What’s in a frame: the borders of Mortimer Menpes

John Payne, Senior Conservator of Paintings at the National Gallery of Victoria, describes in detail the various innovative frame designs, many of which may be described as Orientalist, used by this intriguing artist.

fig-4a-alone-in-a-shoe-shop-edMortimer Menpes (Britain/Australia, 1855‑1938), Alone in a shoe shop, 1887‑88, Japan or London, oil on wood panel (original frame), 12.3 x 21.4 cm., South Australian Government Grant, 1975, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 752P3

The Australian artist Mortimer Menpes (1855-1938) moved from Adelaide in South Australia to London, at the age of 20. While his early artistic training took place in Adelaide, in London he refined his talent and pursued a career as a painter and print maker. He held successful exhibitions in London from 1888 through to 1913, focusing through the 1890s on his extensive travels, first to Japan in 1887 and later to places as far afield as Kashmir and Mexico. Menpes’s reputation dropped away after his death, despite leaving a legacy of some 700 paintings and an even larger number of prints. From his earliest exhibited works, to those painted late in his career, frames are a feature. This essay is a reflection on Menpes’ pre-occupation with the frame.

The earliest examples of frames on paintings in Western art are integral with the painted surface. When the painting was executed on the hollowed-out centre of a single plank of timber or the frame created from strips of timber nailed and glued to the surface of a panel, the relationship between the borders of the image and the image itself was not easily broken [i]. With the Renaissance and the rapid growth in paintings as moveable, saleable commodities, the frame and the painting become separate components, to be made individually and often changed with changing ownership.

Though the relationship between painting and frame has remained complex through the centuries, in the 19th century artists returned to the concept of the frame and the painting as an indivisible unit. A number of artists pursued this, designing frames which were intended primarily to integrate with the painting, forming borders which extended the composition and the spatial and colour relationships of the painting to the very edges of the framed work on display [ii].

Documentary sources reveal that artists showing in the early exhibitions of the French Impressionists had very particular approaches to both the framing and display of their paintings. Very few of these frames have survived.

In England this pre-occupation with the exhibition as a complete expression of artistic sensibility was expounded by James McNeill Whistler. His one man show of 1874 took steps toward this approach but his exhibitions of the 1880s fully integrated the decorative scheme of the space and the framing of each work, allowing him to ‘sign’ the wall with his personal monogram [iii].

That Mortimer Menpes should take an interest in the complete presentation of his work comes as no surprise. He spent his early years in London in close association with Whistler and Whistler’s artistic milieu. What is unexpected is the extent to which Menpes made the frame and the painting an indivisible unit throughout his career, a relationship so readily apparent that many of the works retain their original frames to this day.


fig. 1a Mortimer Menpes, Dolce far niente, c.1884-87, oil on panel, 21.6 x 12.6 cm., frame: 45 x 36 cm., © The Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery, University of Glasgow


fig. 1b Dolce far niente, frame profile

The works shown by Menpes with the Society of British Artists Sixty-Third Annual exhibition in April 1886, such as Dolce far niente (1885-86) and His debut (1885-86), were presented in frames taken directly from a Whistler model.

The frame is one used extensively for small works in Whistler’s exhibition of 1884, possibly made either directly by or for Dowdeswell’s Gallery [iv]. The profile is characteristically a combination of reeds either side of a flat section, with an overall width of around four-&-a-half inches. Proportionally these frames form wide borders for the relatively small paintings they house, a feature that Menpes developed more fully over the following years.


fig. 2 Corner detail of the frames made in Japan

Toward the end of the 1880s, most notably at the exhibition of Paintings, drawings and etchings of Japan at Dowdeswell’s Gallery, London, in April 1888, the presentation of Menpes’s works took a unique direction. Having spent time in Japan in 1887, Menpes was enamoured with the aesthetic sense of Japanese craftsman. Two hundred frames were ordered from Japanese woodworkers and supplied to London [v]. These frames are made in three parts, a thin ‘t’ shaped outer section, a broad flat inner plane and a sight edge made up from a similar section to the outer edge. The outer frame section uses a finely executed mitred mortise & tenon joint pinned with tiny wooden dowels.


fig. 3a Mortimer Menpes, Labour hath no charms (Delhi), 1889-91, art market


fig. 3b Labour hath no charms (Delhi), grid diagram

The broad flat planes which take charge of the placement of the image have two forms. In one the construction is a timber lattice, covered with layers of paper (sometimes cloth) on both sides and eventually gilded on the face, a construction not dis-similar to folding screens [vi].


fig. 4a Mortimer Menpes (Britain/Australia, 1855‑1938), Alone in a shoe shop, 1887‑88, Japan or London, oil on wood panel (original frame), 12.3 x 21.4 cm., South Australian Government Grant, 1975, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 752P3


fig. 4b Alone in a shoe shop, frame profile

The other takes the form of a wooden panel made up of strips of timber laminated vertically and fluted in equally spaced hollows cut with a groove plane, as seen in Alone is a shoe shop 1887-88. These inner panels, around half-an-inch thick, appear to be individually produced for each frame. The last flute on each side is slightly wider to accommodate the outer frame rebate.


fig. 5 F. H. Grau inscription from the back of Alone in a shoe shop

It seems likely that the frames were supplied to London in a raw state and the gilding carried out by Frederick Henry Grau, Whistler’s framemaker between 1888 and 1892 [vii]. An inscription identifying Grau appears on the reverse of the flat of the frame on Menpes’s Alone in a shoe shop c.1887-88 [viii].



fig. 6 Inscriptions specifying ‘lemon gold’

Several frames have annotations in English on the reverse noting the colour, ‘lemon gold’ or ‘red gold’. Newspaper reports invariably mention the framing of the works, one noting four distinct shades of gold [ix].


fig. 7 Menpes’s monogram

Several of the frames carry Menpes’s monogram impressed into the gilded surface.

What distinguishes these assemblies as much as their construction is the positioning of the image within the frame. All the paintings are small, sometimes cut from larger pieces of board or panel prepared by colourmen, such as Charles Roberson & Co [x]. All are set equally distant from either side of the frame but off-set toward the top. The compositions of the paintings themselves sometimes carry a bias toward the upper half, which is reflected in the position of the painting in the ribbed or plain field of the frame. It is tempting to see this device as coming from Japanese sources, but Japanese scroll mounting more often puts the work in the lower half of the field of the mount rather than the upper half.


fig. 8 The distribution of text to page from Edward Johnston, Writing & Illuminating and Lettering, Isaac Pitman & Sons London, twelfth edition 1922, p. 92

While Menpes’s proportions reflect a genuine pre-occupation with the aesthetic sensibilities of Japan, they might equally synthesise his early art training and the mounting and presentation of works on paper, prints and watercolours in a European tradition. Menpes was a prolific printmaker. We might also consider the layout of text to page, a relationship which was of considerable interest in the revival of calligraphy, illumination and book production in London in the last decades of the 19th century [xi].

Two painting groups active in Europe toward the end of the century are also important to consider as influences. The work of Les XX in Belgium in the late 1880s and the Vienna Secessionists in the 1890s both integrated paintings and frames, often within asymmetric and off-set formats [xii]. Menpes was in Belgium at the International Exhibition in Antwerp in 1885 [xiii].

However complex the sources, Menpes balances the relationship of figure and ground perfectly, creating a visual harmony greater than the individual parts, much as the carefully considered page of a book reads as a whole, and is indivisible in our field of view. It seems inconceivable that the works from the exhibition of 1888 could exist without the broad gilded surfaces which position the images so carefully in space.


fig. 9 ‘Mr Mortimer Menpes’s exhibition’, illustrated in The Pall Mall Gazette, 16 April 1888

It was not only the format of the frames which drew attention. The framed paintings were arranged on the wall in a compact, ordered manner. An illustration of the arrangement in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1888 suggests that the frames came in at least three standard heights, with around five standard widths. Within these shapes there appear perhaps ten or more standardized formats for the paintings themselves [xiv]. It is an extraordinarily studied and orderly method of producing and presenting the paintings and the frames.

Frames with broad flat surfaces surrounding the picture re-emerged in France and England around the middle of the 19th century. They are a dominant frame form in the last two decades of the century, appearing on paintings as diverse and distant as those on the wall of Carlo Bugatti’s studio in Milan around 1888-89, and on Arthur Streeton’s Purple Noon’s Transparent Might in Melbourne in 1896 [xv]. Menpes’s ability to offset the image in these wide boarders so successfully makes his frames for the 1888 exhibition exceptional.


fig. 10a Mortimer Menpes (Britain/Australia, 1855‑1938), At home in Mandalay, 1890‑91, Burma or London, oil on wood panel (original frame), 22.2 x 27.9 cm., Captain Guy Dollman Fund, 2006, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 20061P6

Some of these frames carry over into the exhibition of Paintings, Drawings, Etchings and Diamond Points on Ivory, of India, Burma and Cashmere at Dowdeswell’s in 1891, which also sees the re-introduction of frames with a uniform margin to all sides of the painting. The more interesting of these new frames, as seen on At home in Mandalay (1890-91), reflect the fluted Japanese frames and the early Whistler prototype with fine fluting made from cast ornament sitting in a reserve pushed forward in a steep bevelled profile. Care is taken to continue the fluting as vertical lines on all sides rather than mitre the corners.


fig. 10b At home in Mandalay, frame profile

These frames were made in unusually deep profiles which set the picture plane at the rear of the frame with a strong emphasis on the mitred corners at the sight edge.


fig. 11a Mortimer Menpes, A famous palazzo, 1891-92


fig. 11b A famous palazzo, frame profile

Another frame form which emerged in 1892 returned to an emphasis on the width of the frame relative to the image – these were seen in Menpes’s Pictures of Venice exhibition, on works such as A Venetian court (1891-92) and A famous palazzo (1891-92). With a wide frieze panel projected forward and a steep bevel to the outer edge, these frames sometimes make use of geometric patterns to decorate the frieze section (perhaps remembering Whistler’s frames of the 1870s), and push the picture plane forward in the frame.


fig. 12  Label of Paul Vacani, reverse of A famous palazzo, 1891-92

Several of these frames carry the label of Paul Vacani in London, and it is tempting to consider Menpes as referencing framemakers with a national affinity for works from particular locations [xvi].


fig. 13a Mortimer Menpes, Blue blinds, c.1892-93, oil on panel, 23.5 x 17.2 cm., National Gallery of Australia


fig. 13b Blue blinds, frame profile

By 1893, in the exhibition Paintings of France, Spain and Morocco, the frames utilize curves rather than bevels, whilst retaining the use of reeded decoration and the relationship of a large format frame to a small format painting, – seen for instance in Blue blinds (1892-93).         Some of these frames are clearly hand-formed, with the fine fluting of the frieze section aligned vertically on all sides. Designed to push the picture plane forward, they return the presentation to an equally balanced border on all sides of the painting, whilst continuing a pre-occupation with the scale of the frame relative to the image: a relationship which emphasizes the artist’s intention to keep the frame and the painting as an integrated unit.

Newspaper accounts of Menpes’s exhibitions consistently mention the framing. Works in the 1895 exhibition, Paintings in Mexico, are described as being very small and brightly coloured, set off by very large solid black frames. Watercolour frames were ivory-coloured, so contrasting with the black frames for the oils. Reviews of the second Japanese exhibition of 1897 make reference to old gold frames with striated flats, large scale black frames, receding (or bolection) frames with the painting plane pushed forward, and frames in plain deal with white silk flats – concepts that Menpes had been using in various forms for over a decade [xvii].


fig. 14a Mortimer Menpes (Britain/Australia, 1855–1938), A geisha carrying a parasol, 1896–97, Japan or London, oil on panel, 10.9 x 7.8 cm, Private collection, Image courtesy of Lowell Libson Ltd


fig. 14a A geisha carrying a parasol, frame profile

The receding frames which push the painting forward – for instance, those on Girl in a Japanese garden, Springtime and A geisha carrying a parasol – re-use the profile seen in 1892-3 on Blue blinds, but now the fluting follows the direction of each side of the frame, suggesting that the frames are cut and joined from lengths of moulding which have been drawn through profiling forms and mitred at the corners.


fig. 15 Mortimer Menpes, Portrait of the actor Ichikawa Danjuro IX, pastel on board, 67.3 x 48.2 cm., frame: 34.7 x 27.5 ins, 88.1 x 69.8 cm., © The Trustees of the British Museum

A variation of the finely fluted frame appears on Menpes’s pastel of the Japanese actor Ichikawa Danjuro IX (c.1896-97) in the British Museum. Here, the fluting is at right angles to the sight edge and the corners are blocked with a floral motif, a striking combination of Pre-Raphaelite and Japanese style.


fig. 16a Mortimer Menpes, A Breton peasant, c.1904-05, in gilded Dutch style frame

For a group of works in his 1903 exhibition, The Durbar, and later for the exhibition of The Menpes Series of Great Masters, Menpes repeatedly used a moulding based on a 17th century Dutch scotia frame with a mitred face and lap-joined back frame.


fig. 16b A Breton peasant, frame profile

Some are characteristically black, others gilded. Menpes had a long standing interest in 17th century Dutch painting, Rembrandt in particular, and it is not surprising that he recognized and referenced the particular framing of the time [xviii].


fig. 16c Label of M. van Menk, reverse of A Breton peasant

Several of these frames carry the label of M. van Menk, an Amsterdam framemaker who worked extensively for the Rijksmuseum, and in 1898 produced a frame for Rembrandts Night Watch [xix].

 Using a specific frame type, noted for its elegant restraint, and a specialized framemaker regarded for his craftsmanship, sits well with Menpes’s pre-occupation with the integrity of the frames for his paintings.


Mortimer Menpes, Burmese village, oil on board, 6 1/4 x 6 7/in., 15.9 x 17.5 cm.,  Bonham’s sale, 2 March 2016, Lot 51


John Payne is Senior Conservator of Paintings, National Gallery of Victoria, and author of Framing the nineteenth century: picture frames 1837-1935, 2007.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in the exhibition catalogue: The World of Mortimer Menpes Painter, Etcher, Raconteur, Julie Robinson, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2014.


[i] For examples from the thirteenth century see Timothy Newbery, George Bisacca and Laurence B. Kanter, Italian Renaissance frames, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1990, pp. 12–15.

[ii] For an overview see Eva Mendgen, In Perfect Harmony, Picture and Frame 1850-1920, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 1995.

[iii] A comprehensive view of Whistlers approach can be found in Kenneth John Myers, Mr Whistlers Gallery, Pictures at an 1884 Exhibition, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, 1995.

[iv] The Whistler model appears around 1884, see ‘Endangered Frames: To Save A Butterfly,’ Bill Adair, Picture Framing Magazine, August 1995 p26. Dowdeswell and Dowdeswell began as a framemaking and print selling business before opening as a gallery in the late 1870s.

[v] Pall Mall Gazette, July 8 1887, from a letter to Dowdeswell from Menpes in Yokohama, Japan. “You will be pleased to hear that I have ordered all my frames (200) here, and a number of special frames for my etchings.”

[vi] An image of this frame construction appears in Masako H. Shinn, ‘Mortimer Luddington Menpes: A Japonophile in Victorian England’, Apollo, November 2001, pp.13-20.

[vii] Accessed December 20 2013.

[viii] Grau’s label also appears on the same type of frame in a work in his 1891 Indian exhibition, On the marge of sunset (Benares) 1890-91.

[ix] Northampton Mercury 21 April 1888.

[x] The paper label of Roberson appears on the reverse of the cut-down mahogany panel of Indian women selling in a market.

[xi] For reference note the layout of a single page of text with a similar bias toward the top but equidistant side margins in Edward Johnston, Writing & Illuminating and Lettering, Isaac Pitman & Sons London, twelfth edition 1922, pp 92 and 104

[xii] See in particular the frames of Jan Toorop, Fernand Knopff, William Finch and Theo van Rysselberghe among Les XX, and the frames of Franz von Stuck and Gustav Klimt among the Vienna Secessionists. Mendgen op cit.

[xiii] See Julie Robinson’s essay, ‘Early career: A long and unconventional “apprenticeship”’ p.25 and note 54. in The World of Mortimer Menpes Painter, Etcher, Raconteur, Julie Robinson, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2014.

[xiv] The logistics of Menpes’s method are interesting to consider. The formats for the works are presumably pre-determined but follow a set group of dimensions. This would be necessary for the frames to be made in batches, with a pre-determined sight size and a range of external formats sent independently to the paintings from Yokohama to London, rather than made individually to fit each painting.

[xv] Carlo Bugatti’s studio is reproduced in Amanda Dunsmore and John Payne, Bugatti Carlo Rembrandt Ettore Jean, NGV/Peleus Press, 2009, p 11. It is perhaps no co-incidence that Cyril Flower (Lord Battersea), who commissioned Carlo Bugatti to design and fit out an apartment in London, owned a number of paintings by Menpes, including Sundown (1887-88), In front of a shop (1887-88) and The golden temple, Amritsar (1890-91). The frame for ‘the purple noon’s transparent might’ is reproduced in John Payne Framing the Nineteenth Century, Picture frames 1837-1935, NGV/Peleus Press, 2007, pp 206-209.

[xvi] Accessed January 14 2014.  From the label on the back of A famous palazzo (1891-92). Paul Vacani and his father Andrew made frames for Edward Burne-Jones.

[xvii] Rosemary Smith, Mortimer Luddington Menpes (1855-1838): His Life and Work, PhD dissertation, University of Virginia, 1996, pp 150-167.

[xviii] Smith, op cit pp.161-162.

[xix] Accessed via JSTOR, 19/12/2013. Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum, Jaarg. 27 Nr.4 (1979) pp 206-211.