Book review: Ham House – 400 years of collecting & patronage, ed. Christopher Rowell…

…including ‘Picture framing at Ham in the 17th century’, by Jacob Simon

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Ham House – 400 years of collecting & patronage, ed. Christopher Rowell, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art & the National Trust, Yale University Press, 2013; 400 pp., 250 colour & 100 b-&-w illustrations; IBSN 9780300185409; £75.00

This study of Ham House is a mammoth undertaking, comprising 28 chapters and 8 appendices, created by 24 of the country’s leading art historians. It is exquisitely produced, with a wealth of illuminating and beautiful images, and covers the history of the building, its exterior & interior architecture, the paintings, and all the decorative arts involved, from parquetry floors and ceramics to plasterwork and silver. It is a stunning and admirable achievement, and entirely appropriate for a house which has retained and reveals so many aspects of courtly life and the history of collecting in the 17th century and later.

It includes frames of all kinds: not only picture frames, but looking-glasses in marquetry, silverwork and scagliola, tapestry borders, door frames and overdoors, carved wooden wall and stucco ceiling mouldings, the ripple borders of cabinets and the inlaid edges of table-tops. All these various frames echo and reflect each other in a complex decorative dance, demonstrating the close relationship of the applied arts of a similar period, and the integrated nature of an interior which has been created by the best and most accomplished of contemporary craftsmen.

Collection of ebony-framed pictures and miniatures on the east wall of the Green Closet at Ham House, Surrey.

Collection of ebony-framed pictures and miniatures on the east wall of the Green Closet at Ham House, Surrey. Photo credit  ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The second chapter describes the Green Closet: a small-scale representation of this integrated and beautifully-crafted world; as it notes,

‘There is nowhere else in Britain where one can appreciate the subtle beauty of an early 17th century Kunstkammer, still thickly hung – like a veritable picture gallery in miniature – with tiers of subject pictures, landscapes, small portraits and miniatures.’

It was constructed in the 1630s, under the ownership of the Stuart courtier, William Murray, by royal craftsmen, on the lines of the Renaissance studiolo (Isabella d’Este’s, for instance, with its gilded and coffered ceiling, like the lid of a jewel-box). It is lit by a north light, like an artist’s studio, hung with ‘greene stuffe’, and has a coved ceiling based on Isabella’s – although here decorated with paintings by Francis Clein.  The carving of the doors, dado, ceiling mouldings and chimneypiece express the decorative agenda seen elsewhere in the house, and the pictures reflect (although cannot exactly reproduce) the original hanging. A 1679 inventory sums up the latter brusquely as,

‘Fourteen pictures with guilt frames

Thirty Eight pictures with black ebony frames.’

SALOME WITH THE HEAD OF ST JOHN THE BAPTIST by Jacques Stella in the Green Closet at Ham House, Surrey.

Jacques Stella (1596-1657), Salome with the head of John the Baptist, 1637, The Green Closet, Ham House, Surrey. Photo credit  ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

One of these was acquired by William Murray, together with its original ebony ripple frame: Stella’s Salome with the head of St John the Baptist, 1637. It is painted on slate, probably executed in Paris, and glows softly against the satin texture of its ebony setting. Two other notable frames in the Green Closet are the Grinling Gibbons-style Dutch limewood frames of Gerritt Dou’s Bust of an old man, 1635, and the Head of Erasmus, after Holbein, for which the similar frame has been cropped at the sight to fit. Along with other ebony-framed pictures and gilt-framed miniatures, they stud the walls of this little treasure chest like small gems: the private cabinet of the householder, where he could also show off his most precious acquisitions to his friends and peers.

Plasterwork ceiling on the Great Staircase at Ham House, Richmond upon Thames, Surrey.

Plasterwork ceiling, the Great Staircase, Ham House, Surrey. Photo credit  ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Another early chapter moves outwards to the internal structures and decoration of the house as a whole. Clare Gapper’s essay on ‘Caroline plasterwork at Ham: the 1630s & the 1670s’ describes the influence of Inigo Jones’s ceiling designs, based on Palladio’s interpretation of Roman coffered prototypes, and how these geometric and classicizing patterns replaced the pendants, strapwork and grotesque decoration of the very early 17th century. Their regular divisions, architectural ornaments and garlands of fruit & flowers are in effect nothing but empty frames, which reduce the wasteland of the bare ceiling to aesthetically pleasing sections of space, creating a rhythm from the ratios of these sections, or tension from the juxtaposition of square and circular forms; – they sculpt the ceiling with light and shadow from their mouldings, and they reflect, in their bands of egg-&-dart, guilloche and naturalistic garlands, similar ornaments on the picture frames and furnishings beneath them.

Detail of the cornice and frieze in the Hall Gallery at Ham House, Surrey.

Detail of the entablature and ceiling of the Dining Room or Hall Gallery at Ham House, Surrey. Photo credit  ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

They were produced (in the 1630s) by Joseph Kinsman, who made the leap from early Jacobean decoration to the avant-garde classicizing style of Inigo Jones, enabling him to work for the King and his court. It is fascinating to be shown the evolution of his art at Ham, where a gamut of ornament bands the ceilings and cornices, its opulence concentrated by its rigidly linear form and its lack of colour: the ghost of the gilded ceilings – there framing paintings – at the Queen’s House, Greenwich and the Banqueting House, Whitehall. In the 1670s Ham received further ceilings, produced by Henry Wells, where the bands of moulding are occasionally released into airy swags and concentric leafy curves.   Close-up details reveal the sculptural quality and inventive, sophisticated language of these decorations; also their relationship to carved giltwood frames.

The Great Staircase at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames

The Great Staircase at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames; created 1638-9 by the joiner Thomas Carter, the plasterer Joseph Kinsman and the gilder Matthew Goodricke.  Photo credit  ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Following this chapter is a consideration by David Adshead and Christopher Rowell of  ’17th century decorative woodwork at Ham House’.  This is centred on the Great Staircase, carved with military trophies  (which migrated to Netherlandish picture frames shortly after, and to British ones sometime later), and the doorcases and decorative panelling here and in the state rooms.

The elaborate front entrance at the North Front of Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames

Doorcase and front door, Ham House, Surrey.  Photo credit  ©National Trust Images/Nick Meers

As with the plaster ceilings, there are two main periods for this work – the 1630s, with British joiners and carvers, and the 1670s, when the craftsmen were Dutch. Ham House is designed not only as an Horatian country villa, removed from city life, but as a small ceremonial palace to receive the king: its entrance is the opening to a processional route patterned on Renaissance models, in which the door (via Jones and Palladio) is very like a grand aedicular altarpiece. The Staircase rises out of the Hall beyond in all its knightly splendour, interspersed with drops of carved bay leaves, and friezes with fruit & foliate swags between more trophies. The genesis of this extraordinary showcase of carved woodwork is examined, through the ownership of William Murray, who held Ham from 1626 and had grown up at court with the future Charles I.

Punctuating the Staircase are its entrance arch and landings with doorcases in the Mannerist style, with outset corners, open hemispherical and triangular pediments holding carved busts, and extravagantly-carved friezes. The doors themselves are panelled with outset mouldings, and floating voluted ‘pediments’. These function as frames for the enfilades of rooms to which they give access, and for the pageantry of courtly life which they would have contained.

A close-up of the marble chimneypiece and overmantel in the North Drawing Room at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames, Surrey

North Drawing Room chimneypiece, overmantel & surround, Ham House, Surrey. Photo credit  ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

They lead to the North Drawing Room, where the central hearth of the house, as it were, is presented within an extraordinary off-white and gilded chimneypiece, encased by Baroque Salomonic columns supporting voluted S-scrolls of gilded acanthus leaves, rising to fans of curling feathers. Putti play amongst vines on the columns, support the overmantel, and are depicted in the painting they hold, by Francis Clein. The concept of the frame widening out from the moulding which physically encloses the picture, to the interior architecture and the furnished room, is particularly clear in this astonishing chimneypiece; the inner frame is a relatively simple scotia moulding adorned with cross-cut acanthus (except for the relief of embracing putti on a lionskin, carved above the painting); however it has an outer frame in the form of the supporting putti sculpted in the round, with their swags of fruit, perched on the plinth and integral to the overmantel. This, and the chimneypiece, are held between the Salomonic columns, which are part of the interior wall decoration with its painted and gilded doors and overdoors, and the cornice and ceiling of the room. Further out still are the moveable furnishings, such as the bordered tapestries hanging on the wall. The examination of the workmanship, models and sources in this chapter is fascinating, meticulous, and studded with supporting reference to invoices in the house archives.

As the heart of the house may be symbolized by the drawing room chimneypiece, so the heart of the book might in some sense be said to lie in chapter 11, Jacob Simon’s ‘Picture framing at Ham in the 17th century’. Here is the art collection – the visible representation of the artistic and intellectual interests of the Caroline court, the copies after Correggio, Bloemaert and Titian, Netherlandish landscapes and history paintings, Van Dyck’s Charles I, and portraits by Lely and Ashfield. It encapsulates kingship, the monarch as part of an ideal family (through the copy of Van Dyck’s portrait of Henrietta Maria), and the continental influences diffused through the Court to the country, via sacred, mythological, history and landscape paintings.  The frames which hold the collection are equally poised on the tip of continental style; they summarize the break with the Tudor and early Stuart world, in which Britain had been far less open to the new classical trends of the Renaissance, where collected artists were northern rather than Italian, and where the frames were simple architrave and entablature profiles, developed from panelling, produced by cabinetmakers and joiners, and stained black or brown with parcel gilding.

CHARLES I (1600-1649), by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641)and Studio, in the Long Gallery at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames

Sir Anthony Van Dyck and studio, Charles I, c.1637, in carved & gilt frame supplied by the artist, Ham House, Surrey.  Photo credit  ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Now, at Ham in the 1630s, we see native versions of the Venetian Sansovino frame, the Mannerist Auricular frame, and a torus or cushion carved with fruit-&-flower garlands, which derives from the polychrome terracotta frames of Della Robbia sculpted roundels, and further back from classical pulvinated friezes, re-introduced by Inigo Jones. The explosion of colour and gold in these frames must have been extraordinary in a country accustomed to dark oblong silhouettes, hung against wooden panelling, leather or tapestry; the profusion of curvilinear forms, painted grounds and gilding must have seemed the ultimate in international sophistication – in an earlier chapter, John Evelyn is quoted as describing Ham (in 1678) as ‘furnishd like a great Princes’. The discussion of the frames at Ham marshals the play of influences here: for example, the acquisition by Charles I of the Mantua collection from 1628, with their blue and white parcel gilt frames and others gilded overall. The craftsmen are also introduced, and their area of work – Matthew Goodricke (1630s)   and Nicholas Moore (1670s) for painting and gilding, Thomas Carter (1630s), Henry Harlow and John Bullamore (1670s) respectively for the carcases and for carving, the Norris family for both carving and gilding (Henry Norris in the 1630s, and his son John in the 1670s).  Netherlandish and German craftsmen may also have produced some of the frames at Ham.

QUEEN HENRIETTA MARIA (1609-69) after Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) dated 1637, in the Long Gallery at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames

(After) Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Queen Henrietta Maria, 1637, in original carved & gilt frame, Ham House, Surrey.  Photo credit  ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

This chapter is, like the entire book, beautifully illustrated, showing the Sansovinesque frames on the portraits of the king and queen, the Auricular and Sunderland gilded patterns, cushion and scrolling foliate frames (the latter on a painted ground), and the imaginative and highly individual versions of Auricular frames on the Great Staircase, carved from oak and ungilded. These last frames are now dark with age and polish, but may originally – rather like Grinling Gibbons’s limewood carvings – have been very much lighter in colour, possibly standing out against a more deeply-coloured wall.

Detail and part of the frame of DIANA AND ACTAEON by Miguel de la Cruz (active c.1630-1660) after Titian, at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames

Miguel de la Cruz (fl. c.1630-60) after Titian, Diana and Actaeon, Ham House, Surrey. Photo credit  ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

They, and the other Auricular frames, were referred to as ‘leatherwork’, a term which is examined here in some depth in reference to specific frames: the copy of Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, for example,

‘is housed in a bold elongation of this standard “grimacing mask” pattern, but with a fantastic horned mask at bottom centre and expanded ornament on the sides, the forms weighty and ponderous.  The bottom member of the frame can be viewed as roughly cut flat skin, curling and scrolling at its extremities back over the skin itself.’

ELIZABETH MURRAY, LADY TOLLEMACHE, LATER COUNTESS OF DYSART AND DUCHESS OF LAUDERDALE WITH A BLACK SERVANT by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80), c.1651, painting in the Long Gallery at Ham House, Surrey.

Sir Peter Lely, Elizabeth Murray, Lady Tollemache, later Countess of Dysart and Duchess of Lauderdale with a black servant, c.1651, Ham House, Surrey. Photo credit  ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Similarly, the gilded frame on Lely’s portrait, Elizabeth, Countess of Dysart, and a black servant, c.1650, with its scrolling, melting and liquescent forms, has

‘a stylized lion mask and paws at top…By identifying the upturned rounded forms at the corners as paws… it is possible to read the top of the frame as a highly stylized representation of a lion’s skin.’

The intensely visual language of this essay, with close-up images of frame elements and clear overall shots, combines to present a particularly lucid account of the frames at Ham.

Van Dyck Charles I corner

Sir Anthony Van Dyck and studio, Charles I, c.1637, detail of frame, Ham House, Surrey. Photo credit  ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Again, Van Dyck’s portrait of the king, c. 1637, which seems to have been supplied by the artist already presented in its Sansovinesque gilded frame, is described in evocative detail, bringing to life the organization of organic folds, swirling leaves, grotesque mascarons and threaded ropes. Only perhaps the description of a pomegranate at the centres of the trefoil corners might perhaps be questioned; this looks like a more English botanic form. The Sunderland frames (1660s-80s) on Lely’s portraits in the Long Gallery may also have been supplied through the artist, perhaps by John Norris.

A tapestry at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames, Surrey.

Grotesque with Soldier’s Farewell, English tapestry, possibly Mortlake, c.1619-24, Ham House,   Surrey. Photo credit  ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The thirteenth chapter deals with the Ham tapestries.  These have sadly been all but completely dispersed; however, the one remaining panel from the 1620s, possibly made at Mortlake, has a border which echoes the concentric foliate scrolling (gold on white) around the chimneypiece in the North Drawing Room, the overdoor friezes on the Great Staircase, and the cornices of the Hall Gallery. This tapestry border is outlined by gold acanthus leaf and astragal-&-bead ‘mouldings’, and has corner-&-centre motifs featuring cabochons and square-cut ‘stones’ in settings with leatherwork details. Its relationship to carved wood picture frames is striking; it is close to being a woven trompe l’oeil version of a frame.

A tapestry at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames, Surrey

Sumpter cloth with the atms of John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale, English, designer unknown, 1672-74, Ham House, Surrey.  Photo credit  ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Also remaining are the sumpter cloths from the 1670s, used to cover luggage borne by sumpter animals. Here again, the scrolling foliate borders echo those of the earlier period, and the palm branch corners repeat those in the ceiling plasterwork of the 1670s.

The following chapter is by Reinier Baarsen, author of ‘Herman Doomer, ebony worker in Amsterdam’ (Burlington Magazine, 1996, pp.739-49); his piece on ‘17th century European cabinet-making at Ham House’ is equally fascinating, covering ebony and ivory cabinets, and some superb pieces of marquetry furniture, mostly dating from the 1670s.

Ivory cabinet, c1655-1660, probably Flemish or Dutch, in the North Drawing Room at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames

Cabinet on stand, veneered with ivory, perhaps The Hague, c.1650-60, Ham House, Surrey. Photo credit  ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The earliest item is the mid-17th century ivory cabinet, probably Netherlandish, completely covered, on doors, drawers, stand and internal surfaces, with veneers worked in the ripple patterns almost always associated with ebony furniture and frames (the frames often being German rather than Dutch). This cabinet must have appeared like some alien artefact in the Britain of the 1650s; as Reinier Baarsen points out,

‘The presence of this exquisite piece, which…must have stood out as a startling masterpiece of the emerging art of European cabinet-making, highlights the truly international allure of the interiors and appointments of Ham House in the middle of the 17th century.’

He also underlines the preference of the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale (responsible for the second wave of decoration and furnishing at Ham in the 1670s) for French and Netherlandish craftsmen; these included Gerrit Jensen, who settled here in the 1660s, and by 1689 had become cabinetmaker to the king.

Wall mirror, 1675, of ebony, decorated with floral marquetry in various woods and ivory, at Ham House, Surrey.

Looking-glass, almost certainly by Gerrit Jensen, c.1672-83, of ebony, decorated with floral marquetry in various woods and ivory, Ham House, Surrey. Photo credit  ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Jensen seems to have been responsible for the astonishingly sophisticated and colourful marquetry tables, cabinet and looking-glass frame at Ham. The looking-glass matches one of the tables; both pieces have variations on the scrolling foliate borders noted elsewhere in the house, and also two-dimensional versions of the bound trefoil corners on the Sansovinesque frames. The looking-glass is a form of trophy frame; the crest, along with extremely naturalistic depictions in variegated woods of roses, lilies, carnations and jasmine, holds the profile bust of a Roman emperor in a garland of bay leaves, surmounted by a coronet. Since the glass is mainly empty, as it were, the looking-glass frame can afford more ornamentation and glamour than a picture frame; however, when it is occupied, it has a lot in common with a portrait frame.  The solution to reconciling both these aspects has been achieved here by combining rich decoration and colour with the simplest and most severe of structures, and by expressing the colour in wood rather than paint or stone. The workmanship, detail and execution are extremely subtle: in the vanguard of a process which Jensen apparently introduced to Britain, and which took the Court and the capital by storm.

Detail of scagliola fireplace in the Queen's Closet at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames, Surrey

Baldassare Artima, chimneypiece in the Queen’s Closet, 1673, Ham House, Surrey.  Photo credit  ©National Trust Images/Bill Batten

Scagliola is also examined; the chimneypiece in the Queen’s Closet is made – by Baldassare Artima  – from this novel (in 1673) mixture of ground and coloured selenite, which could be painted onto a ground or dried and inlaid as a mosaic, far more cheaply than the stone version of marquetry, pietre dure. This chimneypiece repeats the motifs of the Salomonic columns from the North Drawing Room, and the concentric foliated volutes of so many pieces in various media throughout Ham House, from plasterwork ceilings and woven tapestries to the picture frames themselves.  It would be difficult to think of another interior where this coherence of ornament runs so consistently through so many varieties of medium and object, and reveals so clearly the current of fashion in a given century.  In this case, the Ham scagliola torchères, also attributed to Artima, have lost their accompanying tables and looking-glass frame, but the chimneypiece speaks for them.

LADY GRACE CARTERET, COUNTESS OF DYSART (1713-55) by John Vanderbank (1694?-1739), painting in the Great Hall at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames

John Vanderbank, Lady Grace Carteret, Countess of Dysart, 1737, in original Palladian ‘Kent’ giltwood frame with outset corners, Ham House, Surrey. Photo credit  ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The book also includes chapters on the library, sculptures, metalwork, textiles, costumes and ceramics of Ham, as well as considerations of later alterations, and its progress as a publicly-owned monument.  The 18th century interventions and collections of the 4th Earl of Dysart are discussed, and here later frames have also found a place. A particularly striking example is the Palladian frame of Dysart’s wife, Lady Grace Carteret by John Vanderbank, with its stunning tête espagnolette at the crest; whilst he is set in a later, much less ornate ‘Maratta’. Yet the 4th Earl was apparently keen on frames, restored old and commissioned new ones, using craftsmen such as Paul Petit,   the Prince of Wales’s framemaker. Old Masters, by Bassano and after Bourdon, Rubens and Mola were reframed in late Louis XIV/ Régence-style patterns, adding to the historical progression of designs throughout the house.

It has been argued (principally by frame historians, but this does not invalidate it as an idea) that the picture frame is the central object to which all other arts are connected, and which serves to tie the objects around it into a coherent whole. This is because the frame reflects the structures and ornaments of the interior architecture where it hangs, and of all other forms of decorative item and furnishing within that room.  It is also the link, as well as the boundary, between the painting it contains and the furnished interior which contains it: it can form a margin or liminal space between the world of the painting and the spectator’s world, and a lien to bind the art into the wider of frame of the room, and the house of which it is a part.

This is a rich, absorbing and eminently approachable book, which reveals this spider’s web of links and ties – visual, physical and metaphysical, encompassing the history of the house and the intellectual programmes of successive ages which have constructed it – and which celebrates every form of the fine and decorative arts within a satisfying and scholarly framework.


With thanks to Christopher Rowell and the National Trust for permission to reproduce the illustrations to this review.


Please see the downloadable PDF of the NT Specialist Publishing Group’s Picture Frames at Ham House written by Jacob Simon:

Picture Frames at Ham House

A hard copy 40-page booklet priced £9.99 is available to buy from the NT online shop and at the shop at the property.

Close view of the gilded moulding in the Queen's Bedchamber at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames, Surrey.