Turner’s Picture Frames: Part 2

…the frames chosen by the artist, his patrons, and for public and private collections since his death.

 To recap briefly on Part 1 of this article: the emergence of two main types from the frames which remain to us, and the evidence of his own gallery, indicate that Turner did sometimes accept (and possibly orchestrate) his patrons’ preferences, that he used related patterns himself, and that he certainly produced his work in the knowledge of how it would be presented.

Turner Admiral van Tromp s Barge Soane Museum Soane sm

Turner, Admiral Van Tromp’s barge entering the Texel, 1645, 1831, Sir John Soane’s Museum

For example, he chose a Louis XV-style frame for the painting, Admiral Van Tromp’s barge  (RA 1831, London, Sir John Soane’s Museum).  This was exhibited at the Royal Academy, where Soane bought it for 250 guineas (£262.50) – a price which (as with The Bridgewater Seapiece, Part 1) would traditionally have included the ornate frame – and there is no record in Soane’s archives of its ever having been subsequently reframed[1].  Although the voluptuously curved scrolling foliate-&-shell cartouches and swept rails echo the lines of galleon and wave, it is not a particularly appropriate setting for a marine painting, and it was presumably intended to enhance and dramatize a ‘grand machine’.

Thomas Fearnley Turner painting Regulus 1837 N Young Fearnley coll sm

T. Fearnley, Turner painting Regulus, 1837, private collection, Statens Museum for Kunst, Denmark

A similar corner-&-centre frame, with swept rails and the same swooping acanthus-&-shell cartouches as on the frame of Admiral Van Tromp’s barge, was used to reframe the large Regulus in 1837 (1828 and 1837, London, Tate Gallery), a picture which also features, and glorifies, a military leader; it can be seen in Turner painting Regulus, by Thomas Fearnley.

Turner Modern Rome Campo Vaccino 1839 J Paul Getty Museum Los Angeles smTurner, Modern Rome: Campo Vaccino, 1839, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

A more simplified Rococo revival frame, but one which is also almost certainly original, still surrounds Modern Rome: Campo Vaccino, 1839. This painting was acquired by Turner’s friend and patron, Hugh Munro of Novar, from the 1839 Royal Academy exhibition, and remained in his family until 1878, when it was bought (via Christie’s) by the 5th Earl of Rosebery. A hundred years later, the 7th Earl lent it to the National Gallery of Scotland, where it hung until 2010, when it was sold (via Sotheby’s) to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. This direct and straightforward provenance (and the undisturbed and pristine condition of the painting) means that the contemporary Rococo revival frame is very unlikely to have been exchanged at any point[2]; it also shares a number of features with the next frame.

Turner The dawn of Christianity National Museums Northern Ireland sm

Turner, The Dawn of Christianity (The Flight into Egypt), 1841, © National Museums Northern Ireland; Collection Ulster Museum

From 1840 Turner began to play with the conventionally rectangular shape of the canvas, producing square images which he would set in frames with a round or octagonal sight.  The Louis-XV-style pattern was adapted to this format by extending it inwards with delicate foliate spandrels.  The first appearance of this type was the Rococo frame with tiered rocaille cartouches used on Bacchus and Ariadne (RA 1840), and then later for The dawn of Christianity (RA 1841, Ulster Museum, Belfast), on which it remains[3].  Martin Anglesea suggests that this was a scientific solution to the problem of translating illimitable reality into the limited space observed by the spectator: Turner thought that,

‘the circular or octagonal format agreed better with the field of vision actually perceived by the eye… [it] also suited the vortex-like, centrifugal or funnel-shaped compositions which he was continually producing in the 1840s’[4].

Round images – tondi – had in earlier centuries often been framed in circular, garland-like frames, but Turner followed Baroque and Rococo patterns and retained the square outer contour of the frame around the circular or polygonal sight.  This may have been an extension of the field-of-vision theory, the spandrels of a square frame allowing the work to blend more subtly into the wider background; though equally it may have been for motives of economy (since a tondo frame had always been more difficult and expensive to make), or because he thought that his patrons would not accept an eccentrically-shaped picture into the unifomity of their collections.  It was an unfortunate decision, however, since ovals and tondi have frequently remained in their original settings because of the greater cost of reframing them; but Turner’s habit of starting with a square canvas which he painted from corner to corner has left future generations free to replace his original spandrel frames with standard square ones – thus displaying the entire painted surface and subverting the intention and the vision of the artist[5].

Mount with circular sight & spandrels from a Turner frame

Here, for example, is an orphaned mount with spandrels which probably belonged to the frame of a painting in the Turner Bequest. Joyce Townsend, conservation scientist at Tate, ‘analyzed the traces of paint on the reverse and confirmed them as Turner’s paint’ (information from Adrian Moore).  The dawn of Christianity escaped this treatment because, although the canvas is square, the image itself is round and not merely prescribed by a circular sight edge.

Turner The dawn of Christianity detail

Turner, The dawn of Christianity,detail of frame

Turner Modern Rome detail

 Turner, Modern Rome: Campo Vaccino, detail of frame

The frame shares some similarities with that on Modern Rome: Campo Vaccino, painted two years earlier. Both frames have a striated pattern in the hollow, imitating in compo the engraved hatching into the gesso coating of a carved giltwood frame. They both have narrow swept rails, almost identical floral sprays trailing out from the cartouches, and busy ornaments at the sight edge. By 1840, at least, Turner was using George Foord of Wardour Street as his framemaker (see note on Turner’s framers, below), so it is possible that both these frames are Foord’s.

Turner used versions of both the scotia and Louis XV-style pattern as ‘close frames’ (i.e. frames without mounts) for his watercolours.  Unhappily, these have fallen victim in even greater numbers to changes in taste and the technology of framing.  Watercolours in both private and museum collections have for conservation reasons been taken from their original frames, mounted in pale-coloured acid-free boards and set in plain pine mouldings.  This does much for their preservation but nothing for their presentation.

Turner The Valley of Cormayer RA 1803 Soane Museum sm

Turner, St Hughes denouncing vengeance on the shepherd of Cormayer… (Val d’Aosta), RA 1803, Sir John Soanes’s Museum, London

A rare surviving example of an original ‘close’ frame can be seen on the watercolour, Val d’Aosta (RA 1803, Sir John Soanes’s Museum).  This is a scotia pattern, decorated – like the frame of The Bridgewater Seapiece (Part 1) – with acanthus leaves, and defined by an inner gilt cuff or slip, egg-&-dart moulding, and a knulled top edge.  The work was purchased for 50 guineas (£52.50) from Turner’s Gallery by Mrs Soane, and, as in the case of Admiral Van Tromp’s barge, there is again no record of Soane reframing it.  The only archival reference to it in the Museum notes its escape in the 1880s from a recommendation to provide it with a mount ‘of at least four inches in width’, and a new frame[6].  As well as retaining its original frame it has also been protected from light. The resultant survival of intensity in the colour of the paints demonstrates why Turner chose – as many of his peers did – to frame his watercolours like his oil paintings, unmounted, in heavy golden borders.  The frame on the Val d’Aosta is particularly wide and opulent, compared with contemporary or earlier examples of 18th century close frames surviving at, for instance, Stourhead House in Wiltshire[7].

Turner The Valley of Cormayer detail

Turner, Val d’Aosta, 1803, Sir John Soanes’s Museum, detail of frame

In 1857 a writer in The Builder observed, of this practice of close-framing watercolours, that:

‘Turner always contemplated the union of the gold of his colour with the gold of his frame… he… used to urge the hanging of frames containing his drawings in groups, without intervals between the frames, so that nothing but gold might be seen in connection with the drawing’[8].

The lack of interval between the frames was familiar in the hangings commonly used by institutions such as the Royal Academy, Old Water-Colour Society and Paris Salon, where simple want of sufficient space produced exhibition walls resembling secular polyptychs, with ‘the appearance of an immense mass of gilt gingerbread’[9].

Johann Heinrich Ramberg The Exh of the RA 1787 engr by Pietro Martini

Johann Heinrich Ramberg, The exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1787, engraving by Pietro Martini, Royal Academy

However, Turner’s patrons also followed this method of hanging – notably Windus, with his watercolours, whilst Turner’s own gallery shows a similar exercise in the exclusion of as much visible wall space as possible.  This dependence on the frame as the sole foil to the painting (in either medium) is dictated again by the richness of colour Turner employed; where background did intrude, he responded by intensifying the relative tint in his painting – hence the notorious increments in his reds on Varnishing Days at the Royal Academy.

His principal care with regard to frames seems thus to have been the maintenance of a tonal equilibrium in his work, by offsetting it with a wide margin of gold, then considered a ‘neutral’ colour.  The section and ornament of the moulding produced further effects, isolating that picture from others; enhancing pictorial depth and perspective; providing secondary illumination; echoing compositional forms and lines; indicating the grandeur of the work.  Yet Turner never seems to have been tempted to design his own frames from scratch, as the Pre-Raphaelites were to do after his death; he used and adapted existing patterns.  His only excursion into innovatory design is in his famous use of ship’s cable to frame his work, reported first of his Roman exhibition in 1828.

Turner Vision of Medea Tate replica rope frame by Lawrence Gowing sm

Turner, Vision of Medea, 1828, Tate, replica rope frame by Lawrence Gowing

This included a Vision of Medea, View of Orvieto,  and Regulus (1828, reworked 1837 and reframed in revival Louis XV-style; see above).  J.A. Koch described the exhibition in his Moderne Kunstchronik (published 1834), noting that,‘The pictures were surrounded with ship’s cable instead of gilt frames’[10].  The cable was apparently painted to resemble gilding, and was either an act of economy or a desperate measure in the face of a deadline.  However, Turner shrewdly saw the inherent possibilities; a report of the same technique used later at the Royal Academy emphasizes the theatricality of its unveiling, whilst the painting to which it was applied this time was appropriately a marine subject:

‘His brother artists greatly admired it, and all remarked on the absence of a frame.  Day after day they exclaimed, ‘Where’s the frame?’  Turner replied, ‘All right, it is coming’.  Only on the morning before the private view did he make this good.  He brought four lengths of the thickest ship’s cable, and nailed them round the picture; this he painted with yellow ochre, and brightened the prominent parts with real gold.  The effect was excellent and people went so far as to admire the richness and appropriateness of the frame.’

Turner Vision of Medea Tate replica rope frame by Lawrence Gowing detail

Turner, Vision of Medea, 1828, Tate, detail of frame

Carved rope mouldings were already part of the established vocabulary of architectural ornament, so this use of cable may not have seemed quite so radical to spectators who saw the finished, gilded border on the painting, as opposed to those who saw Turner produce it dramatically, like a conjuror’s rabbit; at any rate, it does not seem to have spawned a genre of instant framing. (Lawrence Gowing’s replica rope frame seems much too slight; ship’s cable in the early 19th century must have been much weightier, and – as Koch noted – Turner used four separate pieces, since presumably his cable was too thick to bend at the corners).

After Turner’s death, his staple (conventional) frame patterns continued to be rehashed and served up in ever cheaper and more unpalatable forms, debasing the relatively chaste, well-made revival designs which he had used; whilst for watercolours fashion veered from close frames towards plainer mouldings and pale card mounts.

The National Gallery, bequeathed nearly twenty thousand of Turner’s unframed drawings, set in only three of the largest in gilded close frames.  Charles Eastlake, then the Director of the Gallery, reported,

‘…that these three drawings had been exhibited at the Royal Academy, and that, when so exhibited, the drawing itself was, in each case, in contact with the gilt frame, without mounting.  The Committee were of the opinion that… no mounting is advisable.  The pattern of a frame suggested by Mr Russell was adopted for the three drawings severally[11].’

The Committee decided that a selection of the rest should also be set in Russell’s pattern:

‘Frame to be in oil gold 2 ins wide/flat with 2 engraved lines’; and that most of them were to have ‘a French mount (that is a sheet of thick paper, of a tint agreed on…)’.

Only the Liber Studiorum drawings retained, save a few, Turner’s own mounts.  They were

‘to be framed singly with french mount 3 ins wide – Drawings not to be desturbed [sic] – dirty mounts to be adapted accordingly…’

The work was carried out by Colnaghi, at a cost of £116.12.00 [£116.60] for 67 watercolours.

John Ruskin, as an executor of Turner’s will, interfered tirelessly in the deliberations of the Committee, determined to see that the paintings were protected adequately from light and dust, and giving as much of his attention to the backs as to the fronts of the frames.  His ideal was a special gallery for Turner’s watercolours, with each in a ‘golden case and closing doors’[12], like a mediaeval triptych; but he suggested a more practical system to the National Gallery’s Trustees:

‘The drawings chosen for permanent exhibition should… be arranged in two rows along a well lighted wall not exposed to sunshine.  They need not be in separate frames: a… narrow bar of gold separating the mounts would be all that was needed, but some considerable space should be allowed in the mounts, otherwise the drawings will injure each other[13].’

Here we see the beginning of the clipping of Turner’s vision: where he had wished that ‘nothing but gold might be seen in connection with the drawing’, the gold was now to be pushed out to a perimeter edging, and replaced by a tinted mount.

Ruskin Mahogany cabinet for Turner w cols 1861 prob by Wm & Edwd Snell Fitzwilliam

Mahogany cabinet for Turner’s watercolours, 1861, probably made by William & Edward Snell, London; © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Ruskin’s solution for his own Turner watercolours had been to commission light-excluding mahogany cabinets, into which groups of framed and mounted paintings could be slid.  He recommended similar cases to the Trustees; mounts were to be white, while

‘The frame is of white pine; because the whiter the wood, the less it hurts the colour of the sketch’[14].

Ruskin Mahogany cabinet for Turner w cols Fitzwilliam

Mahogany cabinet open, showing how the paintings are slotted in

Cabinets to the coloured design he attached were apparently made for the National Gallery, but have long since been lost; Ruskin’s own cabinets remain, now at the University of Lancaster, and in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.  The cream of the national collection was to be housed like this, shut away from atmospheric damage; whilst watercolours of lesser importance were to be exhibited to the public in an arrangement more like that suggested by Ruskin in his first letter to the National Gallery Trustees (see above: 8 Dec. 1856).

Arthur Severn The interior of Ruskin's bedroom at Brantwood From The Victorian Web

Arthur Severn, The interior of Ruskin’s bedroom at Brantwood, 1900, Ruskin Foundation, Lancaster University; with thanks to The Victorian Web

Arthur Severn’s Interior of Ruskin’s Bedroom at Brantwood shows that Ruskin’s own Turner drawings were hung like this, almost edge-to-edge in white mounts and narrow gilt frames, and these – in plainer versions – became the standard treatments for Turner’s watercolours in public and private collections.

Ruskin s bedroom four frame corners sm

Ruskin’s frames for his Turner watercolours, still hanging in his bedroom at Brantwood

Ruskin’s evangelizing vision of how best to present his hero’s work became so far the accepted method that in the 20th century, the Farnley series of twenty watercolours was reframed in this way.  C.F. Bell had described the series as it still existed in the 1890s, in an annotation to his own copy of Exhibited works of J.M.W. Turner:

‘… the original collection of Turner’s water-colours… were all framed in these deep gilt frames, some decorated with the family crest, in which Fawkes and the painter had had them put’[15].

The reframing, into narrow gilt frames with white mounts (illustrated in Country Life, 27 May 1954, p.1714), destroyed what was probably the only surviving collection of Turner’s paintings to have been framed by the artist.

Other groups – for instance, the Lloyd Collection in the British Museum – tend to have uniform settings and mounts chosen by the purchaser, often, as in this case, produced c.1912 by the firm of Agnew, which seems automatically to have reframed many of the Turners which have passed through its hands.


Turner, The falls of Terni, c.1818, in an Agnew’s watercolour frame with blind (down on the left, raised on the right); courtesy of Blackburn Museum & Art Gallery

Watercolour frames with inbuilt blinds, like this one (above), which have been described as Ruskin’s, were almost certainly also produced by Agnew’s, possibly in the late 19th, but more probably in the early 20th century.

A loss similar to that of the Farnley frames is the disappearance of that made for Robert Stevenson’s Bell Rock Light House (watercolour, 1819, National Galleries of Scotland), for which we have apparently the only extant Turner sketch for a frame section[16].  The picture remained until quite recently in the possession of the Stevenson family – often the best guarantee for the retention of the original frame – but unfortunately, when it passed into the collections of the National Galleries of Scotland, it lost this guarantee.  The seemingly universal museum practice of reclothing watercolours in the white mounts and pine frames advocated by Ruskin does not extend in an equal gesture of conservation to cover the original frames – even those designed by the artist – and this frame seems to have disappeared completely.

When we look at Turner’s works, therefore, whether oil paintings or watercolours, in public or private hands, it is important to remember that the way that they are now presented is often far from the way in which the artist expected and intended them to be seen.

Chronological note on framemakers recorded as mentioned by Turner himself:

1800:   sends his ‘respects to Mr Williams & family’; possibly John Williams of Oxford, listed with ‘Printsellers, Carvers and Gilders and Picture-frame Makers’, in Pigot’s Directory, 1823-24. A Mr & Mrs Williams bought prints of Turner’s work, and Iffley Mill, Oxford, watercolour, 1800, was given to ‘Williams the Engraver’, at whose house Turner was staying in Oxford (Gage, The collected correspondence of J.M.W. Turner, Oxford, 1980).

1809-12:   James Wyatt, carver & gilder, Oxford, commissioned High Street, Oxford, and Oxford from the Abingdon Road, sending the frames to Turner for  exhibition.

1820:   ‘Stegler, the frame-maker, called…’ This is possibly ‘Stiggle’, rather than ‘Stegler’: there was a William Stiggle, Carver & Gilder at 440 Strand, in the Post Office Annual Directory, 1808 (Gage, ibid.).

1840: Offers John Sheepshanks a choice between Venice from the Canale della                                   Giudecca… and Venice, the Bridge of Sighs, adding, ‘…when you desired me to tell Mr Foord to make for you the Frame I told him to make exactly the like for me, hence arose the Two Pictures…’

1844:    To Thomas Griffith, probably re Hero and Leander, ‘…The stormy Picture      you said in the Parlour for Mr Foords Hero to advise with about both cleaning and lining…’ (Gage, ibid.).

The ‘Foord’ in both paragraphs above is George Foord of Wardour Street, Soho. See the entry for George Foord, later Foord & Dickinson, in the National Portrait Gallery Directory of British Framemakers.  He was framemaker for the Society of Painters in Watercolour from c.1830-1850, and also worked for Ruskin.  His firm later became the Foord & Dickinson which framed work for Rossetti, Lord Leighton, Albert Moore and Whistler, etc., and in 1861 made the frames for the Turners which Ruskin gave to the University Galleries of Oxford.

For further information: ‘Understanding the framing of the Turner Bequest’ by Ivan Houghton and Gerry Alabone considers and catalogues the various frame patterns on the paintings left by Turner to the nation and now in the collection of Tate Britain. It was published in the British Art Journal in 2011.

A series of photos on Flickr charts the restoration of the frame on the version of The Battle of Trafalgar in the National Maritime Museum.

Most of the images included here are courtesy of the respective museums or owners, to whom I am extremely grateful; especially to those who took photos for me themselves, or otherwise alerted me to an original Turner frame.

Turner’s Picture Frames: Part 1 > here

Turner’s Picture Frames: Part 3 > here

[1]  Information from Helen Dorey.

[2]  Information on Modern Rome… from Sotheby’s sale catalogue for the painting, 7 July 2010; contributions by James Stourton and Simon Howell.

[3] This suggestion as to the two occupants of this particular frame comes from Professor Gerard E. Finley, via Martin Anglesea.

[4] Martin Anglesea, catalogue entry on The dawn of Christianity for the Ulster Museum, no date.

[5] For example, Light and colour (Goethe’s theory)… and Shade and darkness… (both RA 1843, Tate); Peace – burial at sea and War. The exile and the rock limpet (both RA 1842, Tate). The Oxford Companion…, op. cit.

[6]  Sir John Soane’s Museum, Trustees Minute Book, 2, February 1883; information from Helen Dorey.

[7] The close frames at Stourhead are generally narrower and simpler, characterized by a plain scotia, a sight moulding of small leaf-tips/ rais-de-coeurs, and a top moulding of leaf-&-berry, twisted ribbon or pearls.  A number frame the work of Abraham Louis Ducros (1748-1810), who, according to Colt Hoare, should be credited with the revolutionary step of framing watercolours like oil paintings, in close gilt frames (information from Alistair Laing).

[8] Gage, 1969, op.cit., p.163.

[9] Martin Hardie, Watercolour painting in Britain, London, 1967, vol. I.  Representations of these exhibition hangings include Pietro Martini’s engraving, …au Salon du Louvre en 1785 (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Dept.des Estampes); Martini’s engraving after J.H. Ramberg’s Exhibition of the Royal Academy, 1787 (London, Royal Academy); Samuel P.B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre, 1831-33 (Chicago, Terra Museum of American Art); Pierre-Ambroise Richebourg’s photograph, Salon de 1861 (Paris, Louvre); Jean Bérard’s A day in the Salon, 1874.

[10]   Gage, 1969, op.cit., p.104.

[11]   National Gallery Archives (NG5/131/1856); ‘Dec. 5 Report of Director’).  The three watercolours were Battle of Font Bard, Val d’Aosta; Edinburgh from the Carlton Hill; and Funeral of Sir Thomas Lawrence.  Russell was one of the Trustees of the National Gallery.

[12]  Ruskin to his father, quoted in Ruskin and the English Watercolour, exh, cat., Whitworth Gallery, University of Manchester, 1989, p.42.

[13]   National Gallery Archives (NG5/131/1856; Dec. 8).

[14]  National Gallery Archives (NG5/220/1857; March 2).

[15]  Clive F. Bell, Exhibited works of J.M.W. Turner, 1901, V7 A, London.

[16]  Illustrated in John Gage, ed., The collected correspondence of J.M.W. Turner, Oxford, 1980.