G.F. Watts: framing myths and portraits

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Self-portrait, o/c, 64.8 x 52.1 cm., Tate

George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) came to public notice early in his career when he won first prize in the 1842-43 competition to design frescoes for the new Palace of Westminster. His entry (Caractacus led in triumph through the streets of Rome [1]) netted him £300 in prize money, which was a large sum in the mid-19th century, and enabled him to travel to Italy where he studied and worked from 1843 to 1847. He met and became friendly with the British ambassador to Italy and his wife, Lord and Lady Holland, and stayed at their house in Florence; he also stayed with them at the Villa Medici at Careggi in the Tuscan countryside , where he was given a garden studio. One of his portraits of Lady Holland was compared by a visitor there with the work of Veronese, and his colouristic powers were frequently likened to those of Titian. This sympathy with the art of the Italian Renaissance may have inspired him to use antique Italian frames and modern replicas on his own paintings. In this, he was a pioneer: few other British artists of the period were using Italian models for their frames, and none so consistently as Watts.

This essay discusses Watts’s three main frame types: the Italian Baroque revival frames found on his early work and on some later pictures, the leaf garland frames which Watts seems to have used from shortly after his return to London in 1847 until the early 1860s, and the ‘Watts frame’ (inspired by examples of the Renaissance cassetta), which he used in one form or another for the rest of his career from the mid-1860s. It was catalyzed by the exhibition of Watts’s work (GF Watts Portraits: Fame & Beauty in Victorian Society) held in 2004 in the National Portrait Gallery.

The Italian influence

 G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Mary Augusta, Lady Holland, c.1843, Fenwick Charitable Trust

 Watts’s taste for Italianate frames emerged quite early in his work, when he was still in his mid-twenties. One of his many portraits of Lady Holland (c.1843, above) has a revival leaf frame with a linear silhouette and sight edge of raking flutes; it’s elaborately pierced in a filigree of scrolling foliage with floral swags. It was almost certainly made for the painting, as there is a roundel containing the sitter’s initials, MAH, held in a swag of flowers and foliage at the base, and almost as certainly carved for Watts or for the Hollands in Italy. The garland on the crest of the frame is not of the same quality as the carved frame and may have been added later by Watts’s patrons, the Hollands. Inside the garland sits a rather naïvely-modelled fox, the family crest and an allusion to the family name of Fox [2].

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Mary Augusta, Lady Holland, c.1843-44, o/c, 80.7 x 63.7 cm., Royal Collection Trust

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Mary Augusta, Lady Holland, c.1844, o/c, 68.7 x 56 cm., Watts Gallery, Compton

Two further portraits of Lady Holland have revival Baroque frames.  The 1843 portrait in the Royal Collection, in which the sitter wears a large and striking straw hat, has a version of a 17th-century pierced leaf frame formed of softly-scrolling acanthus branches. It still retains a label on the back of the firm of Carlo Conti, Via Borgognissanti, Florence. The second portrait (c.1844, in the Watts Gallery, Compton) has a wider and more elaborate pierced reverse frame; this is a revival based on the Baroque leaf frames in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence, and has a raking sight edge, pierced centre scrolls and stylized scrolling fronds.

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Self-portrait in armour, 1845, private collection

Watts’s own self-portrait of 1845, a romanticized Renaissance idea of himself in armour which he presented to Lord and Lady Holland, also has a revival reverse leaf frame; this takes a more rudimentary form than the three patterns mentioned above, with shallow, roughly-carved lobed and scrolled shapes.

This early fascination with Baroque settings for his work reaches its apogee in Watts’s full-length portrait, Augusta Wilson-Fitzpatrick, later Lady Castletown painted in 1844 at the Villa Medici (Tate Gallery). It is housed, appropriately, in what is possibly an antique Medici frame: a richly-gilded halo of melting volutes and lobes which lends weight and drama to the painted figure of Lady Castletown. This frame was apparently acquired in Florence and enlarged for the portrait by the Florentine Fratelli Pacetti [3]. Frames of this type are a recurring feature of Watts’s work (see Paolo and Francesca, below).

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Lady Margaret Beaumont and her daughter, c.1860-62, detail of frame; Lord Allendale

Further examples of Italianate patterns can be found on other paintings by Watts; for example, his full-length portrait, Lady Margaret Beaumont and her daughter (c.1860-2) has an elaborate Florentine frame decorated with composition ornament rather than carved wood. It’s another reverse profile pattern, with an outer band of pierced scrolling foliage and strapwork beneath a fluted top moulding. Lighter and more airy than any of the previous examples, the materials allow for this elaboration of ornament at a much lesser cost than would have been possible for a carved giltwood frame of the same size.

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Arion saved by the dolphin, 1896, o/c, 28.5 x 41.5 cm., Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

A variant of Arion saved by the dolphin (1885-96), acquired by James Smith, has a Baroque revival frame with a bolection  profile, and a Venetian-style pattern of alternating scallop shells at the sight edge, which Watts mentions in a letter to Smith of August 1896 as having ‘appropriately carved sea shells’ [4]. This is similar in both style and technique to the frames bought for their work from local carvers in Florence by Spencer Stanhope, J.M. Strudwick and Evelyn De Morgan [5].

Watts’s three-quarter-length portrait, Prudence Penelope Cavendish Bentinck (c.1857-9, Northampton Museums) is housed in an extraordinary 19th-century version of a Venetian 16th-century Sansovino frame. A more orthodox Sansovino frame can be found on the artist’s half-length portrait (private collection) of Prudence’s husband, George Cavendish Bentinck, a passionate admirer of Italian art, and particularly of Venetian painting. The framing of these two portraits needs further research; they may have been the choice of the patron, rather than of Watts, who can be found writing to George Cavendish Bentinck in 1861,

‘I have no doubt the frames will do capitally. As far as I am concerned my judgement on frames is worth nothing; I never give one on the subject’ [6].

Photograph of Watts’s gallery, published in the Easter Annual, The Art Journal, 1896, p. 29, with Paolo & Francesca in the centre

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Paolo & Francesca, 1872-75, o/c, 152.4 x 129.5 cm., Watts Gallery

Much later in his life, a photograph of Watts’s gallery at Little Holland House shows a version of Paolo and Francesca in an ornate frame [7]; this appears to be the massive black-and-gold Medici-style bolection frame which was at some point (and for some inexplicable reason) applied to his painting Evolution (1898-1904, Watts Gallery).

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Evolution, 1898-1904, o/c, 167.6 x 134.6 cm., Watts Gallery

Interior of the Watts Gallery, Compton, with Evolution fifth from right in a ‘Watts’ frame

At the time of the centenary exhibition, G. F. Watts: Portraits – Fame & Beauty in Victorian Society, which was held at the National Portrait Gallery, London, in 2004 to mark the anniversary of Watts’s death, Evolution was still framed in this billowing Baroque fantasy of foliate scrolls and shells, but it now hangs in the Gallery in a much more appropriate gilded ‘Watts’ frame.  It can be seen (just) in the view of the interior above – the fifth painting from the right.

Watts, Paolo & Francesca, 1872-75, corner detail

The Baroque Medici-esque frame is back around Paolo & Francesca, to which it is far more suited in both the colouring and the frenetic whirling movement of the composition. A broad sight edge constructed from the frieze and leaf-bud moulding of a ‘Watts’ frame (which can be seen in the 1896 photo) pushes the sculptural curlicues of the frame outwards, so that they enhance the painting without overwhelming it. Watts’s choice of this combination was beautifully judged; this frame so evidently belongs rightly to Paolo and Francesca rather than with the static gold and turquoise Evolution. The latter is larger than the former (167.6 x 134.6 cm. rather than 152.4 x 129.5 cm.), so must have been fitted to the cuckoo painting without the sight edge frieze.

Leaf garland frames

 A number of the portraits Watts painted following his return to London in 1847 are housed in a high relief torus moulding of a leafy garland, most usually with oak leaves and acorns.

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Virginia Pattle, 1849-50, The Little Library,  Eastnor Castle

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Mary, wife of Constantine Ionides, 1842, ; detail of frame; © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Early examples of this pattern frame two portraits dating from the 1840s of members of the Ionides family, Mary Ionides (1842, Victoria and Albert Museum) and Chariclea Ionides (1849), and also the full-length portrait of Virginia Pattle (1849-50, Eastnor Castle) [8].

J.P. Mayall, G.F. Watts in his Gallery at Little Holland House, photogravure from F.G. Stephens, Artists at Home, 1884. Above Watts’s head is Lady Lindsay in a ‘Watts’ frame, and to the left of it is Alice Prinsep in its oak garland frame

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Alice Prinsep, o/c, 1860, Private Collection

Later portraits with this type of frame include John Campbell, 1st Baron Campbell (1859-60) and Alice Prinsep (1860) [9]. The frame on Baron Campbell employs an oak leaf and acorn torus with an inner band of thistles – appropriately, for a Scottish sitter. This frame and that of Virginia Pattle have oak garlands which are very slightly different in scale and treatment from the one on the smaller portrait of Alice Prinsep, which may be a function of the different proportions of frame to picture. Apart from this, the form and method of construction is the same for all three frames: a pine carcass with a quarter-hollow back moulding, and the torus made of a central wooden core wrapped with composition ornament. Coutts Lindsay (c.1860, location unknown) is another work with an oak leaf frame of this standard type, and is likely to have retained its original setting because of its octagonal shape [10].

The Watts centenary exhibition also contained a group of three French bunched-leaf torus frames, probably late 17th century in date, on portraits painted for Lord and Lady Holland. Unlike the 19th-century English oak leaf frames, which are made of pine and compo, the French frames are partly or mainly composed of harder woods, such as oak and poplar; they are carved, giving a softer, less brassy look than compo ornament, and they are shallower and more delicate than the beefy English frames. They may well have been applied to the paintings by the Hollands, rather than by Watts himself; they are to be found on François Guizot (1848), Prince Jérôme Bonaparte (1856) and Dorothea, Princesse Lieven (1856).

Watts had first met Prince Jérôme in France, early in his career; he and Ary Scheffer were commissioned at the same time, in 1844, to paint the Prince’s daughter, Mathilde, Princesse Demidoff [11]. This contact with Scheffer is in itself interesting, as he was another artist extremely interested in the appearance of his own frames, and was a friend of the sculptor Félicie de Fauveau who designed frames for the collector, Prince Demidoff [12]. Working in such a milieu may have increased Watts’s interest not only in designing his own frames generally, but also in fitting the design in some emblematically appropriate way to his paintings. Whilst the Italian frames on portraits of the Hollands and the group of friends about them may have hinted at their life in a Medici-like court, and have pointed up Watts’s own ambitions as a Renaissance artist, the French bunched-leaf frames may have been chosen not only for their decorative qualities but as a link with French artists and portraiture of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Similarly, the oak leaf garland frames may have been chosen as appropriate for British sitters.

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Ariadne on Naxos, 1888-90, o/c, 49 ¾ x 40 ins (126.4 x 101.6 cm.), and detail, Fogg Museum/ Harvard Art Museums

Watt’s’s later painting, Ariadne on Naxos, is also framed in a garland of leaves, but this time of bay leaves. If this is Watts’s choice, and another version of the oak-leaf frame, then he may have chosen bay leaves as more suitable for a classical subject. However, although the painting was bought from the artist by Leopold Hirsch (when it would probably have retained Watts’s frame, unless the buyer had strong views of his own), it made its way around 1939-40 into the hands of the American collector, Grenville L. Winthrop. Winthrop was not only responsible for taking the six Days of Creation by Burne-Jones out of the altarpiece frame which the artist had specifically requested (in notes on the back of each panel) should not be done, but also disposed of Holman Hunt’s own frame designed for his Miracle of the Holy Fire [13]. Anything which has passed through Winthrop’s hands cannot therefore be trusted to have retained the artist’s choice of setting. However, this particular pattern on Watts’s Ariadne is very unlike either the plain mouldings which replaced Burne-Jones’s frame, or the reproduction Louis XIV frame on Holman Hunt’s painting, and may therefore be the original, which has squeaked through Winthrop’s prejudices with its timeless and inoffensive NeoClassicism.

The ‘Watts’ frame

 G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Garibaldi, 1864, o/c, 68.6 x 55.9 cm., Watts Gallery

At some point in the 1860s, Watts began to use the frame which bears his name, and which became one of the most ubiquitous styles for British paintings in the later 19th century. By 1883 Luther Hooper was noting, in an article in The Cabinet Maker and Art Furnisher, that:

‘Fully one-third of the pictures at the various exhibitions for some years past have been framed in mouldings of this pattern in its various sizes, and it is indeed the only pattern of a really satisfactory character for wide frames in the market’ [14].

Hooper describes the design as being ‘known by the name of its introducer, Mr Watts, R.A.’, and this reference appears to be the earliest indication that it had become commonly known as a ‘Watts’ frame. It also came to be seen, since Watts was a prolific portraitist, as the best contemporary frame for this genre. A group of his works formed the core of the later 19th century section of the National Portrait Gallery, and thus the ‘Watts’ frame became a type of ‘livery frame’ for pictures of the same period in the collection (one artist was informed that it was the only frame design which would allow her work to harmonize with others in the Gallery) [15].

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Tennyson, National Gallery of Victoria; detail & section taken from the Gallery website, after the illustrated entry in John Payne, Framing the Nineteenth Century, Images Publishing, Mulgrave, Victoria, 2007

Piero della Francesca (c.1416-92), Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, c.1450-51, 44 c 34 cm., Musée du Louvre

Piero della Francesca, Louvre (on left), & a ‘Watts’ frame, Watts Gallery (on right), details of frames

The ‘Watts’ frame was based on an Italian Renaissance model: a simple form of 16th century cassetta (Bolognese or Tuscan) with a wide frieze between carved foliate mouldings. In Watts’s frame, the mouldings are made of composition on a pine base, and consist of a stylized cross-cut acanthus moulding and an astragal-&-triple bead ornament below it (very close in arrangement to the frame on the Piero shown here), with a small alternating leaf-bud at the sight edge. The frieze was notably contemporary, however, in its use of an oak veneer which was gilded directly onto the wood, with no intermediate layer of gesso, letting the grain of the wood give texture and pattern to the gold. The main structure of the frame was fixed with mitred joints at the corners, which had been the standard technique since the 17th century, but the oak frieze was fixed with butt joints, in which each plank abutted its fellow with a straight, perpendicular junction.

Both the use of butt joints and of gold leaf laid directly onto wood seem to have been taken from Netherlandish frames of the 15th and 16th century, and were revived as a contemporary technique by Ford Madox Brown and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, probably first appearing on Rossetti’s work in 1861 [16]. They were regarded by the Pre-Raphaelites and their mentor, Ruskin, as somehow expressive of the integrity of early art, as opposed to the suavity and artifice of Renaissance paintings and frames. The burnished gilding of the latter, laid on a layer of polished gesso, was seen in Ruskinian terms as intended to give the effect of solid gold, or gilt ormolu, and thus was deceptive – even deceitful. The opposite qualities of truth and authenticity were implied in the use of gilded oak. This innovative technique (in an era when gilded compo, with its satin-smooth finish, was almost universally employed) was praised by Charles Eastlake in his Household Hints:

‘The effect of oak-grain seen through leaf-gold is exceedingly good, and the appearance of texture thus produced is infinitely more interesting…’ [17].

His appreciation of this use of gilded oak helped to popularize the ‘Watts’ frame; it was a quick method of achieving a modern look, whilst its otherwise Renaissance style saved it from being too avant-garde for popular taste. Its use of composition ornament also made it relatively easy and economical to produce; so altogether it satisfied enough requirements of fashion, aesthetic effect, tradition and cost to explain its ubiquitousness in the late 19th century.

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Ellen Terry (Choosing), c.1864, o/ board, 18 5/8 x 13 7/8 ins (47.2 x 35.2 cm.), National Portrait Gallery. Photo: ©2015 Tim Pickford-Jones

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Virginia Dalrymple, 1865, o/ panel, 17 ½ x 11 ½ ins (44.45 x 29.21 cm.), Fogg Museum/ Harvard Art Museums

An enriched form of the frame was also produced, where the frieze was gilded on gesso and then punched with a Renaissance-style foliate design – also like the frame of the Piero in the Louvre – giving a subtly shimmering effect, like silk brocade. This type of ‘Watts’ frame was used by the artist on, for example, his self-portrait of 1864, although this has been altered (see the introductory image at the beginning of this article; Tate); on the portrait of Virginia Dalrymple (above), and on Choosing (1864; above, top). An enriched ‘Watts’ frame can also be seen on a number of other portraits, including Helen Rose Huth (c.1857-8, Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin); Frances, Marchioness of Bath (c.1861-65, Longleat); David Ogilvy, 10th Earl of Airlie (1865-6) and John Egerton-Cust, 2nd Earl Brownlow (c.1865, Belton, NT), amongst others [18]. It seems to have become a favourite type for his grander commissioned portraits of the 1860s, and is an extremely effective and decorative foil for his work.

D.G. Rossetti (1828-82), Monna Vanna, 1866, o/c, 88.9 x 86.4 cm., and detail, Tate

The same frame pattern was also used by D.G. Rossetti amongst others, for example for Monna Vanna (1866, reframed 1873), where he aggrandizes it with his parcel-gilt black reeded moulding, to marry it better with the painting [19]. He also had the punched pattern applied to the frieze of one of his medallion designs for the frame of The Beloved (1865-6, reframed 1873, Tate).

Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), Henry & Dame Millicent Fawcett, 1872, o/c, 42 ¾ x 33 ins (108.6 x 83.8 cm.), National Portrait Gallery

Ford Madox Brown used a punched foliate Watts frame for his double portrait, Henry Fawcett and Dame Millicent Fawcett (1872; like Rossetti, also with a husk or hazelnut sight edge moulding), only here the decorative leaf pattern differs from Watts’s and Rossetti’s version. Interestingly, Brown referred to this frame design as

‘…a Venecian [sic] pattern (much liked now by friends of mine for works of this description)…’

in a letter of 1872 to his patron, Sir Charles Dilke [20]. The fact that he identifies it in this way suggests that it may only have begun to be known as a ‘Watts frame’ sometime after 1872 (the name was certainly in use by 1883, as Luther Hooper’s article shows). Brown also noted that the frame was to be had from Joseph Green, framemaker to Watts and to the Pre-Raphaelites.

J.E. Millais (1829-1896), Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, 1881, o/c, 50 ¼ x 36 5/8 ins (127.6 x 93.1 cm.), National Portrait Gallery

As noted above, the various advantages of this design caused it to achieve sufficiency popularity to become the archetypal setting for late 19th and earlier 20th   century paintings, particularly for portraits and for work by followers of the Pre-Raphaelites. It is unfortunate that the origins of such a popular, and such a comparatively recent, design cannot be pinpointed more accurately. It is impossible to tell whether Watts himself was wholly responsible for the combination of frieze and mouldings, or possibly Rossetti with Ford Madox Brown, or even all three of them; or whether it might be designed partly with the help of the framemaker Joseph Green, who realized some of the most imaginative early frame designs of Millais, Holman Hunt, Ford Madox Brown and Rossetti.

It is also difficult to focus more narrowly on those origins simply because Watts himself has made dating his frames almost impossible. He was a serial re-user of frames, working mainly on standard sizes of canvas which could be whipped into a convenient frame for exhibition, and whipped out again when the next work came along. The typical head and shoulders or kit-cat portrait by Watts is most often painted on a canvas from a range of four sizes: 23 x 19 ½ ins, 25 x 20 ins, 26 x 21 ins, or 29 x 24 ½ ins (these may vary by ½ to ¾ inch either way, and of course there are many exceptions). Similarly, there is a range of basic widths for the frame rail: 5 ½ ins, 6 ½ ins, and 7 ½ ins, with the 6 ½ ins size being used for most portraits in the range given above, and also for smaller subject pictures, and the 7 ½ ins size being used for larger subject paintings (for example, Love Steering the Boat of Humanity, Watts Gallery, which is 78 x 54 ins). Some portraits in the smaller sizes of the basic range have frame widths of 5 ½ ins; and there is a second group of frames in widths of 4 ½ to 5 ¼  ins, although these are much less common and tend to be confined to smaller, odd-sized portraits (such as Thoby Prinsep, 1871, Watts Gallery, 20 x 16 ins, frame width 5 ¼ ins; illustrated below) and tall, narrow sketches for subject pictures (Eve Repentant, Watts Gallery) [21].

Watts’s attitude to picture framing and hanging

 Allied to Watts’s economic recycling of frames was a reluctance to present the frame of a commissioned work to the client: Watts wrote to Sir Charles Dilke on 9 March 1873,

‘I have made it a rule not to provide frames to portraits unless it is desired I should do so and then the price of the frame is extra. This does not apply to a picture bought after it is complete as the frame is then part of it and considered in the price…’

Like J.M.W. Turner, who had demanded twenty guineas extra from his patron for the frame of The Bridgewater Seapiece (exh.1801, National Gallery, London) [22], and like Albert Moore, who asked James Leathart to pay for a pair of frames in 1871 [23], Watts required Dilke to pay an extra five guineas for the frame of his 300 guinea portrait of John Stuart Mill [24]. Since many artists made no separate charge for framing, these three only succeeded in annoying their patrons; and yet the cost of frames was a constant drain on all but the most successful of artists. Whistler, for instance, ordering two wide frames in 1862, stipulated ‘the outside painted instead of gilded’ [25], and the revival of gilding directly onto the surface of the wood meant that labour costs for that part of the frame could be cut by a half or two-thirds.

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Thetis, 1867-69, o/c, 193 x 53.3 cm., Watts Gallery

Regarding the type of gilding which Watts preferred for his frames, many of his paintings tend towards the warmer end of the spectrum, and his frames were generally gilded in a similar hue: an orangey or reddish gold which complements both the portraits and many of the subject paintings. However, there are exceptions, such as Thetis (exh.1866, Watts Gallery). This life-size naked nymph is pearly and chilly, and is posed against the waters from which she came; her frame is fittingly gilded with a very pale yellow leaf, and over a white ground rather than on red bole, giving the whole a silvery-golden tone [26].

The artist might also become involved with the painting’s final hanging-place. Watts expressed his wish to one important patron, Charles Rickards, that his paintings be hung on a dark wall:

‘If your walls are light I would beg you, for the sake of your own pleasure in the pictures, to have your room re-papered. It may seem a rather bold request, but pictures are expensive luxuries, and a man ought to get all the satisfaction he can get out of them, and, I may say, in justice to the artist. Any dark colour red or green, and no matter how rich, would do, and if possible the picture should be hung with the light on the spectator’s left, and not too near the window, because the spectator should stand between the pictures and the light.’ [27]

This concern with the way in which their pictures were displayed was common to artists in the later 19th century; for example, Holman Hunt wrote to the owner of his watercolour, Recollections of the Arabian Nights, to suggest that it should be hung

‘with a space about it of say one foot covered with deep red-blood coloured cloth’ [28].

D.G. Rossetti (1828-82), The seed of David, 1858-64, triptych (panels respectively 73 x 24 ½, 90 x 60, & 73 x 24 ½ ins), in original frame on the high altar, Llandaff Cathedral, early 20th century

Similarly, when Rossetti was commissioned to paint the triptych The seed of David for Llandaff Cathedral, he was extremely concerned with the way it was to be displayed on the high altar in a NeoGothic frame of white Caen stone. As he wrote to his aunt in June 1864:

‘…The three pictures are in a stone framework in the Cathedral, which I, fear, being white, must injure their effect much; but before long I shall go down there, and give directions for such decoration of the framework as seems best…’

John Seddon, who had engineered the commission, reported that Rossetti indeed descended on him at Llandaff,

‘…when he frankly acknowledged that, as regards the decoration of the Cathedral, he had misjudged its effect. I asked him what, if anything, could be done to remedy this, and he replied “Oh! you must get the Chapter to paint the end of the Cathedral black”.’

The Chapter was not amused, although Rossetti was allowed to retouch the triptych:

‘A letter from the Rev. W. Bruce… expresses his willingness to support Rossetti’s wish [to rework it]… adding that the notion of colouring the frame could not be entertained.’ [29]

F.R. Leyland’s drawing room, 49 Prince’s Gate, 1892, photograph by Harry Bedford Lemere, Historic England Archive, no. BL1152849

The effect of an interior arranged and coloured to suit contemporary works can be seen in the 1892 photographs by Harry Bedford Lemere of the house belonging to Frederick Leyland, patron of the Pre-Raphaelites [30]. His rooms were hung with a dark damask patterned wallpaper which Watts would have appreciated; against this ground the pictures by Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and Frederick Sandys glowed with an effect of twilit richness.

Watts’s framemakers

Watts patronized several framemaking firms. In Florence in the mid-1840s, businesses which supplied frames for his pictures, whether to Watts himself or his clients, included Carlo Conti in Via Borgognissanti and the Fratelli Pacetti, as noted above.

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Father of the artist, 1833, Watts Gallery; frame label of M. & B. Bartington

His early portrait, Father of the Artist, painted when he was about 16, is set in a complex moulding frame, dating perhaps to the 1850s, with the label of M. & R. Bartington of 58 Wardour Street, London. The ‘M’ stands for Mahala, one of the few women to run a framing business.

Soon after his return from Italy in 1847, Watts can be found using a framemaker, as yet unidentified, who was in the habit of impressing a five-digit number on the reverse of the frame. These numbers are associated with some of the oak leaf garland frames, and also with other patterns [31]. These numbers do not appear to be order numbers; they may relate either to the customer or to the pattern (reverse boxwood moulds, used for shaping compo ornament, generally had a reference number painted on the end of the wooden oblong, so that they could be stored on shelves with the number immediately visible).

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Portrait of Garibaldi, 1864, Watts Gallery; frame label of J. Green

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Lady Constance Lothian and her sisters, 1862, Earl of Ancram; frame label of J. Green

Watts subsequently moved to Joseph Green of 14 Charles Street, Middlesex Hospital, son of the Joseph Green who had set up the business in 1801, and framemaker to the Pre-Raphaelites. Watts’s London studio was at one point apparently in the same street as Joseph Green’s workshop in Charles Street [32]. A label of Green’s (‘J. GREEN. Carver and Gilder’) is on the frame now on Watts’s Portrait of Garibaldi (1864, Watts Gallery), and a later label for ‘JOSEPH GREEN & CO., CARVING AND GILDING MANUFACTORY…’ can be found on the back of the enriched Watts frame of Lady Constance Lothian and her sisters (1862, Earl of Ancram).

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Thoby Prinsep, 1871, 20 x 15.9 ins (50.8 x 40.6 cm.), Watts Gallery; & frame label of W. A. Smith

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Matthew Arnold, National Portrait Gallery; frame label of W. A. Smith

In 1871 or 1872, William Smith took over Joseph Green & Co., and a label of ‘W.A SMITH, (LATE J. GREEN)’ can be found on the back of the frame of Thoby Prinsep (1871, Watts Gallery). Smith was described in 1912 by Watts’s second wife as

‘The head of the firm of carvers and gilders… who gave Signor service for sixty years’,

and in 1898 by George Williamson as

‘a somewhat illiterate maw… in the Master’s confidence’ [33].

Watts’s Self-portrait in the Uffizi Gallery (1880) has a label of ‘W.A. SMITH, Carver and Gilder,… LONDON W.’

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), Self-portrait, 1903-04, Watts Gallery; frame label of Smith & Uppard

G.F. Watts (1817-1904), John Laird Mair Lawrence, 1st Baron Lawrence, 1895, National Portrait Gallery; frame label of Smith & Uppard

In 1889, W.A. Smith became Smith & Uppard, dealing under this name until taken over by James Bourlet in 1899. Watts’s Self-portrait of 1903-4 (Watts Gallery) now has a frame with the label of ‘SMITH & UPPARD (Successors to W.A. Smith)…77, MORTIMER STREET’, and Roundell Palmer, 1st Earl of Selborne (1892-3, Lincoln’s Inn) also has a Smith and Uppard label. Watts may not have appreciated the final incarnation of this long-lived business; his correspondence of 1899, the year of its absorption by Bourlet, and of 1903, mentions a framemaker by the name of Lamm (probably Christian Lamm of Kensington).

A hang of G. F. Watts’s works in the Watts Gallery, Compton


With grateful thanks to Jacob Simon, for his help with information and images

The exhibition of 2004 at the National Portrait Gallery enabled this study of Watts’s choice of frames throughout his career; the catalogue by Barbara Bryant, GF Watts Portraits: Fame & Beauty in Victorian Society, is now out of print, but still obtainable online.


[1] The cartoons (which were all to be ‘not less than 10 ft. nor more than 15 ft. in their longest dimension’), were exhibited from 3rd July to 2nd September 1843 in Westminster Hall. Watts’s cartoon was sold whilst he was in Italy, and was cut into pieces by the art dealer; the V & A possesses three fragments of his winning cartoon, along with a reduced version of the whole thing (T.R. Boase, ‘The decoration of the New Palace of Westminster, 1841-1863’, Journal of the Warburg & Courtauld Institutes, vol. 17, no 3/4, 1954, pp.326-27).  See also Watts’s entry for a second competition in 1847, which he won with a painting of Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Prevent the Landing of the Danes (this time he received £500)

[2] It is also possible that this animal may represent a dog, an emblem of matrimonial fidelity which might have been chosen by Lord Holland as a tenth anniversary tribute to his wife.

[3] Andrew Wilton, The Swagger Portrait, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, 1992, cat. no. 58

[4] Edward Morris, Victorian & Edwardian Paintings in the Walker Art Gallery and at Sudley House, National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside, 1996, p.496, note 1

[5] See Lynn Roberts, ‘English Picture Frames: The Victorian High Renaissance’, The International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship, vol.5, 1986, p.287.

[6] G.F. Watts letters: National Portrait Gallery Archive, Watts Letterbooks, vol. XII, p. 26

[7] Julia Cartwright, ‘George Frederic Watts RA’, Easter Annual, The Art Journal, 1896, p. 29

[8] Mary Ionides was the wife of Constantine Ionides, and Chariclea was their daughter; the latter portrait was sold by Phillips, 17 December 1996, lot 75

[9] The portrait of Alice Prinsep can be seen in a photograph of Watts’s Gallery at Little Holland House published in 1884

[10] Reproduced by Barbara Bryant in ‘G.F. Watts at the Grosvenor Gallery’, in Susan Casteras and Colleen Denney (eds), The Grosvenor Gallery: A Palace of Art in Victorian England, New Haven and London, 1996, p. 111, fig. 61

[11] Barbara Bryant, G.F. Watts: Portraits. Fame & Beauty in Victorian Society, exh. cat., National Portrait Gallery, 2004, p. 24, note 15

[12] Information from Edgar Harden

[13] For the story of Burne-Jones’s frame for The Days of Creation, see ‘Burne-Jones’s picture frames‘; for Hunt’s description of his frame for The Miracle of the Holy Fire, see ‘What artists, critics & collectors say about frames: Part 2

[14] Jacob Simon, The Art of the Picture Frame, 1996, p. 73

[15] Watts’s ‘Hall of Fame’ portraits, which were given to the National Portrait Gallery, all arrived in ‘Watts’ frames save two, the portraits of Tennyson and Sir Henry Taylor; these were in plain wooden frames and so were reframed in ‘Watts’ patterns by the Gallery’s own framemaker, Francis Draper, with the tacit agreement of the artist. This was done in 1896, at a cost of £3 per frame. See Simon, op. cit., p.173

[16] Roberts, op. cit., pp. 158-9.

[17] Charles L. Eastlake, Hints on Household Taste, 3rd ed., 1872, pp. 194 ff. First published 1869

[18] There is a letter from the artist pasted to the reverse of the frame of the portrait of the 10th Earl of Airlie, reading:

‘Dear Lady Airlie/ I have finished the picture & got the frame, you shall have it today if you send the word that you so wish…’.

This frame has the remains of a keyhole in the sight edge at right and hinges at left, presumably to accommodate a window with glass. The frame on the companion portrait of the Countess of Airlie has a keyhole at top

[19] The frame of Monna Vanna has a husk or hazelnut moulding at the sight edge, rather than the more usual twisting leaf-bud; versions of the ‘Watts’ frame employed by various other artists also use this moulding. It is worth drawing attention to Love and Life (1882-93, private collection), which Watts gave to the American people; it was housed at the White House (until sold in 1987) in an aggrandized Watts frame with the oak flat roughly sanded and an additional large-scale outer mouldings of scrolling leaves

[20] Simon, op. cit., cat. no. 82, p. 174

[21] Information on canvas and frame sizes kindly supplied by Richard Jeffries, previously director of the Watts Gallery, Compton

[22] See ‘Turner’s picture frames: Part 1

[23] Simon, op. cit., p. 87

[24] Ibid., quoting from National Portrait Gallery Archive, Watts Letterbooks, op. cit., p. 90

[25] J. Mathey, ‘Letters of J.M. Whistler to George A. Lucas’, Art Bulletin, vol. 49, 1967, p. 249

[26] Many of the pictures at the Watts Gallery at Compton are housed in ‘Watts’ frames. Because of the quantity of works in the collection and their close hanging, it is the ideal setting in which to study Watts’s use of different shades of gold leaf and the comparative proportions of the frames. The conservation of some ‘Watts’ frames is described in Solveig Falck-Therkelsen, ‘The Restoration of Seven Watts Frames at the Tate Gallery’, Conservation News, no. 65, March 1998, pp.34-6

[27] M.S. Watts, George Frederic Watts, vol.1, 1912, pp. 224-5; this letter apparently dates to 1866

[28] Hunt to James Pyke Thompson, 19 November 1891, National Museums & Galleries of Wales, Turner House Autograph Book. Information from Judith Bronkhurst; see also Judith Bronkhurst, William Holman Hunt: A catalogue raisonné, 2006, vol. 1

[29] After World War II, when the cathedral was restored, the architect involved moved The seed of David into a side chapel, and in 1989 it was given a gilded revival Gothic frame and displayed against a dark background. See Arthur Impey, ‘The Rossetti triptych’, Majestas, Issue 4, winter 2019, p. 32

[30] See Nicholas Cooper, The Opulent Eye, 1976, pl. 38-41; the original photographs are held by the Historic England Archive

[31] The frame on Virginia Pattle, exhibited 1850, has the number, 21250; Isabella (Arabella Prescott), 1857, is numbered 10050; Mary (‘Minnie’) Senior, 1856-57, is numbered 10358. Another portrait by Watts, a small head of Chariclea Ionides aged five, sold Phillips, 17 December 1996, lot 75, framed in an oak leaf garland moulding like Virginia Pattle but unlike the two latter paintings, is numbered 96350 (the digit ‘5’ is indistinct). Later in the 19th century the firm of Dolman was using five figure numbers on their frames (see Simon, op. cit., pp. 138 & 178, nos 92 & 94) but there is not sufficient evidence to identify any of Watts’s frames as the work of Criswick’s, the predecessor firm to Dolman, discussed in Simon, op. cit., p. 133. For Dolman’s frames, see also Lynn Roberts, ‘John Brett’s Picture Frames’,  in  John Brett: Pre-Raphaelite Landscape Painter, Christiana Payne and Charles Brett, Yale University Press, 2010

[32] Bryant, op. cit., p. 16

[33] Simon, op. cit., cat. no. 80, note 2, p. 173