The Frame Blog

Articles, interviews and reviews to do with antique and modern picture frames

Frames: State of the Art. Part 1: José Ortega y Gasset

1 Frames State of the Art COVER sm

The book, Frames: state of the art (Rammens kunst), was published in 2008 to accompany the exhibition of the same name at the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen in 2009. The guiding spirit behind both was Henrik Bjerre, Head Conservator & head of the Jørn Rubow Centre for Conservation at the Museum for over 40 years. He is generously allowing The Frame Blog to republish essays from the book; these will appear as an occasional series.

The first piece in the series is part of an essay by the Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, first published in 1921, and known in some translations as ‘Meditations on the frame’.

Thoughts on art and philosophy

José Ortega y Gasset [Essay, 1921, sections 2-5]


A painting lives its life surrounded by a frame.  This close connection between painting and frame is by no means accidental.  They are mutually dependent.  A painting without a frame leads one’s thoughts to a man who has been robbed and stripped.  Its content overflows the edges of the canvas and dissolves in the surrounding reality.  On the other hand, the frame demands to have a painting inside it, and if it does not, then the section of the world one sees through the empty frame often appears as a painting in itself.

The relationship between frame and painting is quite indissoluble, then, and far from being accidental; it has the nature of being a physical law, just as the neurological system is dependent on the cardiovascular and vice versa.  As thought presupposes material, and the latter cannot function without the former.


José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955)

One could be tempted to think that the relationship between painting and frame corresponds to the body’s relationship to clothes.  This would, however, be a misunderstanding.  The frame is not the painting’s clothing, for, unlike clothing, which covers the body, the frame has the property of supporting the painting. It is true that sometimes clothing leaves parts of the body uncovered; but this appears to us often to be in sheer defiance, a rebellion by clothing itself, a sort of denial of its real purpose, a sin.  If the part of the body which is not covered by clothes becomes larger than the part that is, the clothing ceases to be garments and instead becomes decoration, pure ornament.  The naked Indian’s band around his waist is thus not part of a garment but has an exclusively ornamental nature.

However, we cannot regard the frame as decoration and ornamentation for the painting, either. Man’s very first artistic efforts were to decorate his own body.  The seed of all art which was to follow lies in these primitive decorations.  Two or more of nature’s own works, which nature had not itself united, were conjoined in these very first works of art. Man fixed a bird’s feather on his head, the teeth of beasts of prey were hung on a chain round his neck, and he tied a bracelet of shining stones around his wrist.  These were the first expressions in the enigmatic and complex language of art.

What inscrutable instinct made the Indian adorn his head, then, with a colourful feather?  Undoubtedly it was a question of drawing attention to himself, to mark a difference from others and a superiority.  Biology has shown us that the need to show off and dominate is even stronger than the urge to look for food and shelter.

This innovative Indian had an indefinable idea deep inside him that he was worth more than the others, he was more of a man than them; he fired off his whistling arrows through the dense forest with great precision and hit the most beautiful and shyest birds.  The consciousness of his own superiority slumbered quietly within him.  When he affixed the bird’s feather to his head, he gave body and life to his picture of himself. The feather was not just for the others to admire it, it was more a sort of lightning conductor which could attract the eyes of others and lead them on to his person.  The feather was like an accent on a letter, and the accent accentuates the letter beneath it – and not itself in any way.  The feather accentuates, emphasizes the Indian’s head and body, it floats colourfully over him and shines out in all directions.

The same is true of all other sorts of ornamentation as it is with the Indian’s feather: they attract attention, but only to lead it on to the ornamented object.  The frame, on the other hand, does not in itself attract attention.  This can be proved quite easily.  Try to think of the paintings you know best, and you will discover that you cannot remember how they are framed.  The only place we look at the frame for its own sake is at the framemaker’s; that is, when it does not carry out its function as a frame.


The frame in itself does not draw the eye; it concentrates the gaze and allows itself to gather on the painting.  This is not, however, its primary capacity.

The work of art is like an imaginary floating island, surrounded by reality on all sides.  So it is decisive that it remains isolated from the life going on around it.  We cannot move gradually between the physical and the painted world.  Besides, we would not get the same aesthetic benefit at all from the work if the borders between art and the world around were erased.  A painting without a frame loses its beauty and persuasive power if its borders merge with the concrete reality around it, with its demands and expectations of usefulness.  If we want to get the most out of art, we have to move directly from the concrete reality of the wall to the imaginary universe of the work of art.  There has to be a divider.  This divider is the frame.

If you want to divide something off from something else, you need a third thing which does not remind you of either of these two.  A neutral object.  The frame is not a necessary part of the building, like the wall; nor is it the enchanted surface of the canvas.  The frame serves to neutralize a little part of the wall and lead our eye on from this to the other dimension, to the imaginary island.

So the frame is a sort of window, in the same way as windows also behave as frames.  The painting opens up for an idealized piece of the world in the middle of the silent reality of the wall, and we lean forward as if towards a window and regard this unreal scenario.  In a similar way, a portion of a city or landscape seen through a window opening also often comes to look like a detached fragment without connection to the concrete world, just like a painting.


The gold frame has been preferred over the centuries to all other sorts of frame.  The above interpretation of the function of the frame helps to explain the privileged status of the gold frame.  If the purpose is to take us away from empirical reality, the frame must appear to be as little recognizable as possible in relation to the nature which surrounds us.  No matter how stylized the frame is, it will always lead our thoughts to the materials it has been made of.  Even the cleanest and most geometrical ornamentation, convolutions and spiral decoration, will remind us of nature’s own forms, in the same way as the shell, picked up a thousand years ago, will still give echoes of the seething waves of the Atlantic.  Only that which has no form is free of any sort of reference to reality.

It is possible that the special status of the gold frame is due to the fact that the purple bronze used for gilding is the material that most reflects light, and reflections of light are not things in themselves but just light, pure colour without form.  If an object is made of metal or glass, we will not focus on the light and reflections in the same way, but on the contrary, on the surface of the object itself.  The reflection of light belongs neither to what is reflected nor to what it is reflected by, rather to the immaterial spectrum in between.  As it neither has its own form nor is reproduced by the form of others, we are unable to see it as a concrete object and we are left in a strange uncertainty.

With its powerful refulgence, the gold frame draws a glittering line between the painting and the reality around it.  Its reflections of light are like knives that continually cut the ties we tend to want to make between the unreality of the work and the concrete reality of the surroundings.  Quite in the same way as the gate to Paradise, where an angel meets the new arrival with a burning sword, a sword of reflections of light.


The stage curtain is the frame of the theatre stage.  It hangs heavy and significant, like brackets surrounding other content than what is to be found in the rest of the room.  The less ornamentation it has, the better.  It tells us with a grandiose and absurd gesture that another world begins on the imaginary hinterland of the stage, an unreal world, a phantasmagoria.  We would not allow it if the stage curtain opened its mouth to speak about business and daily life, that it just repeated what the audience have already brought into the theatre with them.  We expect to be met by a puff of fantasy, a breath of legend and unreality.

One cannot ever get to the bottom of this subject, and our attempts to write the definitive work on the frame must necessarily end in failure. We have to stop while we can.  Of course we could begin to talk about the hat and veil as a frame around a woman’s face.  Here we have to give up.  It would also be fitting to discuss why Chinese and Japanese paintings are not normally framed.  But why should we start on that discussion, which in its essence is about the difference between Western and Far Eastern art, between the Asian and the European soul?  To understand these differences, we would first have to investigate why the Chinese orient themselves towards the south and not the north.  Why people wear white in China to show sorrow.  Why they start with the roof and not the foundation when they build a house.  And why people in China move their heads up and down when they want to say no, just like us when we want to say yes.


With grateful thanks to Henrik Bjerre for permission to republish articles in Frames: state of the art, and to Sven Bjerkhof and Poul Lauritsen for facilitating the process.

National Gallery, London: reframings – an update

The National Gallery, London, has recently seen three important paintings reframed:  Andrea del Sarto, The Madonna and Child, St Elizabeth and the Baptist (c.1513); Bronzino, The Madonna and Child with saints (probably c.1540); and Johann Liss, Judith in the tent of Holofernes (c. 1622).

Andrea del Sarto Madonna & Child & Bronzino Madonna & Child with Saints NG ed

Andrea del Sarto, The Madonna and Child, St Elizabeth and the Baptist (c.1513), & Bronzino, The Madonna and Child with saints (probably c.1540).  National Gallery, London

The first two of these are works by Mannerist painters, which hang side by side in the Gallery, and they have been set into two extraordinarily beautiful and powerful Mannerist frames. Mannerism is usually best described as a subversion of classical idiom, in which the artist, craftsman, architect or designer plays games with the conventional proportions and motifs which characterized art during the Renaissance. Although it’s a term which was first applied to painting (earlier, in the work of Andrea del Sarto and Michelangelo; later in work by Pontormo, Bronzino, Coreggio, etc.), and emerges as a style in the late teens and early twenties of the 16th century, it’s also applied to the tricks of design played in buildings, furniture and picture frames.


Michelangelo, vestibule of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, 1524-34, and subseq.-1571

The earliest example of a fully Mannerist building is probably the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, designed by Michelangelo in the 1520s and incorporating many innovative twists on classical proportion and motif. The stretched silhouettes, tapering pilasters and enlarged pediments of the wall niches, as well as the scrolling ends of the steps and massive volutes above the half-landing, would all become characteristic of Mannerist frames.

Michelangelo Porta Pia Rome Michelangelo, Porta Pia, Rome, 1561-65

A much later design by Michelangelo for the Porta Pia in Rome provides a stylebook of Mannerist patterns. The blind windows on the second storey have outset corners, the ground storey windows are emphatically elongated, with exaggerated modillions or brackets supporting them, and the massive triple height portico is crowned with a lunette, open swan’s neck and triangular pediments.

Doorway of Porta Pia

 Doorway of Michelangelo’s Porta Pia, Rome

The portico by itself sports an accretion of motifs: the elongated supports of the upper pediments (plain triglyphs), with their large row of guttae, or pendant ‘raindrops’; the gigantic S-scroll volutes behind them, against the wall; the tight, concentric scrollings of the swan’s neck pediment and the enlarged bay leaf swag which joins them – all highly subversive deformations of the classical orders.

Andrea del Sarto school of St Sebastian Ospedale degli Innocenti Florence sm

School of Andrea del Sarto, St Sebastian, Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence. Photo courtesy of the Paul Mitchell Archive

Here is an example of an original Mannerist frame on a school of del Sarto work in the Innocenti, Florence; this can correctly be described as a tabernacle frame, since it has a vestigial apron at the bottom and can thus only be wall-mounted. The replacement of columns or pilasters by fluted drops ending in pendant tassels; the S-scrolls at the back edge; the studs on the frieze, fluted cornice and parcel-gilded finish: these are all elements which play further games with features purloined from Mannerist architecture, in a joyous visual equivalent of joke and pun.

Andrea del Sarto Madonna & Child St Elizabeth & the Baptist c1513 NG17 ed Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530), The Madonna and Child, St Elizabeth and the Baptist, c.1513. National Gallery, NG17

The new frame on Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna & Child… is similarly created from a gallimaufry of visual games. It is as completely appropriate to the style and period of the painting as, for instance, the classical aedicule of the Frari Triptych is to Bellini’s work. The frame was acquired in Italy, and is unaltered. It is parcel-gilt walnut, a typically Mannerist finish, and some of the gilding is original. The design is based on a conventional aedicule, but the innermost moulding has taken over the frieze and supporting mouldings from the lower part of the entablature, becoming (as it were) a cassetta frame with attached cornice, base and pilasters. The pilasters in their turn have spun into S-shaped volutes, and their capitals and pedestals have slimmed into long, lean bars ornamented with piastre mouldings. Other Mannerist motifs include the gilt flutes on the cornice and at the sight edge: the latter provides an element of perspectival recession and focal emphasis for the painting; also the enriched studs on the frieze.

This is a superb and beautifully-preserved frame, which retains the original hanging device on the back. It was also miraculously exactly the right size for the picture, and is both a significant addition to the National Gallery’s increasing collection of period frames, and a notable improvement in presentation of the work it now contains. It hangs beside Bronzino’s Madonna and Child…, which has also recently been reframed in a Mannerist design.

Bronzino Madonna & child with saints c1540 NG ed sm

Agnolo Bronzino, The Madonna and Child with saints, c.1540.  National Gallery, NG5280 

This is an example of a Tuscan Mannerist architectural moulding frame; it plays on the enlarged hooks and flutes found in designs by the architect, Bartolomeo Ammannati, and (for instance) in the frame of Bronzino’s Portrait of Giovanni de’ Medici in the Ashmolean. Once more, it’s of parcel-gilt walnut, a combination which emphasizes the already prominent scoops and knulls of the main fluted ornament. Like the more subtle fluting at the sight edge of the del Sarto frame, this is primarily a focusing and an optical device; in other words, it grabs the spectator’s attention, and also provides an enhanced perspectival recession into the painting.  Since Bronzino’s figure composition is (like many Mannerist paintings) set in a very shallow space, with a distant background and no middle ground, this recessive trick actually creates a tension between painting and frame – another trait of Mannerist ornament (see also an earlier post ).

Pontormo Halberdier detail

Jacopo Pontormo, Portrait of a halberdier (?Francesco Guardi),c.1528, Getty Center

An extraordinary bolection version of this dynamic style frames Pontormo’s Portrait of a halberdier, 1528 .  Such frames would have helped paintings to stand out from the opulent interiors of painted decoration, panelling or coloured marbles where they originally hung.

Like the new frame on the del Sarto, that on Bronzino’s Madonna & Child… has its original hanging device: in this case it can be seen rising above the top of the frame. It was acquired in Germany, and, again like the other frame, is unaltered and exactly the right size for the painting it now contains. Even better, it creates a relationship with the Mannerist aedicule on the del Sarto similar to those which would have existed in hangings of the period, a great bonus for any gallery, and a reward for the meticulous trawling for suitable frames which has to be undertaken in order to make such acquisitions.

Both works are at the moment (June 2014) hanging in the newly-renovated rooms beneath the National Gallery. They are, in fact, together within one very striking space devoted to Mannerism, having been arranged on the left of Michelangelo’s large Entombment (c.1500-01), in its monumental painted and parcel-gilt aedicular frame of the 1570s, and his Virgin & Child with St John & angels (the so-called ‘Manchester Madonna‘ of c.1497).  The latter has a parcel-gilt Florentine frame, also of the 1560s-70s, with a wide frieze of raked and centred stopped-channel fluting, and an acanthus leaf top moulding. These four paintings together form an eye-catching and theatrical salute to Italian Mannerism on a single wall; but – even better – they are supported on the facing wall by works  by Bacchiacca and Pontormo. Amongst these Pontormo’s Joseph with Jacob in Egypt (c.1518) stands out: it has a handsome parcel-gilt bolection frame with stopped-channel fluting on the top edge and a leaf-tip at the sight.

Johann Liss Judith in the tent of Holofernes c1622 NG ed

 Johann Liss (c.1595-1631), Judith in the tent of Holofernes, c.1622. National Gallery, NG4597 

The National Gallery’s third new setting is another Italian walnut frame, this time Baroque in style, and married to a Baroque work by a German-born artist. Liss was, however, nothing if not pan-European. He was trained in Haarlem, Amsterdam and Antwerp, before moving to Venice via Paris, and then on to Rome, where his Judith… was probably painted. What better design to display it than a 17th century cassetta frame with a reverse or bolection profile – i.e. with the highest moulding nearest the sight edge, pushing the painting out from the wall towards the spectator? This thrusting style, with an emphatic difference of height between the back and sight edges, and a consequent opposition of highlighted moulding and strong cast shadow, complements perfectly the dramatic knot of opposed limbs and the swirling composition, as well as the contrast of light and dark in the painting, so characteristic of Baroque art. This frame may have originated, like the picture, in Rome, making it particularly appropriate for Liss’s work.

Johann Liss green NG sm

Liss walnut reverse cassetta veiled in green paint; note the butt joint across the frieze at the top

Happy discoveries are not, however, always straightforward; this beautiful wooden frame with its handsome grain and patina was concealed when it was found beneath a layer of pale viridian paint. Fortunately wood, especially a hard wood like walnut, can be relatively easily restored. This is not always the case with, for instance, gilding; often an original surface has to be regilded, simply because it’s not possible to remove whatever layers have been applied on top without removing the gilding, too. The walnut frame on the Liss, however, has been expertly restored to its original finish; and both Mannerist and Baroque collections at the National Gallery have been greatly enhanced by these three frames, which have found their perfect partners.


With thanks to Peter Schade of the National Gallery for providing the images and information used in this article.

 National Gallery frames: an interview with Peter Schade > here

Girolamo da Santacroce’s polyptych in Košljun, Croatia

Dr. Kiril Penušliski examines the creation of this exceptionally well-preserved early 16th century Venetian altarpiece which survives on the island of Košljun, off Krk.

Girolamo da Santacroce Virgin & saints polyptych Franciscan convent 1535 Krk Kosljun 2

Girolamo da Santacroce, polyptych, The Virgin & Child in Glory with Saints, painted for the Franciscan Convent Assumption of the Virgin, Krk, 1535. Now Church of the Annunciation,  Košljun, near Krk.

When Catherina Fusculo passed away in Venice at the beginning of 1520, she left 1000 golden ducats to the Franciscan convent on the island of Krk in Croatia [i]. Born Frankopan, Catherina was the daughter of the last count of the island, Ivan Frankopan, who ruled independently before Venice incorporated the island into its own colonial empire [ii]. After overcoming some legal issues[iii], the Franciscan friars received the money Catherina bequeathed, and on the 4th of August 1535 commissioned an altarpiece for their church [iv]. Eight months later, it was finished. Today the painting is in the church of the Annunciation on the tiny island of Košljun, near the town of Krk.

Gulf of Venice 1680 Yale detail with Košljun near Krk ed

Map of the Gulf of Venice in 1680, showing Venice (top left), & the island of Krk, with the area of the town of Krk & the islet of Košljun in red (upper right quadrant). Yale University Map Department: the Venice Project: Maps of Venice

Google maps with Krk & Kosljun

The island of Krk on Google Maps, showing the towns of Krk and Punat, and the islet of Košljun (inset) in the bay between them

Kosljun Church of the Annunciation view of main altar sm

View of main altar, Church of the Annunciation, Košljun, with the polyptych centre back

The painting is a work by Girolamo da Santacroce. Born in Bergamo around 1480/85, he was probably first a pupil of Gentile Bellini, before moving to the studio of the younger Giovanni Bellini. Girolamo become an independent master around 1517, but he was not a particularly original artist. Very often he relied on the art of the Bellini brothers, and his paintings seem unaffected by the accomplishments of the subsequent generation of painters (in effect his own generation, that of Giorgione, Titian, Sebastiano, Lotto and Veronese). It is difficult to believe that Girolamo was unable to accept or take into account the changes happening in Venetian art at the time. Rather, it seems that his continual use of the landscapes, light, typology of figures and the general compositional examples invented and promulgated by Giovanni Bellini, was a conscious choice and that he specifically adapted his production toward clients who had a more conventional taste in pictures, such as the Franciscan friars who commissioned the Košljun picture.

Much like the other Belliniani, Girolamo based his art on three sacre conversazione by Giovanni Bellini [v]:

St Catherine of Siena sm

(1) the altar painting of St Catharina of Siena from around 1470 (destroyed in 1867), shown here in a photomontage of the original altar & frame in Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, with an engraving by Francesco Zannotto;

Bellini San Giobbe altarpiece sm

(2) the large San Giobbe Altarpiece, c. 1487, oil on panel, Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice; and

Bellini San Zaccaria altarpiece sm

(3) the majestic San Zaccaria altarpiece from 1505, still in situ in the church of San Zaccaria in Venice [vi].

Girolamo da Santacroce Virgin & saints polyptych Franciscan convent 1535 Krk Kosljun ed sm

Girolamo’s painting in Košljun is divided into three sections by the four pillars of its frame. The largest, central, panel shows the Virgin and Child in clouds surrounded by angels, while St Bonaventura, St Francis of Assisi, St Antony of Padua and St Louis of Toulouse look on. Each of the side wings has a tight group of three standing saints. On the right are St Catherine, St John the Baptist and St Quirinus. St Catherine and St John are the name saints of the donor and of her father Ivan (Croatian for John), whereas St Quirinus is the patron saint of the town of Krk. The other wing has St Jerome (the protector of the Franciscan province to which Košljun belonged, holding a model of the church), St Joseph, and St Clare (the founder of the feminine order of the Franciscans). Above the left and right panels, divided by the central section, is the scene of the Annunciation. The triangular attic above has a depiction of a white dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, whereas the predella is composed of six smaller pieces depicting The Immaculate Conception, The Birth of the Virgin, Presentation of Mary in the Temple, The Circumcision of Christ, The Visitation and The Assumption of the Virgin.[vii]

Although it was not uncommon for a painter to carve and on occasion to gild [viii] the frame for the picture he was to produce, this time a separate carver and a gilder were commissioned. As per the preserved contract, the commissioned artists were the carpenter Bartheo Andrea, the carver Sebastian Jacob and the gilder Francesco Bragadin. They were to construct the polyptych’s frame according to a previously agreed contract drawing which unfortunately has not survived. However, there are a number of other contract drawings by Girolamo that give us an indication as to how the contract drawing might have looked.

Girolamo in Rijksmuseum sm

Girolamo Santacroce, Design for an Altarpiece, pen & brown ink, wash, & red chalk. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Signed by a notary on 12th of June 1526, the Design for an Altarpiece in the Rijksmuseum shows the disposition of the figures in a polyptych. Only the left side of the polyptych is sketched out in detail, as the floral decorations of the frame would be repeated on the right-hand side. To the left and below the frame, there are divisions of scale which indicate that the drawing was intended to be used as a guide for the woodcutter commissioned to construct the frame.

Benedetto Diana Assumption of the Virgin British Museum image sm

Design for an Altarpiece, catalogued as attributed to Benedetto Diana, Assumption of the Virgin,  © Trustees of the British Museum; here credited to Girolamo da Santacroce

A similar example is in the British Museum in London. It currently carries an attribution to Benedetto Diana, but the typology of the figures and the author’s intimate knowledge of Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin confirm that a more likely candidate is Girolamo da Santacroce [ix]. Although the drawing lacks any indication of scale or measurements for the individual panels, it must have been used as a model to show the patron a number of possible styles of decoration for the frame; the artist having sketched out three different solutions. The left section of the polyptych has two columns with different classical decorations (the first is fluted while the second has vine ornaments), whereas the right has pilasters with floral decorations.

Girolamo da Santacroce Virgin & saints left sm

Girolamo da Santacroce, The Virgin & Child in Glory with Saints, detail of left side

The Košljun polyptych does not exactly conform to either of these two drawings, with both the disposition of the principal panels and the decorations of the frame varying slightly. At the bottom, it starts with four column bases that have six predella panels between them. The bases support two pairs of columns (with Corinthian capitals) decorated with a floral, vine and grape design. On the two columns on the left, the decorations wind up the columns clockwise, while on the two columns on the right the vines go up counter-clockwise. Each column pair is carrying an entablature linked by a broken segmental pediment. The two upper panels forming the scene of the Annunciation are flanked (on the outside) by corbels decorated with large leaves, while the deep cornice mouldings in the upper section of the frame are derived from a canopy as seen in antique aediculae. The whole frame is embellished with the same floral vine ornaments/design, save for the two outboard bases of the columns that have oval cartouches where most likely the crest of the donor would have been placed.

This polyptych format appears often in the Santacroce catalogue; its general disposition, form and decoration all being inspired by classical architecture. But in general terms, most late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Italian altarpieces were designed with architectural motifs so they could reflect contemporary church architecture; this added to the sense of majesty and authority carried by the sacred scenes the frame protected. The form of Košljun altarpiece, with its three axis, triumphal arch design ‘broken up’ by four pillars in three uneven parts, began appearing in Venetian art in the later part of the fifteenth century.

Pietro Lombardo Doge NIccolo Marcello 1474 sm

Pietro Lombardo, monument to Doge Niccolò Marcello, 1474, Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice. Photo: Friends of Art 546138403

The type was highly influenced by the form of several funeral monuments created by the Lombardo family of sculptors[x], notably the two sons of Pietro Lombardo, Antonio and Tullio, who constructed a number of highly important funeral monuments for various Venetian doges. The most significant are the monuments for Doge Niccolò Marcello (1474) and that for Doge Andrea Vendramin (1480-94).

Tullio Lombardo Doge Andrea Vendramin 1480-95 B sm

Tullio Lombardo, monument to Doge Andrea Vendramin, 1480-95, Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo,Venice. Photo: Sira Gadea

Girolamo da Santacroce’s Košljun polyptych is one of the largest preserved works by this artist (the frame is 523 x 410 cm), and the contract document clearly shows that it was an expensive commission. The price was 174 gold ducats, which, when compared with prices given by Peter Humfrey for paintings done by Titian at roughly the same time (for the Averoldi polyptych of 1520-22, Titian was paid 200 ducats; and for the Death of St Peter Martyr from 1526-30, 100 ducats [xi]), places it in the upper part of the price range for Venetian paintings in the early part of the sixteenth century. This high price also indicates that the patrons of the Košljun picture were not influenced by financial matters, and that taste and stylistic preference were the primary reasons why Girolamo da Santacroce (together with the rest of the artists mentioned in the document) was commissioned. From the document we can also follow the division of finances between the artists. The carpenter received 36, the gilder 57, the carver 25 and the painter 56 ducats [xii].  This shows that the painter received about a third of the sum paid for the finished piece, with the other two-thirds going toward the construction of the frame.

Most altarpieces produced during the renaissance were executed in the painter’s studio. When they were finished, they had to be transported from the studio to the churches for which they were designed, and then erected and secured on their altars. Very few contracts detail the arrangements between the painter and the patron for the delivery and installation (unfortunately this is also the case for the Košljun piece). Much more common was the simple guarantee of the artist that the execution of the piece was going to be of the highest standard and that the artist would repair any damage which the painting might sustain in the span of the next few years. However, Anabel Thomas’s analysis of Neri di Bicci’s ricordanze shows that he was frequently required both to deliver and to set up his finished product. The fact that the record occurs much more often in Neri’s books than it does in preserved painters’ contracts, suggests that painters undertook this responsibility as a matter of course and that most parties did not see any need to record the requirements in a contract [xiii].

Cima da Conegliano Incredulity of St Thomas NG

Cima da Conegliano, The incredulity of St Thomas, 1502-04 (in an adaptation of the 1870 NG frame). National Gallery, London. NG816

Altarpieces were generally painted in the same towns for which they were commissioned, so transport was probably undertaken by workshop assistants who were used to handling art objects (be they gilded paintings or carved wooden statues). For longer journeys most of the paintings had to be meticulously prepared for transport. Most probably, straw and canvas were used as packaging materials. There is a recorded instance when a special crate was constructed to transport an altarpiece: this was for the transportation of Cima de Conegliano’s painting of The Incredulity of St Thomas to Portogruaro [xiv], when the painting travelled by both water and land. Altarpieces that had to travel many kilometres may have been put under the care of a company that specialized in shipping and carting large unwieldy objects [xv]. But the transportation of the majority of Venetian works destined for Adriatic customers probably did not involve the artist travelling any further than the quayside of his local canal. After the initial contact between the patron (or his representative) and the artist was made, business could be conducted at long range and the completed work dispatched to its destination on a merchant vessel [xvi].

In our case, we know that three high ranking members of the Franciscan order made the trip to Venice, where they signed the commissioning document in person. These three were the guardian of the Košljun convent, Francesco Subich de Vegia, the procurator of the convent, Stephano Trivisan, and the procurator of the Franciscan province of St Jerome in Dalmatia, Alvise de Renier. However, nothing is known about the actual transfer of the piece to Dalmatia.

Although transportation of paintings from Venice is rarely mentioned in documents, I cannot escape the feeling that the continuing taste among customers along the Dalmatian coast for the polyptych format, all but extinct in Venice itself by about 1500, can somehow be linked to the practical considerations of transport. Polyptychs, by their very nature, were constructed of pieces that were fitted together and could thus easily be disassembled for ease of transport. Having the large format of the Košljun piece in mind, this was most probably how it was transferred from Venice to Krk, in sections which were then assembled on site with the help of a local carpenter, woodcutter or another skilful craftsman.

Still in excellent condition, the Košljun polyptych is an outstanding example of Santacroce’s talent and ability as a painter. At the same time it is also an impressive example of early sixteenth century Venetian altarpiece and its frame ranks among the best preserved pieces from that period.

Kiril Penušliski

June 2014


A Macedonian art historian who used to have tempestuous hair, Dr Kiril Penušliski is an expert on Italian Renaissance art. Despite having received his PhD degree in Jedi Sciences (read Art History), he can still on most nights be found playing chess online. His most lofty goal and ambition in life is to someday learn how to avoid making mouse slips in bullet games.

Frieze 2

[i] Catherina’s original testament is lost; but sections of her will are preserved in the archive of the Franciscan convent on Košljun; documents from 1520 – Processo del legato di Cattarina Frangipani.

[ii] For more on the circumstances in which Venice took control of the island and the subsequent fate of the last count of Krk see Vladislav Brusić, ‘Crkva sv. Marije od Navještenja na Košljunu’, in Bogoslovska smotra, vol. 21, n. 4. 1934, pp. 273-282.

[iii] There was some dispute between the heirs of the estate of Catherina’s first husband, Francisco Dandolo, the Franciscans from the island, and some other relatives of Catherina. The dispute was settled favourably for the Franciscans after they produced a number of witnesses who testified in their favour. See Brusić, ibid., pp. 276-280.

[iv] Fortunately, the commissioning document has survived. The most recent publication of the text can be found in Tizian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Veliki majstori renesanse, exh. cat., Galerija Klovičevi dvori, Zagreb, 2012, pp. 182-183.

[v] Still the best source for the Belliniani are the three volumes by Fritz Heinemann (Giovanni Bellini e i Belliniani, Saggi e studi di storia dell’arte, vol. i-ii, Venice, 1962, and Giovanni Bellini e i Belliniani: Supplemento e Ampliamenti, Hildesheim, Zurich and New York, 1991).

[vi] For more on these paintings see Oscar Batschmann, Giovanni Bellini, Reaktion Books, 2008.

[vii] For more on the iconographic program of the piece see Ivana Čapeta, ‘L’iconografia della Madonna nel politico di Girolamo da Santa Croce nella chiesa francescana sull’isola di Košunj’, in IKON, Journal of Iconographic Studies, n. 3, 2010, pp. 311 – 317.

[viii] One such famous example involves Leonardo da Vinci and the frame for his Virgin of the Rocks, now at the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

[ix] For more on the drawing see the Museum’s website. Writing in 1999, Bernard Aikema expressed his dissatisfaction with the attribution to Diana (see ‘Design for an Altarpiece’, in Renaissance Venice and the North, eds. Bernard Aikema and Beverly Louise Brown, Rizzoli, New York, 1993, p. 354). More recently the drawing has been given to Girolamo, as in Tizian, Tintoretto, Veronese, op. cit., p. 181.

[x] For more on the family see Alison Luchs, Tullio Lombardo and Venetian High Renaissance Sculpture, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Yale University Press, 2009.

[xi] Peter Humfrey, The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice, Yale University Press, 1993, p. 154.

[xii] As the Franciscans monks were very pleased with the painting they received, they awarded each of the artisans an additional sum on top of the previously agreed payment.

[xiii] See chapter ‘Completion of Merchandise: Delivery’, in Anabel Thomas, The Painter’s Practice in Renaissance Tuscany, Cambridge University Press, 1995, especially pp. 198-200.

[xiv] See Peter Humfrey, Cima de Conegliano, Cambridge, 1983, p. 203, and also The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice, op. cit., p. 157.

[xv] On transporting large objects long distances throughout Europe see P. Spufford, Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe, London, 2002, pp. 192-203, and C. Cipolla, ‘In tema di transporti medievali’, in Bolletino storico Pavese, V, 1944. pp. 3-36.

[xvi] Peter Humfrey, ‘Demand From Abroad’, in Venice and the Veneto, Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 331-332.


With thanks from The Frame Blog to those who have generously allowed their images to be used here.

Van Dyck, Dobson and their Mannerist frames

Dobson & Van Dyck sm

(left) Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), Self-portrait, c.1640-41, National Portrait Gallery, London; (right) William Dobson (1611-46), Self-portrait, c.1645, Earldom of Jersey Trust

The vivid self-portrait (left) – painted just before Van Dyck’s early death in 1641, and which has now been acquired for the National Portrait Gallery – is notable not only for its technical skill and immediacy but for its dramatic Mannerist frame. It is also linked, in an intriguing way, to the self-portrait painted by William Dobson in homage (right), which has an almost identical frame. Dobson produced his own portrait around 1645 (he died only five years after Van Dyck, at the even earlier age of 35)[1] and the two paintings were united (probably around 1708), remaining in the same collections until Van Dyck’s Self-portrait was sold in 2009.

Van Dyck Self portrait sm

Van Dyck (1599-1641), Self-portrait, c.1640-41

Van Dyck and Dobson were both precociously gifted artists, who developed on the cusp of Mannerism and the Baroque. Van Dyck, born in Antwerp in 1599, began his training at the age of ten and achieved membership of the Guild of St Luke at nineteen; somewhere between these two points he was taken on as an assistant to Rubens. He seems to have been working for Rubens when the latter signed a contract with two Brussels tapestry-manufacturers and a Genoese dealer, Franco Cattaneo, to produce cartoons for the Decius Mus cycle of tapestries; Simon Turner notes that Van Dyck was probably responsible for the set in the Liechtenstein Collection[2].   In 1620 Van Dyck visited England briefly, when he received a mysterious payment of £100 – a very large sum – which apparently does not relate to any particular painting or paintings. Turner speculates that it might have been in connection with Van Dyck’s potential employment at the Mortlake tapestry factory, which had been founded recently, in 1619, as a rival to its French equivalent[3].  Having worked on the design and preparatory cartoons for such important tapestries as the Decius Mus cycle in Rubens’s studio, he would (although still very young) have been as well qualified in the king’s eyes for this prestigious job as he was for the production of royal portraits; his painting, The continence of Scipio (1620-21, Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford), is suggested as having been designed for a Mortlake tapestry.

In the event, however, Van Dyck spent only a few months in England and travelled instead to Italy, where he moved between Genoa and Rome. Genoa plunged him into the midst of a vibrant artistic movement, generously influenced by Mannerism, in the midst of which there was already a thriving group of Flemish artists. Rubens, his master, had lived and worked in Genoa more than a decade earlier, and had probably also been producing the images for his album of Genoese palaces (Palazzi di Genova, published in 1622)  whilst Van Dyck was employed as his assistant. This context of Italian Mannerist architecture and ornament, encountered whilst Van Dyck was still developing as an artist, seems particularly important given that he was later to take a positive role in framing his work.

Once settled in Genoa Van Dyck painted various members of Genoese nobility, including The Lomellini family, An Italian noble, and the Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo and her children [4]. Whilst employed on these last commissions by the Grimaldi family, he would almost certainly have visited the Grimaldi chapel in San Francesco di Castelletto (1579-82; destroyed during the first quarter of the 19th century). The interior of this had been designed with architectural elements and bronzes by the Flemish Mannerist sculptor and architect, Giambologna (1529-1608)[5].

Crest of altarpiece nor east wall Cappella Salviati Florence

Crest of the altarpiece in the Cappella Salviati, San Marco, Florence, designed by Giambologna

From the evidence of Giambologna’s work in the similar Salviati Chapel of San Marco, Florence, and his influence in other Genoese churches such as San Pietro di Bianchi, it is clear that his brand of Mannerism was beginning to diverge from the hard-edged scroll and strapwork style of the earlier Italian style, to be touched with the melting curvaceousness of the Auricular forms found in Bohemian versions of the style.

Palazzo Tursi portico 3

Detail of the portico, Palazzo Doria Tursi, Genoa

The façade of the Palazzo Doria Tursi, Genoa, built from 1565 by Domenico and Giovanni Ponzello, another commission for the Grimaldi family, demonstrates a related use of Mannerist forms and ornaments. In the sculptural crests of the entrance and the neighbouring windows, grotesque mascarons are prominent, and the wings of the lion-headed window frontons already have the strange scooped and fluted forms of the feathers springing from the base of Van Dyck’s self-portrait frame; they are also similarly associated with softly curving acanthus leaves.

It Mannerist C16 frame apron

16th century Italian tabernacle frame; detail of apron

This style was already, by the second half of the 16th century, influencing the design of picture frames in Italy: the apron of this tabernacle frame, with its Mannerist cartouche, is supported by winged sirens with the bodies of serpents and the heads of women, in the zoömorphic style of the Self-portrait frame; their wings have the same fluted feathers as the window frontons of the Palazzo Tursi.

Genoa was not the only centre where Mannerism was distorting the classical forms of the Renaissance; the court of Bohemia, in Prague, was another. Giambologna, retained in Florence by the Medici, never travelled there, but his pupil and assistant, the Mannerist sculptor Adriaen de Vries, was employed by the Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612), as was the silversmith Paulus van Vianen, whose work is in the full-blown Auricular version of Mannerism. The tightly scrolling volutes on the pediment of the Palazzo Tursi are softened in this idiom to the ear-like, cartilaginous forms which give the style its name.

Paulus van Vianen Basin with scenes from the story of Diana and Actaeon 1613 Rijksmuseum sm

Paulus Willemsz. van Vianen (1565/70-1613/14), silver platter with Diana & Callisto, 1613. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Although Paulus van Vianen died comparatively early, in 1613-14, the striking organic motifs he used were taken up by his brother Adam and his nephew Christian. Continental silverwork had become very popular in the English court, which was one route by which Mannerism was diffused through Britain, and Christian van Vianen was encouraged to move to London by his patron Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, and by Charles I, both enthusiastic collectors of Italian and Flemish work. Vertue notes:

‘As there was no art, which Charles did not countenance, the chacers and embossers of plate were among the number of the protected at court. The chief was Vianen, whose works are greatly commended by Ashmole…’ [6]

The objects he produced in the fluid and almost abstract vocabulary of the Auricular style were exhibited beside the king’s paintings, as treasured pieces of art, rather than functional items for the table or buffet. The Dolphin Basin (1635; V & A), for instance,  is an example of his fully-developed style; the twinned dolphin heads at the top of the basin morphing together into a grotesque mascaron with a single open mouth. Marine motifs of this sort are a feature of Mannerist ornament: two open-mouthed dolphins decorate the upper half of Van Dyck’s self-portrait frame, growing from the flowing acanthus leaves at the crest, which melt on each side into the brow of the fish – whilst its snout in its turn transforms back into the concentrically scrolled three-dimensional volutes which are such a feature of Genoese Mannerism, as on the pediment of the Palazzo Tursi.

Van Dyck Self portrait Dolphin detail

Van Dyck, Self-portrait, c.1640-41, detail of frame

All the ornamental elements for this frame, and presumably for others which Van Dyck provided for Charles I, were in place and part of his own stylistic language well before he returned to settle in London in 1632. He had spent six years in Italy, during which he had already become embroiled from a distance in Charles’s art collecting propensities: he had visited the Mantuan collection of paintings in 1622 with Lady Arundel, the wife of Van Vianen’s patron Thomas Howard, when the idea of its acquisition by Charles was already in the air. In 1625 the king sent Nicolas Lanier to negotiate the purchase of the collection with Chancellor Striggi of Mantua, at which point Van Dyck painted Lanier’s portrait. According to Sir Peter Lely,

‘…this was the picture wch being showed to King Charles ye first caused him to give order that V. Dyck should be sent over into England.’[7]

In 1632, then, Van Dyck came to London. It may have been at that point or on a recent, abortive visit that he ‘lodged with his friend Geldorp’[8], a Flemish jack-of-all-trades in the arts, who lived at that point off Broad Street in the City[9]. Geldorp made his living with a mixture of painting, restoring, dealing and framemaking, and was probably an immensely helpful friend to have, as well as a temporary base. Having finally attracted the king’s favour, however, Van Dyck was shortly established in his own lodging and studio at Blackfriars, with a very rapid knighthood, rooms at court, and from 1633 a pension of £200 a year. He produced a vast amount of work in exchange for this, and certainly earned the sunlight of Charles’s regard – which is usually the interpretation of Van Dyck’s association of sunflowers with his own image: that he turns his head towards the king, who blesses him with his warmth and favour.

After Van Dyck Self portrait with sunflower c 1630 Philip Mould

After Van Dyck, Self-portrait with sunflower, c.1630, Courtesy of Philip Mould

The sunflower is also the flower of Apollo, from the story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses of Clytie, a nymph who fell in love with the sun god and was abandoned by him. She sat for nine days, watching the progress of the sun’s chariot across the heavens until she became a sunflower, which turns its head towards the sun[10]. Van Dyck’s use of this emblem thus has a double meaning, referring to his own dedication as an artist to Apollo, god of the arts, as much as to his place in the service of a beneficent king.

As well as producing works inspired by Apollo, his service included the procurement – and almost certainly the choice – of picture frames for the portraits he was painting for the king. In 1638, for instance, he was to send a ‘Memoire’ or invoice to Charles I which included entries for two portraits of the king delivered in their frames (‘avecq sa mollure’), and carried over a sum for further frames delivered earlier (‘Pour mollures du veu conte’[11]. Unfortunately we have no idea what these frames might have looked like, but presumably they would have been influenced, not only by the frames of the paintings in the Mantua collection, which had made such an impact on a British court used to the plain ebonized and parcel-gilt cabinetmakers’ frames of the 16th century, but by the frames in use in Genoese and Roman palazzi of the early 17th century. They may well have had a strong Mannerist element.

Francis Clein 1 of set of 6 sgabello chairs early C17 Lacock Abbey

Francis Clein, sgabello hall chair, early 17th century, from a set of six, Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Having failed in 1620 to retain Van Dyck as the resident designer at the Mortlake tapestry works, by 1624 Charles had employed Francis Clein in the post.  Clein was a versatile German artist in his early forties, capable of producing decorative painted schemes as well as designs for tapestries, and fresh from the court of Christian IV of Denmark. He could turn his hand to designing furniture, as well: there are two sets of Mannerist sgabello or shell-backed chairs credited to his design, one in the V & A, and one in Lacock Abbey. In the late 1630s, he would be responsible for much of the decorative painted work of that era at Ham House, comfortably close to Mortlake.

The Mortlake tapestry factory had been installed in the former house of Dr John Dee, astrologer and alchemist to Elizabeth I, on an estate on the south bank of the Thames, by its founder and director, Sir Francis Crane. Crane was a civil servant and secretary to the Prince of Wales; he had been given an initial sum of £2,000 together with an annual grant of £1,000 by James I to set up and run the factory, an amount which was practically doubled under Charles I.

Mortlake in 1800 SAuthrey House still exists on river MapCoNet

Map of Mortlake, Richmond, WSW of London. Courtesy of MapCoNet. The tapestry works were at the bottom left corner of the ‘U’ bend in the Thames

Crane employed a Flemish weaver from Paris, Philip de Maecht[12], to run the practical side of the operation; with a work-force of around fifty other immigrant weavers and an experienced designer in Clein, the factory began to turn out a stream of high quality work, and Crane himself increased in wealth, property and status. One of his assets was that in Clein he possessed a designer who could not only adapt the output of other earlier workshops for the Mortlake weavers, but could translate classical paintings (as well as contemporary work) into tapestries, and could add beautifully-considered fictive frames. His ability to interpret carved wood in silk and wool was evidently underpinned by his ability in designing furniture.

Tapestry after Titian Supper at Emmaus c1630to40 Mortlake Hardwick Hall NT sm

Tapestry after Titian, The supper at Emmaus, c.1630-40, Mortlake. Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire. © National Trust / Robert Thrift

An example is the version of Titian’s Supper at Emmaus at Hardwick Hall, which has an illusionistic aedicular frame in Mannerist style. Unlike so many 17th century Flemish tapestries, which have decorative borders only approximating to picture frames, with over-sized ‘mouldings’ mixed with realistic objects and fantastic elements, this example by Clein is a remarkably convincing version of a carved giltwood frame, even down to the ‘engraved’ arabesques on the cushion frieze at the top.

Tapestry portrait of Sir Francis Crane c1626to36 Mortlake Ingatestone Hall Essex sm

Tapestry after a portrait of Sir Francis Crane, c.1626-36, Mortlake. Courtesy of Lord Petre, Ingatestone Hall, Essex

Another interesting piece from the Mortlake workshops of this time is a three-quarter-length tapestry portrait of Sir Francis Crane himself, again with a realistic ‘giltwood’ frame. It has been dated to 1626-36, but shows a much younger, more suave and courtly figure than in Van Dyck’s portrait of Crane in (probably) the late 1630s. Like the tapestry after Titian’s Supper at Emmaus, it has an integral border which actually looks like a carved and gilded frame, and which is set on the complementary blue ground favoured by Clein in his designs for Mortlake.

Sir Endymion Porter (1587-1649) and the Artist, c.1635 (oil on canvas)

Van Dyck, Self-portrait with Endymion Porter, c.1633.  Museu Nacional del Prado


Tapestry after Van Dyck, Self-portrait with Endymion Porter. Courtesy of Lord Sackville, © The Sackville Collection

In the light of this woven portrait of Crane, it is particularly interesting to find another tapestry portrait in the collection of Lord Sackville at Knole: a copy of the double portrait by Van Dyck of himself with Endymion Porter (the painting now in the Prado), in a fictive frame which is extraordinarily close to the actual frame of Van Dyck’s Self-portrait. Sadly the painted portrait has had its original frame replaced by a gallery setting, but the tapestry version seems to indicate that Van Dyck’s single and double self-portraits may originally have had the same carved and gilded Mannerist frames.

Van Dyck drawing Cupids & sunflower British Museum sm

Van Dyck, Design for ornament, 1614-41, pen & brown ink, brown wash, body white. © Trustees of the British Museum

Jacob Simon notes that Van Dyck also produced a drawing of a motif which may have been intended for the crest of a frame.  Again, it incorporates a sunflower and scrolling acanthus leaves; the flower is supported by two putti who lean to embrace each other, and the bands of white across the bottom of the drawing indicate the mouldings at the top of the frame [13]. Possibly it might have been an idea for the frame of a subject such as his double portrait of Charles and Henrietta Maria (pre-1634, Kroměříž Archdiocesan Museum, Czech Republic), taking up and emblematizing the idea of marital fidelity, which is expressed in the painting by the myrtle leaves the couple exchange [14]. It certainly seems to confirm Van Dyck’s active interest in the design of frames for his work.

In the group of artists and craftsmen at Charles I’s court, we therefore have Van Dyck himself, who had a training in tapestry design, a knowledge of Mannerist design and architecture, and had ordered picture frames for the portraits he painted for the king – had possibly even designed frames, or elements of frames. We have Francis Clein, an artist who painted portraits, designed tapestries with convincing fictive frames, and produced designs for Mannerist furniture. There is also George Geldorp, framemaker, portrait painter and agent: like Van Dyck, he was Flemish, and had been admitted to the same Antwerp guild in 1610 to which Van Dyck was admitted eight years later. By 1636 he was living, like Van Dyck, in Blackfriars, and had an illustrious client list, including Lionel Cranfield, 1st Earl of Middlesex, who spent the vast sum of £114.10s on paintings and frames (three of them of the Royal family) in that year [15]. From some probable combination of design and construction amongst these men and their circle may have come the fictive frames of the two tapestry portraits, and the actual giltwood frame of Van Dyck’s Self-portrait [16].

The dates can only narrow the genesis of these various objects down to a slot of about eight years: the tapestry double portrait of Van Dyck and Porter could not have been woven before 1633, the approximate date of the painted version (although it could of course have been woven later); the tapestry portrait of Sir Francis Crane by Clein has a decade-long date, from 1626 to 1636 (when Crane died); and Van Dyck’s Self-portrait was painted (and presumably framed) in 1640-41. The tapestry double portrait now in the Sackville Collection is presumed to have arrived there as part of the inheritance brought by Frances Cranfield, daughter of the 1st Earl of Middlesex, through her marriage with Richard Sackville of Knole[17], and therefore must have come into the Earl’s possession when he was filling his new house, Copt (or Copped) Hall in Essex with treasures, between 1633, and 1645 when he died. He might have acquired it, like the portraits and their frames mentioned above, from George Geldorp. Both it, and the tapestry portrait by Clein, may have been survivors of a larger group of court portraits, intended for some particular hanging in one of the Royal palaces; or have been part of a commission by a courtier such as the Earl of Middlesex. In the reign of Charles II, in 1672, five Royal portraits would be used in the same way as tapestry designs, albeit at full-length, for portrait-panels of James I, his queen, Christian IV of Denmark, Charles I, and his queen, the last two from Van Dyck’s paintings (Houghton House, Norfolk).

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Van Dyck Self-portrait, c.1640-41

This article assumes that Van Dyck intended this extraordinary Mannerist frame for his own 1640-41 portrait (because of the sunflower); although it may be noted that the oval portrait of Sir Arthur Hopton, painted in 1638, is only a couple of centimetres larger.[18]. Unless the frame were carved at the same time as the presumed wooden frame for his double portrait with Endymion Porter (the earlier painting of the two), it may not be the first realization of this pattern. It has aspects of Clein’s Mannerism, but is more fluid and melting, in the Auricular style; it is more structured than Netherlandish Auricular forms, and is strongly influenced by Italian Mannerist designs and motifs. The sunflower at the crest was used by Van Dyck to some degree as his emblem, indicating fidelity to the king, and also to Apollo.  The dolphins which morph from acanthus leaves on the upper sides are also associated with Apollo, whilst in Christian symbolism a dolphin stands for Christ. There is a third dolphin head at the base of the frame; its raised fins melt into wings with long, curling plumes. The frame is carved from oak, which was still used for English frames in the first half of the 17th century; by the time of the Restoration, the framemaking trade had moved on to pine, which is faster-growing, cheaper, and softer [19].

William Dobson’s self-portrait was painted only four or five years after Van Dyck’s.  Dobson was twelve years younger than the Flemish master, and had been forced to earn his own living from the age of fourteen, his father having lost his fortune. In his early twenties he went to work, with splendid symmetry from the point of view of this article, for Francis Clein, and was almost certainly involved to some extent in designing for the Mortlake tapestry works [20]. He also studied fine art at first hand from the paintings in the King’s collection, and may, just possibly, have been a pupil of Van Dyck as well. His earliest surviving portraits seem to be those of Abraham van der Doort, in the Hermitage, another self-portrait (private collection), and its pendant, his second wife’s portrait (Tate) – all c.1634-40. Everything else he painted that we still possess dates from after the death of Van Dyck, when Dobson seems informally to have replaced him in the service of the king.

Dobson Self Portrait sm

William Dobson (1611-46), Self-portrait, c.1645, Earldom of Jersey Trust. Email & Twitter exchanges regarding permission to publish this image have received no final answer, so you will have to imagine this portrait & its frame

The Dobson self-portrait is exactly the same size as Van Dyck’s, and is posed and lit identically, although it is sited better within the space of the frame. Unlike the earlier painting, however, it does not show the artist as gallant courtier, favoured of Apollo, but a man older than his years, who has seized the impetus of events to forward his career in the midst of a terrifying political situation.  Van Dyck had died unexpectedly, at a peak in his own career, and at a point when the country’s drift towards civil war might still perhaps have been halted. Dobson lived through the first four-year stage of the war, and by the time he died, aged 35, his king had been imprisoned and the world in which he had grown up had vanished. Dobson’s art is one of earthy realism touched with the tragedy of transience, both fully realized in his last self-portrait.

The subsequent history of neither portrait is entirely clear. In 1641 Peter Lely arrived in London, and by 1646, with Dobson and Van Dyck both dead, he was in a position to succeed as court painter[21]. With the death of the king in 1649 he moved circumspectly on to record the faces of the Protectorate and then of the Restoration. He began to collect paintings in about 1650, and may have acquired Van Dyck’s Self-portrait around then – possibly from George Geldorp – as he seems to have based a self-portrait drawing of his own on it (1650, private collection). He certainly used it as the inspiration for his 1660-ish painted Self-portrait (National Portrait Gallery).

Lely died late in 1680, and in April 1682 his collection of paintings was sold to pay his debts and his legacies. After the Veroneses, Giorgiones and Tintorettos came the more modern masters, including:

Of Sir Anthony Vandyke, being his best Pieces.

His Own  Picture in an Oval .. .. 01. 10 [feet / inches, height, by…] 01. 06 [feet/ inches, width]’

It was ‘Bought by the Earl of Newport for £34’ (o tempora, o pretia) [22].

Also in the sale was the oval portrait of Sir Arthur Hopton  (recorded as ‘Sir Arthur Hopkins in an Oval’, with the same dimensions as the Van Dyck): Lely had owned both of them[23]. The Earl of Newport who bought what is almost certainly the Self-portrait considered here was Francis Newport, 1st Earl of Bradford, who died in 1708. The whereabouts of the Dobson at this point seems to be unrecorded.

Richard Graham p340

Richard Graham, writing of William Dobson in ‘A short account…’, published with Charles-Alphonse Dufresnoy, De arte graphica, transl. John Dryden, 1695, pp.339-40

Sometime between 1682 and 1708, but more probably after Newport’s death in 1708, the Van Dyck Self-portrait was acquired by Richard Graham (fl. 1695-1727), and at some point he also acquired the Dobson Self-portrait. Graham was an art historian, and in 1695 had written ‘A short account of the most eminent painters both ancient and modern’, published by Dryden in his translation of De arte graphica, in which Graham referred to Dobson, rather unfairly, as Van Dyck’s ‘happy Imitator’. This may indicate that he was the person responsible for framing the Dobson Self-portrait in a replica of the frame on the Van Dyck, making the one an even happier imitator of the other.

Van Dyck Self Portrait Back sm

Van Dyck, Self-portrait and frame, reverse

The Dobson frame is made of pine, suggesting that it dates from after the Restoration, rather than oak, like the Van Dyck. It differs subtly from the Van Dyck frame at the front, and more overtly at the back; both frames have been regilded.

Dobson Self Portrait Back sm

Dobson, Self-portrait and frame, reverse

There is no clue as to where the Dobson was before it surfaced in Richard Graham’s collection; if its frame is earlier than his ownership, it must have lodged somewhere within reach of the Van Dyck and its frame for copying purposes, yet it appears neither to have belonged to Lely nor to the Earl of Newport.

Once the two portraits had come together in the same collection, they were to remain together for the next 300 years. In 1712 Graham put them up for sale, and they were bought by a Mr Child, of the banking family.  In the 18th century the Childs married into the Villiers family, and both portraits came into the possession of the Earls of Jersey, where the Van Dyck remained until 2009, and the Dobson is still. It is to be hoped that they and their frames may soon be reunited in the National Portrait Gallery.


With many thanks to Jacob Simon for letting me use his notes, and with gratitude to all the people who have helped with the images for this piece.


[1]  For all the freshest and most comprehensive information on William Dobson, see Waldemar Januszczak’sk website.

[2] Simon Turner, ‘Van Dyck and tapestry in England’, Tate Papers, Issue 17, 11 May 2012

[3] Ibid. The French factory was a 1607 expansion, in the Hôtel des Gobelins, of the existing workshops.

[4]  Elena had married the Marchese Nicola Cattaneo, a relative of the Genoese dealer for whom the Decius Mus tapestries had been designed, which would have served as Van Dyck’s introduction to the family.

[5]  Michael Bury, ‘The Grimaldi Chapel of Giambologna in San Francesco di Castelletto, Genoa, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, 26 Bd., H. 1, 1982, pp. 85-128.

[6] Anecdotes of painting in England: with some account of the principal artists; and incidental notes on other arts; collected by the late Mr. George Vertue; and now digested and published from his original MSS. by Mr. Horace Walpole. The second edition. … [pt.2], p.161. ‘Ashmole’ is Elias Ashmole, whose collection was the foundation of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

[7] Edward Chaney, The evolution of the Grand Tour: Anglo-Italian cultural relations since the Renaissance, p. 211

[8] Vertue, op. cit., p.98.

[9] See The directory of British picture framemakers, 1610-1650

[10] In the Metamorphoses, Book IV, Clytie was abandoned by the titan Helios who drove the chariot of the sun; but Helios is often conflated with Apollo, the sun god and the god of the arts.

[11] Jacob Simon, The Art of the Picture Frame, 1996, p.91

[12] See Helen Wyld, ‘Seventeenth century tapestries at Ham House’, Ham House: 400 years of collecting and patronage, ed. Christopher Rowell, National Trust & Yale UP, 2013, p.181

[13] Jacob Simon, unpublished notes on Van Dyck’s Self-portrait frame.

[14] Jacob Simon has suggested that it might have been intended for the frame of Van Dyck’s Cupid and Psyche (1639-40, Royal Collection).

[15] British picture framemakers, op. cit.

[16] Simon Stock has also suggested that Francesco Fanelli, ‘the one-eyed Italian’ sculptor, might have been involved in the design of the frame; he was working for the court of Charles I from 1635 – except for a period away in 1639 – until the mid-1640s.

See Fanelli’s work in the V & A.

[17] Information from Lord Sackville.

[18] Hopton was a noted connoisseur and acted as agent for Charles I, helping to procure paintings for him; he might also be considered an adherent of Apollo.  See notes on the sale of the portrait of Sir Arthur Hopton by Van Dyck, Sotheby’s, 4 September 1997.

[19] Jacob Simon, unpublished notes; op. cit.

[20] Waldemar Januszczak suggests that ‘Dobson collaborated with Cleyn on the surviving tapestries at Ham House’; although the only example remaining from the c.1655 Ham House inventory dates from c.1619-24 (Helen Wyld, op. cit., p.178-79), at least eight years before Dobson started working for Clein.

[21] Lely began his working life in London in George Geldorp’s studio: see Brandon Henderson, Sir Peter Lely (1618-80): Dutch classicist, English portraitist and collector, 2001, p.12.

[22] See Editorial, ‘Sir Peter Lely’s collection’, The Burlington Magazine, LXXX, 485, Aug.1943, p. 187, for the entry from the sale catalogue; and Diana Dethloff, ‘The Executors’ Account Book and the dispersal of Sir Peter Lely’s collection’, Journal of the History of Collections, VIII, 1, 1996, pp. 18,29, for the buyer.

[23] Van Dyck’s oval portrait of Hopton was bought by Sir James Oxendon, and sold out of his family in 1931.


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