The framemaker James Wyatt: Turner, Millais & Grinling Gibbons

John Bridges (fl.1818-54), Portrait of James Wyatt the elder, 1841, o/c, 73.5 x 61 cm., Oxford Town Hall

The critic John Ruskin was an advocate of Turner’s work through most of his life; he stated that,

‘Turner’s sense of beauty was perfect … only that of Keats and Tennyson being comparable with it. And Turner’s love of truth was as stern and patient as Dante’s’.  He added that, ‘…none before Turner had lifted the veil from the face of nature’ [1].

In a similar manner – if not in quite such superlative terms – he also championed the Pre-Raphaelites, noting that:

‘…the Pre-Raphaelites have enormous powers of imagination, as well as of realization, and do not yet themselves know of how much they would be capable… With all their faults, their pictures are, since Turner’s death, the best – incomparably the best – on the walls of the Royal Academy…’ [2]

There were probably few other 19th century critics – if any – who would have spoken out at the time with such partisan ardour on behalf of what, a century and a half later, seem to be artists of such divergent schools. There was, however, one other man who supported both Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites; not in the same way as Ruskin, by conscious and active critical speaking and writing on their behalf, but in the practical and commercial area of making their frames, commissioning work from them, and (in the case of the Pre-Raphaelites) inspiring a local exhibition of their work.

This was James Wyatt; a carver and gilder and printseller (as he described his business in his will) who flourished in Oxford for the first half of the 19th century, passing his business on to his son, James Wyatt the younger, for the next twenty-five to thirty years. Jacob Simon’s entry for the Wyatts in the online Directory of British picture framemakers, 1600-1950, gives a detailed and meticulously researched outline of their business and chronology; this article has been produced to flesh out the skeleton with illustrations and some further details.

Tradesman’s label of Robert Archer, Oxford. Photo: Paul Mitchell Ltd

James Wyatt the elder had been apprenticed in 1789, on his fifteenth birthday [3], to another carver and gilder in Oxford High Street – Robert Archer, who was then only in his early thirties himself. In 1792 Archer was commissioned by Magdalen College to carve a throne-like chair (the Chancellor’s Chair) from the wood of the Founder’s Oak which had fallen down the previous year. James Wyatt carved an oval lidded box from the same wood; the first object he had made which has survived, and presumably a kind of apprentice’s piece, displaying his ability to design and create a two-part fitted item complete with ornament and armorial bearings.

James Wyatt (1774-1853), oak box with silver lining, 1792, Bonhams, 29 September 2010, lot 105

Wyatt kept his box, and it descended in his family for well over a century until it was sold in 2010. It has a design of radiating oak leaves and acorns on the top, and the coat of arms of Magdalen College, supported by the college’s lilies amongst further oak leaves and acorns on the sides. It must have seemed powerfully symbolic to the mature Wyatt, when he contemplated the flourishing tree of his business which had grown from this small acorn.

When he was twenty-eight, he entered into partnership with Robert Archer (he must have had particularly striking qualities to be distinguished in this way from all Archer’s other apprentices), but only remained with him for four years, establishing his own business, also on Oxford High Street, in 1806.

James Wyatt’s opening advertisement in the Oxford Journal, 22 March 1806

By this time he had sixteen years’ experience under his belt, enabling him to offer a wide range of carved frames for different purposes, from samplers and engravings to overmantels, interior woodwork and furniture, as well as oil and water-gilding.

The premises of James Wyatt, later James Wyatt & Son, 115 High Street, Oxford, 1806-82

He must have assembled a formidable client-list of his own while working for – and then with – Robert Archer, since his business premises, where he also lived with his family, occupied a relatively spacious and attractive building at 115 High Street. In the 17th century it had been an inn and a coffee-house, and apparently Wyatt inherited the Chippendale chairs of the latter, on which the dons had sat to take coffee. There was also an annex at the back, known as the Long Room, where the Oxford Union Society met for nearly thirty years during the Wyatts’ occupation of the main building [4].

J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), A view of Worcester College, 1803, Ashmolean Museum

J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), A view of Worcester College, engraved 1804 by James Basire, British Library

Turner was also well-acquainted with Oxford, having relatives living in a village nearby, and in 1799 he had been commissioned by the university to produce a pair of watercolours of colleges which would be engraved as header illustrations for the annual Oxford Almanack. This led to a series which eventually comprised ten views of colleges, one of which Turner painted every year until 1810, the last being engraved and published in 1811 [5].

J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), A view of the High Street, Oxford, 1810, o/c, 68.5 x 100.3 cm., now in a replica ‘Morland’ frame by Paul Mitchell Ltd; Ashmolean Museum

James Wyatt, who had already begun to deal in prints, must have realized the commercial potential of these evocative paintings and the engravings which might be made from them. He had probably met Turner through the artists’ supplies department of his shop; the two of them were only a year apart in age, and James Hamilton notes that they would have appreciated each other’s businesslike acumen [6]. They may also have been introduced by William Delamotte, a landscape and topographical artist who worked in Oxford from 1797-1803 [7].

In 1809 Wyatt commissioned Turner to paint a view of the High Street for him, which the latter executed during the following winter, completing it in 1810. By February he was writing to Wyatt,

‘You may prepare a frame 2 feet 3 inches high by 3 Feet 3 long, but I think that it must be cut less, having at present too much sky, so do not put the frame together until you hear again from me. By way of consolation let me tell you the picture is very forward…’ [8]

It was not, this time, a watercolour, but an oil painting, and cost Wyatt 100 guineas (£105); but as well as the work itself he received a large amount of helpful advice from Turner by letter, including the best size of print to select (‘18 inches by 30 inches’) and a list of recommended engravers, as well as questions on details of architecture and the figures in the foreground [9]. The size of the painting itself also came into question. Only Turner’s side of the correspondence unfortunately survives (Wyatt kept all the letters he received, and they ended up in his posthumous sale), so we cannot know quite what he had suggested to Turner, but he must have shown the frame he contemplated using to the artist, who rejected it as too large:

‘…I will do you a drawing or Painting, but must apprize you that there is no possibility of reaching your size Frame, for my Pictures are all 3 Feet by 4 Feet, 200 g[uinea]s, half which size will be 100, but shall not mind an inch or two. A drawing I will do you for 80 g[uinea]s.’ [10]

Later on, we find out the exact size:

‘…with respect to the picture, I have continued it on the same size, viz. 2F 3 ¼ i by 3F 3i utmost measure. Yet the sky I do think had better be an Inch at least under the top Rabbit [rebate], therefore I should advise you to make the Rabbit deep, so that it can be hid. Therefore the sight measures may be as follows – 3 Feet 2 ½ by 2 Feet 2 ½…’ [11]

The result was probably even more successful than Wyatt could have dreamed. It shows University College on the left, the spire of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin on the right, and the further spire of All Saints’ Church in the centre of the canvas. (Wyatt’s shop was, as his advert points out, ‘opposite ALL SAINTS’ CHURCH’, so he was being both modestly retiring, round the bend, and establishing himself centre stage). The painting was displayed in his shop, on the High Street it depicted, and then went up to London to be shown in Turner’s own gallery.

Wyatt evidently failed to hurry enough to suit Turner; just after the painting was exhibited in Wyatt’s shop, around the very end of March or beginning of April, Turner wrote in relief at having heard of its very positive reception, following this up, a month later on 2 May 1810, by exhorting Wyatt,

‘I will thank you to make all possible haste with the Frame because my Gallery opens on Monday next and of course I cannot hang up the Picture until the arrival of the Frame.’ [12]

The need for haste cannot refer to the actual creation of the frame; it must have been made already, as the painting cannot have hung in Wyatt’s shop with no setting or presentation, so probably this is rather a matter of packing and shipping (or, rather, horse and carting).

J.M.W. Turner (after; 1775-1851), A view of the High Street, Oxford, engraved & etched by Samuel Middiman & John Pye [& Charles Heath], 1812, 50 x 65.5 cm., 1857,0520.444, British Museum

Wyatt had prints made of A view of the High Street, using the engravers mentioned by Turner and evidently being advised by him on how to advertise the project to potential subscribers to the prints. Turner hoped that,

…you will be very particular about mentioning Mr Middiman’s name, for to insert it in the prospectus without being sure of his co-operation would marr your endeavour in the eye of the public: for the least deviation from a proposal renders all subscriptions void.’ [13]

However, all must have gone well, as Middiman turns up prominently in the inscription beneath the engraving:

‘High Street, Oxford
To the Very Reverend JOHN PARSONS D.D. DEAN OF BRISTOL, Master of Balliol College
And Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford
This Plate Engraved by S. Middiman and John Pye after an original Picture by J.M.W. Turner Esqr RA, and Professor of Perspective to the Royal Academy
Is dedicated with PERMISSION, by his most obliged and very humble Servant JAMES WYATT’

Wyatt’s name, although comparatively titchy and crammed in at the end, is in the same capitals as that of his dedicatee; moreover, he appears again in very tiny script immediately below the edge of the picture:

‘Published March 14 1812 by James Wyatt, Carver & Gilder, High Street, Oxford/as the Act directs’

J.M.W. Turner (after; 1775-1851), Oxford from the Abingdon Road, engraved by John Pye, 1818, with later hand-colouring, 49.5 x 65 cm., subscribers’ proof; Art mart

J.M.W. Turner (after; 1775-1851), Oxford from the Abingdon Road, engraved by John Pye, 1818, Fogg Museum/ Harvard Art Museums

The success of High Street, Oxford caused Wyatt to commission a pendant from Turner, and, after flirting with the idea of a view from the opposite end of the High Street, they settled on a landscape with a distant prospect of the City – Oxford from the Abingdon Road (private collection) – which Turner ‘began …at Christmas’ (this was written in March 1812).  Simultaneously with the progress of a second oil painting, the engraver was producing proofs of the engraving of the first, and the sending-in days for the Royal Academy exhibition were approaching, where both were to be submitted:

‘…as to intend me to send the Picture to the Exhibition you must make haste with the Frame, for the Pictures are to be sent on the 5th and 6th of next month. The size is the same as the other picture, viz. 3 Feet 3 by 2 Feet 2 ¾ in the straining frame, and to hide part of the sky like the High St. for it would scarcely be worth while to make the inch in the sky – to change the size of frame.’ [14]

By the second week in April, 1812, both paintings had been delivered to the Royal Academy, and Turner was writing to Wyatt to let him know of their overall effect:

‘I received yours last night upon my return from the Royal Academy where your two Pictures now are, let me therefore thank you for the enclosed Bill it contained. As to the Frame it is very handsome and makes the Picture look very well but I fear that by the time it gets back to Oxford the centre ornament will be wanting, for it projects beyond the back, so it has no guard.’

Robert Archer of Oxford, NeoClassical ‘Morland’ frame with bound fasces on top edge and acanthus leaf ogee at sight edge, sight 30 ½ x 22 ½ ins, private collection; label of Robert Archer as before. Photos: Paul Mitchell Ltd

Both oil paintings are now framed alike, in replicas modelled on a ‘Morland’ frame which coincidentally had on the reverse the label of Wyatt’s master and subsequent partner, Robert Archer.

The earliest frame that we know must have been chosen for his work by Turner himself is also a ‘Morland’ frame; it contains his Diploma work for the RA, Dolbadern Castle, which was exhibited in 1800 and then deposited with the Royal Academy,  so this is a satisfyingly historical solution. Wyatt’s choice was probably rather more ornate, even apart from the projecting ‘centre ornament’; although the sentence in which Turner remarks on the fragility of this ornament is, strangely, in the singular, as though only A view of the High Street was in such a frame, and not A view of Oxford (which was almost certainly not the case).

In the several years of their association over the Oxford paintings project, Turner never addresses Wyatt as anything other than ‘Dear Sir’ in his letters (although moving from being Wyatt’s most obedient servant to being his ‘most truly obliged J.M.W. Turner’). However, there were evidently other exchanges beneath the formality of what was, after all, business correspondence, and in one of the letters Turner begins, ‘First let me thank you for the Sausages and Hare. They were very good indeed.’ [15] He would probably have concurred with Millais’s later assessment of Wyatt’s being ‘a remarkable man in many ways, and one of nature’s gentlemen’ [16].

Peter Paul Rubens (studio of; 1577-1640), The Holy Family with St Anne & John the Baptist, o/c, 221 x 152 cm., Dorotheum, 9 April 2015, lot 528; in the collection of the Dukes of Marlborough from 1708-1886

Wyatt’s work included various jobs allied to the three he considered central, carving, gilding, and selling prints. He was curator of the paintings in Blenheim Palace (perhaps the estate where Turner’s hare came from): this was before many of the most valuable were sold by the 8th Duke of Marlborough at Christie’s in 1886, leaving behind mainly family portraits. Wyatt was in charge of the collection which William Hazlitt saw and extolled in his 1823 essay, ‘Pictures at Oxford and Blenheim’:

‘…as a receptacle for works of art, (with the exception of Cleveland House, ) [Blenheim] is unrivalled in this country.’ [17]

This was a practical post; he would have cleaned, restored, varnished and reframed where necessary paintings which included works by Rembrandt, Jordaens, Teniers and Brueghel, Van Dyck, Holbein, Carracci, Titian and Veronese, amongst others, and a great number of Rubenses, including, for example, the one above[18].

Charles Walters Radcliffe (1817-1903), High Lodge & Cascade, tinted lithographs from The Palace of Blenheim, dedicated to 7th Duke of Marlborough, published by James Wyatt & Son, 1842, Oxford

In 1842 Wyatt published a volume of lithographs of Blenheim, drawn and the lithographs produced by Charles Radcliffe; his work as curator must have given him an almost proprietary interest in  this particular collection.

Thomas Bardwell (1704-67), Thomas Fermor, 1st Earl of Pomfret, & Henrietta Louisa, Countess of Pomfret, c.1750, 216 x 124 cm., transferred from the Bodleian Library. WA1845.30. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Allan Ramsay (1713-84), Flora Macdonald, 1749, o/c, 74 x 61 cm., Ashmolean Museum

He also undertook much the same duties that he performed at Blenheim, in the picture collection at the Bodleian Library, the old Ashmolean Museum, and the University Galleries [19]. Jacob Simon notes that he

‘cleaned, repaired and varnished Thomas Bardwell’s Earl and Countess of Pomfret, together with its “gothic” frame, for £3 in 1832, and cleaned, repaired, varnished and reframed Allan Ramsay’s Flora Macdonald, for £3.15s’

the same year. The latter may retain its Wyatt frame, presumably carved by one of the journeymen or apprentices in his workshop, since its revival Louis XIII-style with chunkily coarse garland of bunched oak leaves, acorns, bay leaves and florets (which looks rather later than 1832) is a long way in technique from the little oak box he had carved himself forty years before.

Wyatt rose in the social strata of Oxford, from the son of a baker to a pillar of its mercantile community, allied through his business to Gown as well as to Town. He also took part in the governing of his city, serving its corporation from 1815, as Sheriff in 1839/40, as an alderman from 1841, and as mayor in 1842/43 [20].

Owning a shop which sold modern and antique prints, artists’ colours and supports, as well as frames, particularly when that shop was in a prominent position, meant that the Wyatts were also bound to encounter at some point a large percentage of the artists who lived in or were visiting Oxford. Having met Turner, either this way, or through a resident painter like Delamotte, James the elder also met the young Millais:

‘…in the summer of 1846…Millais first travelled down to Oxford, where he stayed with his half-brother… One of the people whose acquaintance he made there was a dealer in works of art named Wyatt – a remarkable man in many ways, and one of nature’s gentlemen. He took an immediate fancy to “Johnny Millais”, and between the years 1846 and 1849 the young artist made frequent visits to Oxford as his guest.

…he had quite a mania for drawing; even at the dinner table he could not remain idle. When no-one was looking he would take out a pencil and begin making sketches on whatever was nearest to his hand.  “Take a piece of paper, Johnny,” Mr Wyatt would say, “take a piece of paper. We cannot have the tablecloth spoiled.”

…the number of sketches done at table, and now in the possession of Mr Standen (who married Mr Wyatt’s granddaughter), bears witness to his ceaseless industry.’[21]

J.E. Millais (1829-96), Pizarro seizing the Inca of Peru, 1846, o/c, 128.3 x 171.7 cm., © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Wyatt was seventy-two when they met; Millais was seventeen and had been in the Royal Academy Schools since he was eleven. 1846 was also the year in which he finished Pizarro seizing the Inca of Peru, submitted it to the Royal Academy summer exhibition, and had the glory of seeing his first exhibition entry accepted, on display and given critical approval.

Moritz Retzsch, Outlines to Shakspeare- 3rd series- Romeo & Juliet, 1836

Wyatt may have seen a second Turner in this precociously talented boy, and someone whose career he could try to help.  On 1st May he presented Millais with a book of illustrations of Shakespeare’s plays (the volume on Romeo & Juliet) by Moritz Retzsch [22], inscribed

‘John Everett Millais
Presented by Mr James Wyatt
Oxford  May 1st 1846’

The linear, unshaded ‘outlines’ of these drawings were significant and influential for the embryonic Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which was instituted two years later in London. Stephen Calloway has recorded how a similar graphic technique, which had already been adopted to some extent by Millais , developed into the spikier style of the PRB, and that ‘a book of engravings from the Campo Santo in Pisa’, as well as ‘ Retzsch and his once-famous Outlines’ were seminal in that development [23].  Millais had presumably discussed with Wyatt the sources of his drawing style (which the latter would come to know from his own tablecloth), and as a printseller he was fortuitously positioned to provide just the right model.

J.E. Millais (1829-96), Cymon & Iphigenia, 1847-48, o/c, 114.3 x 147.3 cm., Lady Lever Gallery. Photo: courtesy of National Museums Liverpool

Millais’s submission to the Royal Academy in 1848 was Cymon and Iphigenia; it was rejected, whilst Holman Hunt’s Eve of St Agnes was accepted, leaving Millais somewhat dashed and with little prospect of selling his painting. However, Wyatt came to his rescue with even greater immediate effect, buying it for £60 (or, in current value, upwards of £6,000 ).

Millais, Cymon & Iphigenia, 1847-48, detail, bottom right corner. Photo: courtesy of National Museums Liverpool

Cymon and Iphigenia must, almost certainly, have been framed by Wyatt himself, either for Millais to enter in the RA exhibition or after he had acquired it. It is a Victorian straight-edged frame, decorated in compo with several orders of running ornament, and flamboyant Rococo revival corners and centres which are pierced and relatively sculptural, considering their material. There are slight cracks in the compo, and elements have broken and been restored, but the main credit for the condition of this frame is probably Wyatt’s. The decoration, which includes a small foliate moulding on the back edge, a rather Gothic cusped and cruciform motif on the frieze, and an acanthus chain-&- bud at the sight edge, is very sharp and clearly defined. This is partly due to its not having been regilded several times, but also to the quality of the pressed compo and its treatment. Jacob Simon notes that Wyatt bought ready-made compo ornament from George Jackson in 1816-17, ‘and perhaps subsequently’ [24]; whether the frame for Cymon was made from scratch in his workshop, or whether he invested in the more expensive end of Jackson’s products, it is certainly of better quality and finer detail than many Victorian compo frames.

In 1852 Millais borrowed the painting back from Wyatt, and ‘improved’ various parts of it; he ‘repainted the sky and touched up the grass and foliage, draperies and effects’ [25]. When Wyatt died the following year, Cymon was put into his posthumous sale at Christie’s, and bought by his son George, who ‘gave 350 guineas for it’ (£367.50, or upwards of £36,500 in today’s values). George Wyatt kept it in his home on the Isle of Wight, and on his death it passed to the Mr Standen who had married James the elder’s granddaughter [26]. This lineage makes it highly unlikely that it would have been reframed at any point, and the style of the frame itself indicates that it was applied at the time of the Royal Academy exhibition in 1848: the most probable course of events being  that Wyatt set the painting in this fairly elaborate design because of the value he put on his protégé’s work, and because the projected kudos of possessing a painting by a rising young artist cast its glamour on his own creation – just as with the two Turners he had commissioned and framed.

J.E. Millais (1829-96), James Wyatt & his granddaughter, Mary Wyatt, 1849, o/panel, 14 x 17 7/10 ins (35.5 x 45 cm.), abridged view of whole panel, private collection

William Millais (1828-99), James Wyatt & his granddaughter, Mary Wyatt, 1850, o/ panel, 14 3/16 x 18 ½ ins (36 x 47 cm.), Bonhams, 29 September 2010, lot 105

J.E. Millais, James Wyatt & his granddaughter, Mary Wyatt, 1849, overlaid on William Millais, James Wyatt & his granddaughter, Mary Wyatt, 1850

The year after purchasing Cymon -1849 – Wyatt commissioned Millais to paint Wyatt himself with his granddaughter Mary (top image).

It is a great shame that, because the owner of the work has no interest in frames, even those designed, chosen, or having input from the artist, requesting images of the Pre-Raphaelite frames in his collection is doomed to failure, so the painting cannot be shown here in what, with luck, might be its original Wyatt frame. Even the one available photo of the painting is not complete, so the third image shows most of John Everett Millais’s double portrait overlaid on the copy of it (centre image) made a year later by his brother, William Millais. The image of this copy is slightly larger laterally; even larger at the bottom; and significantly larger at the top, than the available image of the original, so gives a better idea of what that must look like.

The pictures in the background of the portrait, however, are slightly different, intriguingly, in the original version and its copy. The round painting of Wyatt’s daughter-in-law, Eliza Wyatt, behind Wyatt’s chair and at the extreme right-hand side of the panel, is further to the left in the original and doesn’t share its wall with other pictures, whereas in the copy there are two miniatures to the left of it, one below, and a small seascape at the bottom. Similarly there are three new paintings between the china cabinet and the window, while a tondo of an embracing couple has been removed.

William Millais, James Wyatt & his granddaughter, 1850, detail with portrait of John Wyatt in Jacobite frame

On the central repose of the window, two more miniature portraits have replaced the single silhouette of a gentleman in a tall hat. Catherine Roach identifies these as family portraits –

‘Thanks to its unusual frame, the portrait of a man in a brown suit can be identified as an image of John Wyatt (1697-1771), James Wyatt’s grandfather. The silver circles lining the portrait’s frame commemorate John Wyatt’s Jacobite allegiance’:

…i.e. they are the actual silver buttons from his coat and waistcoat, decorated with Stuart motifs [27].

The other portraits of Wyatt’s parents and relatives, both the few in the original and the added ones in the copy, are also in frames which are variously elaborate and made in contemporary fashion; so that James the elder sits in his family tree (of which the granddaughter who leans against him is one of the latest and future sprigs), and the skill of the painters who have furnished most of this tree is echoed by his own skill, which has framed the paintings.

William Millais, James Wyatt & his granddaughter, 1850, detail with oak box; James Wyatt the elder, oak box with silver lining, 1792; both Bonhams, 29 September 2010, lot 105

This idea of pedigree and accomplishment is emphasized by the presence on the table in the foreground of the carved oak box which he made while apprenticed to Robert Archer in 1792 (sold by Bonham’s with the portrait copy). Now, fifty-seven years later, he is posed with evidence around him of the family he came from and the family he has continued, as well as evidence of the beginning and the flourishing maturity of his trade. The third element of the descriptive trio he always insisted on – carver, gilder and printseller – is represented by the book pf prints on the same table.

J.E. Millais (1829-96), letter addressed to ‘James Wyatt Esq’ [the younger] & dated ‘Thursday 12th’; endorsed in pencil ‘(Dec. 1850)’, presumably by James the younger or his daughter. Bonhams, 29 September 2010, lot 105

Included in the same lot in Bonham’s 2010 sale was a letter from Millais to James Wyatt the younger, who commissioned this copy as a present for his younger brother, George, apprenticed as an adolescent in his father’s workshop. Millais wrote:

‘My brother says he prefers leaving the remuneration part to your generosity –
Your brother George I think would like it above all /// all presents in the world…  I shall require a frame made to order (that is a composition) you will see when you come to town –’

J.E. Millais (1829-96), Mrs James Wyatt the younger & her daughter Sarah, c1850, o/ panel, 35.3 x 45.7 cm., Tate

During the June of 1850, while his brother William was copying the portrait of Wyatt with his granddaughter Mary, Millais himself was staying with the Wyatts in Oxford.  He was painting a second Wyatt double portrait – of Eliza, Mrs James Wyatt the younger (who appears in the round portrait by William Boxall on the right of the earlier painting), with her other daughter, Sarah, Mary’s little sister. This is an avant-garde and very modern Madonna, eighteen years before Manet and twenty-one years before Whistler used the similar device of a seated profile figure in monochrome off-set by a sequence of frames on a wall.

The frames this time are minimalist gilt mouldings, containing engravings of Raphael’s Alba Madonna (National Gallery of Art, Washington ) and Madonna della seggiola (Palazzo Pitti, Florence  ) on either side of a print of Leonardo’s Last Supper (Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan). The whole portrait  in its frame (if the latter is Wyatt’s, which is likely) thus comprises the gamut of the latter’s work from the simplest to the most decorative designs, as well as examples of the prints he sold. The two double portraits of Wyatt and his descendants were presumably intended to hang as a pair, with Millais’s modernist Pre-Raphaelitism contrasted with both the actual Raphaels and the sentimentalism of the William Boxall portrait, at the same time that Wyatt’s family and livelihood – not to mention his support for a promising modern artist – were memorialized and celebrated.

J.E. Millais (1829-96), Thomas Combe, 1850, o/ panel, 33 x 27 cm., Ashmolean Museum

Wyatt was not precious or dog-in-the-mangerish about his protégé. On the contrary, he promoted Millais’s friendship with Thomas Combe, supervisor of what became the Oxford University Press (then the Clarendon Press ), and encouraged Combe to commission work from him. Since Wyatt and Combe were friends, the frame above (which is also found on Charles Alston Collins’s portrait of William Bennett, uncle of Mrs Combe, 1850, Ashmolean) may be one of Wyatt’s. The inventive linenfold motif may be connected to a revival of panelling in Combe’s house, or perhaps to the interior of a particular college.

Charles Alston Collins (1828-73), Convent thoughts, 1850-51, o/c, 33 x 23 ins (84 x 59 cm.), Ashmolean Museum

Millais had been with his friend and fellow artist Charles Collins when he first encountered Combe in Botley Wood, near where they were both staying, and in late September both artists left their unsatisfactory lodgings and moved to Combe’s house, where Collins painted the background of his Convent thoughts in the garden. At about the same time Millais was working on The return of the dove to the Ark, and the two pictures were shown in the Royal Academy of 1851. Combe purchased both, and Millais wrote to him,

‘My dear Mr Combe –

I am sure you will never have cause to regret purchasing “The Dove”… It will be highly finished to the corners, and I shall design (when it returns from the Academy) a frame suitable to the subject – olive leaves, and a dove at each corner holding the branch in its mouth.

I have designed a frame for Charles’ painting of “Lilies”, which, I expect, will be acknowledged to be the best frame in England. To get “The Dove” as good as possible, I shall have a frame made to my own design’ [28].

J.E. Millais (1829-96), The return of the dove to the Ark, 1850-51, o/ c, 88.2 x 54.9 cm., Ashmolean Museum

Evidently, life caught up with him, and he was unable to design the frame he wanted for his own painting; or perhaps Combe wanted to take possession of it without waiting for such refinements.  It is in a revival French Louis XIII-style garland frame, with a torus of bunched bay leaves-&- berries, centred with flowers.  This motif is close enough to the olive leaves that Millais had wanted for it to give the right impression, and perhaps Combe thought that doves as well might be too fussy for the composition. Certainly the frame that Millais had designed for Collins’s Convent thoughts has the virtue of a monumental and innovative simplicity.  It would be interesting to have some evidence as to where either frame was made – Millais’s, at least, went to the Royal Academy before he could get the frame he had imagined having made for it (possibly by Wyatt, as it would be going to Oxford in any case, after the exhibition closed), and the frame it is in now is probably the exhibition frame, made in London, possibly by Joseph Green.

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), A converted British family sheltering a Christian missionary…, 1849-50, o/c, 111 x 141 cm., Ashmolean Museum

Holman Hunt had shown his Converted British family… at the Royal Academy the year before (1850), and this, too, had been acquired by Thomas Combe (accidentally, as William Bennett had been expected to pay for it – 150 guineas, or £220.10s.00).

Millais, Dove; Hunt, Druids; Collins, Convent thoughts; as they might have appeared when hanging in Combe’s house in Oxford

Millais persuaded Combe to hang the three paintings, Hunt’s, his own Dove, and Collins’s, together on a white wall of his house, where, despite the slightly different frames, they hung as a kind of contemporary triptych (as they hang now, in the Ashmolean).

In 1853 James Wyatt the elder died at the age of 79, and the business on the High Street was taken over by his son James Wyatt the younger. In 1854 an exhibition was held in the town hall, Oxford, which Collin Harrison notes may have been organized by James the younger [29]; it may also have been held with the idea of celebrating the life, work and patronage of James the elder, and probably took place in the Old Town Hall (now demolished) to acknowledge his nearly forty years in local government, and his period as Mayor of Oxford.

George Pyne (1800-81), An exhibition at the Old Town Hall, Oxford, 1854, watercolour, 22 x 35 cm., and detail, Ashmolean Museum

On the wall at the right, where the panelling was covered with a blue screen, almost the same triptych of paintings was hung as in Combe’s house, save that Holman Hunt’s Converted family was replaced by Millais’s double portrait of Wyatt and his granddaughter between the Return of the dove and Collins’s Convent thoughts – possibly with Millais’s portrait of Thomas Combe above it [30]. From this hang it can be seen that the original (Wyatt) frame of the double portrait was a very Victorian revival Rococo-style with an S-scrolled contour, which would have fitted comfortably into the collection of other small family portraits shown in the painting and its copy. Catherine Roach also notes of this group of Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the exhibition that,

‘The coat of arms in the distinctive pediment-topped frame which hangs directly above the portrait is probably the “ancient carved City Arms” which Wyatt had restored and donated to the city…’ [31]

James Wyatt the younger was forty-three when he inherited the business; he seems to have continued it until he died in 1882, aged seventy-two, although describing himself as a printseller and publisher in the various censuses. He also continued the upkeep of the paintings collection at the Bodleian Library for a decade or so, and appears to have dealt – as presumably his father did, too – in antique frames, since in 1862 one of his tasks included reframing a portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby [32].

Possibly after Henry Stone (attrib.; 1616-53), after Van Dyck, Sir Kenelm Digby, c.1650s, 135.3 x 115.3, © Bodleian Library, Oxford University

This portrait – apparently a version of that attributed to Henry Stone, after Van Dyck – must have been highly valued by the Bodleian, since the frame found for it by Wyatt the younger is French: a late Louis XIV/ early Régence pattern, covered with delicate calligraphic ornament composed of fine strapwork and C-scrolls, pendant chains of husks, tiny leaves, florets and shells. He (or one of his carvers) reduced it to fit the portrait, cutting it in at least twelve places to preserve the ornamental flow as far as possible. The frame and the work it had needed came to 14 guineas, or between £1,300 -£14,000 in today’s values, and has a label on the back for the Wyatt shop at 115, High Street, Oxford (recorded and kindly shared by Dana Josephson).

Following James the younger’s death, his family must have stayed in the house for two or three years, after which – in 1885 – it became the premises of Rowell and Son, ‘jewellers of Oxford’.

John Bridges (fl.1818-54), Portrait of James Wyatt the elder, c.1841, o/c, 73.5 x 61 cm., Oxford Town Hall

One of the most interesting memorials of James Wyatt the elder is the portrait commissioned to commemorate his mayoralty in 1841 (i.e. painted the year in which he was elected, but before taking up the position in 1842).  It was executed by John Bridges, and hangs in an upstairs room in Oxford Town Hall – the replacement for the building shown in George Pyne’s watercolour. It has an extraordinary trophy frame, which Wyatt obviously designed himself, probably carving a good deal – if not all – of it as well. The basic structure is a cassetta with a flat frieze between half-round mouldings; the frieze is textured overall with hazzling (a rough zigzag pattern inscribed freehand into wood or gesso). There is an armorial shield at the crest, with the capital of a Corinthian capital in shallow relief, and another cartouche forming an apron, which shows the base of the column. Otherwise the entire frame is covered with carved instruments and tools, twined with a pleated ribbon and set amongst clusters of flowers.

John Riley (1646-91), Elias Ashmole, c. 1681-82, with carved by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) after recent restoration, WA1898.36, © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The interesting thing about this frame – one of the interesting things – is that it is based on a frame that Wyatt would have seen in the course of his work. This is the trophy frame carved by Grinling Gibbons for the portrait of Elias Ashmole, founder of the Ashmolean Museum. [33] Ashmole had been painted by John Riley in 1681-82, and his portrait was installed in the newly-built Museum when it opened in Broad Street in June the following year – 1683. Like Wyatt’s frame, it has a very simple structure – a narrow rounded moulding at top and bottom, and a swag of drapery at each side. A cartouche at the top is painted with Ashmole’s coat of arms, supported by twins (the astrological sign of Gemini) and the figure of Hermes (Mercury), while at the bottom a knot of ribbon catches the ends of floral garlands into another ‘leatherwork’ cartouche.

The clusters of flowers, foliage and fruit which decorate this frame are particularly significant in that Ashmole included botany amongst his interests, and was besides connected with the Tradescants, plant hunters and gardeners, whose collections Ashmole took over and incorporated into his Museum. During the recent restoration of the frame’s original bare limewood surface, and removal of the 17th -18th century white paint and 1860s oil gilding which had obscured its finer details, over fifty varieties of plants from around the world were identified.

Wyatt had a great eye for art: Catherine Roach notes just how great a connoisseur he was:

‘…when Millais’s fellow Pre-Raphaelite [F.G.] Stephens had trouble identifying a Holbein portrait which Wyatt had commissioned him to copy, Wyatt wrote, “I imagine the genuine picture of Holbein could not easily be mistaken,” and he went on to include instructions for identifying the correct work [34].

He had obviously studied intensively the Old Masters amongst which he worked, both at Blenheim and in the collections in Oxford, and he would have been aware (given the quote above) of Holbein’s portraits of the mercantile class to which he himself belonged. The Hanseatic traders in their black suits and white shirts, their half-length depictions and direct gazes; their hands on view, often holding something significant; these provide the lineage of Wyatt’s own portrait. But Ashmole’s picture may have had even more influence. Ashmole was the son of a draper’s daughter and a saddler, who had hauled himself up by his bootstraps – qualifying as a solicitor, supporting the cause of the king in the Civil War, and making a wealthy second marriage. He read widely and voraciously, published books of his own, and collected a huge range of ‘curiosities’. Riley’s depiction of him is of a nobly-born, accomplished and prosperous gentleman, with the fruits of his labours overflowing from the canvas into Gibbons’s frame.

Wyatt, the son of a baker, had also established himself as a prosperous citizen; he had a flourishing business, was employed by a Duke and by the university; he was able to patronize avant-garde artists and to publish engravings and albums of important works of art. His choice of model for his portrait – which was to summarize his career and the pinnacle he had reached as mayor of Oxford – is somehow inevitable, as a statement of pride in all that he had achieved. But Wyatt was a genial man and a bit of a tease (as can be seen by his interactions with Millais), and his portrait is also a really rather funny take on the extravagance of Ashmole’s own self-presentation. Wyatt’s is a serious picture and a serious frame, but he probably had his tongue slightly in his cheek as well.

John Bridges, James Wyatt the elder, 1841, and John Riley, Elias Ashmole, 1681-82

In Riley’s portrait, Ashmole is posed with his hand on the achievement of which he was most proud – his own book, The institution, laws & ceremonies of the Most Noble Order of the Garter (1672). In Bridges’s portrait, Wyatt faces us in a similar three-quarter pose (but without the showy and aristocratic contrapposto), with his hand also over a book – probably of engravings; possibly one that he had had published, or had found and preserved. Both men gaze at us with the same assurance in their knowledge, status, and position, different though these were [35].

When Wyatt came to his own frame, he based that too on Ashmole’s portrait and its Gibbons extravaganza. He had no armorial bearings, so he replaced those at the crest with a Corinthinian capital, with the matching base on the bottom rail. The clusters of significant plants on the Gibbons frame were exchanged for the implements he saw as most important to his own accomplishments, and the draperies with a spiralling ribbon, whilst the link to Gibbons was made overt with the flowers which remained, twined amongst the man-made motifs

Grinling Gibbons, details of flowers, seeds and foliage carved on Ashmole’s frame (the top image taken part way through restoration of the surface)

James Wyatt the elder, details of flowers and instruments carved on his portrait frame

Wyatt is no Gibbons, and the leaves on his frame are slightly stiff, rather stylized, a little coarse – but look at the flowers: the large petalled blooms with sculptural unfurling centres or seeds and pods are taken directly from Gibbons’s flowers, as are the little flat five-petalled florets. And the more exotic forms of trumpets, bells and berries are replaced in Wyatt’s frame by the trophies which sum up his life – just as exotic curiosities sum up Ashmole’s.

James Wyatt the elder: his portrait frame decoded

These significant trophies have been examined and analyzed by Gerry Alabone of the National Trust and other framemakers, and the consensus is that they are not – as has been stated in every passing mention made of this frame – the tools of a carver and gilder. There is a trio of things which may belong to a gilder on the lower right-hand side, but otherwise these are all implements connected in some way with drawing. The nocturnal or horologium is a bit of a maverick, since it is used to tell the time at night by sighting on a star; but otherwise everything  here would be used by Wyatt to design picture and looking-glass frames, rather than actually making them. The ellipsograph on the left would have been used to produce a shaped sight for the spandrels of an oval portrait; other tools would measure 90° or 45° angles and draw curves. From this viewpoint, the Corinthian capital on the upper cartouche and the plinth at the bottom signify that Wyatt was stating his knowledge of classical proportion, of the architectural orders, and of related ornament: all the knowledge of a Kent or an Adam, ready to design frames for anyone from the Duke of Marlborough downwards, and to fit them happily into a classical interior. Just like Ashmole, Wyatt was demonstrating the high point he had arrived at from his modest start, and indicating that he was taking even the craft of a flourishing carver and gilder and upgrading it.



With many thanks to Gerry Alabone for naming the instruments on the frame


[1]  John Ruskin, Lectures on architecture and painting, 1854, p. 95 and pp.180-81

[2] Ibid.; p. 222

[3] See Oxford history: ‘Mayors & Lord Mayors

[4] See Oxford History

[5] 1811, according to Sam Smiles, ‘Turner’s topographical watercolours’, British Library online,
or 1804, according to ‘Turner’s High Street’, Ashmolean website

[6] James Hamilton, Turner – a life, 2014

[7] The Oxford Companion to JMW Turner, ed. Evelyn Joll, Martin Butler, & Luke Herrmann, OUP, 2001, p. 389

[8] Collected correspondence of J.M.W. Turner, ed. John Gage, 1980, p. 39, letter 29, dated 4 February 1810 November 1809

[9] Ibid., p. 36, letter 25, postmarked 21 November 1809 and also p.37, 39 & 40

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., p.40, letter 30, dated 28 February 1810

[12] Ibid., p.43, letter 34

[13] Ibid., p.38, letter27, dated 9 December 1809

[14] Ibid., p.52, letter 44, dated 6 March 1812

[15] Ibid., p. 51, letter 44, dated 6 March 1812

[16] John Guille Millais, The life and letters of Sir John Everett Millais, 1899, pp. 34

[17] William Hazlitt, ‘Pictures at Oxford and Blenheim’, first published in the London Magazine, no 8, October 1823; republished in Selected Essays of William Hazlitt: 1778-1830, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, 1930; republished 2011

[18] See the Catalogue of the collection of pictures from Blenheim Palace, which by order of His Grace the Duke of Marlborough, will be sold by auction, by Messrs Christie, Manson & Woods… June 26, 1886

[19] See, as well as Directory of British picture framemakers, 1600-1950, (Wyatt), the Directory of British picture restorers, 1600-1950, under ‘A’ for Ashmolean Museum

[20] Oxford History, ‘Mayors & Lord Mayors

[21] J.G. Millais, op. cit., pp.34-36

[22] Retzsch’s Outlines to Shakspeare: 3rd series: Romeo & Juliet, 1836, with a frontispiece and 12 etched plates

[23] Stephen Calloway, ‘John Everett Millais, James Wyatt of Oxford and a volume of Retzsch’s Outlines to Shakespeare: a missing link’, in Essays in honour of David Bindman, eds. Diana Dethloff et al., 2015, pp. 160-62: quoting W. Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaeilte Brotherhood, 1905, vol. 1, p.130, and F.G. Stephens, Rossetti, 1894, p.9

[24] See the entry for James Wyatt, Directory of British picture framemakers, NPG website

[25] J.G. Millais, op. cit., p. 42

[26] Ibid.

[27] Catherine Roach, Pictures-within pictures in nineteenth century Britain, 2016, p. 113

[28] J.G. Millais, op. cit., p. 100; letter dated 1 April 1851

[29] Colin Harrison, ‘An Exhibition at the Oxford Town Hall in 1854’, The Ashmolean, no.47, 2004; see Jacob Simon’s entry for the Wyatts, op. cit.

[30] The lowest row hanging against the blue screen comprises three early pencil portraits, of Collins and Holman Hunt by Millais, and Millais by Collins. These are close-framed in simple plain gilt mouldings, like those shown on the engravings in Millais’s portrait, Mrs James Wyatt the younger and her daughter Sarah

[31] Catherine Roach, ‘The artist in the house of his patron: images-within-images in John Everett Millais’s portraits of the Wyatt family’, Visual Culture in Britain, vol. 9, no 2, 2008, p. 14

[32] Jacob Simon, op. cit.

[33] For the source of all the following information, and much more, see Jevon Thistlewood, ‘Restoring a Grinling Gibbons frame

[34] Catherine Roach, Pictures-within pictures…, op. cit.

[35] Wyatt’s face is exactly the same, in the characteristic eyebrows, shape of eye, brow, nose and chin, in both Bridges’s and Millais’s portraits, which have only eight years between them.  The radical and shocking change in the mouth in Millais’s portrait – which some critics have taken to mean that Wyatt was a grumpy old man – is probably due to his having lost his teeth in the intervening period.