What artists, critics & collectors say about frames: Part 2
We left Part 1 of this article in the company of Sir Thomas Lawrence, who was trying to persuade the redoubtable Mrs Gott that she would really enjoy finding room in her house for a pair of portraits, both surrounded by up to a foot of frame moulding on each side (that’s four feet extra, or 122 cm., if you hang them on the same wall…). The 19th century is the age of bossy artists.
In the time of Dello Delli (q.v., Part 1), the artist was the servant of the great, able to be commanded hither and thither just like any other tradesman or craftsman, on an equal footing with the framemaker. The 19th century is quite different. The artist has passed through the Romantic barrier, and is the prophet, the outsider, the one touched by Apollo, who expects kings and emperors to bend down and pick up his brushes (at the same time that he is trying to earn a comfortable competence). We are on the way to the princely painters of the later 19th century (Leighton, Alma-Tadema, Edwin Long), who built palaces of art in Kensington, and told their clients what to buy, where to hang it, upon which wallpaper, and what frame to order.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Bell Rock Lighthouse, 1819, watercolour & gouache, National Galleries of Scotland
One of the first examples of this in the 19th century comes in the letters of Turner. This is the Turner who has already, c.1801, tried to get an extra 20 guineas (on top of 250 guineas for the painting) out of his client to pay for the frame he has designed himself for his painting. It is now 1819, and Turner is writing to Robert Stevenson (grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson – Treasure Island), engineer to the Lighthouse Board for nearly 50 years, and the builder of the Bell Rock Lighthouse . Stevenson had commissioned Turner to paint the lighthouse for his pamphlet on its construction; this was to be engraved, and in Turner’s letter we find that he has just dispatched the watercolour of the lighthouse by boat to Leith, and is indicating that his normal engraver is too busy to deal with it.
Turner, sketch of frame profile for The Bell Rock Lighthouse, 1819, National Galleries of Scotland; from John Gage, ed., The collected correspondence of J.M.W. Turner, Oxford, 1980, p.79.
‘If you think of Framing my Drawing, do pray not leave so much margin as to the two Drawing[s] sent to me, and let a small flat of matted gold be next the same…’
…or, as a writer in The Builder observed in 1857, ‘Turner always contemplated the union of the gold of his colour with the gold of his frame…’
Although his drawing appears scrappy, it is extremely clear as to form and ornament: the profile is a hollow or concave frame, with a small ornament (husks?) on the top edge, an acanthus leaf or feather ogee-shaped moulding in the scotia, and the flat or mount with its small cavetto at the sight edge. When The Bell Rock Lighthouse was set in this design, it would have glowed: the blue-grey, green and golden tones of the painting would have harmonized with the close gold frame in a far happier marriage than if the outer frame had been separated by a neutral white or cream mount. Unfortunately, as noted in Turner’s Picture Frames: Part 2, when the watercolour left the protection of the Stevenson family for the National Galleries of Scotland in 1989, the original frame was taken off, and has now been lost to view.
Boxwood moulds, collection Paul Mitchell Ltd
Turner and Lawrence were in the first generation of artists for whom frames no longer had to be carved, labour-intensively, from wood, but could combine some carving with moulded composition ornament, or could be completely decorated with compo. The relative ease and cheapness of this process meant that the manufacture of frames altered radically in a fairly short time; and the 19th century saw the apparently unstoppable rise in the mass production of an item which had previously been – at its best – almost as much the result of careful design and expert craftsmanship as the art it contained. That skill was now channelled into carving the reverse boxwood moulds from which to produce compo ornament, and although these were beautifully-made objects in themselves, they had limits which carved wood did not. For example, it was impossible to produce ornament which was three-dimensional or undercut, so most compo motifs were relatively shallow compared with the wooden models they replaced. The loss of plasticity this caused was remedied by piling more ornament onto the various surfaces of the frame, producing an effect which was less sculptural and more embroidered, restless and busy (see the frame on Lawrence’s portrait of George IV, in Part 1). And the material itself, although drying out to an iron-hard finish, became brittle over time, cracking or flaking away from the frame.
Victorian compo frame
In 1868, when the dire effects of so many poorly-designed and rapidly-manufactured frames had become apparent, and the good and more expensive versions of compo patterns had been all but lost in a sea of cheap, brassy, off-the-peg frames, the designer Charles Locke Eastlake (1836-1906) attacked them in his Hints on household taste, which ran into several editions, and was notable for retrospectively supporting the innovations in framing of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Charles Locke Eastlake, Hints on household taste, London, 1st ed. 1868.
Charles L. Eastlake on picture frames, from the 1872 (3rd ed.) of Hints on household taste:
‘Now the use of a picture frame is obvious. It has to give additional strength to the light ‘strainer’ of wood over which paper or canvas is stretched. It may also have to hold glass securely over the picture. Lastly, it has on its outer face to form a border which, while ornamental in itself, shall tend, by dividing the picture from surrounding objects, to confine the eye of the spectator within its limits. These conditions seem simple enough, but how frequently are they violated in modern work! The outer frame, instead of being made of oak or some other tough wood, is too frequently constructed of deal strips lightly glued together. In place of carving, the wood is overlaid with a species of composition moulded into wretched forms, which pass for ornament as soon as they are gilded. These are so brittle that, instead of protecting the picture, they have to be handled more carefully than the glass itself, and are liable to chip at the slightest blow. Finally, instead of confining attention to the picture, this sort of frame distracts the eye by its fussiness. Now, gilding on a picture-frame is not only justifiable by way of ornament, but is much to be recommended as a foil or neutral ground for enhancing the value of colour; but it ought to be laid directly on the wood, without any intervening composition; and if any ornament in relief is attempted, it should be carved in the solid material. The effect of oak-grain seen through leaf-gold is exceedingly good, and the appearance of texture thus produced is infinitely more interesting than the smooth monotony of gilt ‘compo’…
… It is a practice with many artists of the rising English school to design their own frames for the pictures which they exhibit, and some excellent specimens may now and again be seen on the walls of the Royal Academy, and at the Old Water-Colour Society’s Rooms… Decorators, unless directed otherwise, invariably make frames with what is called a ‘mitred’ joint – that is, a joint which runs across the wood diagonally at each angle. This is really bad work. The old joiners, who well understood their business, made frames as they made a door, with straight joints properly pinned through. Heavy mouldings, except for a large frame, are to be avoided. Whenever they are introduced, they should slope back from the surface of the picture towards the wall behind, and not forward, so as to throw a shadow onto the picture…’
Eastlake’s description of the good, the bad and the ugly in mid-19th century framing is interesting both for what it reprobates and for what it condemns. It is more radical than even the Pre-Raphaelites themselves, since they did use compo ornament as well as carved wood; they employed what Eastlake calls ‘straight’ or butt joints at the corners of the oak mounts (or cuffs) within their frames, but they continued to use mitred joints for the outer mouldings; and they preferred frames which are in section flat (architrave frames), canted inwards, or designed with a prominent top moulding on the outside and lower mouldings within (variations on an entablature frame). What Eastlake describes as mouldings which ‘slope back from the surface of the picture towards the wall’, and which we would call ‘bolection frames’ do not seem to figure in their designs much, if at all. His notes however provide an early critical assessment of the state of framing in Victorian Britain, and a guide for the proliferating middle classes, who aspired to decorate their houses in fashionable but good taste.
The artists who had provided the inspiration and material for this guide were, of course, the Pre-Raphaeilte Brotherhood.
WA1894.8 Sir John Everett Millais, The return of the dove to the ark, 1851,
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.
Millais, letter to Thomas Combe, April 1851, on The return of the dove to the Ark:
‘…I shall design (when it returns from the Academy) a frame suitable to the subject – olive leaves, and a dove at each corner holding the branch in its mouth.
I have designed a frame for Charles’ painting of ‘Lilies’, which, I expect, will be acknowledged to be the best frame in England. To get ‘The Dove’ as good as possible, I shall have a frame made to my own design.’
John Guille Millais, Life & letters of Sir John Everett Millais, London, 1899.
Millais’s frame design for Charles Collins’s 1850-51 Convent thoughts is an early and pioneering adventure which appears modern even today: its flat, minimalist structure contrasting almost shockingly with the bastardized ‘NeoLouis’ patterns which Eastlake was attacking. Unfortunately, his design for his own frame was either never completed, or the doves were subsequently removed by Combe (which seems highly unlikely). Millais never continued, like his fellow Pre-Raphaelites, to produce innovatory frame designs in his later career, which is a great pity, as this debut was so imaginative. It seems probable that it was catalyzed by his close connection at this point with Brown, Rossetti and Holman Hunt, rather than being an innate interest as it was for them, and that, as he moved away from the Brotherhood, his enthusiasm for design also fell away.
For Ford Madox Brown, the enthusiasm for frame design was a real, early and lasting one…
Ford Madox Brown, Lear & Cordelia, 1849-54, Tate
Ford Madox Brown, letter to James Leathart, 16 Jan.1863, on his painting, Lear & Cordelia:
‘Green writes me that the frame itself may be ready Monday, but then I must see it before I can arrange how the lettering is to be done, and I believe you expressed an opinion that the spandrels of the arch ought to be filled in with inscriptions… The frame is a combination of one I designed with Rossetti’s thumb-mark pattern…’
Ford Madox Brown, letter to James Leathart, 8 Feb.1863:
‘…I am glad the frame of King Lear is so much to your taste – I had told Green to employ all or any of my patterns, as it might spread a taste for a different kind of thing from the debased article now in use – However it would be a wise thing to register the best – only I fear the impossibility of ever getting up the requisite energy to effect it…’
See Mary Bennett, Ford Madox Brown: A Catalogue Raisonné, Yale University Press, 2010
Ford Madox Brown was the pioneer and model for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the matter of frame design. He had already produced a Gothic pattern for The first translation of the Bible into English: Wycliffe, 1847-48, by the time he accepted Rossetti (briefly) as a student, and his subsequent partnership with Rossetti in designing many of the frames which are seen as archetypally Pre-Raphaelite was a long and fruitful one. They shared the patterns which they devised between them, writing letters to each other about the use of reeded or fluted borders, the width of the flat (or mount or cuff), the possible introduction of a black sight edge, the roundels they employed on the reeded bands (“The ornaments on the circles to be all of the chefs-square and wheel kind”), and the inner mouldings (“instead of arrow moulding, this – [diagram”).
Ford Madox Brown, Lear & Cordelia, 1849-54, Tate; top left-hand corner of frame
The ‘arrow moulding’ can be seen on Brown’s frame for Lear…; it is the small rope-like run of Vs and dots immediately inside the triangular top moulding with semicircular indentations, which he calls ‘Rossetti’s thumb-mark pattern’. The latter is set on the top of a stepped and canted outer moulding, which itself reflects the wide fluted bevel at the sight edge of the gilt mount. This opposition of geometric forms – reeds, flutes, steps, flat and canted planes, circles and squares – is central to Brown’s and Rossetti’s early designs, and continued to inform Brown’s frames throughout his career. It is also – like Millais’s lily frame – at the furthest remove from the ‘species of composition moulded into wretched forms, which pass for ornament’ to which Eastlake would object in print five years later – or, as Brown put it, ‘the debased article now in use’. It is, as it were, anti-Victorian (as we tend to think of Victorian ornament today), and could almost be seen as an early incarnation of Art Deco.
It was so radical that it began to be copied quite rapidly; we find Rossetti writing to his brother, William Michael Rossetti, on 14 Aug 1861:
“Dixon had the coolness to write to me the other day, wanting the proper measurements and mode of making for oak frames!’
Thomas Dixon, a protégé of Ruskin, must have wanted to know something an ordinary framemaker could not easily tell him – i.e. something unusual, like the use of butt jointed gilt oak mounts. This explains Brown’s remark to Leathart in the letter of 8 February 1863, above, that ‘it would be a wise thing to register the best’ of his and Rossetti’s frame patterns.
Ford Madox Brown, Oure Ladye of Good Children, 1847-61, Tate; reframed for Leathart in1864
Ford Madox Brown, letter to James Leathart, 12 July1864, on the frame for Oure Ladye of Good Children:
‘I forgot to say that the frame can be ready to send off this week… It only came back Saturday & then there was the gold to be toned down, which with these oak frames I have to get done by my assistant – Also the lettering which I have had to do – & 22 circles to be filled in with outlines of angels I have designed it (the angel) & it is now being drawn in – but I find it may take my pupil 2 or 3 days yet…’ [the pupil was probably Albert Goodwin].
Ford Madox Brown, Oure Ladye of Good Children, bottom right corner detail
This frame is much more Brown’s than Rossetti’s: it blends the Nazarene style of Brown’s pre-Brotherhood work in the 1840s with the re-imagined Northern Netherlandish and Flemish patterns which inspired Pre-Raphaelite designs in the 1850s-60s. So it has a gilt oak mount with arched sight, Gothic lettering, Brown’s fluted bevel at the sight edge, roundels painted with angels’ heads, and a polished oak outer frame with Brown’s canted & stepped profile. The roundels, with the Holy Ghost in the top centre and the 22 angels all angled to look at the Christ Child, are reminiscent of the painted roundels on the frame of Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna, 1285, which Brown might have seen in Santa Maria Novella, Florence (now Galleria degli Uffizi). The composition of the painting has similarities to elements of Duccio’s, including the throne, the pose of Madonna and Child, and the central pair of Duccio’s angels. This distillation of Italian Gothic, the Northern Renaissance, and the avant-garde spirit of Pre-Raphaelite design, has produced the perfect devotional work in the spirit of the 19th century Oxford Movement.
Henry Treffry Dunn (DGR’s assistant), letter to William Michael Rossetti, 10 Sept.1872:
‘The “Beatrice” has been got out of the mucky state in which it was, & now looks a very good copy. I have suggested one or two things which will improve it… The predella is now occupying his attention in order that Ford & D. may have the order for its construction as early as possible. I am making a drawing of the frame for them to work from.’
From Gale Pedrick, Life with Rossetti, or No Peacocks Allowed, 1964
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, c.1864-70, Tate
This replica of Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (c.1864-70) in the Tate was commissioned by the Glasgow MP William Graham in 1871, who pleaded for it, saying that the original had ‘appealed to my feeling above and beyond any picture I ever saw’. After the initial commission, Graham apparently asked for the predella structure, with the lower scene depicting Dante’s encounter with Beatrice in the Purgatorio. The frame is very similar but not identical to that of the original, most notably in the symbolic medallions which decorate the canted frieze. The bottom medallion of the Tate’s version, showing the earth and sea, has been moved to the top centre; the rising sun occluded by clouds has moved from the top to the left-hand side, where it balances the moon & stars, now on the right side; and the clouds and stars roundel from the left-hand side of the original is now multiplied into two medallions, which are set at the bottom corners of the frame. The disposition of five medallions gives more stability to a taller, narrower structure, and reflects the added symbolic content of the painting given by the predella. There is a further inscription on this frame, on the bottom rail: ‘Mart. Die 31 Anno 1300/ Veni Sponsa di Libano’; this call, ‘Come, O bride of Lebanon’, increases the distancing effect which has been observed from the much more personal effect of the Tate picture, painted in memorial of Rossetti’s dead wife.
Dunn’s letter, quoted above, shows how success and pressure of work had caused Rossetti – just as with Ford Madox Brown and Albert Goodwin, who painted the angels on the frame of Oure Ladye of Good Children – to take an assistant, who could help not only with the more mundane work of the studio, but take over the design and ordering of frames, under Rossetti’s direction, and also deal with lettering the inscriptions.
Rossetti, letter to Henry Treffry Dunn, 1874:
‘I think you are quite right about frame of Annunciation which must be hideous and will see to it after Graham gets it. I have written to him to be persuaded… F & D are making the frame for this Leyland picture [Dis manibus, or The Roman Widow] and have promised it me faithfully by the 15th May. There is a tablet for the inscription Dis Manibus and much trouble would be saved if you would kindly just write it on the tablet at Wardour Street.’
In 1874 William Graham bought Rossetti’s Ecce ancilla domini (1850; the ‘Annunciation’) at Christie’s, for £388.10s., and brought it back to Rossetti for restretching and retouching. At this point it was still framed in one of Rossetti’s very early designs; it probably had an arched sight, as the exposed surface was originally larger on the right side and at the top, and it was inscribed with Latin ‘mottoes’, according to William Michael Rossetti. This was obviously a Gothic frame, created under the influence of Ford Madox Brown’s Nazarene-ish patterns, and when it was shown in the Free Exhibition of April 1850 it was attacked in the Athenaeum for its Catholic tendencies and its
‘…unintelligent imitation of the technicalities of old art – golden glories, fanciful scribblings on the frames, and other infantine absurdities’.
(Quoted by William Michael Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His family letters, 1895)
In the letter to Dunn, quoted above, Rossetti is taking the first step, sadly, to reframing Ecce ancilla in its present reed-&-roundel frame, having not seen it for more than twenty years (it was purchased by Francis McCraken in 1853, at which point it was retitled The Annunciation, to ‘guard against the imputation of popery’).
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Dis manibus, c.1874, Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico
Rossetti is simultaneously juggling, in the same letter, with the framing of a picture from a much later era: Dis manibus was painted almost a quarter of a century after Ecce ancilla…, and was being set into one of Rossetti’s medallion frames, which he used from 1868/71 until his death in 1882. The patterns of the medallions, like tranversely-cut fruit, carry an ambiguous symbolism relating to love, lust, fertility, seduction or death: in this case love and loss, as with Proserpine – the most salient use of this frame (see A final look at Pre-Raphaelite frames ).
Dis manibus was one of the women-&-music paintings favoured by F.R. Leyland, and destined for his house at 49 Prince’s Gate (see Poetry & the frame…); but the letter also confirms that its frame was being made by Foord & Dickinson, and that Dunn was once more in charge of lettering the title on the tablet. He was also told to do this in the framemakers’ workshop, which must have been fraught with some embarrassment and difficulty; but such, at this point, were the ways of artists.
Rossetti, letter to Henry Treffry Dunn, 1874:
‘F and D have at last sent the frame [for Dis manibus] – And I think though the picture is a shadow one in a certain sense, I never painted anything so luminous… The frame seems to melt into the fair mellow tone of the picture. Thanks for the inscription. I think for the future, the initial letters had better be the same size as the rest.’
From Gale Pedrick, Life with Rossetti, or No Peacocks Allowed, 1964
…and what better summation could you have, of the successful marriage of picture with frame? ‘The frame seems to melt into the fair mellow tone of the picture.’ However, there were also rather more fraught marriages in Rossetti’s career, and the next work is one of those:
Rossetti, La bello mano, 1875, Samuel & Mary R. Bancroft Collection, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington
Rossetti, letter to Henry Treffry Dunn, c.1875:
‘If there is no lacquering (or whatever the colour matter is called) visible on the frame now, it has been washed off or else the frame regilded. The reddish colour was very visible, stagnated in all the hollows and the mouldings when it was here… However, if you approve the gilding I will so far take the frame (as I judge it must have been regilt) but the pattern on the flat must be set right. If that is done I will take the frame… Of course, I suppose this would involve regilding the lower part of the flat.
You will see by enclosed letter …from B… that he there undertakes to make another new frame if necessary…
However, it is evident that F & D are the only frame makers!’
Enclosed letter (mentioned by Rossetti) from L.Bertram to Rossetti:
‘I have the frame before me now and fail to discover the slightest fault in it every possible pain was bestowed upon it from beginning to finish, there is not one spot of lacquer on it and is not gilt with inferior gold but the very best procurable. The punched design on the flat I consider the best I have ever done in my life, in fact the frame is a perfect specimen of good workmanship and materials of unsurpassed quality; if it was actually necessary to alter and regild as you desire the simpler plan would be to prepare a fresh frame altogether, this I would willingly do for you but in the first place I certainly could not produce a better one, secondly, I do not like to venture another frame being thrown on my hands. I do not suppose I shall ever sell the frame as it is not a regular size, but I can show it without fear as a specimen of my work of which I feel not a little proud and conscious. You cannot get a better go where you may. I express to you my unfeigned regret at not being able to please you…’
La bello mano seems to have the only example of a ‘Watts’ frame with a punched foliate frieze of around the right date to fit in with these letters; and one does wonder whether the atypical leaves in the corners have been put there to hide Mr Bertram’s deficiencies. This is a fascinating and very rare exchange between an artist and his framemaker, and all the more because it’s caused by dissatisfaction, and poor Mr Bertram has been forced to plead his corner (and possibly protest too much). Rossetti had a continual reversion to a sort of low level grumble about the cost of frames, and switched to various firms –
‘I lately had a lot of frames of the lighter kind made by Stewart and Brown… who are supposed to be cheap. I now get their bill, which seems higher than Foord and Dickinson’s…’
(letter to F.M. Brown, summer, 1873) –
He always however returned to Foord & Dickinson, because – as he acknowledges here – ‘ F & D are the only frame makers!’ In 1877 he would warn F.R. Leyland that ‘I have lately charged frames to the purchasers’, which solved the problem, and allowed him in 1881 to perpetrate the joke of The Blessed Damozel’s vast and overblown Baroque aedicule on Leyland (see Poetry & the frame…). ‘L. Bertram’ is almost certainly Frederick Bartram, used in 1871 both by Rossetti (for repairing a cabinet) and by Millais; for further details, see the NPG Directory of British Picture Framemakers.
Holman Hunt, The finding of the Saviour in the Temple, 1854-55, Birmingham City Art Gallery
‘Millais came with me to the gallery Gambert’s [sic; for Gambart’s] on the morning of the first public day; it was early, and we were alone, my friend was full of generous recognition without limit, and said of ‘The Temple’ picture (when seen for the first time in its frame designed by myself with ivory flat, in what I meant to be semi-barbaric splendour) that the work looked ‘like a jewel in a gorgeous setting’.’
From William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism & the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, London, 1905.
Again, like Rossetti’s verdict on his own Dis manibus, Millais’s words sum up the perfect relationship of frame and painting. The symbolic motifs on the wide frieze are woven into a complex, stylized pattern which imitates conventional ornaments, such as guilloche, Greek fret and floral paterae in the corners; the silhouette is a remembrance of the church-like silhouettes of Gothic and Renaissance aedicular frames; the ‘ivory flat’ with its texts in careful gilt lettering is analogous to predella panels and friezes inscribed with Biblical quotations. Hunt – like Ford Madox Brown and his reimagined Gothic frame for Oure Ladye of Good Children – has managed to transform the Renaissance sacra conversazione, with its classical aedicule, symbols and texts, into a Biblical image for the 19th century.
Holman Hunt, frame for the engraving of The finding of the Saviour in the Temple, 1867, published by Ernest Gambart; this version in gilded oak. Photo with thanks to Christie’s
Frederick Stephens (an original member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; later an art critic):
‘Even the very frame was not without its demands upon the thought of the painter. One side of this, occupied by the cross-staff that sustained the brazen serpent, which twines itself about the head, is typical of the olden Law of Moses, – of the sacrifice and substitution of an animal; on the other a cross of thorns, with a garland of flowers about it, expresses the New Law. The centre is surmounted by the sun at full glory, and the moon eclipsed; the space from this to the corners is filled up with stars. At the foot a diaper of heartseases, the symbols of peace, – and daisies, – of humility, devotion, as well as universality.’
From F.G. Stephens, William Holman Hunt and his works, London, 1860
The finding of the Saviour… and its frame were an early instance (like Lord Byron) of charismatic celebrity, attracting massive public interest, generating huge sums of money, and even going on tour. Rather than being exhibited at the Royal Academy, it was initially put on show in Gambart’s London gallery, where Hunt went with Millais to see it (as above); a month later it had been sold to Gambart for the astonishing sum (in 1860) of £5,500, including the copyright. This was, however, a canny deal: Gambart charged a shilling to see the painting (hundreds of thousands of visitors turned up), and took orders in advance for the engraving, which was brought out in 1867. Stephens published an explanatory pamphlet, and this went on sale as the painting toured the provinces of Britain and Ireland (the exhibition of the painting alone apparently made about £4,000). Thousands of copies of the engraving were sold, all over the world: Gambart ordered 10,00 prints to be sold at 5 guineas each, 1,000 proofs at 12 guineas, and 1-2,000 artist’s proofs at 15 guineas. A number of the latter will have had the special frame adapted by Stephens from Hunt’s original frame for the painting; the example above is gilded on the oak, but other less costly versions were made in stained oak. Originally these frames also seem to have had a gilded inner slip, on which were inscribed the texts Hunt had used on the ivory insert of the painting. This is an unusual example of an artist’s designed frame for a single work being itself reproduced and achieving a life which reached beyond the collector’s or the public gallery.
WA1894.6 William Holman Hunt, Plain of Esdraelon from the Heights above Nazareth
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.
Letter to F.G. Stephens, 1 March1877, from Jerusalem:
‘I send you two designs for frames which ought to be put in hand at once. The smaller one which is on blue paper is for a watercolour. It is half the dimensions of the frame… It is to be of composition not of wood and to be of matt gold – so Green of Charles St. may be the best gilder and maker unless you find a better. The other is for an oil picture and is to be either wood or composition. Hughes’ carver Mr Goodison may be able to carve it in which case let it be wood. If not please go to Greens and ask them whether they can do it in wood; one of the men there carves in after hours. If he can do it well, if not let it be done in composition. Ask the price first for carving alone and for this and gilding without saying it is for me. The small frame to have reddish coloured gold. I will send the sketch for the chain pattern by next post…’
Detail from frame of Plain of Esdraelon from the Heights above Nazareth, & Owen Jones, The grammar of ornament, 1856, Plate XXXIII: two details
The oil painting in question is The Plain of Esdraelon from the Heights above Nazareth; the ‘chain pattern’ and the compo motif in the roundels are respectively identical to, and reminiscent of, Plate XXXIII in Owen Jones’s The grammar of ornament, 1856, which Hunt had used for the frame of The lantern-maker’s courtship in 1861. Hunt sketched architectural and ornamental details all over the place, however, so he is just as likely to have found the same motifs in Jerusalem. The instructions to Frederick Stephens as to the two frames are extremely precise in terms of material and finish, and demonstrate the degree of control which Hunt exerted – even at long distance – over the final appearance of his frames, in order to harmonize them with the paintings.
His memory of people was rather less precise, however: by 1877, Joseph Green had been dead for 3-and-a-half years or more, and his business had been taken over by W.A Smith 6 years earlier – a man who was ‘shifty and mysterious’, in Rossetti’s words. Certainly Hunt must have some sense of this shiftiness, to warn Stephens against letting the fact come out that the frames were for the rich and successful Holman Hunt. Arthur Hughes’s carver was actually a Mr Goodwin, a carpenter who could produce carved frames in oak for a similar price to compo patterns; he was the brother of Albert Goodwin, the artist – the same assistant who drew the angels on Ford Madox Brown’s frame of Oure Ladye of Good Children (for more information, see the NPG Directory of British Picture Framemakers). Hunt wanted good craftsmen to make his frames; he wanted carved wood where possible, and he wanted rich matte gold (in various tints); he also wanted to get these labour-intensive, individually-sculpted objects for as reasonable a price as possible.
Holman Hunt, The Miracle of the Holy Fire, 1892-99, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard Museums
‘The Holy Fire picture was approaching completion. I designed in the pediment of the frame the seven-branched candlestick as a symbol of religious truth for the illumination of the people… On the base I designed two scrolls, upon which is written a description of the strange incidents of the ceremony…’
From William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism & the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, London, 1905.
Hunt was about 72 when he got to this point, but was still beavering away, designing frames tailored to the specific paintings he was working on. The loss of this one is perhaps particularly sad, since it was such a late design, contemporary with The Lady of Shalott’s remarkable frame. It was evidently made in a temple-like form like The finding of the Saviour…, but possibly with a more pronouncedly Renaissance type of pediment. The seven-branched candlestick may well have been adapted from the one he had designed for The scapegoat, more than forty years before.
Holman Hunt, The scapegoat, 1854-56, Lady Lever Gallery, Port Sunlight
The painting (and its frame) stayed in the Holman Hunt family until 1931, when it was sold by the artist’s son Hilary. Five years later it was acquired by Grenville L. Winthrop (when the frame was apparently still on it), and shipped to America, where in 1942 it was given to the Fogg. Somewhere between its sale to Winthrop and the 1980s, the frame was taken off and replaced with a reproduction Louis XIV-style pattern. The sad coda to this story is that (as with Burne-Jones’s Days of Creation, also removed from their artist-designed frame, probably also by Grenville Winthrop), the artist’s inscriptions remain, like a pathetic poem, on the back of the painting:
Upper left panel of the stretcher: ‘The picture was relined by Mr Reeve May 1906
Varnished with amber varnish diluted with rectified
Henceforth let (not less than 30 years) let another coat of the same be used if necessary.
The picture should always be under glass & pasted in behind.
by direction of W. Holman Hunt.’
Centre of right stretcher bar: ‘Painting not to be taken out of frame.’
Centre of left stretcher bar: ‘was not
of [sic] frame.’
Inscription noted by Melissa Katz, Conservation, Fogg Art Museum
This lack of value set on the picture frame generally – even if to the artist’s own design – has been replicated in so many institutions; it is echoed by a sentence from the late 19th century in the National Gallery Archives:
NG Archives, Minutes 22 May 1883:
‘The Keeper reported that with the director’s sanction
it was intended to dispose of a number of disused
picture frames most of which had been lying for many
years in one of the ground floor rooms of the gallery
and a tender for the value of the frames had been
obtained from Messrs Dolman – framemakers to the gallery.’
However, this is rather a bleak note on which to end Part 2 of this article, so here is Rossetti, being pretty upbeat about a picture frame:
Part 3 of this article will deal with the French 19th century & the Impressionists, as well as the Aesthetes, for whom there was no space in Part 2.
Part 1 is > here
My thanks to all the people and institutions who have allowed me to use their images; some have been particularly generous, in the matter of size and swiftness of response; and especial thanks, again, to Alastair Johnson of Tate.
Read more Pre-Raphaelite posts on The Frame Blog:
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
Love in the frame: the portraits & frames of John Brett > here
Two Pre-Raphaelite paintings from the Leverhulme Collection> here
Poetry & the frame: May morning on Magdalen Tower > here
A Victorian Obsession…The Pérez Simón Collection > here