What artists, critics & collectors say about frames: Part 1

W Buchanan

Until the late 19th century there was no literature on frames; they were not considered a part of art history, and they did not appear to figure in the concept of connoisseurship which was handed down in the 20th century. But the choice and manufacture of the right frame has almost always been important to the artist, and generally quite as important to the patron or collector wishing to display his paintings to the best advantage in his house. Their design has been the preserve of noted architects just as much as of carvers and gilders, and some of those carvers could more exactly be described as maîtres-sculpteurs. But most of the detail about the production of picture frames has been so ephemeral, much of it conducted by throwaway drawings, notes and word-of-mouth, that very little has been preserved; we are dependant on scraps of references, in contracts, diaries, letters, reviews and even poems, to get an idea of what was thought about picture frames in different periods by the various people involved.

So here are some quotations, collected together in a sort of rag-bag anthology of references, along with the paintings they relate to – or, if not those exact paintings, then something very close.


Margharito d’Arezzo, The Virgin & Child enthroned, c.1263-64, National Gallery, London

Margharito of Arezzo (fl. 2nd half 13th century): ‘…Over the gypsum thus mixed with glue, he made borders and diadems and other rounded ornaments in relief; and it was he who invented the method of introducing bosses on which he laid gold-leaf which he afterwards burnished’.

Vasari, Lives of the great artists, transl. Hinds.

Margharito d'Arezzo Virgin & Child enthroned detail

Margharito d’Arezzo, detail of frame

In suspiciously good condition for something supposed to be seven-&-a-half centuries old, this reconstituted outer border nevertheless illustrates part of what Vasari was celebrating as innovatory in Margharito’s work. The altarpiece as a whole is a retable or dossal, designed to sit at the back on top of an altar, and developed from similar horizontally composed or square panels which were attached to the front face of the altar (the frontal). The structure of these frontals and dossals reflected the genesis of the wooden altar as a sort of chest, in which relics or the furniture of the Mass might be stored, or which might be placed over the tomb of a saint; and the decorative bosses which Margharito used to ornament his frames were an echo or memory of the nailheads holding the altar together. Two-dimensional versions of them can also be found in the painted borders which surround many frontals and retables, where they have been translated to representations of coloured gemstones.

Cassone Marco del Buono Giamberti & Apollonio di Giovanni di Tomaso 1460s Met Mus

Cassone, previously attributed to Dello Delli of Florence, by Marco del Buono Giamberti & Apollonio di Giovanni di Tomaso, 1460s, Metropolitan Museum, NY

Dello of Florence (1404-53) :  ‘… not only were chests painted in this manner, but the beds, the backs of chairs, the frames and other ornaments of the rooms… even the most excellent painters employed themselves… in painting and gilding such things… this is illustrated by some chests, chair-backs and frames in the apartments of Lorenzo de’ Medici… by excellent masters…  Dello…devoted himself… for many years… to nothing else than decorating and painting chests, chair-backs, beds, and other ornaments… But… men became more refined, and soon made richer ornaments, carving walnut and overlayering it with gold… It is said that Donatello, then a youth, assisted [Dello]…’

Vasari, Lives of the great artists, transl. Hinds.

Many painted frames of this period have survived, but not always around their original pictures, so the best example to use in illustration of the work Vasari is describing is one of the indivisible artworks: in this case, a birth tray or desco da parto of 1449 which actually celebrated the birth of Lorenzo de’ Medici. There are also, of course, quite a number of other cassoni remaining to us, many of which use architectural ornament to border the painted panels just as if they were pictures set on the wall above. This particular passage from Vasari indicates that artists were at that point regarded as craftsmen, on equal footing with the carvers who made the furniture, the frames, and the altarpiece structures, so that even Leonardo might be employed in designing pageants and painting banners, and there was nothing unusual in the idea of Donatello painting ornamental motifs on a picture frame.

Neri di Bicci Incoronazione della Vergine San Giovannino dei Cavalieri Photo Sailko sm

Neri di Bicci, Coronation of the Virgin, 1488-89 for S. Niccolò dei Frieri, now in S. Giovannino dei Cavalieri. Photo: Sailko

Neri di Bicci (1419-91), 15 August 1454: ‘ “I have undertaken the job of gilding and painting a wooden tabernacle made all’ antica [ie in Classical form]”, and he describes the columns, the architrave, the frieze and the base.’

From Neri di Bicci’s Ricordanze, as quoted by Creighton Gilbert, ‘Peintres et menuisiers au début de la Renaissance en Italie’, Revue de l’Art, 37, 1977.

The Ricordanze, Neri’s daybook, deals with the organization of his workshop, production, techniques, collaboration with other artists, and details such as this, above, on frames. By the time that he described what an altarpiece frame all’ antica should look like, the Renaissance aedicule was thoroughly established through most of Italy as the best way of framing a sacra conversazione (the single scene, showing an interaction between various holy figures, as opposed to the many panels, often with separate figures, of a Gothic altarpiece). The moment when the Gothic, mediaeval polyptych is transformed into the classically-framed sacra conversazione is pin-pointed by Christa Gardner von Teuffel as Fra Angelico’s 1433 Annunciation, in the Museo Diocesana, Cortona. The starry sky, painted as a vestigial concave canopy where the frieze of the entablature would later be placed, is a remnant of larger Gothic canopies which roofed the polyptych into its own heavenly universe, and protected it – more mundanely – from dust. Neri di Bicci’s frames all’ antica are frequently distinguished by the band of beautifully detailed symbolic sunflowers, either painted or carved, along the frieze of the entablature (as above), sometimes replaced by equally symbolic and decorative dolphins.

Karel van Mander Christ in the wine press 1596 sm

Karel van Mander, Christ in the wine press (Title plate),MB 1716 (PK), 1596, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Karel van Mander (1548-1606)On the use of gold: ‘… richly decorating frames, borders and edges fittingly and ingeniously with grotesque masques, Moresque designs and curly ribbons, with gold on all sides, above and below – this is not to be condemned, on the contrary, it is altogether praiseworthy!’

From Karel van Mander, Grondt der edel vry Schilder-const, 1604

Van Mander, the Vasari of the Netherlands, produced an equivalent to Lives of the great artists in his Schilder-boeck of 1604, and was also an artist and a poet. His actions were seminal in diffusing Mannerist influences (emanating from the court of Rudolph of Bohemia) through the Netherlands, both in painting, and – as can be seen from the quotation and illustration above – in design. His description is a perfect summary of Flemish Mannerism, which spread through Europe on the wings of the printing press; these included sheets of ornamental designs and the fantastic ‘frames’ of engraved landscapes and portraits. Few early Northern wooden picture frames still exist, but their analogue can still be seen in the architectural Mannerist fantasies of – for example – the Town Hall, Leiden.

Town Hall Leiden sm

Central gable of the Town Hall, Leiden, 1597. Photo: Pietbron

The ‘leatherwork’ frames of the windows here are related both to the leatherwork scrolls and volutes in Italian ‘Sansovino‘ frames, and to the cartilaginous ornament of later Netherlandish Auricular frames: two types of pattern from the beginning (the 1540s) and near the end (second half of the 17th century) of the Mannerist movement. The frame in Karel van Mander’s drawing (which was to be engraved as the title page of a book) has the contour of a whole sheepskin, along with the three-dimensional scrolls bequeathed by the ‘Sansovino’ frame. With a cherub’s head replacing a ‘grotesque masque’, a text panel with outset corners, and swags of metamorphosing drapery, the Mannerist elements have clearly been toned down; but the revelling of Netherlandish designers in full-blown versions of the style at this point in the late 16th century is also very clear in Van Mander’s description.

Johannes Verspronck Maria Hammius 1641 pair Mauritshuis The Hague

Johannes Verspronck, Maria Hammius, 1641, one of a pair, private collection (courtesy of the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, Amersfoort and Rijswijk)

Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687), representative of Prince Frederick Henry of Orange, Governor of the Netherlands,  & patron of Rembrandt:

‘… an Ebony frame can enrich a poor canvas,

And make it look or sell as well as a good one.”

Hofwyk, The Hague, 1653,  from the poem ‘Aen den Lieser’, lines 113-14; quoted in Framing in the Golden Age, 1995, chap.1, p.27.

Not, of course, that Verspronck’s painting is in any sense at all a poor canvas; but it illustrates how a plain ebony frame is the perfect foil for the skin tones of a portrait, and how it emphasizes the touches of luxury in this apparently austere costume. As the possibilities in the use of exotic woods from trade with the Dutch colonies occurred to artists, dealers and collectors, not to mention the makers of cabinets and other furniture, these woods (previously used as ballast in ships returning empty from the East Indies or the New World) were imported in their own right. The single saw mill which existed in Amsterdam in 1606 had increased to more than 50 by the mid-17th century, and frames of ebony were joined by designs in amboyna and palisander wood. Fruit woods were also highly desirable – pear, for example – having extremely attractive grain and markings, and a good colour when polished.

Huygens was secretary to Prince Frederick Henry, and acted as intermediary between the Prince and Rembrandt. The former wished to buy the six paintings in Rembrandt’s cycle of Christ’s Passion, and the artist was asking 1,000 guilders for each work; he eventually settled for 600 guilders each, but tried to recoup a bit more cash in other ways:

‘…it being agreed that my expense for the two ebony-wood frames and the chests, amounting altogether to 44 guilders, shall be made good to me’, as he wrote to Huygens.

Quoted in Richard Friedenthal, Letters of the great artists, London, 1963.

Rembrandt Resurrection of Christ 1 of 6 in Passion cycle 1639 Alte Pinakothek Munich

Rembrandt, Resurrection of Christ, one of six in the Passion cycle, 1639, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

These are now in replica polished wood frames, which echo the warm chestnut tones in the paintings rather than giving them their original foil of a contrasting satiny black, as in the case of the Verspronck portrait. However, the interesting point in Rembrandt’s haggling with the Prince is what it reveals about the changing worth of the artist and framemaker, the painting and the frame, since the days of Dello Delli and his frame decorating. The artist is now the creator, who can command high prices for his work, because it is unique and individual (and thinks himself worth even more than he gets), whereas the framemaker is much more of an artisan, whose work – even when made from a relatively expensive foreign material – is priced at a tiny fraction of the cost of the painting. Obviously, the kind of work involved in producing an ebony frame was not the same as if the frame were a carved, gessoed, recut and gilded Louis XIV pattern; however, the cutting of the arched spandrels at the top of these particular paintings, the matching of the wood and the finishing were all precise techniques demanding the skills of an experienced cabinetmaker.

Samuel Pepys

John Hayls, Samuel Pepys, 1666, National Portrait Gallery, London

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), 16 May 1666:

‘Thence to Mr. Hales, and paid him for my picture, and Mr. Hill’s, for the first 14l. for the picture, and 25s. for the frame, and for the other 7l. for the picture, it being a copy of his only, and 5s. for the frame; in all, 22l.10s. I am very well satisfied in my pictures, and so took them in another coach home along with me, and there with great pleasure my wife and I hung them up…’

Pepys  bought this frame – which seems to be the original – for his portrait by Hayls for 25 shillings (£1.25) in May 1666, the painting itself having cost £14.00. It is a Louis XIII-style Baroque bunched-leaf frame, carved with clusters of laurel leaves, flowers and berries, with acanthus leaf corners, and is finished in silverleaf rather than gilding; Hayls seems to have obtained it himself from a framemaker. Pepys hung the framed painting on the panelled wall of his dining-room, along with the pendant portrait of his wife, Elizabeth; this was later destroyed, in a prissier age, because of her generous décolleté. In the drawing of Pepys’s library, below, his portrait appears to be the one hanging at the left, in front; it is one of six others in similar frames, one of which (centre right) is three-quarters rather than half-length. Four months after Pepys had brought his portrait home, the Great Fire swept through London and he was forced to remove much of his furniture, money and other possessions in order to save them. Seventeen days after the fire began, he brought his pictures and books home by boat from Deptford, finding that ‘…a little gilt frame belonging to my plate of the River, I want… Most of my gilt frames are hurt, which also troubles me…’

Samuel Pepys s library c1693 Magdalene College Cambridge sm

Unknown artist, drawing of Samuel Pepys’s library, c.1693, Magdalene College, Cambridge

Samuel Pepys, 1666:

‘This morning comes Mr Lovett and brings me my print of the Passion, varnished by him, and the frame black; which endeed is very fine…’

‘And so to the office, there to set up again my frames about my Platts [engravings or maps], which I have got to be all gilded, and look very fine.’

April 1669:

‘Thence to the frame-maker’s, one Norris in Long-Acre – who showed me several forms of frames to choose by; which was pretty, in little bits of mouldings to choose by.’

Pepys had a large print collection, many of which were kept in albums but some of which he framed, having them varnished rather than glazed (presumably because of the expense). By 1669 he had abandoned Mr Lovett and was visiting ‘…Lilly’s, the varnisher about my prints, whereof some of them are pasted upon the boards, and to my full content’, after which he pays his visit to Norris, who is presumably framing these prints for him. There were three generations of Norrises: Richard, Henry (fl.1630-d.1684) and John (c.1642-1707), the last two of whom (father and son) were established in Long Acre by 1666. All three generations worked for the crown, and were amongst the leading framemakers of the 17th century. It is very possible that Hayls obtained the frames for his portraits of Pepys and his wife from the Norrises, recommending them to Pepys for framing his prints. More about the Norris dynasty can be found in the invaluable NPG Directory of British Framemakers.

Pepys’s turn of sentence in his note on the visit to Norris is interesting: he seems to have been given two different kinds of choice – the ‘several forms of frames’, and the ‘little bits of moulding’. This probably indicates that he was shown different profiles, possibly made up into sample frames, to demonstrate the effect of an entablature, architrave, hollow or bolection moulding; and that the ‘little bits’ were off-cuts of carved ornament, which could be applied to the different profiles to the client’s taste.

Pepys’s diary can be read online, or in published form: Robert Latham & William Matthews, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 9 volumes, 1970-83.

John Riley 1646to91 Elias Ashmole frame by Gibbons Ashmolean

John Riley (1646-91), Portait of Elias Ashmole, c. 1681-82, frame by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Celia Fiennes on Oxford: ‘Just by [the Sheldonian Theatre] is a little building wch is full of Antiquityes wch have many Curiositys in it of Mettles, Stones, Ambers, Gumms. There is the picture of a Gentleman yt was a Great benefactor to it being a travailer; the fframe of his picture is all wood carved very finely with all sorts of figures, Leaves, birds, beast and flowers.’

Celia Fiennes spent twenty years riding about Britain, from her early twenties into her forties, documenting her progress in her journal which was later published as The Journeys of Celia Fiennes: 1685-c.1712. Her grandfather was the 1st Viscount Saye and Sele, and she had access to all the great houses of England, which she described in detail. She noted the wainscoting or panelling, and the colours in which it was painted (‘a cedar coullour’, or ‘sadd’), the damask hangings, the carpets, the looking-glasses (see below) and the paintings. Her beady and acute eye has, in this and the following quotation, noted the diffusion through Britain of the Netherlandish style of carving, introduced mainly by Grinling Gibbons. Gibbons was British by parentage but had been born in Rotterdam, and was influenced by the work of Artus Quellinus and the Flemish François Du Quesnoy. In the Netherlands this gave birth to the so-called ‘Lutma’ frame, carved with garlands and swags of realistic fruits and flowers; in Gibbons’s hands, the ‘Lutma’ developed into an airy fantasy of intricately-detailed still-life carvings, comprising musical trophies of various instruments, hunting trophies of finely-feathered birds, and marine ensembles of crabs, lobsters and shells.

The frame he executed for the portrait of Ashmole, who produced a horoscope for him in 1682, is a virtuoso performance in its truest sense – a great flourish of draperies, spiralled and clasped with knots of flowers and fruit, grapevines and ears of corn, ribbons, scrolling acanthus leaves and small cherub supporters for the coat of arms. It has, unfortunately, been gilded at some point in its later life: the fact that Celia Fiennes noted that ‘the fframe of his picture is all wood’ indicates that it was definitely ungilded when she saw it. Gibbons used limewood for his carvings, which would originally have been a very pale blond colour, and – hanging against stained oak or painted wainscot – would have isolated the portrait, with its dark ground, from the darkish wall in a halo of ivory wood. Time, smoke, dust and changes in the wood have turned many Gibbons carvings as sombre as the panelling they are fixed to, and their owners have either whitewashed them, gilded them, or stained them darker than their surroundings. Gilding inevitably increases the tonal contrasts of the carving, picking it out with shiny highlights and disturbing the balance between painting and frame. Happily, the gilding is currently being cleaned off the frame, so that Elias Ashmole and his Gibbons frame will soon co-exist again in their original harmony.

An English 17th Century carved & gilded Carolean frame Perceval Designs sm

An English 17th century carved & gilded Carolean looking-glass frame, courtesy of Perceval Designs

Celia Fiennes (1662-1741) on Lord Orford’s house, Chippenham Park, 1698:

‘… the glasses in those chambers where were loose looking-glasses, which were with fine carv’d head and frames some of the naturall wood others gilt…’

The looking-glass frame shown above has a mingling of styles which may possibly be provincial. The outsized scrolling volutes and gadrooning at the sight edge derive from ‘Sansovino’ frames from the second half of the 16th century, via the British pre-Auricular pattern of the 1630s. It may well be too provincial for Lord Orford, previously Admiral Russell, who himself had carvings by Grinling Gibbons in his house; however, it is probably much more representative of the looking-glasses Celia Fiennes found in the bedrooms she visited, if not of the state rooms. It is also related to the shallow scrolling ‘Sunderland‘ frame of the 1670s, one of the archetypal British styles of the later 17th century.

Hyacinthe Rigaud François Girardon Dijon Musée des BA

Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659-1743), Portrait of the sculptor François Girardon (1627-1715), Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts. Photograph © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon

M.Rouquet, The Prefent State of the Arts in England, c.1728:

XII.  Of Carving in Wood.

Carving in wood is at prefent in a much higher degree of perfection as well as efteem among the Englifh, than it was formerly: but whether it be that they have not the right method of gilding, or whether the gold is ill prepared, their gilding on wood… is far inferior in colour and in durability to that of other countries.’

Louis XIV style Thos Gibson Geo Vertue

Thomas Gibson, Portrait of George Vertue, 1715-23, collection of the Society of Antiquaries, London

The frame on the Hyacinth Rigaud portrait (top, above) is a French Louis XIV corner-&-centre pattern, contemporary for the painting; the frame on Thomas Gibson’s portrait of Vertue is a British Louis XIV-style pattern with corner cartouches, and is possibly original to the work. It is apparent, even in these reproductions, that there is something in Jean Rouquet’s conclusion as to the superiority of French craftsmanship. It is also true that he is trying to be fair to the British in his assessment of their carving skills, since – although this example on the Gibson is well-designed and executed – the frame on the Rigaud is more plastic and more crisply finished, and it has also been recut in the gesso, in order to render the textured, cross-hatched ground of the ogee moulding, and the diapered background of the corner-&-centre cartouches. The carving of the British frame is shallower, and the composition of its ornament has less flair and fluidity.

The 18th century was the high point of the frame-making craft in France. There was by that time a vast library of ornamental engravings available to aid designers, and new patterns travelled very rapidly from publisher to carver. The latter were extremely skillful, very numerous and highly trained; supported by a large and discriminating clientele, of which the Bâtiments du Roi formed a major segment, employing families of carvers and gilders who worked almost solely for the Court and Church, intermarried, and existed like a self-perpetuating race around the workshops of the King. In Britain the framing trade tended to be the preserve of a single carver & gilder, or perhaps a father and son, who took on apprentices and even created tenuous partnerships, but which was far less coherent as a body. This trade was revolutionized by the influx of French Huguenot carvers after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, but the framemakers who came to live and work here were so advanced in comparison to most native carvers that they floated irresistibly to the top of the profession. Here, the British Crown could expect the same engagement of a maître sculpteur to carve the frame, a répareur to recut detail in the gesso coating, and a doreur to water-gild the result, using different tints of gilder’s clay or bole, and gold leaf, and  creating a complex pattern of matte and burnished gold which would highlight different elements of the design within the whole. This elaboration of skills did not really trickle down from the highest level, however, and certainly when it came to the finish, oil gilding was far more commonly used than water-gilding. It was a much more economical process, in terms of the labour involved; the trouble was that the size employed to bind the gold to the frame remained microscopically sticky for a very long time, picking up dust and smoke, and darkening over the years.

Very strangely George Stubbs’s patron, Josiah Wedgwood, who was ordering frames from London via a friend in 1780, told the latter that Stubbs ‘has a great objection’ to matt and burnished water gilding, and ‘prefers the oil gilding’. Stubbs seems to have thought that water gilding ‘cannot be clean’d with safety’, and that oil gilding was longer-lasting (which would not be the accepted view today). This correspondence is published in Basil Taylor, ‘ Josiah Wedgwood and George Stubbs’, Proceedings of the Wedgwood Society, no. 4, 1961, pp.209-22.

Pompeo Batoni Don Jose Monino y Redondo c1773 Art Inst Chicago

Pompeo Batoni, Don Jose Monino y Redondo, c. 1773, Art Institute of Chicago

Pompeo Batoni (1708-87), letter to Lodovico Sardini, 1742:

‘I always give the last touches to my paintings when framed.’

Quoted in Anthony M. Clark, Pompeo Batoni: Complete catalogue, Oxford, 1985, p.40.

The ‘Salvator Rosa’ frame, seen above in its plainest form, is a Baroque Roman pattern very popular as a ‘gallery frame’ – a method of framing a whole collection of disparate artists’ work to give visual coherence and unity. Batoni’s career was contemporaneous with that of the frame, which he commonly used for his work, while Salvator Rosa had died in 1673 before this design developed (in about the 1680s), so it would be much more accurate to call it a ‘Batoni’ or a ‘Pannini’ frame. Batoni seems to have preferred a slightly more enriched version; he produced more than thirty paintings for Count Cesare Merenda of Forlì in the 1740s which still retain their frames in this pattern. They included a set of twelve depicting God the Father and the apostles, of which eight are now in the collection of the National Trust, at Basildon Park, in their Merenda frames.

Many artists have preferred to do as Batoni did and finish their paintings in the frame, so as to harmonize the colour and tone of the whole artwork, but he is perhaps the earliest whose opinion has been recorded. There are works by Holman Hunt and Philip de László where traces of paint have transferred to the frame, and an empty frame of Turner’s with his paint still on it; as the 19th century unrolled more and more artists can be found writing about their preference for finishing in the frame (Rossetti, for instance), and the fashion for photographing painters in their studios shows them at work on framed pictures. This, more than anything, should have given pause to anyone thinking of divorcing an original frame from its painting, since the artist has, far more often than not, intended the finished work to be a marriage of one particular picture with one specific frame, and has carefully calibrated the one with the other.

Sir Thomas Lawrence George IV Wallace Collection sm

Sir Thomas Lawrence, George IV, 1822, Wallace Collection

Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) to Mrs Benjamin Gott on large, expensive gilt frames for his portraits, 1828:

‘…let me beg to assure you that the comparative richness of the frames now made for them has been adopted with not the remotest view to their impression on the eye as mere splendid decoration.  The pattern has been selected by me and its dimensions determined solely with a view to the advantage of the Pictures: a Frame is so much a part of the Picture, that almost invariably we a little change the effect or colour of some part the moment we place it in the frame, and the work as certainly is the better for it.  The finest picture, seen without an appropriate Frame, loses a great advantage; as on the other hand it sustains material injury from a Frame injudiciously selected.  The most unbecoming character of a frame is the very plain and very narrow… the next defection is the Frame with large obtrusive Ornaments in the centre, and the corners of it.  A good frame (a merely safe one for the general effect of the picture) should be sufficiently broad and rich, but the ornament of that richness composed through-out of small parts, and usually it should be unburnished… The Frame is the clear Decanter not the brush…’

From H.Honour, ‘Sir Thomas Lawrence & Benjamin Gott’, Leeds Art Calendar, 1954, quoted by John Gage

Lawrence had painted separate portraits of Mr and Mrs Gott, and Mrs Gott had been arguing for a much narrower moulding to frame them than Lawrence wanted.  At this period in his career, he had settled on the massive, wide ogee moulding seen on the portrait of George IV, above, with an ornamental frieze of centred running bellflowers and a plain insert at the sight edge.  The main ogee was decorated all over with a repeated calligraphic pattern of tendrils scrolling round a rosette; it derived ultimately from the Berainesque scrolling strapwork and foliate patterns which decorated French Louis XIV frames in the late 17th and early 18th century (like those on the Rigaud and Gibson portraits, above).  Here, however, no carving was involved; this was a very shallow pattern pressed into slabs of compo (composition), and applied to the wooden carcass of the frame.

Jacob Simon has noted that this particular design was used by Lawrence on full and half-length portraits of the 1820s, one of which (Lord Liverpool, 1827, National Portrait Gallery, London) still has the framemaker’s label of G. Morant (See The Art of the Picture Frame, NPG, 1996, p.100). Compo was generally seen as a far more economic solution than hand-carved wood for the decoration of frames; however, when the moulding in question was anything from 9 to 12 inches wide, the total area of the frame, the compo ornament needed to cover it and the labour involved pushed the price up considerably. And apart from this, if Lawrence exhibited his work in such a wide and decorative frame, every other painting in its neighbourhood would be dwarfed, and smaller frames reduced to spindly insignificance. Lawrence’s peers had little option but to adopt similar styles in order to prevent their work sinking back into invisibility; this caused ill feeling both amongst artists and the harassed officials hanging exhibitions – according to James Northcote,

‘the flaring gaudiness of our exhibitions has gone its utmost length, not only in the pictures, but in the frames as well; ’tis Lawrence who has brought up this fashion of having such expensive frames’,

whilst Ramsay Reinagle proposed that the Royal Academy should adopt a regulation limiting the size of frames (Simon, The Art of the Picture Frame, p.20). As a post script to Lawrence and his massive frames, it can be noted that he lost the argument with Mrs Gott (who probably only had a certain wall space for hanging her two portraits), and was forced to let them go in narrower mouldings.

With these interchanges on framing styles, we are well into the 19th century, and from this point the mentions of frames by the various parties involved and the survival of all these references increases exponentially. The Pre-Raphaelites and the Impressionists provide a huge number between them, some of which will be discussed in Part 2 of this article.


Some of the earliest literature on frames:

Henri Havard, ‘Cadre’, Dictionnaire de l’ameublement  et de la décoration, i, Paris, 1887, pp.510-15

M. Guggenheim, Le cornici italiene dalla meta del secolo XV allo scorcio del XVI, Milan,1897

W. von Bode, ‘Bilderrahmen in alter und neuer Zeit’, Pan, iv, 1898-99, pp.243-56

R. Thorel, De l’influence du cadre dans les oeuvres d’art, Paris, 1904

Once again, I am grateful to all the museums, institutions, and photographers who have permitted me to use their images.