tradition, giving it depth by a display of learning. The frame is decorated with a pattern of anthemia, derived from 18th century gôut grec and the newly fashionable Empire style – appropriate for a Greek myth, but very modern in its treatment.  However, for his actual frames he seems to have preferred the equally classical but more Roman motif of the acanthus leaf.

Plain scotia frames with classical ornament, similar to the example on Dolbadern Castle, were made to display Turner’s work in the collection of the 3rd Earl of Egremont. The whole collection, including the part of it originally displayed in the Earl’s London house, was brought together after his death in Petworth House, where it remains (including, coincidentally, the smaller pendant to Tabley… Windy day, above: Tabley… Calm morning, sold to the Earl of Egremont in 1827). The frames, mainly three variations of scotia, pearls, rais-de-coeurs[9] and fasces, were mostly supplied by the framemaker Charles Gerard or Gerrard, of Soho, London, and his bills of 1808 to 1810 still survive:

1810   C. Gerard   Rich frame landscape by Turner   14.10.0                                                                                                     & Seapiece etc…

The bills were paid directly by the Earl, but given the relationship between the artist and this particular patron, Turner may well have suggested his preferred style of frame – especially since another of Gerard’s items was billed as a ‘Rich frame for Mr Turners Gallery[10].

As well as these moveable frames on Turner’s paintings at Petworth, there are also the integral wall frames, which are part of the Carved Room, and were made on purpose by the carver Jonathan Ritson in the 1820s to ‘fit in’ with the earlier work by Grinling Gibbons. Here Turner was working to a specified scheme, directed by his patron, and, although he would have known where the paintings were to be installed, and what the frames would be like, he obviously had no say in their design. He would have known what their colouring was: at that point, the Carved Room had been painted white, so that Turner’s light-filled paintings, in their pale bolection frames, would have given a very different effect from their present appearance[11].

Both plain and acanthus versions of the scotia frame remain in the collections of Tate and of the National Gallery, London; although it is not clear how many of these are original to the pictures[12].  Turner had left his work to the nation on his death in 1851, though the so-called Turner Bequest was delivered to the National Gallery in 1856 as a collection of unframed paintings.  Jabez Tepper, the son of one of Turner’s cousins (who were contesting the will[13]), had to grant the Trustees of the Gallery formal permission to take

‘all or any of the Picture frames… now on the Testator’s Premises 47 Queen Anne St’[14].

How many were actually taken was never recorded; neither do we know how many were discarded during the course of the next century as the pictures were moved from gallery to gallery, through changing fashions and changing curatorial attitudes. Certainly, some of those original frames were badly damaged during their travels, as in the case of the one subsequently associated with The Battle of Trafalgar.

Edward Taylor Twas a famous victory 1883 Birmingham AG sm

Edward Richard Taylor, Twas a famous victory, 1883, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery

The Battle of Trafalgar (1806, Tate) makes a prominent appearance at the right-hand side of E.R. Taylor’s painting, ’Twas a famous victory, which shows one of the Turner Rooms in the National Gallery as it was arranged in 1883.  All the larger Turners there are presented in wide scotia frames with a convex bay leaf-&-berry ornament on the top edge, and are hung in close proximity, the deep gilt borders effectively isolating each painting from its neighbours.


Henry Tidmarsh, Interior view of the National Gallery showing the Turner Room, c.1885, Guildhall Art Gallery, London

Similar frames can be seen in H.E. Tidmarsh’s grisaille of the other Turner Room in the National Gallery (c.1883, London, Guildhall Library and Art Gallery); the large number involved, as well as the design, make it possible that these were indeed the original Turner frames, although they may of course have been framed alike before this mass hang. The present setting of The Battle of Trafalgar [click link & scroll down] has been created from the greatly restored carcase of such a frame, with a new slip, the original gilt slip having been lost. The top moulding with its carved leaf-&-berry ornament has also been lost, and has been replaced by ribbon-bound fasces, as in the ‘Morland’ pattern used for Dolbadern Castle. All save two more of the frames made to the leaf-&-berry pattern have completely disappeared [15].

George Jones Interior of Turner s Gallery The artist showing his works Ashmolean sm

George Jones, Interior of Turner’s Gallery: The artist showing his works, c.1852, ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Further NeoClassical scotia frames of this type, and a few with decorative corner cartouches, can be seen in George Jones’s two paintings of the artist’s gallery in Queen Anne Street[16].  The pictures were displayed in a single close-hung tier on the low red walls, another row propped beneath them on the floor.  The effect is of a room almost completely panelled with paintings, so that very little of the wall-hangings appear, the frames acting like a grid of golden mortar.

George Jones Turner s body lying in state 29 Dec 1851 Ashmolean sm

George Jones, Turner’s body lying in state, 29 December 1851, c.1852, © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

These low walls, together with the system of top-lighting by diffused daylight carefully worked out by Turner (probably with the help of Sir John Soane[17]), meant that the deep frames required by Turner’s relatively large works had no disadvantage of cast shadow; they existed solely to enhance the paintings. The diffused light was described by his executor, the Rev. William Kingsley:

‘It was the best lighted gallery I have ever seen, and the effect got by the simplest means; a herring net was spread from end to end just above the walls, and sheets of tissue paper spread on the net, the roof itself being like that of a greenhouse…’[18].

Sketches for a similar gallery roof (as well as for curtains and blinds) can be seen in Turner’s Tabley No. 3 Sketchbook, Tate.

Drawing Room of 45 Grosvenor Place 1819 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Turner, The drawing-room of 45 Grosvenor Place, c.1819, private collection

Turner’s other favoured frame pattern was a revival French Louis-XV-style corner-&-centre frame, which uses a slightly grander idiom than the linear NeoClassical frame, and is more overtly decorative and softer of line.  It may possibly have been influenced by frames on works by Watteau, an artist collected by Sir John Soane and also by Reynolds, and whose compositions and elements of whose colour technique Turner is known to have copied[19]. It may perhaps also have been adopted as a ‘patron’s frame’.  It appears, for example, in Turner’s depictions of his own work for one of his earliest patrons – in Walter Fawkes’s exhibition at Grosvenor Place (c. 1819), where Fawkes’s drawing-room is painted, full of close-framed Turner watercolours[20].   Here, both pictures and frames have been absorbed into formal patterns against the buff-coloured walls, while the swept silhouettes of the larger frames are reflected in the curvaceous giltwood furniture.  Even the blue-striped upholstery seems to have been chosen to echo the skies and seas of Turner’s watercolours, so that the room itself becomes a frame for the artist’s work, and one which his careful record of it seems to approve.

In Walter Fawkes’s Yorkshire house, Farnley Hall, Turner painted another interior where his own work hung – Drawing-room, Farnley (1818, private collection), shows his oil painting Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort packet-boat from Rotterdam becalmed (now New Haven, Yale Center for British Art).  Like Fawkes’s London collection of Turners, the Dort was then housed in a straight-sided frame with prominent corners (now unfortunately replaced by a NeoClassical variant of a ‘Carlo Maratta’ frame), and Turner’s depiction of it once again implies approval of its presentation.

Two oils painted for John Nash (and now in the Sheepshanks Collection at the V & A Museum) also have straight frames with scrolling foliate-&-shell corners; whilst B.G. Windus’s collection of Turner watercolours had uniform swept Louis XV-style settings with projecting corners.

John Scarlett Davis BG Windus s library with his collection of Turners 1835 watercolour BM sm

John Scarlett Davis, The library of Tottenham, the seat of B.G. Windus, Esq., showing his collection of Turner watercolours, 1835, watercolour, British Museum

A large part of this last collection was recorded, framed and hanging in Windus’s library, by John Scarlett Davis, who painted it in 1835 (watercolour, London, British Museum). Apparently, Davis told a friend that there were 50 Turners in the library, of which we can see 31; another source put the count at 70[21]. Interestingly, although Windus did not generally buy paintings directly from the artist, the hang in his library is remarkably similar to that in Turner’s gallery, even to the pictures propped at a slant on chairs.

As with the Petworth paintings, it is difficult to pin down responsibility for the choice of framing in the collections of patrons such as Fawkes and Nash.  The artist may have been involved, to a greater or lesser degree, in the decision; he may have stood back from the process, or (less likely) have chosen and obtained the frame himself.  Only the consistent emergence of two main types from the frames which remain to us, together with the evidence of his own gallery, indicate that Turner did sometime accept (and possibly orchestrate) his patrons’ preferences, that he used related patterns himself, and that he certainly produced his work in the knowledge of how it would be presented.

Turner’s Picture Frames: Part 2 > here

Turner’s Picture Frames: Part 3 > here

Most of the images included here are courtesy of the respective museums or owners, to whom I am extremely grateful; especially to those who took photos for me themselves, or otherwise alerted me to an original Turner frame.

[1] See The Oxford Companion to J.M.W.Turner, ed. Joll, Butlin and Herrmann, 2001.

[2]  The very early Turner Self-portrait, c.1791-93, Indianapolis Museum of Art, no longer seems to be in the frame shown hanging on the fireplace wall in a photo of Ruskin’s drawing room at Brantwood. Ruskin may have inherited the painting already framed from Turner’s housekeeper, Hannah Danby, since only two months after the latter’s death he was seeking a Latin inscription for the frame, which implicitly already existed; it is also possible that he had it framed later, since the Brantwood pattern has similarities to others on Turners in Ruskin’s collection (latter information from James Dearden, Guild of St George).

[3]  Information from Annie Ablett.

[4]  The Diary of Joseph Farington, ed. Kenneth Garlick & Angus Macintyre, 1979, vol.. VI, p. 2380.

[5]  With thanks to Peter Cannon-Brookes.

[6]  See the entry for Joseph Green, NPG website.

[7]  Ibid.

[8] High Street, Oxford (Loyd Collection, on loan to Ashmolean) and Oxford from the Abingdon Road (private collection). At least one of these, possibly both, has been reframed.

[9]  A leaf-tip ornament, also known as ‘lamb’s tongue’.

[10]  Information from Alistair Laing. Gerard’s address was 27, Church Street, Soho (now somewhere underneath Central St Giles, between Bucknall Street, Dyott Street and High Holborn); still relatively convenient for Turner’s studio if you didn’t mind crossing Oxford Street.

[11]  See David Esterly, ‘Can we trust the National Trust?’, The Telegraph, 16 November 2002.

[12] The parting of Hero and Leander, for example, pre-1837, National Gallery, London, may retain its original acanthus scotia frame.

[13]  See the pages on the court case over Turner’s will on the National Gallery website.

[14]  National Gallery Archives (NG5/129/1856).

[15]  Information from the late John Anderson.

[16] A new entrance from Queen Anne Street had been created for the Harley Street gallery in 1811.  The Oxford Companion to J.M.W.Turner, op.cit..

[17] John Gage, Colour in Turner: Poetry and Truth, London, 1969.

[18]  The Oxford Companion…, op. cit.

[19]  Ibid.

[20]  See Turner’s frames: Part 2 in this blog for Turner’s use of close-frames. Walter Fawkes’s exhibition at Grosvenor Place is reproduced in colour in D.Hill, Harewood masterpieces: English watercolours and drawings, Harewood House Trust, 1995.

[21]  The Oxford Companion…, op. cit.