Thomas Gainsborough and picture framing

by The Frame Blog

Jacob Simon, Research Fellow at the National Portrait Gallery,  examines the approach of the artist and his patrons to framing his work during the different periods of his career, in Suffolk, Bath, and London, as well as later reframings. This article was first published on the NPG website.


Gainsborough’s career as a portrait and landscape painter can readily be summarised. At the age of thirteen in 1740 he left Sudbury in Suffolk to study in London under Hubert Gravelot, later working with Francis Hayman. He set up studio in Hatton Garden in the mid-1740s, returning to his native Suffolk in 1749 where he worked as a professional painter in Sudbury and Ipswich, moving to Bath in 1759 and then to London in 1774. He exhibited with the Society of Artists in London from 1761 until 1768 and was a founding member of the Royal Academy in 1768. He showed his pictures at the Academy from 1769 to 1772, at the Free Society of Artists in 1773, and again at the Royal Academy from 1777 until 1783, withdrawing altogether in 1784 following a final dispute on the hanging of his pictures. Gainsborough died in 1788 at the age of 61.

It was common practice at the period for portrait painters to send out much of their work ready-framed, and this seems to have been Gainsborough’s practice, not only with more modest commissions but also for some grander portraits and his exhibition landscapes. His frames, like those of his contemporaries, developed in line with changing taste. His early portraits and landscapes, from the relatively few works which retain their original frames, were generally given traditional corner or centre-&-corner frames, often ornamented with foliage or Rococo detailing. It is not clear how many of his pictures received frames in a fully-developed Rococo style. From the 1760s, many of his portraits were housed in Maratta frames, although this style seems to have been used less often for his landscapes. A shift in taste in the 1770s saw the increased use of other distinctive patterns, some more NeoClassical in style, as described below.

There is still much to learn concerning Gainsborough’s taste in framing. Such a study is complicated by the workings of the marketplace. As a general rule, the more celebrated the artist and the more traded their work, the more likely it is for the frames to have been replaced. A fuller study would require an examination of Gainsborough’s frames from behind to ascertain which can really claim to be original to the pictures. What this essay seeks to do is to take an initial look at Gainsborough’s practice in picture framing and at the approach of his patrons, at the documentation and some of the original frames by period: Ipswich, Bath and London, and at the later reframing of his work.

Gainsborough’s practice in framing pictures

It is a commonplace that some patrons have chosen to arrange their own framing while others have relied on the artist. But which of his pictures did Gainsborough frame? This is not an easy question to answer but let us look at his showroom practice in displaying his pictures, and at the framing of his portraits and landscapes.

Like other portrait painters, Gainsborough maintained a showroom where visitors to his premises might admire his pictures. And like some other leading artists, Gainsborough would sometimes paint a portrait without commission, especially if the sitter was well-known, knowing that it would hang in his showroom. Such works would usually have been displayed framed to meet the artist’s taste. As such, a patron wanting to select a frame would have been able to examine various styles which would have had the general approval of the artist.

With portrait commissions, many if not most patrons will have wanted Gainsborough to arrange for framing as a matter of convenience (as we can demonstrate to be the case with George Romney, a better-documented artist than Gainsborough). So that, for example, we find Gainsborough writing to the Colchester lawyer, William Mayhew, in February 1758:

‘I shall finish your picture and send to Colchester according to your order, with a frame’.

Gainsborough (1727-88), Louisa, Lady Clarges, 1778, Victoria Gallery, frame probably added later, on loan to Holburne Museum, Bath

Receipt from Gainsborough for payment of ‘sixty-five guineas in full for a portrait of Lady Clarges and a frame’, 7 August 1778, Kenneth W. Rendell II Inc.

The few surviving receipts of the following twenty years allow one to identify three Members of Parliament who chose to have their portraits framed by the artist: Richard Stevens in 1762 and 1768, Clement Tudway in 1773 and Sir Thomas Clarges in 1778. On a grander scale, in October 1771 Gainsborough was paid for framing his full-length portrait of Captain William Wade, Master of Ceremonies at Bath. This portrait was shown first at the Royal Academy in 1771 and then in the new Assembly Rooms at Bath; its distinctive frame is described below.

On occasion Gainsborough would throw in the cost of the frame with a portrait as a gesture, typical of his generosity to his friends and connections, as he did with a portrait of David Garrick for the actor’s business adviser, James Clutterbuck, in 1771, and that of the surgeon, Philip Ditcher, in 1779, where Gainsborough presented both picture and frame in return for medical services.

Gainsborough (1727-88), George IV as Prince of Wales, 1781, o/c, 250.1 x 186 cm., Waddesdon

After Gainsborough’s death, his wife was paid by the Prince of Wales for framing two of his portraits: a full length with a horse, framed relatively inexpensively at £10.13s and exhibited in 1782 before being sent by the Prince to General St Leger in 1789 (Waddesdon), and a smaller portrait, evidently richly framed at £7.7s (double Gainsborough’s normal charge), sent to Lady Courtown in 1781 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, as by Gainsborough Dupont). This instance is instructive because it would appear that the Prince of Wales had his own pictures specially framed to order but chose to let Gainsborough frame some of the portraits he sent out as gifts.

Special framing requirements could cause difficulties. In the case of the fastidious Richard Stevens, Gainsborough was asked to arrange for an unusual pattern to be copied:

‘I had the Frames made at the time I received your first Letter with the Drawing’, the artist wrote, ‘and though doubtless there may appear some small difference upon immediate comparison with that it is design’d to match, yet the dimensions being pretty exact, I hope it will pass’.

This letter of September 1767 concerned a portrait of Stevens’s sister, Mrs Awse. Three weeks later Gainsborough sent in the bill, explaining the cost:

‘I this morning paid the Frame-maker, and am sorry to say that I think it a dear one, but he says the trouble he had in working after a limitted scale & pattern in drawing Occasion’d the additional charge; he set it at four Guineas, and for 3 Guineas & ½ I have the Burnishd Gold sort.’

This figure of 3 ½ guineas (£3.13s.6d) for a ‘burnished gold’ frame for a 30 x 25 inch portrait seems to have been his standard charge in the 1760s, similar in cost to the frames supplied by Sir Joshua Reynolds and George Romney. This was not the first time Gainsborough had worked for Stevens; in 1762 he had written concerning a recently completed portrait:

‘I have put it into the sort of Frame which you was pleasd to order, which comes to two Guineas’.

This lower price suggests a relatively modest frame without much carving, perhaps one of the simpler patterns Gainsborough may have had on display in his showroom.

Gainsborough will have been responsible for framing up most of his own landscapes, since they were generally painted without commission, and would need to be framed before being sent to the annual exhibitions of the Society of Artists and the Royal Academy. This is well-documented in a letter he wrote to the Hon. Edward Stratford, later 2nd Earl of Aldborough, in March 1771,

‘I am daubing away for the Exhibition with all my might and have done two large Landskips which will be in two handsome frames’.

Gainsborough went on to suggest that Stratford might purchase the landscapes, ‘the best I ever did’, and clearly the ‘handsome frames’ were part of his sales pitch. But Stratford was more concerned about Gainsborough’s tardiness in completing his own commission for portraits, as the artist explained to a friend the following February,

‘Stratford is damnably out of humour about his Pictures not being finished because the Frames hang up in his best Visiting Room in readiness’.

Pictures framed by Gainsborough’s patrons

Gainsborough’s wealthier patrons often chose to order their own frames. Indeed the grander the picture, the richer the patron, the more likely it seems to have been for the client to arrange his own framing: the Earl of Breadalbane in 1763, the Duke of Bedford in 1764, 1768 and 1769, the Earl of Dartmouth in 1769 and the Dukes of Dorset and Northumberland in 1784 are all examples where Gainsborough billed his patrons for portraits without frames. It is not possible to draw firm conclusions from the limited number of surviving bills and receipts, some twenty in all, but it does seem that wealthy patrons, often noblemen, would generally arrange their own framing, as is indicated by the absence of any reference to framing in the receipts. This is in contrast to the three Members of Parliament, referred to above, who chose to get the artist to frame their pictures. Of course there is no simple divide of this kind but the situation is not dissimilar to what we know of framing practices more generally.

To take the example of the 3rd Earl of Breadalbane, he commissioned portraits from many artists over a thirty-year period and normally arranged his own picture framing, firstly with William Waters, and then from 1764 with another London maker, Crawford of Compton Street. At Corsham in 1778 Paul Methuen (an MP who was dangling for a peerage) used Thomas Allwood, another London maker, to frame a number of pictures, possibly including that by Gainsborough of his son.

Gainsborough (1727-88), 2nd Earl of Buckingham, 1784, o/c, 234 x 145.5 cm., and detail, Blickling Hall, Norfolk NT

Solomon Hudson (1741-1829), pier glass, 1782, 361 x 158 cm., and detail reflecting Gainsborough’s portrait of the 2nd Earl in matching frame, Blickling Hall, Norfolk NT

At Blickling in 1784 Gainsborough’s full-lengths of the 2nd Earl and Countess of Buckinghamshire were reframed using enriched Maratta frames by Solomon Hudson of Great Titchfield St, matching the pier glass frames supplied by the same maker. The 3rd Duke of Dorset, owner of Knole, in 1778 paid the artist 80 guineas each for three landscapes and a further 100 guineas in 1784 for six works including two landscapes. Interestingly, in March 1790, after Gainsborough’s death, the Duke was billed £21 by Foxhall & Son (the reading of the name is uncertain) for

‘two carlmarat [ Carlo Maratta ] Frames Carv’d & gilt in Burnish Gold for two landscapes by Gainsborough’.

The aristocracy were not the only patrons who chose to frame their own portraits. In 1769 Gainsborough’s whole-length of David Garrick, painted for the Stratford Shakespeare Jubilee but lost in a fire, was provided with a Maratta frame at £12.12s, together with an ‘ornament’ to the frame, presumably an elaborate cresting, in burnished gold, at the very high price of £56.2s, making £68.14s in all, exceeding the artist’s charge for the portrait of £63.

Gainsborough (1727-88), Sir Charles Gould, exh. RA 1783, o/c, 89 ¾ x 60 ins (228 x 152.5 cm.), Christie’s, 14 June 2005, Lot 11, commissioned by the Equitable Life Assurance Society in 1782

In the 1780s two City institutions turned to Gainsborough for full-lengths of their officers: the Equitable Life Assurance Society for Sir Charles Gould, painted in 1782 at £105, with a frame at £14.14s, supplied by William Flaxman, and the Haberdashers’ Company for Jerome Knapp in 1787 at £126, a price which was intended to be ‘exclusive of a Carlo Maratti frame’, which was supplied by ‘Mr Flaxman, Carver and Gilder’ for £16.12s.2d (the picture is now in a modern frame). The carver and wax modeller, William Flaxman, John Flaxman’s elder brother, worked from addresses in Covent Garden, St Martin’s Lane and Soho. Was he chosen to frame these portraits by the patron in each case, or could there be a link through the artist?

Gainsborough (1727-88), The Charterhouse, 1748; and hanging in the Court Room (beside James Wills, Little children brought to Christ, 1746), the Foundling Museum, London

A picture might be intended for a particular architectural setting, as with Gainsborough’s small roundel, The Charterhouse of 1748, painted for the Court Room at the Foundling Hospital where it remains as one of eight such landscapes in very fine carved and gilt oak-leaf-and-acorn frames, billed on 15 November 1746 at £11.4s (‘For 8 Carved Oval Frames for Pictures’) by the leading cabinetmaker, William Hallett senior (c.1707-81), grandfather of Gainsborough’s sitter in The Morning Walk almost thirty years later.

Gainsborough (1727-88), ‘The White Lady’ (Portrait of Ann Portman), c.1765; courtesy of the Trustees of the Portman Settled Estates

Appearances can be deceptive, however; the striking Rococo frame on the full-length portrait, Mrs Henry Portman of 1764-5, which might seem to be contemporary, is in fact a composite made up of more than one frame of uncertain date.

Frames within frames

Gainsborough’s awareness of picture framing is reflected in his unusual practice of featuring a framed painting, generally a ‘Gainsborough’ landscape, in the background of some of his larger portraits, a device which other artists usually restricted to their conversation pieces.

Gainsborough (1727-88), Richard Nassau, c.1757, o/c, 124 x 98.4 cm., and detail, Brodick Castle, NT Scotland

Perhaps the earliest example is his three-quarter length Richard Nassau of c.1757, which prominently features the corner of a bold Rococo frame. Such a vertical feature serves as an anchoring device in the composition, like a column or a window frame.

Gainsborough (1727-88), James Quin, 1763, and detail; National Gallery of Ireland

Gainsborough (1727-88), Portrait of the artist’s daughters, c.1763-64, o/c, 50 1/8 x 40 1/16 ins (127.3 x 101.7 cm.) and detail; Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts

Gainsborough (1727-88), Sir Richard & Lady Neave, 1765-66, and detail, Llysdulas, Anglesey

Gainsborough returned to the idea of including a framed landscape in later portraits. There are examples in Rococo frames in his full-length James Quin, exhibited 1763; the portrait of his daughters of c.1763-64; and his ambitious Sir Richard and Lady Neave of 1765-6 (Private Collection).

Gainsborough (1727-88), ‘The White Lady’ (Portrait of Ann Portman), c.1765, detail; courtesy of the Trustees of the Portman Settled Estates

The almost contemporary seated full-length Mrs Henry Portman includes a more severe, straight-edged frame in the background, ornamented with large inward facing leaves set at right angles to the frame, a type which is also found on the same scale and with somewhat comparable detail in the almost contemporary Cruttenden Sisters (Los Angeles County Museum of Art).

Gainsborough (1727-88), Mary, Duchess of Montagu, Buccleuch Collection, Bowhill

Another straight-edged frame, but with prominent centre and corner motifs, can be found in his Duchess of Montagu of c.1768 in the Buccleuch Collection.

Gainsborough (1727-88), Uvedale Price, c.1761, o/c, 127 x 102 cm., Neue Pinakothek, Munich

In his Uvedale Price of c.1761, the artist depicts a large ‘Gainsborough’ drawing in a handsome black and gilt frame of a sort suitable for a drawing or a print.

These portraits date to Gainsborough’s Bath period. At a time when he was not showing many landscapes, the inclusion of an image in the background of his portraits may have been a way of drawing attention to his wider ambitions.

Gainsborough (1727-88), Portrait of James Christie, 1778, o/c, 50 ¼ x 40 ¼ ins (127.6 x 102.2 cm.), frame not original, J. Paul Getty Museum

Gainsborough (1727-88), The Rt Hon. Charles Wolfran Cornewall, c.1785-86, o/c, 228 x 148.5 cm., National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Subsequently he seems to have tired of this compositional device, although returning to it in a rather different manner in his later James Christie, exhibited 1778 (reframed: see below). An even later example is his full-length Rt Hon. Charles Cornwall of c.1785-6.

Gainsborough at Sudbury and Ipswich, 1749-58

When Gainsborough set up as a professional painter in Sudbury in 1749, he is likely to have turned to local framemakers for most of his needs, whilst being able to call on the metropolis should he require an exceptional product. Those of his early works which have not been reframed usually have somewhat conservative centre-&-corner frames of a comparable type to some of Francis Hayman’s at the time.

Gainsborough (1727-88), The Rev. John Chafy playing the violoncello in a landscape, c.1750-52, Tate Photo: with thanks to Alastair Johnson

For example, the frames on his Rev. John Chafy, c.1750-2 (Tate) and his Rev. Richard Canning, c.1757 (Ipswich Museums and Galleries) are very similar to that on Hayman’s Thomas Nuthall and Hambleton Custance, c.1748 (Tate), which is characterised by a pattern of formalised running foliage, standard centres and corners with rosettes set within pierced foliage scrolls and shellwork. Variations on this style can be found on his Open Landscape, c.1744-5 (Brighton & Hove Libraries & Museums) and Holywells Park, c.1748-50 (Ipswich Museums and Galleries).

Gainsborough (1727-88), Portrait of a woman, c.1750, o/c, 29 7/8 x 26 ¼ ins (75.9 x 66.7 cm.), Yale Center for British Art

Gainsborough (1727-88), Couple in a landscape, c.1753, o/c, 76.2 x 67 cm., Dulwich Picture Gallery

An even simpler frame with plain sides and rosette-and-shell corners set on a punched ground can be found on his Unknown Woman, c.1750, and on A Couple in a Landscape, pictures which share an old provenance. This is a model which was probably made locally, and might have cost £1.10s or at the most £2 (as opposed to 3 ½ guineas in 1762 for ‘the Burnishd Gold sort’, as quoted above).

Gainsborough (1727-88), Peter Muilman, Charles Crokatt and William Keable, c.1750, Tate & Gainsborough’s House

Rather more elaborate is the Rococo frame found on his small triple portrait, Peter Muilman, Charles Crokatt and William Keable, c.1750. It remains to be seen whether it is possible to establish specific patterns favoured by Gainsborough, recurring from work to work, as seems to be the case with some more established artists, such as Allan Ramsay, Thomas Hudson and Francis Cotes.

Gainsborough at Bath, 1758-74

When Gainsborough moved to Bath in 1759, following a prolonged visit the previous year, he will have needed to meet the requirements of a more exacting clientele. Two years later he started sending pictures to London for exhibition at the Society of Artists.

It is in Bath that we learn something of the framemakers used by Gainsborough, as Susan Sloman has carefully set out in her excellent account, Gainsborough in Bath (2002). No doubt much of his work was framed locally, either in Bath or Bristol, although we know that Gainsborough used a London framemaker as well. Let us look at the local possibilities first. In 1768 the artist records using ‘the best frame maker at Bristol’, possibly James Paty, carver and gilder of Broadmead, Bristol, Sloman suggests. In the same context, Gainsborough speaks of ‘the Burnishd Gold sort’ at 3 ½ guineas as if it were his standard pattern (this may suggest a local source of supply for convenience, although we know all too little of Bath framemakers at this period). Sloman notes the names which appear in the artist’s account at Hoare’s bank: in May 1771 Gainsborough paid Thomas King 18 guineas – possibly Thomas King (1741-1804), a well-known Bath sculptor and mason who is known to have supplied picture frames – and a week later there is a payment of 46 guineas to John Deare, a carver, gilder and framemaker located in Kingsmead Street in Bath. Sloman suggests that the timing of these payments may indicate a connection with the ‘two handsome frames’ that Gainsborough ordered for his two large landscapes which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in April that year (although the payment to Deare is more than enough to encompass frames for both landscapes).

Gainsborough also used a London framemaker, Isaac Gosset (1713-99), a prominent member of a Huguenot family of carvers and gilders, with a workshop in Berwick Street in Soho, who will have been able to supply the very best frames as well as more ordinary products. At one time or another Gosset worked for several other leading artists including William Hogarth, Allan Ramsay and William Hoare. He became framemaker to the King in 1774, an appointment he gave up in 1785 at the age of seventy-two. He is documented as receiving payments from Gainsborough of £15 in 1762 and £39 in 1763, and he received a payment of £12 in June 1761 directly from a Gainsborough patron two months after the artist had been paid for various paintings. He appears to be the Gosset mentioned in the artist’s correspondence in 1762, 1766 and 1768. While living in Bath, Gainsborough may have relied on Gosset as a London agent. His connection with Gosset was an enduring one; the framemaker was the subject of a portrait by Gainsborough exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1780 and he was probably the ‘Mr Gosset’ present among mourners at the artist’s funeral in 1788.

Gainsborough (1727-88), Mary, Countess Howe, 1764, Kenwood, London

Gainsborough (1727-88), The Byam family, 1762-66, o/c, 249 x 238.8 cm., on loan to Holburne Museum, Bath

Gainsborough (1727-88), Isabella, Viscountess Molyneux, later Countess of Sefton, exh. 1769, o/c, 236 x 155 cm., Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Let us now look at the picture frames found on Gainsborough’s work from his Bath period, and in particular at an Italian frame style, named after the painter Carlo Maratta, which became increasingly fashionable in England in the 1750s and 1760s. Many of his grand full-length portraits painted in Bath, or in his early years in London, display handsome Maratta frames, often with a running pearl motif or husk on the sight edge. These include William Poyntz, exhibited 1762 (Althorp), Countess Howe, c.1763-4 (Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood), The Byam Family, c.1764 (loan to Holburne Museum, Bath), Sir Richard and Lady Neave, c.1765 (Private Collection), Lord Vernon, exhibited 1767 (Southampton City Art Gallery), The Countess of Sefton, exhibited 1769 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), John Eld, c.1774-5 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and The Hon. Mrs Graham, completed c.1777 (National Gallery of Scotland). This list could readily be extended.

Gainsborough (1727-88), The Hon. Mrs Graham, c.1775-77, o/c, 237 x 154 cm., National Galleries of Scotland

Almost all of these portraits depart from the standard full-length canvas size of the period, 94 by 58 inches, because unlike many of his contemporaries Gainsborough liked to shape his canvases to his subjects. So we can be fairly confident that the frames on these non-standard sizes have not been recycled from other portraits but were made specifically for the works in question, whether the framing was arranged by the artist or sitter. That it was often the sitter who was responsible for the choice of a Maratta frame is indicated by three cases already quoted: the Duke of Dorset, the Stratford Jubilee Festival and the Haberdashers’ Company.

Gainsborough (1727-88), Self-portrait, c.1787, o/c, 77.3 x 64.5 cm., Royal Academy of Art

Maratta frames are also found on smaller portraits, such as Gainsborough’s Self-portrait of c.1787, given by his daughter to the Royal Academy, or, in a very finely carved frame, his Hon. W. Fitzwilliam, 1775 (Fitzwilliam Museum). Such frames on standard-sized portraits are readily interchangeable and it would require study in detail to ascertain which are original.

Gainsborough (1727-88), The artist with his wife & daughter, c.1748, o/c, 92.1 x 70.5 cm., National Gallery, London

It is worth noting that the artist’s Self-portrait with his wife and daughter, c.1748, has a modest Maratta frame which could perhaps be early in date.

Gainsborough appears to have taken special trouble over the framing of his landscapes, as indicated by his remarks to Edward Stratford concerning ‘two handsome frames’.

Gainsborough (1727-88), The harvest wagon, exh. 1767, o/c, 120.5 x 144.7 cm., Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Without having any substantial evidence, it would seem that his landscapes received both Maratta frames, as on The Woodcutter’s Return, c.1772-3 (Belvoir Castle), and Rococo models such as that on The Harvest Wagon, probably exhibited 1767 (Barber Institute of Fine Arts). This is a subject requiring further research.

Gainsborough (1727-88), Going to market, early morning, c.1773, o/c, 48 x 58 ins (121.8 x 147.2 cm.), and details, Sotheby’s, 3 July 2019, Lot 22

In his later years in Bath, Gainsborough sometimes adopted a most unusual heavy ogee-profiled frame, rather old-fashioned in feel, which is found on his Returning from Market of c.1768-71 (Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood), the similarly sized Going to Market of c.1773, and the portrait, Captain Wade, exhibited 1771 (Assembly Rooms, Bath), the frame of which Gainsborough is known to have supplied. This style has egg-and-dart on the outer back edge, large-scale stylised tripartite curled leaves separated by berries on the prominent top edge, a wide ogee hollow and an astragal- &-double bead next to the leaf sight edge. Both the top edge and the sight edge carving sit on a distinctive hatched ground, probably worked in the gesso (the thickness of the gesso can be made out in the damaged areas of the Wade frame). The relative plainness of this frame style has the merit of enhancing the composition.

Gainsborough (1727-88), The watering place, before 1777, o/c, 147.3 x 180.3 cm., National Gallery, London

This is in contrast to some later replacement frames for landscapes, such as The watering place (National Gallery) with its distracting centres-&-corners and fussy ornamentation.

Gainsborough in London, 1774-88

Gainsborough began exhibiting his work at the Royal Academy at its inaugural exhibition in 1769, at first sending his pictures from Bath. He took a certain pride in his membership of the Academy, keeping his diploma ‘most beautifully framed’ behind the door of his painting room. Like many artists, Gainsborough seems to have had clear ideas about the presentation of his work, and this is very much in evidence in his relationship with the Royal Academy, where the annual exhibition loomed large for him each year. As he told Edward Stratford in 1771, at a time when the Royal Academy was housed in rented premises in Pall Mall, ‘I am daubing away for the Exhibition with all my might’. His feeling that the exhibition space demanded a certain sort of picture put him under pressure to find the most suitable works to show each year.

Gainsborough (1727-88), series of fifteen portraits of the Royal family, 1782, exh. Royal Academy, 1783, ©Royal Collection Trust 

 William Pyne, The history of the Royal residences, 1819, vol.2, plate 3; ‘The Green Closet, Buckingham House’; with Gainsborough’s portraits of the Royal family

Following the Academy’s move in 1780 to Somerset House, Gainsborough seems to have found the exhibiting arrangements even more difficult. In 1783 he wrote to Francis Milner Newton, the Academy’s secretary, requesting that his set of fifteen small portraits of the royal family be hung with their frames touching each other, as he indicated in a sketch of the arrangement. Though he gained his way with these royal portraits, the Morning Herald that year described his ex-catalogue portrait of Lady Horatia Walpole as being hung in

‘the most humiliating situation in the Academy; being placed against the chimney-board at the fire-place’.

Gainsborough (1727-88), The three eldest princesses (the daughters of George III), exh. 1784, o/c, 129.7 x 179.8 cm., ©Royal Collection Trust, the frame apparently dating to the 1750s

The following year the artist hoped to show eighteen pictures; he sent a note to the Academy headed:

‘Portraits by T. Gainsborough, the Frames sent’, with rough pen sketches of various portraits, adding ‘NB. The Frame of the Princesses cannot be sent but with the Picture, as their Majesties are to have a private view of the Picture at Buckingham house before it is sent to the Royal Academy’.

But when it became clear that the Academy was unwilling to hang his large picture of the three eldest royal princesses at the height he wished, he withdrew all his work, on 10 April 1784, never to return to the Academy’s walls.

Schomberg House, Pall Mall, in 1820; Gainsborough occupied no 80, the right-hand (western) wing from 1774 until his death in 1788, and his wife remained until her death in 1792

As a result of this dispute, Gainsborough took to exhibiting his pictures in his own gallery at Schomberg House in Pall Mall, where he could control the showing arrangements more precisely. The first exhibition of this kind opened at the end of July 1784 and included his portrait of the three princesses. Further press accounts are known of an exhibition in April 1786, challenging that at the Academy, including several landscapes, one intriguing item being described in the press as housed in a black frame. In showing his pictures on his own premises, Gainsborough will have been particularly aware of the impact of the framing of his work on the overall effect.

Gainsborough (1727-88), The cottage girl, 1785, o/c, 174 x 124.5 cm., and detail, National Gallery of Ireland

Gainsborough (1727-88), The Duke & Duchess of Cumberland, and Lady Luttrell, c.1785-88, o/c, 163.5 x 124.5 cm., ©Royal Collection Trust

Gainsborough (1727-88), Landscape with cattle, a young man courting a milkmaid, c.1772-74, 47 ½ x 58 ins (120.5 x 147.5cm.), and detail, ex-Earl of Jersey, Sotheby’s, 22 November 2007

Let us look at Gainsborough’s taste in framing in the 1780s, both his landscapes and his portraits. A NeoClassical frame type can be found on some of his landscapes and subject pictures, including his Cottage Girl of 1785, Cottage Door with Girls and Pigs of 1786 (Ipswich Museums and Galleries), Greyhounds coursing a Fox of the late 1780s (Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood), in modified form on the oval portrait, The Duke and Duchess of Cumberland of c.1783-5, and also on the earlier Landscape with cattle, a young man courting a milkmaid of c.1772-4. The last three of these pictures were in Gainsborough’s posthumous sale in 1789, as lots 109, 70 and 95 respectively, lending credence to the idea that the frames were a type favoured by the artist, and often used for the display of works at Schomberg House.

Gainsborough (1727-88), Mrs Robert Croft, c.1783, o/c, 29 x 25 ins (73.2 x 63.5 cm.), Sotheby’s New York, 8 June 2017, Lot 118

In still simpler form, the type can be found on the oval head-and-shoulders Mrs Robert Croft, which was apparently exhibited at Schomberg House in 1784.

This style is unusual but was not used exclusively by Gainsborough; a very similar frame can be found on De Loutherbourg’s Belle-Isle of 1785 (Abbot Hall, Kendal) and also on Benjamin West’s St Paul shaking off the Viper of 1786 (Tate). Did all three artists go to the same framemaker? In profile this frame type is a flatter version of the Maratta frame. Most of the ornament is in compo, the coming material for cheaper frame production; the frame is finished with waterleaf on the top edge, a distinctive running husk (small paired leaves and berries on a stalk) on the flat of the frame and a small veined leaf and tiny pearl next to the painting itself. What is particularly unusual is the way that on some examples the husk pattern runs in to the centre on one side and out on the other. This sort of directional pattern makes most sense when starting at top centre, then running out to the corners and down the sides, ending at bottom centre. Was the craftsman assembling ready-made components in a hurry, or applying a design without careful thought?

Gainsborough (1727-88), George IV as Prince of Wales, 1781, o/c, 250.1 x 186 cm., Waddesdon

Looking at Gainsborough’s late portraits, a rather plain frame type can sometimes be found, usually of Maratta profile but with an unornamented hollow, severe in nature, with prominent pearl sight and twisted ribbon below the top edge, as with the full-length Prince of Wales exhibited in 1782 (Waddesdon), the half-length Baron Amherst of c.1785 (National Portrait Gallery) or, before reframing, The Morning Walk of 1785 (National Gallery; see below). Not dissimilar but more NeoClassical in nature is the frame with overlapping leaf-and-berry on the top edge, veined waterleaf below, and a prominent pearl sight, which once graced the portrait of Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan, shown at Schomberg House in 1786 (National Gallery of Art, Washington).

It is important not to forget the possible influence on Gainsborough of his framemaker; it is likely that the 70-year-old Isaac Gosset will have retired from business in the early or mid-1780s, at around the time he ceased working for the King, and so Gainsborough will have had to look elsewhere for his framing. His choice of craftsman is likely to have influenced the sort of frame he used. Furthermore in the 1780s, following his fallout with the Royal Academy, his practice of showing his pictures on his own premises at Schomberg House will have encouraged him to look afresh at how his pictures were framed.

Reframing by later owners

The process of suiting Gainsborough’s pictures to contemporary taste began early: as for example, when the Prince Regent had two of his landscapes put into rich gilt frames made by Edward Wyatt to send them to Mrs Fitzherbert in July 1810. As with other artists whose works have been much traded, many of Gainsborough’s pictures have been reframed. In the process we impose our vision of how his pictures should look at the expense of that of Gainsborough and his contemporaries. Reframing has generally resulted in richer, heavier frames, often Rococo in style, in place of the simpler, severer frames of the late eighteenth century. This leaves curators and owners in a quandary. Do we accept the accidents of the past or attempt to reverse them?

At the National Gallery there was a concerted campaign to reframe many of the English pictures following a complaint in 1914 by one of the trustees, Robert Benson, that many of the 18th-century pictures were displayed in later Watts frames. What did these good intentions lead to? Generally, Rococo frames with a gently curving outer profile were chosen, both for portraits and landscapes, when many of them would originally have been framed in straight-edged Maratta or NeoClassical frames. This gives the collection as a whole a distinctive flavour, almost a house style, but at the expense of individual paintings.

Work in reframing is sometimes recorded in the meeting minutes of the National Gallery Trustees, so that we know, for example, that the portrait of Gainsborough’s daughter, Margaret (now Tate, N01482) was given its present openwork swept Rococo frame in 1934.

Gainsborough (1727-88), Mrs Siddons, 1785, o/c, 126 x 99.5 cm., National Gallery, London

His Mrs Siddons of 1785 is on to its fourth or fifth frame: currently a fine Rococo frame of the 1760s with two sweeps connecting the shellwork centres and rosette corners. Previously it was housed in an 18th century enriched Maratta frame and, earlier still, the Trustees’ minutes tell us that the picture had been placed in a new frame on acquisition in 1862.

Gainsborough (1727-88), Dr Ralph Schomberg, c.1770, o/c, 233 x 153.5 cm., National Gallery, London

The full-length Dr Ralph Schomberg was reframed in the same year and then probably again early in the 20th century.

Gainsborough (1727-88), Mr & Mrs William Hallett (‘The Morning Walk’), 1785, o/c, 236.2 x 179.1 cm., National Gallery, London

In the case of The Morning Walk, painted in 1785 and acquired in 1954, the present inappropriate but fine quality Rococo-revival frame is perhaps a Rothschild addition from the early 20th century. An old photograph shows what is likely to be the original frame, of plain Maratta profile, already described.

Gainsborough (1727-88), Giovanna Baccelli, exh. 1782, o/c, 226.7 x 148.6 cm., Tate

At the Tate Gallery the full-length Giovanna Baccelli, painted for the Duke of Dorset and exhibited in 1782, is now framed in a handsome Rococo frame of the 1760s; it can be seen hanging at Knole in a Maratta frame in old photographs taken before the picture was sold in 1890.

Gainsborough (1727-88), Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1785-87, o/c, 86 ½ x 60 ½ ins (219.7 x 153.7 cm.), National Gallery of Art, Washington

Turning to America, a rather different pattern of taste can be seen at work, largely due to the activities of Lord Duveen, who reframed almost all the English pictures he exported to the United States. The portrait of Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan, c.1785-87, now in a rich variation on a Maratta frame with a prominently gadrooned top moulding, was once housed in a severe NeoClassical type, as can be seen from an old photograph.

Gainsborough (1727-88), Penelope, Viscountess Ligonier, 1770, o/c, 94 ½ x 61 ¾ ins (240 x 156.8 cm.), The Huntington Art Museum

The splendid portraits of Viscount and Viscountess Ligonier have French Régence-style frames with shellwork corners and distinctive bosses at the quarter-points, a style found on seven other full-lengths at the Huntington including Carl Friedrich Abel, and in variant form on Mountain Landscape with Bridge (National Gallery of Art).\

Gainsborough (1727-88), Miss Catherine Tatton, 1786, o/c, 29 15/16 x 25 3/16 ins (76 x 64 cm.), National Gallery of Art, Washington

In somewhat the same style, but extraordinarily richly finished with virtuoso undercutting, is Miss Catherine Tatton (National Gallery of Art), a frame type used by Duveen for smaller English portraits. Duveen had framemakers working in Paris, London and Florence; his papers are now the subject of active study, and are revealing more about the process of reframing grand portraits for the American market and the Tatton frame, featured in a recent study by Nicholas Penny and Karen Serres.

Gainsborough (1727-88), Portrait of James Christie, 1778, o/c, 50 ¼ x 40 ¼ ins (127.6 x 102.2 cm.), J. Paul Getty Museum

Taste in reframing has moved on since Duveen. The superb NeoClassical pattern on the portrait of James Christie of 1778 (J. Paul Getty Museum) is a recent reframing using a genuine 18th century frame with reeded and leafed top edge and trailing husks with rams’ heads in the wide flat; this very frame was advertised by the frame dealers, Arnold Wiggins & Sons Ltd, in the Burlington Magazine in 1985, as from Ashridge and Welbeck Abbey. A frame for an aristocrat, rather than an auctioneer?

Gainsborough (1727-88), The Blue Boy, c.1770, exhibited at the National Gallery, London, after Joseph Duveen had acquired it from the Duke of Westminster in 1921 in a Regency frame, The Huntington Library & Art Museum curatorial files

Gainsborough, The Blue Boy, c.1770, The Huntington Library & Art Museum, reframed in a ‘Duveen’ version of a ‘Maratta’ frame in the late 1930s

Gainsborough, The Blue Boy, c.1770, o/c, 70 5/8 x 48 ¾ ins, The Huntington Library & Art Museum, in current Rococo frame 

More recently another Californian collection, the Huntington Art Gallery, has reframed The Blue Boy of 1770 in a richly carved heavy English Rococo centre-and-corner frame of the 1750s, chosen to complement the framing of Thomas Lawrence’s Pinkie in the same collection. 

Jacob Simon

January 2003, revised March 2003, revised and illustrated January 2021



This article was first published on the National Portrait Gallery website in 2003. The illustrations now made available in The Frame Blog have been generously researched by Lynn Roberts. The text has been slightly revised to take into account recent research accessible in JStor. It may be further revised once research libraries reopen following the pandemic. For credits in 2003, see the online article at the address above.

John Hayes, The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough, Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre, 2001.

Jacob Simon, The Art of the Picture Frame, National Portrait Gallery, 1996.

Susan Sloman, Gainsborough in Bath, Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre, 2002.
William T. Whitley, Thomas Gainsborough, Smith, Elder & Co, 1915.

Gainsborough’s practice in framing picturesFor Mayhew, see Hayes no 4; for Stevens, see Hayes nos 27, 28, 130; for Stratford, see Hayes nos 49, 56. For surviving bills and receipts see Hayes nos 123, 127-129, 132-147. For Wade, see Susan Sloman, ‘The immaculate Capt. Wade’: “Arbiter Elegantiae”, Gainsborough’s House Review, 1993/94, pp. 49-50. For Garrick and Ditcher, see Hayes p. 84 and no. 85. For the Prince of Wales, see Oliver Millar, ‘George IV when Prince of Wales: his debts to artists and craftsmen’, Burlington Magazine, 1986, vol. 128, p. 588. For the cost of standard frames, see Hayes nos 129, 142 and Simon p. 146.

Pictures framed by Gainsborough’s patronsFor Breadalbane, see Simon p. 117. For Methuen, see Sloman p. 66. For Blickling, see John Cornforth, ‘Blickling Hall, Norfolk’, Country Life, 31 March 1988, vol. 182, p. 129. For the Duke of Dorset, see John Hayes, The Landscape Paintings of Thomas Gainsborough, 1982, vol. 1, p. 182, notes 60, 69, 70; Foxhall’s bill (which I have only seen in a transcript on National Trust files where the name is implausibly given as M. Exhall) is in Kent County Archives, U269 A246/4. For the Duke of Northumberland, see Hugh Belsey, ‘New documents by Thomas Gainsborough’, Burlington Magazine, 2014, vol. 156, pp. 303-6. For Garrick and Knapp, see Whitley pp. 67, 283-4. For Sir Charles Gould, later Sir Charles Morgan, see Maurice Ogborn, Equitable Assurances, 1962, p. 113. For Hallett, see Jacob Simon, ‘Allan Ramsay and picture frames’, Burlington Magazine, 1994, vol. 136, p. 450, note 36. With thanks to Rica Jones for her thoughts on the Portman frame which I have incorporated in this note and to John Anderson for photographs.

Gainsborough at BathFor the Bristol framemaker, see Sloman p. 68 and Hayes no. 29. For the names in Gainsborough’s bank account, see Sloman pp. 68, 207. For Gosset, see Simon pp. 88, 132, 199 n.51, Sloman p. 66, Hayes nos 6, 21, 34, and Whitley pp. 167, 309. For frame types favoured by Gainsborough, see Simon p. 96. Intriguingly, the type found on the portrait of Wade was copied for William Dobson’s Endymion Porter (Tate) or, perhaps more likely, removed from a Gainsborough portrait and adapted.

Gainsborough in LondonFor Gainsborough and the Academy, see Hayes nos 49, 59, 89, 96, 97 and Whitley pp. 255-6. For the artist’s sale, see ‘Gainsborough’s Collection of Pictures’, Burlington Magazine, 1944, vol. 84, pp. 107-10. For the Waddesdon frame, see the room setting in Michael Hall, Waddesdon Manor. The Heritage of a Rothschild House, 2002, p. 103; although I have not examined the frame, I have included it because, if original, it will be the frame supplied by Gainsborough with the picture and billed to the Prince of Wales by his widow. For photographs of The Morning Walk and Mrs Richard Brinsley Sheridan before reframing, see the images taken by Emery Walker (National Portrait Gallery Archive)

Reframing by later ownersFor the Prince Regent, see Oliver Millar, The Later Georgian Pictures in the collection of Her Majesty The Queen, 1969, p. 35 (where I have taken ‘Wyatt’ to be Edward Wyatt who was working for the Prince at this time). For the National Gallery, see Simon p. 73 and the National Gallery Minutes vol. 1/8, pp. 295-6 and vol. 1/21, p. 117. For the Maratta frame on Mrs Siddons, see the Dictionary of English Furniture, 2nd edition, 1954, vol. 3, p. 33, fig. 38. For Baccelli, see John Coleman, ‘Reynolds at Knole’, Apollo, April 1996, vol. 143, pp. 24-30, figs 5, 7, and for the Rococo frame type now on the picture, see Simon, p. 63, fig. 57. For Duveen, see Simon p. 24 and Nicholas Penny and Karen Serres, ‘Duveen’s French frames for British pictures’, Burlington Magazine, vol. 151, 2009, pp. 388-94. For the Getty frame, see Burlington Magazine, Nov. 1985, vol. 127, p. lvi; an almost identical frame from the same workshop can be found on Nathaniel Hone’s General Richard Wilford and Sir Levett Hanson of 1777 (Christie’s, 26 November 2002, lot 45, with catalogue reference to this design being used in 1773-4 for pictures at Luton Park for the 3rd Earl of Bute). For the reframing of The Blue Boy, see The Huntington: ‘How do you frame a masterpiece?‘.