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

Mauritshuis frames: Part II: trophy frames

This article, by the assistant curator of the Mauritshuis, The Hague, was first published as: Anne Lenders, ‘Trophy Frames’, Mauritshuis in focus, 27 (2014), nr 1, pp. 14-21.

Mauritshuis trophy frames hang

 The trophy frames hanging in the Staircase Gallery of the Mauritshuis; from the left, Ferdinand Bol & Willem van de Velde, Michiel de Ruyter, 1667; Jan Mijtens, Wolfert van Brederode, c.1663; and Ferdinand Bol, Engel de Ruyter, 1669, Mauritshuis

The Mauritshuis owns three original, seventeenth century trophy frames, so-called because they are lavishly decorated with items of military gear, including powder kegs, drums, arquebuses or petronels, spears, powder horns, pistols, cannon, anchors, coils of rope, rams for loading the cannon, pouches, torches, powder scoops, and various trumpets, cornets, etc. These frames hold Ferdinand Bol’s portraits of Michiel and Engel de Ruyter and Jan Mijtens’s portrait of Wolfert van Brederode. The renovation of the Mauritshuis was a perfect time to examine and conserve these three exceptional frames, which usually hang high up in the Staircase Gallery. The project was sponsored by the Johan Maurits Compagnie Foundation.

All three trophy frames date from the second half of the seventeenth century, an era in which a number of such frames were produced in the Republic. The trophies on the frames emphasize the sitters’ military successes, and so are a fitting accompaniment to portraits of military heroes. Although these men’s reputations live on, the frames around their portraits were not made to last for eternity. The trophy frames had not undergone conservation treatment since 1987, so it is hardly surprising that their condition could have been better. In addition, they were marred by later gilding and finishing coats, which had been applied over the original gilding.

A preliminary examination was carried out to establish the present condition of the frames, and to determine their original appearance before starting treatment. Complete restoration, which would reveal the original finish, seemed too risky and time-consuming; indeed, it was quite possible that very little of the original gilding would be left. The aim of the treatment was therefore to improve the condition of the frames, to prevent further deterioration, and to approximate their original appearance, without removing the layers of gilding present.

Eric Bernahrd & Renzo Meurs Eric Bernhard and Renzo Meurs at work on the frame of Wolfert van Brederode’s portrait.

The Mauritshuis approached two external specialists, the frame restorers Renzo Meurs and Eric Bernhard, to help with this project. Over the past year they have examined and treated the frames, under the supervision of Petria Noble, Head of Paintings Conservation at the Mauritshuis.

Art historical research

Until now little art historical research had been conducted on these trophy frames – although the ground-breaking publication Prijst de lijst: De Hollandse schilderijlijst in de zeventiende eeuw, published in 1984 (the revised English version, Framing in the Golden Age: Picture and frame in 17th century Holland, appeared in 1995) discusses the frames surrounding the portraits of Michiel de Ruyter and Wolfert van Brederode in detail.

Jan Lievens Maerten Harpertsz Tromp Art market sm

Jan Lievens, Maerten Harpertsz Tromp, Art market

And, as Michiel Jonker of the Mauritshuis noted, in his review of the English translation[1],

‘Such studies can turn up some surprising discoveries, as in the case of a trophy frame surrounding a portrait of Admiral Maerten Harpertsz Tromp by Jan Lievens, which proves to have been copied from the frame of Ferdinand Bol’s portrait of Michiel de Ruyter in the Mauritshuis. Except for a new coat of arms, the frame is a smaller replica of its model.’

Little else had been written about these frames in particular, or about trophy frames in general. Now, however, research has been undertaken into the commissioning, provenance and previous treatments of the frames in connection with their conservation treatment. This research also included the identification of the various objects on the frames. Historical photographs show that a number of elements missing from the frames were actually present several decades before. An overview was also drawn up of the variants of the three portraits and other original trophy frames, which provided an important point of reference when treating the frames.

Ferdinand Bol & Willem van de Velde Michiel de Ruyter Mauritshuis sm

Ferdinand Bol with Willem van de Velde II, Portrait of Michiel de Ruyter, 1667, Mauritshuis

Ferdinand Bol painted six versions of this portrait. De Ruyter’s success in the Four Day War of 1666 prompted the five admiralties of the Dutch Republic to hang a portrait of the celebrated admiral in each of their council chambers. The admiralties were located in Middelburg, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Harlingen, and – alternately – Enkhuisen and Hoorn. Of the four paintings still known from the series of six, only the portrait in the Mauritshuis is still in its original trophy frame. It is the version recorded in the Admiralty Chamber, Amsterdam, from 1667 to 1798; it was then transferred to the ’s Lands Zeenmagazijn until some time after 1818, and then to the Ministry of the Navy in The Hague. The frame is decorated with various types of weaponry which refer to De Ruyter’s naval career: cannon, charging ladles, kegs of gunpowder, chains, shields, muskets, ropes, and a small anchor, known as a kedge. At the top of the frame is his coat of arms, surmounted by a crest in the form of a horseman (in Dutch, ‘ruyter’ means ‘rider’).

Ferdinand Bol Engel de Ruyter 1669 Mauritshuis sm

Ferdinand Bol, Portrait of Engel de Ruyter, 1669, Mauritshuis

This is probably the portrait which was recorded in a 1683 inventory of the sitter’s house in Amsterdam. The objects carved on the frame are of the same type as those on the frame on the portrait of his father, Michiel de Ruyter, above. They include horse pistols, trumpets, a dagger and a globe. The family coat of arms is topped by a crown, possibly referring to the title of baron, which Engel was given by the Spanish king in 1678; behind the shield are crossed palm leaves, and next to it branches of oak and laurel.

Jan Mijtens Wolfert van Brederode c1663 Mauritshuis sm

Jan Mijtens, Portrait of Wolfert van Brederode, c.1663, Mauritshuis

The trophies on this frame are of weapons used mainly by the cavalry, referring to Wolfert’s position as Master of Horse (at this point, he would have been about fourteen years old). The upper rail of the frame is capped by the coat of arms of the Van Brederode family, surmounted by the crest, a gryphon, the head and tail of which had been broken off, and have now been reconstructed. The lower rail features a hand holding a mace, like the one held by the sitter in the painting. Below it is an inscription, reading ‘AGERE AUT PATI FORTIORA’, or, in other words, ‘Take action, or undergo worse events’, characteristic of the Van Brederode family. The inscriptions on the side rails of the frame are similarly expressive: ‘ETSI MORTUUS URIT’ (‘Although dead, he burns…’), and ‘ANTES MUERTO QUE MURDADO’ (‘Rather dead than changed’).

Technical research

Material and technical research was carried out in collaboration with the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, or RCE) in order to gain a better understanding of the original finish of the three frames.

X ray of Engel de Ruyter frame

X-ray of the frame for the portrait of Engel de Ruyter, showing the construction of the corner joint

The frames turned out to be made of limewood; X-raying them provided insight into their construction and current condition, including the extent of woodworm damage, losses, previous restorations and the composition of the finish applied to the original gilding.

Decorative pattern Engel de Ruyter frame

Frame of Ferdinand Bol, Engel de Ruyter: painted detail of a pouch

This revealed a rare decorative pattern on the frames of both Engel de Ruyter and Wolfert van Brederode: an unusual technique, achieved by the use of various metal powders. Examination of cross-sections from the finish applied to these frames made it possible to see each successive layer that had been added over the years. The original composition of the gilding on the frames of Michiel and Engel de Ruyter proved to be very similar. In both cases a thick, transparent layer of glue was applied directly to the limewood, followed by a thin layer of ochre-coloured paint and finally the gold leaf. In contrast, the original gilding on the frame of Wolfert van Brederode’s portrait was applied over layers of a more frequently-occurring chalk and glue ground.

Coat of arms of Engel de Ruyter Frame of Ferdinand Bol, Engel de Ruyter: the coat of arms, before conservation

Another important finding was that the family arms on the frame of Engel de Ruyter’s portrait were originally gilded: the red and blue areas are later additions. For this reason it was decided to apply a new, reversible layer of gilding to the coloured areas.


The conservation treatment of the three frames consisted primarily of conserving the extant layers of finish. The loose elements of the gilding and ground layers were secured, and several areas exhibiting woodworm damage were consolidated, after which the frames were cleaned.

Michiel de Ruyter Detail beforeFrame of Ferdinand Bol, Michiel de Ruyter: detail of finish before conservation

All of the surface dirt, spots of bronze paint, discoloured retouches and other disturbing elements were removed; for example, the frame of Michiel de Ruyter’s portrait had an unnatural-looking black patina, which had been applied at some point – before the painting was acquired in 1894 – to make the new gilding look ‘antique’.

Michiel de Ruyter Detail after Frame of Ferdinand Bol, Michiel de Ruyter: detail of finish after conservation

The metal plates recording the name and date were moved to the back of the frame, lacunae and tears were repaired, and missing parts in the woodcarving were filled in. In addition, the structure of the frame around Michiel de Ruyter’s portrait was strengthened by fitting metal brackets to the back corners.

Restoration of the trophies and other items

Anna Stringer carving 2Anna Stringer working on the frame of Michiel de Ruyter

Missing parts were also reconstructed in order to restore the original appearance of the frames. The woodcarver Anna Stringer took this on, making use of old photographs and reproductions collected during research into their history.

Wolfert van Brederode helmet before

Frame of Jan Mijtens, Wolfert van Brederode, detail of helmet crest before conservation

For example, the coat of arms on the frame of Wolfert van Brederode’s portrait had a crest in the form of a gryphon, the head and tail of which had been broken off.

Anna Stringer carving 1

Embryonic forms of the gryphon’s head and tail

Eighteenth century depictions of the family arms provided the basis for the design of these missing parts, and Anna translated this into three dimensions. First of all, a piece of balsa wood was glued to the surface of the fracture, to create an even ground on which to attach the rest of the material from which the head and tail of the gryphon would be carved. Small blocks of limewood were then glued to this base.

Anna Stringer carving 3 The gryphon’s head and tail, fully carved

When they were firmly in place, the forms of the missing pieces were carved in a style which would marry with the remainder.

Wolfert van Brederode helmet after Frame of Jan Mijtens, Wolfert van Brederode, detail of helmet crest after conservation

 Figure before & after

 The rider surmounting the frame of Michiel de Ruyter’s portrait, before and after conservation

The sword held by the rider on the crest of Michiel de Ruyter’s portrait was reconstructed on the basis of historical photographs, allowing the missing sword to be added. Comparable frames from other collections were also examined, to determine the original appearance of certain elements. At the lower left of Engel de Ruyter’s frame, for example, a small piece of the drum was missing: the piece which served to attached the stretched snare (catgut string). It was possible to reconstruct this detail by studying an original trophy frame in the Zeeuws Musuem in Middelburg, on which the part in question is still intact.

Mauritshuis trophy frames hang

After conservation treatment, the three trophy frames are more harmonious in character and closer to their original appearance, and together they produce a more unified effect. The project, which will be completed this year, has yielded much information about the production of these frames. When the Mauritshuis reopened its doors to the public this summer (2014), the three trophy frames were back in pride of place in the Staircase Gallery.


With grateful thanks to Anne Lenders, Assistant Curator of the Mauritshuis Collections Department, for her article and for permission to republish it, and to Gini Kingma for orchestrating the process.

See Mauritshuis frames: Part I> here

Ferdinand Bol & Willem van de Velde Michiel de Ruyter CREST [1] Michiel Jonker, ‘Framing in the Golden Age: Picture and frame in 17th century Holland by Pieter J.J. van Thiel; C.J. de Bruyn Kops’, Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, vol.24, no.4, 1996, pp. 357-60.

Book review: William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain, ed. Susan Weber

 The exhibition on William Kent at the V & A (22 March-13 July 2014) was accompanied by a catalogue examining all aspects of Kent’s designs, including his frames.

Book cover  Susan Weber, ed., William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain, published by Yale University Press for the Bard Graduate Center, October 2013, pp. 704, 624 colour ill., £60.00

William Kent, according to Horace Walpole, his first biographer, was

‘not only consulted for furniture, as frames of pictures, glasses, tables, chairs etc., but for plate, for a barge, for a cradle’ (p. 469).

But frames, for Kent, were never just one more item in a list of furnishings. He was perhaps the first indigenous British architect and designer to realize the importance of the picture frame within an interior: that it could be to a large extent the unit of articulation for the decoration of internal walls, the emphatic accent for focal points such as the chimneypiece, and the stylistic glue which bound the painting to the architectural interior and to the furnishings and other objects in the room. Kent’s frames are an extension of other architectural features within a room: they match the structure of the doorcases, the chimneypieces and the windows, whilst their decoration echoes elements and motifs from the furniture, looking-glasses, brackets, silverware, metalware, and other objects. His more ornamental frame is an attention-grabbing focusing device, frequently forming part of an architectural centrepiece, and drawing the eye of the spectator irresistibly towards the painting it contains.

The section on frames in the book which accompanied the exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center and at the V & A (William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain) is accorded the dignity of chapterhood – Chapter 9, by Julius Bryant – but it is entitled ‘A note on “Kent” frames’, and this is no more than the truth. Out of a 704-page book, two pages of text and two of images are given over to frames; four illustrations altogether, two picture frames, one looking-glass and one design for a chimneypiece and overmantel. Kent was, of course, a designer on an almost obsessive scale – he is introduced in the website introduction to the exhibition thus:

‘A polymath, he turned his hand from painting to designing sculpture, architecture, interior decoration, furniture, metalwork, book illustration, theatrical design, costume and landscape gardens’.

This is a breadth of achievement and interest to analyze, order, and discuss in discrete chapters; and it takes a total of twenty-one of them (plus the introduction and a chronology), covering such diverse themes as ‘The Royal court, political culture, and the art of friendship’, ‘Kent and Italy’, ‘Kent and the Gothic revival’, ‘Public commissions’, ‘Sources for Kent’s furniture designs’, etc.


William Kent, design for the chimneypiece of the Board Room in the New Treasury. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Practically every one of these chapters has a frame, or several, in it; they march in grids of wood and stucco across ceilings, hold looking-glasses, perch on chimneypieces, define engravings, border cheval screens, and contain memorial sculptures. If you want to know about Kent’s designs for picture frames, Chapter 9 is nothing but the abridgement of a summary: you will have to read many of the 700 other pages. Chapter 5, ‘Kent the Painter’, would perhaps be one choice if you wanted illustrations rather than text, since the ceilings with (from about 1725) their stucco and painted borders, the staircase paintings with their fictive picture frames, and the architectural designs, take us from the 1720s to c.1747-51 in a geographical sweep of British houses, and an overview of Kent’s development from pure painter to decorative artist.

Steven Brindle notes, in this fascinating chapter on Kent the painter, that,

            ‘… the decorative borders of Kent’s ceilings are works of art in their own right, rich in invention and often magnificent in effect. Kent designed all of this himself from the evidence of the original designs in his hand for the King’s Drawing Room at Kensington and the Houghton saloon wall-elevations… [He] had an almost limitless capacity for inventing magnificent decorative work in a variety of styles: the King’s Drawing Room at Kensington has a particularly magnificent scheme of satyrs, leopards, and vine-garlands …. The grotesque scheme, inspired by ancient sources, in the Presence Chamber is completely different, while the grotesque schemes and “garland” schemes at Chiswick, Stowe, and Houghton are different yet again.’

X Houghton Hall staircase Jonathan Becker

William Kent, murals in fictive frames on The Great Staircase, Houghton Hall, 1725-35. Photo: Jonathan Becker

Brindle also gives a description of Kent’s technical methods, including the transfer of architectural detail – such as lengths of egg-&-dart ‘mouldings’ – by the use of pricked pouncing-papers, some of which (used for the Queen’s Staircase at Hampton Court), are illustrated. He examines Kent’s restricted palette in certain schemes, such as the monochrome paintings in fictive frames on a base of olive-green, with gilded detail (see The Great Staircase at Houghton Hall, above). In some cases, Kent seems to have worked out every element of these schemes, executed the main pictorial scenes, and left the decorative work to his unknown assistants.

Kent capitalized on his birth (to a joiner) and his apprenticeship (to a coach- and house- painter) in his understanding of the processes by which his invention came to birth. After that, his uncanny ability to attract influential sponsors and patrons gave him the education, experiences and contacts which nurtured his wide-ranging talents. The year he is first recorded as a painter, working in London (‘William Cant of the City of London, limner’, 1709, p.13), is the same year that he is off to Italy, aged 24, with the antiquary John Talman. There he encounters Thomas Coke of Holkham and Richard Boyle, Lord Burlington, with whom he travels back to England, a decade after he left it. In Italy he visits many of the main towns and artistic centres, including, notably, Palladio’s Vicenza. By 1720 he is working with Henry Flitcroft, Burlington’s ex-carpenter, draughtsman and architectural assistant, on The Designs of Inigo Jones . . . with some additional designs (1727). Burlington had purchased a collection of drawings by Inigo Jones and John Webb from John Talman, and the coincidence of a close study of these with Kent’s experience of Palladio’s work in Vicenza and its environs, and with the Baroque interiors of Roman palaces and churches, was the seed-ground for the Palladian (‘Kentian’ or ‘Kent’) style in Britain.

As Julius Bryant points out, in his rather curtailed chapter on frames,

‘ The term “Kent frame” only came into use in the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, such frames were called “Palladian,” while in the eighteenth, Lord Burlington, architects, and craftsmen referred to them as “tabernacle frames.” Although not the only kind of frame that Kent designed, they are now synonymous with his name.’ (p.243)

X The Designs of Inigo Jones ... page 56

The Designs of Inigo Jones…, Publish’d by William Kent, vol. I, 1727, page 56.

They have a very simple structure, being fundamentally an anglicization of the cassetta frame, with an architrave profile enriched by classical architectural mouldings, such as egg-&-dart, below the top edge and at the sight (contemporary carvers and gilders often referred to them as ‘architrave frames’). A page of doorcases in The Designs of Inigo Jones … (page 56) reveals one of their sources, in the outset corners of the centre model; whilst a drawing for a chimneypiece in Somerset House by Jones shows this structure even more clearly.

X MichAng Blind window Porta Pia Rome 1561to64

Michelangelo, A blind window with outset corners in the Porta Pia, Rome, 1561-64

These contours and their ornaments – the outset corners, enlarged modillions or brackets, the open or broken pediments, and the form of those pediments, with segmental or triangular shapes offset against each other, and voluted swan’s neck forms – were derived ultimately from the Mannerist games played by Michelangelo with classical architecture (see ‘National Gallery reframings: an update’). The outset corners and geometric ornaments of Mannerist architecture were also to be found in the Spanish ‘Herrera’ style of the 17th century, and by diffusion – via the Spanish presence in Naples and the Netherlands – also in Neapolitan and Northern picture frames. This eclectic genesis gave Jones’s designs their innovative twist, and was highly influential for Kent’s own approach.

Kent’s frames were, however, more structurally than ornamentally similar to Jones’s. The ‘Kent’ frame in its bare essentials as described above – an architrave profile with one or two architectural mouldings – was only the embryonic form. The flat frieze, often merely sanded and gilded, could be covered with bands of carved decoration – enriched flower-chains, Greek fret, Vitruvian scrolls – whilst the top and sight edges became the playground for all kind of leaf and husk moulding. The contour could be elaborated with outset corners at top and bottom, just at the top, or outset on just one rail. The corners of the frieze could be carved with classical paterae, acanthus (‘raffle’) leaves, or rosettes of Baroquely-swirling foliage. The crest could be crowned with pediments of various kinds, often holding shells, masks or têtes espagnolettes, and these could be echoed by the decoration of an apron at the base, making it a true tabernacle frame. Swags of fruit, flowers, oak and other leaves might be looped and skeined across the top of the frame, and let fall in pendants down the sides.

X Sir Godfrey Kneller Charles 2nd Viscount Townshend c1730 Raynham Hall

Sir Godfrey Kneller, Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend, c.1730, Raynham Hall. Photo: courtesy of Charles, 8th Marquess Townshend

Around 1730 Kent designed a frame for Viscount Townshend of Raynham Hall, and four versions of this were made by James Richards, Master Carver to the King, for a set of family portraits (Sir John Ashe, Lady Ashe, Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend, and his younger brother, Horatio Townshend; information courtesy of Lord Townshend). The portrait by Kneller of the 2nd Viscount was a striking highlight of the exhibition at the V & A; it epitomizes the decorative sophistication of the best of Kent’s designs for frames, their sheer opulence, and the technical skill of the carving. Although the profile is almost the simplest of any type of frame, because the whole surface area is covered in ornament it gives an impression of great richness – but a richness held in check by the strictly linear form of the rails. The contours are softened by the foliate clasps at the sides; the apron, with its shell, raffle leaves, swags and drops; and the crest with foliate S-scrolls above an infill of imbricated scales, husks, raffles leaves, garland, and a female mask. Hung within the monochrome purity of the entrance hall of Raynham Hall, two of the portraits glow like cameos in their rich filigree settings.

This is the way ‘Kent’ frames are designed to be seen – within the interior for which they were designed, and of which they form one important part, along with the internal architectural features which they reflect and which support them. An isolated frame on a white page, or islanded on an exhibition wall, may highlight aspects of style, design and craftsmanship, but it was never intended to be seen out of its element in this way. Chapter 8 of the book, ‘From “Gusto” to “Kentissime” — Kent’s Designs for Country Houses, Villas, and Lodges’, also by Julius Bryant, illustrates this, with ravishing images of interiors from the great Palladian houses of Britain, and Kent’s own plans for and elevations of these rooms. This chapter also tries to clarify Kent’s place in the creation of the houses: not as a lone responsible architect from the beginning of a project to the end, since:

‘His country house commissions evolved informally, from providing decorative paintings to arranging collections to remodeling and extending older houses. In this way Kent contributed to country house design as an artistic adviser, not as a contracted supervising architect responsible for project management. In modern parlance, Kent was more a decorator than builder, but such terms risk underestimating the depth of his involvement in redesigning the British country house.’ (p.184).

46 Francesco Trevisani Portrait of Thomas Coke 1717 Holkham Estate sm

Francesco Trevisani, Portrait of Thomas Coke, 1717. By kind permission of Viscount Coke and the Trustees of the Holkham Estate

Bryant sees Kent’s appeal to the owners of these country houses as his ability to resurrect for them in concrete form the memory of their experiences on the Grand Tour; so that, in building a Palladian villa, or recreating the interior of their houses in Roman Baroque style, they would be reviving echoes and reflections of their youth – as here, with Kent’s patron, Coke of Holkham Hall, Norfolk, portrayed as

‘…a cosmopolitan, most at home in the finest palazzi of Rome, Florence, and Naples…the kind of palatial setting he will seek to recreate… [at] Holkham…’

Bryant also reminds us that Norwich in the 18th century ‘was still Britain’s second city’: Kent’s country houses orbit around the twin suns of Oxford and Norwich.

X Alexandre Serebrikoff The Great Hall Ditchley watercolour1930sto40s

Alexandre Serebrikoff, The Great Hall, Ditchley Park, watercolour, 1930s-40s, showing Kent’s paintings of Venus and Aeneas in integral wall frames (c.1728-31), either side of the door. Ditchley Foundation 

Ditchley Park (1724-31) in Oxfordshire was one of the former, and one of the earlier locations with which Kent was involved; Bryant sees the metaphorical programme of decoration in the Great Hall as expressing the same dedication to youthful love and learning as indicated in Trevisani’s portrait of Thomas Coke:

‘The entrance hall at Ditchley was probably Kent’s first opportunity to design a whole room for a country house. Here he succeeded in demonstrating the potential of the new style, both visually and intellectually, to speak to visitors of classical education through an intellectual program of ornament that addressed both their taste and their minds.’

The arrangement of the room is striking: the elaborate integral wall frames holding Kent’s paintings of Venus & Aeneas on either side of the main door, and supporting in a softened form the grandeur of the doorcase; the focal point of the chimneypiece and overmantel painting; the smaller doorcase; the sculpted busts, figures, and framed plaster reliefs; and the white benches set against the walls. This complex ornamental scheme pivots on the fulcrum of the frame – door frames, wall frames, overmantel frame: the internal architecture marries the functional openings of door, window and chimney to the imaginative openings of the paintings into a classical and allegorical world.

2 An assembly at Wanstead House William Hogarth 1728to31 Philadelphia Museum of Art sm

William Hogarth, An assembly at Wanstead House, 1728-31, Philadelphia Museum of Art, The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928

Another early commission was Wanstead House in Essex, first designed by Colen Campbell, and demolished a hundred years later. Hogarth’s painting of a Kentian interior there, although exaggerating the furniture and chimneypiece with satirical intent, does give some idea of the richness of Kent’s programmes for his decorative schemes, and of the magnificence of such a setting for a social occasion, in the spirit of those Roman palazzi. It also shows how such an interior functioned, as an extremely rich shell containing comparatively few free-standing items, which would be ‘furnished’ by the gathering within it.

X The Designs of Inigo Jones ... page 65

The Designs of Inigo Jones…, Publish’d by William Kent, vol. I, 1727, with one of Kent’s own designs on page 65

Wanstead was followed by Burlington’s Chiswick House, and Bryant remarks particularly on the chimneypieces here:

‘[Kent’s] growing interest in the potential of chimneypieces as the first coup d’oeil on entering a room, the focal point of warmth and light in British country houses, would have been informed in the 1720s by his work for Burlington in preparing for publication his Designs of Inigo Jones (1727). The first volume includes designs for chimneypieces by Jones, as well as five clearly signed “W. Kent inve.” ’ (p. 191)

55. Chiswick Blue Velvet Room. Photo Richard Bryant

William Kent, the Blue Velvet Room, Chiswick House, c.1727–38; English Heritage.Photo: Richard Bryant

X Wm Kent The Designs of Inigo Jones Portrait detail

The Designs of Inigo Jones…, Publish’d by William Kent, vol. I, 1727, portrait on the title page

Bryant sees Kent as having played a much greater part in the interior decoration of Chiswick than he is currently credited with; in the chimneypieces, in the frames of the overdoors, above, which are based on the engraved frame of Inigo Jones’s portrait for The Designs of Inigo Jones …, and in the hang of pictures at Chiswick:

‘Paintings were integral to the interior decoration at Chiswick. Row upon row of paintings in gilded frames, hanging in strict architectural symmetry, evoked the sheer magnificence and gravitas of the private collections of Rome, seen to this day at the Palazzo Colonna and the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj.’ (p.194)

X HOUGHTON HALL North wall Saloon sm

William Kent, Design for the north wall of the saloon, Houghton Hall, 1725. Private collection.

An even more carefully-arranged hang would characterize part of Kent’s vision for Houghton Hall, Norfolk (c.1725-35). This was not the reimagined Roman holiday of a young aristocrat, but the social and political setting for a middle-aged politician (Sir Robert Walpole) who – rather than inheriting – was in the process of acquiring his own major art collection. Kent’s designs for two walls of the saloon epitomize the view he had arrived at by the later 1720s, of the interior as the inner shell of a room. This shell would include the programme of paintings on the ceiling and its cove; the interior architecture of cornice, frieze, door- and window-cases, chimneypiece and overmantel; the arrangement of paintings on the walls, with their frames and echoing ornaments; and the furniture which stood against the walls, such as console tables. The overmantel and doorcases on the north wall (above) form a compositional triangle, highlighted by their more important features (such as pediments), and by their ornament; this is filled in by paintings in secondary frames, and then expanded upwards to the largest works, in simple egg-&-dart mouldings, and onwards to the ceiling cornice. The decorations and motifs throughout echo and reinforce each other, and the frames are bound together by their principal mouldings, and their increasing enrichment. Kent’s drawings for both north and south walls of the saloon are unexpectedly small in the flesh, but they convey in miniature a wealth of decorative and cohesive meaning.


William Kent, Stowe House, Buckinghamshire: Elevation and Section of Chimney Piece in the Hall, ca. 1733, with bar scale of 1/2 inch to 1 foot. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

This is made explicit in Kent’s drawing for the chimneypiece of the north hall at Stowe, where the two tiers of the fireplace and overmantel mirror each other, even to the triangular pediment. It was designed to hold Christophe Veyrier’s The Family of Darius before Alexander, a bas-relief, and this subject of military might and mercy is emphasized by the ornament – a helmet at the crest, a torus of bay leaves in the entablature, and swags of oak leaves on the frieze of the fireplace. The frame of the bas-relief is supported by Mannerist scrolls; the whole structure has moved on appreciably from Inigo Jones’s chimneypiece for Somerset House.

44 William Kent The Library Holkham Hall c1734to41 Holkham Estate sm

William Kent, The Library, Holkham Hall, c.1734-41. By kind permission of Viscount Coke and the Trustees of the Holkham Estate

In some ways the great surviving Kentian house is Holkham Hall (c.1729-64), although Bryant points out that it was the work, not only of Kent, but of Colen Campbell, Coke himself, Lord Burlington, and Matthew Brettingham (who attempted to steal much of Kent’s credit for himself). Here, the library reveals how architectural furnishings (such as integral framed panels, chimneypieces and bookcases) could organize the composition of an interior in the same way that wings, varying roof levels, bays and set-back walls, windows and areas of rustication, could organize the exterior.

The library overmantel is particularly opulent; Kent’s painting of Apollo was rejected, and it houses an antique Roman mosaic of a lion. The double guilloche border of the mosaic is absorbed into the ornamental parade of the parcel-gilded and painted overmantel frame: a striking band of centred Vitruvian scroll, pendants of leaves, drops of bellflowers, and a frieze of undulating foliation, all beneath Mannerist volute capitals with a gilt scale pattern, and a crest with a cartouche, shells and foliation. Bryant quotes Horace Walpole on Kent:

‘…“his chimney-pieces, though lighter than those of Inigo, whom he imitated, are frequently heavy; and his constant introduction of pediments and the members of architecture over doors, and within rooms, was disproportioned and cumbrous…” ’

…and you can see what Walpole meant; however, time and custom have got our eye in, and perhaps we can better appreciate the part of the chimneypiece as the “coup d’oeil” within the integrated Kentian interior. Bryant does note that,

‘None of the chimneypieces, overmantels, architraves, furniture, and picture frames [at Holkham] can be attributed with certainty to Kent as designer’,

and that Thomas Coke and John Vardy may be responsible; but if so, then the guiding spirit is still unarguably that of Kent.

At Rousham House, the work is all Kent’s own, and there we see something even Walpole would not have disdained as heavy: an adventurous jeu d’esprit of an overmantel frame from which all the cumbrous weight of pilasters and modillions has been trimmed away, leaving a single decorative moulding between the swan’s neck pediment and female mask at the top, and the pedestal with Vitruvian scroll at the bottom. The sides are supported by cavorting dolphins, and the whole is playful and decorative to a degree. Kent painted this interior white, which would have added to the light and festival air of the whole.


Attributed to William Kent, looking-glass, probably for the White House, Kew, 1733–34. Carving attributed to John Boson, with later additions to the base. Victoria & Albert Museum, London, W.86-1911.

As well as commissions from private citizens, Kent was also employed by the King and by his son, Frederick, Prince of Wales (Chapter 11: Royal Commissions; Steven Brindle). Kent designed the Royal Barge for the prince, and also a home for his court – the White House at Kew (demolished in 1802) – from which various pieces of furniture survive, including a looking-glass frame (above). The art of the looking-glass frame is appreciably different from that of a picture frame: if rectangular it is narrower and more upright in structure, but can frequently be oval or round; it can be even richer than a picture frame; it functions as an ornamental unit of an interior scheme when it is not being used functionally, as it were; and the whole vocabulary and decorative emphasis is therefore cast in a higher key. This particular example displays an example of imaginative elaboration on the tête espagnolette (a carved female head with a crown of feathers). The mask is male – possibly a green man, as he is bearded, and the whole confection is created mainly from palm leaves and acanthus – also the feathers have been replaced by the Prince of Wales’s three plumes within a crown. These are backed by two immense scallop shells, textured, fluted and striated. It’s a virtuoso piece of carving, very three-dimensional in character, and attests the skill of the carvers Kent was using.

In this case the carver was probably John Boson, who just at this point (1734) was leasing a building (home or workshop, or both) from Lord Burlington, in Savile Row,  which runs north from the north-east corner of Burlington House (now the Royal Academy), Piccadilly; this puts him right at the heart of the Kent-Burlington nexus in London. The same year (or the next) he would provide two more looking-glasses for Burlington’s Chiswick House (for these and more details on Boson, see the Directory of British picture framemakers on the NPG website). Steven Brindle matches a bill from Boson to the Prince of Wales to the looking-glass illustrated here, and its companion but lost console table:

‘“A Rich Tabernacle the Moldings & flatt Carv’d feathers to freise & festoons to sides Shell to pedement & Large Ornaments wth Shell and foliage &c to Bottom….To A table under Do in Drawing Room wth Lyons head festoons of Oak Supporting Scrowls and Other Ornamts 8.0.0.” ’

Royal Barge cartouche ed sm

William Kent, Royal Barge, 1731-32, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014. Photographer: Bruce White

The looking-glass is one of few survivors of Kent’s work for the Prince of Wales, the most notable of which is the Royal Barge; Chapter Twelve is given over to this extraordinary commission. Here, the carver was James Richards, Master Carver to the king in the wake of Grinling Gibbons, working to detailed drawings by Kent. Richards, like Boson, was employed both by Lord Burlington, and by the Prince of Wales at Kew House. His work on the Royal Barge cost more than £150, and the gilding (double gilding and painting), by the Huguenot carver and gilder Paul Petit, almost £260. It – like Boson’s looking-glass – is remarkable for its very plastic, three-dimensional carving. Viewed from above, its motifs and mouldings are constructed upon the form of the hull like an exploded, elliptical picture frame: the rail around the bow is a free-floating egg-&-dart moulding, ending in a tight volute.  Similarly, the arched openings to the cabin of the Barge are individually small aedicular picture frames, or en masse a single-tiered altarpiece. The vocabulary employed throughout the boat is impeccably Kentian, with a band of Vitruvian scroll (stylized waves), scallop shells, swags of oak leaves, dolphins and mermaids. The cartouche at the bow of the boat has much in common with Boson’s looking-glass – it is oval, with a crest composed of the Prince of Wales’s feathers and crown against a large scallop shell; the raffle leaves and green man are replaced by mermaids and dolphins. The drawings by Kent make the resemblance to a frame even clearer.

Royal Barge detail of bow rail

William Kent, Royal Barge, detail of bow rail, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014. Photographer: Bruce White

Richards’s carving is adept and graceful; from the overall composition to the detail of the small dolphins at the base of the bow sculpture, the mermaids and the swags of oak leaves, the craftsmanship is admirable. Sadly Paul Petit’s work has been regilded, probably several times (for more details on Petit, see the Directory of British picture framemakers on the NPG website  ). Petit was himself an extremely skillful carver, executing several elaborate sculptural trophy frames for the Prince, who evidently employed the most skilled craftsmen in Britain to boost the claims of his own court in terms of aesthetics and splendour over that of his father, George II.

There are large swathes of this fascinating, vast and meticulously wide-ranging book which cannot be touched on in this review, since the field of Kent’s production was such a broad one. His influence on Palladian picture frames diffuses through many chapters, but will obviously not be found in those on landscape architecture, garden buildings, his royal and other patrons, and his book illustrations. John Harris’s chapter on Kent as ‘Architectural and Ornamental Draftsman’ (Ch. 6), his ‘Town Houses’ by David Watkin (Ch. 7), ‘Public Commissions’, Frank Salmon (Ch. 13), and, notably, ‘The Well of Inspiration: Sources for Kent’s Furniture Designs by Susan Weber (Ch.17), touch on the subject via interiors, chimneypieces and engravings (of, for instance, console tables and their matching frames).

18 Design for side table for Houghton Hall William Kent V & A sm

William Kent, design for side table for Houghton Hall, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Susan Weber also notes the influence of Baroque Roman flourishes such as putti and crowning masks on Kent’s work, both of which – especially the masks – are present in his frames, and in the pieces of furniture such as tables which accompany them. Kent’s collection of Italian prints, as well as the furnishings he encountered during his years in Italy, had a profound effect. The same motifs are used even in chandeliers, candlesticks and girandoles (‘Kent’s Metalwork Designs’, by Michael Snodin; Ch. 19), pointing the integrity of Kent’s all-embracing interior designs.

The final chapter (21: ‘The Legacy’, by Tim Knox) examines the pool of designs spreading out from the Kentian spring: the work of the men most closely associated with him, such as Henry Flitcroft and Isaac Ware, and John Vardy and Daniel Garrett. The diffusion of Kent’s designs through books of engravings was influential, and continued to be so until it faded into the NeoClassical age, as exemplified by the Adam brothers.

Palladian picture frames were, perhaps, particularly widespread as a style; there are so many of them about, in all their varying degrees of enrichment, from an architrave frame with a single run of ornament to the most luxurious and opulent version of the trophy frame. They marry well with architectural styles in Britain throughout the 17th and 18th centuries (whereas Rococo buildings never really caught on), fitting in with houses in late Renaissance and Baroque style, and later with those in the NeoClassical language of Adam and his school. Apart from the Kentian country houses mentioned specifically in the text, hangings of paintings in ‘Kent’ frames can be seen in the King’s Gallery, Kensington Palace, Room 9 of the National Portrait Gallery, where many of the Kit-cat Club portraits by Sir Godfrey Kneller are hanging in their Palladian frames by Gerrard Howard, the king’s framemaker, and in Tate Britain.

X Allan Ramsay Thomas 2nd Baron Mansel of Margam 1742 Tate ed sm

Allan Ramsay, Thomas, 2nd Baron Mansel of Margam, with his half-brothers and -sister, 1742, Tate; Photo: Fran Pickering 

One of the most striking frames in the collection of Tate Britain is this, on Ramsay’s group portrait of Thomas Mansel and his half-siblings. The mansion on the Margam estate in Glamorgan was demolished in 1787, amputating the portrait from its interior, but as a singular statement of the importance and beauty of the ‘Kent’ frame, it can hardly be beaten.

Look at all these frames, then, and buy or borrow the book; it’s definitely worthwhile reading for its multifarious approaches to the work of a figure so important in British architecture and design.


With grateful thanks to the V & A, and to all those who have kindly provided me with images to use, and/or permission to publish them, especially Charles, 8th Marquess Townshend and Fran Pickering.




Mauritshuis frames: Part 1

Maritshuis building sm

This article, by the senior curator of the Mauritshuis, The Hague, was first published as: Quentin Buvelot, ‘Mauritshuis Frames’, Mauritshuis in focus, 27 (2014), nr 1, pp. 6-12

The Mauritshuis aims to present its collection as well as possible. This means conserving and restoring the paintings, as well as paying attention to the frames. A suitable frame can enhance an artwork, whereas a badly chosen one can detract from it. Nowadays there is renewed interest in the history of the frames in our collection.

Few visitors to the Mauritshuis probably realize that only a dozen or so paintings in the collection are still in their original frames. At one time or another nearly all the Old Masters were given new frames that better suited the prevailing taste. Notable exceptions are the three seventeenth-century Dutch portraits in their original trophy frames, which will be described in a later article.

The history of the picture frames in the Mauritshuis is closely connected to the history of the collection, the core of which was formed by two princes of Orange: Willem IV (1711-1751) and his son, Willem V (1748-1806). The latter put the collection on public display in 1774, when he had two hundred paintings housed in the ‘Galerij’ on the Buitenhof. This gallery of paintings was open to the public at set times, thus becoming the first public art collection in Holland. More than twenty years later, in 1795, the French troops which had invaded the Republic ransacked the gallery and took the collection to the Louvre. After the French occupation, most of the paintings were brought back to The Hague in 1815, having become the property of the Dutch state in the meantime. The frames, however, remained in Paris.

1 Hondecoeter in Empire frameA painting by Hondecoeter in an Empire frame from the Mauritshuis’s collection, being hung in Het Loo Palace

New frames had to be made for all the pictures, and these were ordered en masse from the firm of Wed. Dorens en Zoon, Hofspiegelkoopers (Purveyors of Looking Glasses and Picture Frames) in Amsterdam and delivered in February 1817; the sum of 5,000 guilders had been set aside for this purpose. The gilt frames with decorations in late Empire style were completely in keeping with the current fashion. A number of paintings still have these frames; the different models and decorations were deliberately chosen for the sake of variety. The collection was reinstalled in the Gallery in the spring of 1817, but in 1822 it was moved to the Mauritshuis, which had been bought precisely for this purpose.

Documentation of frames

Eighteenth-century inventories tell us quite a bit about the frames that originally held the Stadholder’s collection of paintings. An inventory drawn up in 1793, for example, offers fairly precise descriptions: in addition to gilt frames, black ones ‘with a gilt inner edge’ were also popular. It has proven difficult to obtain information about the frames purchased from 1822 onwards, since the Mauritshuis began to publish annual reports which describe them only in 1878. For information on the intervening period we must turn to official documents in the Mauritshuis archive and the National Archives, although these sources still need to be researched further. Old photographs of the museum’s interior could also be a source, but none pre-dates 1900.

2 Antoon François Heijligers ed sm Antoon François Heijligers, Interior of the Rembrandt Room in the Mauritshuis, 1884, panel, 47 x 59 cm, Mauritshuis

There is, however, a depiction of the interior of the museum, painted by Antoon François Hejiligers (1828-97) in 1884, just a few years after the rooms in the Mauritshuis were reorganized. The panel shows one of the Rembrandt rooms, present-day Room 10, which usually contains the late Rembrandts. In the nineteenth century this room featured Rembrandt’s Anatomy lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp of 1632 in a dark moulded frame. Almost every other painting was set in a gilt frame. One striking detail is that the lower edge of several paintings overlapped the wood panelling; today this would be considered an eyesore.

New director, new frames

The talented art historian Abraham Bredius (1855-1946) was appointed director in 1889. His extensive circle of friends and contacts plus his eye for quality enabled him to add many important paintings to the collection. Bredius had the new acquisitions, as well as various pictures already in the collection, reset in nearly identical dark brown frames with a gilt, decorated inner moulding.

3 Vermeer sm

 Vermeer, Girl with a pearl earring in a frame purchased by Bredius (photograph after 1913). Both this frame and the one holding Fabritius’s Goldfinch (see below) have been replaced

An example is Vermeer’s Girl with a pearl earring, as seen in a photograph taken after 1933. When Bredius died in 1946, it turned out that he had bequeathed twenty-five paintings from his private collection to the Mauritshuis. Some of these are still in their dark ‘Bredius frames’, but the highlights of his bequest – such as Rembrandt’s Homer, and Saul and David, a painting attributed to Rembrandt – had costly gilt frames.

Vermeer Girl with pearl ed

Vermeer, Girl with a pearl earring, c.1665, as framed today; Mauritshuis

Large-scale replacement of frames

Bredius’s successor, Wilhelm Martin (1876-1954), changed the presentation policy once again, in accordance with changing tastes. From 1929 he ordered so-called composition (sometimes shortened to ‘compo’) frames for many of the seventeenth-century paintings in the collection.

4 Mauritshuis collection ed sm Examples of three composition frames produced by A.J. Heydenrijk Jr Schilderijlijstenfabriek in the 1930s, holding paintings by Willem van Aelst (left & right) and Jan Both (centre)

These machine-produced frames consisted of a ‘composition’ of glue, turpentine, chalk, asbestos, linseed oil and other ingredients. Their design goes back to French frames of the eighteenth century. The application of elaborate, scrolled ornamentation gives such frames irregular profiles, in contrast to Empire frames, whose outer edges display straight lines. The surviving correspondence shows that Martin ordered dozens of composition frames from his regular supplier, A.J. Heydenrijk Jr., in Amsterdam. Martin chose models with varying ornaments, as emerges from the quotation submitted by Heydenrijk on 29 October 1930.

The Holbeins reframed

Bob de Vries (1905-83), who became director in 1947, also paid a great deal of attention to the collection’s presentation.

5 Holbeins before Four paintings in the Mauritshuis by or after Holbein; these have now been reframed

The deep Empire frames holding the sixteenth-century portraits by Holbein had been replaced by Martin in 1923, but De Vries had more suitable frames made for these paintings, and they are still in use.

Holbein Robert Cheseman ed

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Robert Cheseman, 1533, in new frame; Maurithuis 

Thanks to outside financial assistance, the Mauritshuis was able to acquire a splendid Italian frame made around 1600 for Holbein’s portrait of Robert Cheseman in 1952, and purchased nineteenth-century frames for Holbein’s portrait of an unknown falconer and a studio piece, the portrait of Jane Seymour, in 1956.

Holbein Jane Seymour ed

Studio of Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Jane Seymour, c.1540, in new frame; Mauritshuis

These frames in sixteenth-century style are of such high quality that they are often mistaken for originals from the time of Holbein.

6 Holbeins after

View of a wall in the exhibition Masters from the Mauritshuis at the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague. Photo: Ivo Hoekstra

In the annual report of 1952, De Vries described his attempts to buy old or suitable frames, for which practically no money was available. He spoke frankly about the Empire frames, calling them tasteless, and he also disliked the modern composition frames, which in his opinion did not do justice to the Mauritshuis’s Old Masters.

Authentic character

In recent decades successive directors have replaced a large number of frames with more suitable ones.

Carel Fabritius The goldfinch ed sm

Carel Fabritius, The goldfinch, 1654, in new frame; Mauritshuis

Antique picture frames have been acquired for The goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, Jan Davitsz de Heem’s Flower still life, and Rembrandt’s Portrait of an old man. The museum still pays close attention to the presentation of the collection. Suitable antique frames are not always available, so the Mauritshuis often orders copies, whose profiles and decorations derive from sixteenth- or seventeenth- century frames. An indispensable reference work in this respect is the 1984 publication compiled by P. van Thiel and C. de Bruyn Kops, Prijst de lijst: De Hollandse schilderijlijst in de zeventiende eeuw (a revised edition appeared in English in 1995, under the title, Framing in the Golden Age: picture and frame in 17th-century Holland).

9 Willem van Haecht before ed Willem van Haecht, Apelles painting Campaspe, in its previous frame

10 Willem van Haecht Apelles painting Campaspe ed sm Willem van Haecht, Apelles painting Campaspe, in a new frame based on those in the painting; Mauritshuis 

Paintings are usually reframed after a purchase, bequest or restoration. An important exhibition, at the Mauritshuis or elsewhere, can also be a reason to replace a frame, as happened recently with a small painting by Jan Gossaert. After a loan request from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the painting was restored and provided with a new frame, which was inspired by an authentic one for another painting by Gossaert. Willem van Haecht’s Apelles painting Campaspe was given a new frame which significantly enhances its appearance, with a view to its inclusion in the 2009-10 exhibition Room for art in 17th century Antwerp. This long-cherished wish could be fulfilled thanks to support from the Johan Maurits Comapgnie Foundation. The new frame with a gilt inner edge is based on one of the 17th century frames depicted in the painting. Apelles painting Campaspe had such a frame in the time of Stadholder Willem V.

7 Rembrandt Susanna beforeRembrandt, Susanna, 1636, in its previous frame, produced by A.J. Heydenrijk Jr Schilderijlijstenfabriek in the 1930s; Mauritshuis

Thanks to support from the American Friends of the Mauritshuis, a new frame was ordered for Rembrandt’s Susanna of 1636. The old frame, produced by the firm of Heydenrijk, left non-autograph passages visible on the rectangular panel, whereas the new black frame shows the painting with rounded upper edges, just as Rembrandt had intended.

8 Rembrandt Susanna after

 Rembrandt, Susanna, 1636: in a replica 17th century frame which closely approximates the original; Mauritshuis 

This new frame is a big improvement, lending the scene more intimacy and thus heightening its power of expression. This particular example underscores how important it is to get the frame just right.


With grateful thanks to Quentin Buvelot for his article, to Anne Lenders, Assistant Curator of the Mauritshuis Collections Department, for permission to republish it, and to Gini Kingma for orchestrating the process.

See Mauritshuis frames: Part 2: trophy frames> here

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.


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