Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A Christmas carol, s. & d. 1867; detail of top rail of frame
Sotheby’s evening sale on 4th December 2013 will include a painting by Holman Hunt and one by D.G. Rossetti from the Leverhulme Collection.
Lord Leverhulme, son of a grocery shop owner, made a fortune from Sunlight and other soaps, setting up Lever Brothers with his sibling James. He was a member of the Congregational Church, and was influenced by a strong Christian idealism to apply its ethics to his working life – believing, along with William Morris, that workers should have good housing and employment conditions in order to thrive and lead productive lives. He established the model village of Port Sunlight to house his employees, with church, school, pub (initially dry!) and – after the death of his wife, Elizabeth, in 1913 – the Lady Lever Art Gallery.
Lever Brothers soap works, Port Sunlight, Liverpool. Photo: Tony Worrall Foto
Both Lord Leverhulme and his wife loved and collected the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and other 19th century artists; much of their collection (including over 300 watercolours) went to the Lady Lever Gallery, but a core remained in their family house, Thornton Manor (their London house was The Hill, now Inverforth House ).
Thornton was built in the 1890s out of pink sandstone, in dramatic ‘Jacobethan’ style and under Lord Leverhulme’s supervision (he was an architect manqué). The warmth of the material didn’t prevent the occasional Hammer Horror House cast to its appearance when the weather was cloudy, but inside Thornton was an assemblage of welcoming rooms in eclectic styles, which were run on the lines of an Edwardian country house until the death of the last Viscount Leverhulme in 2000. The latter, as philanthropic as his grandfather, was always ready to admit students to see the collection of paintings he had inherited. Now, Rossetti’s Christmas Carol and Holman Hunt’s Tuscan girl plaiting straw are about to be sold out of that collection.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A Christmas carol, s. & d. 1867
A Christmas Carol was one of Rossetti’s last works to be painted from the model Ellen Smith, discovered by him four years earlier. It is unusual among his many paintings of women playing musical instruments in that it has a sacred rather than a secular theme, underlined by the silver heart-shaped icon of the Madonna and Child hanging against the tapestry background. But it shares the same rich colour and patterning, and the same shallow space, as many of his other half-length images of women of the 1860s, and shares also one of the two characteristic frames of the period.
This is, in fact, the most long-lived and much-copied of all Pre-Raphaelite frames – the reed-&-roundel design which Rossetti had created together with Ford Madox Brown. It has all the characteristic elements: the inner gilt oak frieze or cuff, with perpendicular butt-joints rather than mitres; the outer flat band of fine reeds with a bevel to the frieze; an ‘arrow-head’ moulding at the sight edge; small graphic roundels engraved on the frieze; and what Rossetti called ‘chefs-square’ in the corners. The gilt oak butt-jointed frieze was being used by Rossetti from about 1861, which can be inferred from his complaint to his brother, William Michael Rossetti, in a letter of 14 August 1861, that Thomas Dixon, a protégé of Ruskin,
‘had the coolness to write to me the other day, wanting the proper measurements and mode of making for oak frames!’.
The only detail missing is the roundels in various designs which were often carved across the band of reeds; in a small and densely-patterned work such as this, they would have been a decoration too far.
The flatness and lack of perspectival recession given by this shallow architrave structure complements the shallow space of the painting, and enhances its very decorative quality. The lack of assertive ornament also encourages the attention to focus on the opulent play of texture, surface pattern and saturated colour of a composition which seems to evoke the heart of Christmas. The frame gains its own very subtle texture and pattern from the grain of the oak under the gilding – which has been laid directly onto the wood.
The final touch is the inscription on the bottom rail:
“here a maid, well-apparelled, shall sing a song of Christ’s birth with the tune of Bullulalow:
Jesus Christus hodie * Natus est de Virgine”
The catalogue note to the lot adds the context of the carol itself:
Christ has been born today;
the Saviour has appeared today;
the angels sing today in the earth;
today the fair ones are happy saying:
Glory be to God in the heights, Hallelujah.
William Holman Hunt, Tuscan girl plaiting straw, 1869
Holman Hunt’s Italian peasant girl, one of a pair, was painted two years after Rossetti’s musician, whilst Hunt was staying in Fiesole. The two pictures were taken from the daughters of his host’s gardener, who seem to have caused him a great deal of trouble as sitters (‘little unruly savages’) . They were split up almost immediately, after the dealer, Gambart, acquired the pair from Hunt for £600, and the picture of the younger sister (Caught), is currently in a private collection. They have identical architrave frames –smoothly gilded on a gesso base, with integral glazing doors (Hunt often incorporated these into his frames designs and sometimes made the keyhole a decorative feature).
A line is engraved down either side of the wide frieze, crossing at the corners to form a cassette. In the centre of each rail, a medallion with a cruciform daisy plant is engraved into the gesso layer. This is a technique which Hunt had first patronized for The Scapegoat, 1854-56, in which panels of stylized symbolic motifs had been carved into the thick layer of gesso coating the frame. Joseph Green’s workshop had produced the latter frame, and it was to produce the two frames for Tuscan girl… and Caught.
William Holman Hunt, The finding of the Saviour in the Temple, 1854-56,Birmingham City Art Gallery
The cruciform daisy plants on these two frames are closely related both to the heartsease sprig on the right-hand rail of The Scapegoat, and to the daisy plant with five florets in the corner of the frame for The finding of the Saviour…. (large version in Birmingham). The daisy represents purity, simplicity and innocence, which Hunt must have chosen as appropriate to his subjects, and then – by the time the paintings were united with their frames – regarded with a rather ironic eye. How appropriate, in view of this symbolism, for Lord Leverhulme to buy the Tuscan girl… and her daisies, given the products which allowed him to acquire her:
Thank you to all those whose images I’ve borrowed.
Read more Pre-Raphaelite posts on The Frame Blog:
Part I: Pre-Raphaelite frames > here
Part II: More Pre-Raphaelite frames > here
Part III: A final look at Pre-Raphaelite frames > here
Restoring a Pre-Raphaelite frame > here
Poetry & the frame: Rossetti’s Blessed Damozel & its altarpiece setting > here
What artists, critics & collectors say about frames: Part 2> here
Love in the frame: the portraits & frames of John Brett > here
Poetry & the frame: May morning on Magdalen Tower > here
A Victorian Obsession…The Pérez Simón Collection > here
 Judith Bronkhurst, William Holman Hunt: A catalogue raisonné, 2006, vol. I, pp. 217-19; vol.II, pp.332-33.