The Frame Blog

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

The borders of commerce: Part 1

How artists and curators began to abandon the ornamental giltwood frame, and how it found new ways to flourish…

Bratby label in frame

By the mid-20th century, the picture frame as it had existed for around 600 years seemed to be in retreat; or, rather, many artists had retreated from the idea of an ornamental boundary which separated their work from the wall on which it hung, and from the possibility that anything might encroach on or detract from the painted surface of their canvas:

‘It’s intolerable to be stopped by a frame’s edge’, Clyfford Still, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1976, p.123.

This trend towards a minimal style of setting had begun as early as the 1870s. The Impressionists, in choosing to reject ornamental gilded mouldings for plain painted – and, more especially, white – frames, had had a great influence on the avant-garde frames of the late 19th and early 20th centuries [1].

Degas Dancer au repos 1879 in original frameEdgar Degas, Dancer au repos, 1879, in Degas’s own frame: this has now been removed: see below

Degas’s Danseuse au repos, as shown above in its original, artist-designed frame, had the distinction of retaining for more than 120 years the only original finish for one of his ‘pipe-shaped’ fluted frames. It was covered in polished gesso, giving an effect like softly-glowing ivory. Other frames with this profile have been gilded over by subsequent owners who did not appreciate the subtlety of Degas’s vision. Its radical modernity in the 1870s was a catalyst for many of the geometric mouldings and white finishes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Gluck A Cornish farmhouse c1926 Liss Fine Art

 Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein), A Cornish farmhouse, c.1926, Liss Fine Art, in its stepped & white-painted ‘Gluck’ frame

There should, of course, be a caveat entered, that when the Impressionists had more money to spend on their art, they frequently chose to employ carved and gilded frames. But in general terms, as the nineteenth century continued to its end, profiles became progressively more simplified, and silver, gold & Dutch leaf lost in popularity to painted, stained or polished wood finishes.

John Piper The forum 1961 frame Tate sm

John Piper, The forum, 1961, Tate; frame with canted linen-covered frieze & gilt top edge. Photo courtesy of a friend

During the 20th century other materials were also employed – fabric inserts and linings, which at one point seemed ubiquitous (and which for some reason were applied in the Tate Gallery to many of the frames on their collection of Turners); narrow mouldings of brushed aluminium; and slender lathes of deal which could be nailed onto the side of a stretcher, protecting it whilst remaining practically invisible.

Antique carved wooden frames generally retained their relevance for paintings of the same era, having also the cachet of their own antiquity; although where there was a disparity of period, some museums experimented with radically simplifying the frames in their collections:

 ‘William Rubin, Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture [Museum of Modern Art, New York], is recorded as having described the gilt frames which formerly enclosed the superb series of works by Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat and others, as “eye-catching fluff”, and he has replaced them all with a limited range of simple narrow mouldings…[which] unleashed a well-informed howl of protest… Not withstanding the skills of the framer, Robert Kulicke, the starkness of those galleries does indeed strike an alien note… few visitors to MoMA today are able to accept [Rubin’s] description of the interiors as “neutral’.’

Editorial, International Journal of Museum Management & Curatorship, 1985, no.4, p.115.

Fortunately many decisions of this type were blocked or later reversed [2] – although sadly not fast enough to prevent irreplaceable losses in some cases: Jacob Simon reports stories of the rag-&-bone man, ‘Burner’ Bagnell, collecting antique frames in London in the 1950s and ’60s, whilst in York the curator of the City Art Gallery sold damaged frames to a similar collector; the fate in both cases for the frames was to be burnt, in order for the gold to be collected [3].


Edgar Degas, Danseuse au repos, 1879, pastel & gouache on paper. Sold at Sotheby’s 1999, at which point it still possessed its original, artist-designed, white gessoed frame

In ironic parenthesis, and in a strange reversal of this process, the Degas Danseuse au repos lost its original, artist-designed frame between its sale at Sotheby’s London in 1999, and at Sotheby’s New York on 3 November 2008.

 Degas Danseuse au repos in new frame Sotheby s sale3 Nov 2008 NY

Edgar Degas, Danseuse au repos, 1879, pastel & gouache on paper. Sold at Sotheby’s New York, 2008

It is an extremely sad state of affairs, when a collector – who has sat on the board of a prominent auctioneering company, and whose wife has presided over the board of trustees at an equally prominent museum – effects a divorce between the two parts of a work of art. Degas himself once discovered, when he went to dinner at their house, that some friends had removed the original frame from one of his paintings.  He took the painting down from the wall, extracted the canvas from the new gold frame and walked out with it…[4]

E Bach frame sm

 However, the question for museums bent on change more often concerned carved and gilded frames which were antique sculptures in their own right, and in no way justifiably alienable from their paintings. What few people wanted or cared about were the walls of ornate 19th century compo frames (as above), covered overall with aged, discoloured and brittle decoration which chipped and peeled away at the slightest disturbance.  These were what gave the frame a bad name in the age of Le Corbusier and minimalism; and these probably helped to hasten the flight of the 20th century artist to the shadow box frame, the integral strip frame, or even to a complete absence of the frame – as demanded in John Bratby’s grumpily printed instructions at the head of this article.

But objects which exist for a long period, or exist in relation to another object, acquire a significance from their existence, or from that relationship, which can continue long after the original item or connection has vanished. The icon indicating a phone tends not to be a graphic mobile phone, but an outline of an old-fashioned receiver on a stand; icons of women show them in skirts, where the majority of women now wear trousers. The frame began to acquire this kind of life at an early period, and its significance as a border in other relationships than with paintings began to grow and broaden. Because it was connected with fine art, often with religious paintings or with portraits of the famous and powerful, the frame inherited a charisma by association.  This made it the perfect vehicle to be adopted by commerce; and as – for instance – printing developed, graphic frames became the signifiers of respectable trades- and craftsmen, and of good-quality merchandise.

L0015034 Trade card of John Cargill, instrument maker.

Trade card of John Cargill, Instrument-maker, 1739, Wellcome Library, London

Frames were used on the borders of trades cards almost from the moment these were produced: they were an easy way to create an impression of elegance, establishment and worth, and some of them are extremely beautiful. Whatever the disparity of the goods being sold (hardware, plans and surveys, or carpets) with the decorative qualities of the frames used to sell them, the purveyors of the goods would happily employ the most extravagant sculptural ornament in an effort to achieve a reassuringly trustworthy and upmarket image. From the 1740s, Rococo borders were particularly favoured.  In this context, the frame was moving beyond its marriage with the painting, making an early alliance with commerce which continued to grow and flourish.

George Farr Grocer TRADE CARD Heal 68.99 BM  ed

Trade card of George Farr, Grocer, 1750s; British Museum, Heal Collection 68.99AN930777

George Farr’s card is a model of Rococo design, with scalloped bands of rocailles, elongated airy scrolls, and little chinoiserie pavilions; the effect is to indicate that Mr Farr is an elegantly long way from the average High Street shop, and that his wares are imported from all over the globe. Where an actual Rococo trophy frame might have sculpted arms as attributive of the soldier’s portrait, this engraved frame has barrels of brandy, flagons of rum, chests of tea and pendant sugar loaves. The overall effect is of a gentleman who has unhappily fallen upon hard times, but who condescends to invite other selected gentlemen over his ancient and noble threshold to view the rare and edible treasures within [5].

It was only a matter of time before these paper advertisements took a more solid form. Shops had been advertising their goods for a very long time under the appropriate symbols: for example, a Roman sign from Pompeii makes very clear what was being offered. In London, from the Middle Ages onwards, you found the business you wanted by a physical three-dimensional piece of sculpture above the door; the gilded arm and hammer of George Whiley, goldbeater, is a late example dating from the 18th century, probably just before the introduction of numbered buildings began to make such rough-&-ready methods of signalling an address less useful. Further carved stone or wooden inset signs can be found on the Spitalfields Life website.

But the clarity of street numbers, although a far more functional device for directing shoppers (and postmen, when they were invented) to the right door in the right area, lacked the picturesque explanatoriness of an icon or sign. There was also the problem of literacy, or lack of it, in which the reading of numbers easily was probably also involved. Pictorial signs therefore continued to be used for commercial premises, both for shops and for inns, to supplement the geographical accuracy of street numbers – and many of them had frames.

William Hogarth The March of the guards to Finchley c1749to50 Thomas Coram Foundation detail

William Hogarth, The march of the guards to Finchley, detail, c.1749-50, © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

The inn sign shown in the background of Hogarth’s The march of the guards to Finchley has Adam and Eve standing either side of a serpent-encircled tree, in a Mannerist frame with a carved hop flower hanging by the outer corner. This effectively tells the traveller that he has indeed reached an inn, serving beer, and that it’s called the Adam and Eve (in case he was looking for a different place). What could be clearer? And the frame lends the whole business a solid, reliable air, as though the sign were the Flemish altarpiece with which it has such clear connections[6].

Pieter Pourbus c1523to84 Triptiek met de Kruisafneming 1570 Groeningemuseum Bruges

Pieter Pourbus, Triptych with scenes from the Life of Christ, 1570, Groeningemuseum, Bruges.  The frame is not original, but probably dates from the 17th century

Where better to find the frame of an inn sign than on an altarpiece in a church? Nothing disreputable could take place at an inn with a sign like that…

3 squirrels framed libC2 sm

Sign of Ye Three Squirrels, mid-17th century, photo c. 1940. Courtesy of Barclays Group Archives

A different type of surviving commercial sign, apparently from the 17th century, is that of the three squirrels, which originally belonged to Mr Pinckney the goldsmith at 19 Fleet Street, London, where he was visited by Samuel Pepys [7]. The sign was passed on to Abraham Fowler, another goldsmith and also a banker, and then in the early 1740s to Goslings Bank. In 1896 Goslings amalgamated with Barclays Bank, which still has a branch at 19 Fleet Street, and the sign of the three squirrels is held in the bank archives[8]. It hangs in a metal spandrel frame, with scrolling tendrils, and an asymmetric cartouche decorates the sign itself. The asymmetry, along with the hint of a rocaille ornament at the top of this cartouche, indicates that the sign is 18th, rather than 17th century.  The squirrels, presumably chosen for their burgher-like acquisitive and hoarding tendencies, were even more symbolic of a bank than a goldsmith; the cartouche lends them a slightly raffish air of gentility, as though they might have their crest or a founding date inscribed there. The spandrel frame, with its connection to oval portraits of the well-born and wealthy, reinforces this elevation of mercantile rodents. These are squirrels which a gentleman may trust.

Thomas Hosmer Shepherd  1793to1864 Holywell St St Clements 1853 BM image sm

Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1793-1864), A row of shops on Holywell Street, 1853; © Trustees of the British Museum

In the watercolour, above, of a London street in the mid-19th century, we are in an area which had only recently, during the previous decade, clawed its way up to respectability on the back of the book trade. Holywell Street, off the Strand, had been a centre of ‘old clothes dealers’ [9], one of the surviving examples of which has been depicted prominently at the left of the painting.

Thomas Hosmer Shepherd Holywell 1853 BM detail

Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, A row of shops on Holywell Street, detail

We can see how the flat shop sign on this façade has been presented in an eye-catching, ornamental frame – a more modern version of the old three-dimensional sign, which appears in the crescent moon further down the row. The frame is a simplified (possibly gilded) Rococo border which gives an unlikely cachet to the mundane text, and to the second-hand clothes dealer advertised on the fascia board – ‘Hawkers & the trade supplied’. The Watteauesque scene within the frame, of a woman admiring an 18th century paniered gown, is a similarly romantized version of reality; together shop sign and frame operate like the trade card of Mr Farr the Grocer, above, bestowing a very flattering elevation on I.T Wood and his old clothes-dealing.

Grosvenor Works S Molton Lane ed sm

Terra cotta commercial sign of John Bolding & Sons, founded 1822, Davies Street, London

Architectural frames were also co-opted into commercial signs; there is a splendid terra cotta example on the corner building between Davies Street and South Molton Lane, on what is now Grays Antiques Centre. This factory, the Grosvenor Works, was built in the 1880s for John Bolding & Sons, supplier of baths, lavatories and all their appurtenances to the great and good of the late 19th century – including Gladstone’s family home in Scotland.


Niche with Christ & St Thomas, replica of bronze statue, 1467-83, by Andrea del Verrocchio, Orsanmichele, Florence

Bolding’s sculptural sign is based on a Renaissance wall-hung 3-dimensional tabernacle, of the type which decorates the 14th century façade of Orsanmichele, Florence; or which was used to frame terra cotta and ceramic plaques of the Madonna and Child. It owes something to the contemporary fashion for Renaissance aedicular frames employed by artists such as Frederic, Lord Leighton, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Edward Poynter, John Strudwick and Burne-Jones, as well as reinforcing the trend for Renaissance furnishings observed at the 1851 Great Exhibition [10]. Today we may view the use of a Renaissance niche for the frame of a sanitary ware manufacturer’s sign as bathetic, but during the second half of the 19th century, mediaeval and Renaissance architecture and applied arts were regarded as suitably celebratory in style for the industrial and technological innovations of the time. A full-scale example is the Abbey Mills pumping station, 1865-68, built by Sir Joseph Bazalgette as part of the construction of the London drainage system, and known as ‘the Cathedral of Sewage’.   Bolding’s baths, showers and lavatories were innovatory, but they were also elegant and desirable, just like the spacious classicizing buildings of Renaissance Florence, and a classical tabernacle frame was therefore seen as perfectly appropriate to advertize the name of their creator and vendor.


Part 2 of The borders of commerce will follow shortly

With thanks to the museums, galleries, the National Trust, and friends, who have allowed me to use images of their paintings


[1] See Isabelle Cahn, Cadres de peintres, 1989, p. 65 ff.; and The Frame Blog: Antique frames on Impressionist paintings.

[2] See, for example, the ‘Thannhauser Frame Project’ at the Guggenheim in New York.

[3] Jacob Simon, The art of the picture frame, 1996, National Portrait Gallery, p.25.

[4] Ambroise Vollard, En écoutant Cézanne, Degas, Renoir, Paris, 1938, p.121.

[5] For trades cards, see the Waddesdon collection, the collection in the British Museum, the Spitalfields Life website (with 2 further posts on the same site), and a dissertation, The art of advertising…, Philippa Hubbard, 2009, University of Warwick.

[6] For this and further old inn signs, see Fritz August Gottfried Endell, Old tavern signs, 1916.

[7] Arthur Grimwade, London goldsmiths, 1697-1837, 1976, p. 16: ‘On 1 December 1660 Mr Pepys speaks of “calling upon Mr Pinckney, the goldsmith, he took us to the tavern and there gave us a pint of wine.” ’

[8] See Jessie Campbell, Barclays Bank Archives.

[9] George Reynolds, The mysteries of London, 1844-46, under ‘Holywell Street’.

[10] Noted by R. Wornum in his review of the Great Exhibition: quoted in Edward Joy, English furniture 1800-1851, p.153.

Reframing Raphael: the Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione

Louvre image of Raphael 96-012331 sm

Raphael (1483-1520), Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, 1514-15, Musée du Louvre; French Renaissance-style frame with a vine of roses & sunflowers overlaid on a cross-hatched ground, 2nd quarter 17th century


In memory of Hasan Niyazi and in celebration of his work on Raphael , on Raphael’s birthday, 6 April 1483

Jim Bennett, Managing Editor of the online resource, The Poetry Kit and its satellite magazines, responds to Raphael’s Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione and its frame; his poem introduces an account of this work.

frame builder

his father’s saw warm in his hands

his father’s words in his ears

he had marked his lines   checked them

checked them again     he cut

the smell of wood as the saw ripped

the fall of dust     the sound it made

he carried on  cutting and chiselling

following the pattern  agreed

 he carved the curves and scrolls

the vines that wrapped around

in a never-ending  Gordian knot

each strand carrying on across joints

he laboured at the frame

until it was perfect   an oak rectangle

a piece of art   to be ignored

made to flatter another artists work

© Jim Bennett


Reframing Raphael

Raffaello Santi died (like Hasan himself) at the regrettably early age of 37.

He had already accomplished a vast amount of work; its quality, combined with his short career, meant that his paintings were from the first extremely desirable to collectors, and thus they have tended to move about from collection to collection, perhaps even more than work by his peers.  One of the results of this restless movement is that his pictures have been framed and reframed – often many times – and although works in major collections have by now (at least for the most part) been rehoused in frames of the correct nationality and period, very few paintings by Raphael are in their original settings.

Raphael attrib Portrait of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro sm

 Attributed to Raphael, Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, c.1506, Galleria degli Uffizi, in a ‘Medici’ frame, last third 17th century. Su concessione del Ministerio dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo

What collectors from the 16th to the 19th century seemed to want was to impress their own personalities on their collections, and to bind all the art they owned into an harmonious whole. Both aims resulted in the rise of the ‘livery’ or gallery frame – for instance, the ‘Medici’ Mannerist frames employed by Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici to unite the paintings in his apartment in the Palazzo Pitti.  The walls of this apartment were, from around the 1660s-70s,

‘entirely covered in pictures the frames of which were sumptuous to the point of fantasy, both oval and rectangular, alternating with looking-glasses and great gilded stools, console tables, chests and all the furnishings to produce an interior scheme which would satisfy that horror vacui so characteristic of Baroque taste.’[i]

Raphael Elisabetta Gonzaga sm

Attributed to Raphael, Elisabetta Gonzaga, c.1504, Galleria degli Uffizi, in a ‘Medici’ frame, last third 17th century. Su concessione del Ministerio dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo

Paintings, by no matter whom – Rembrandt, Bronzino, Schiavone, Titian, Veronese – were all given these wide sculptural borders composed of Auricular ornament and marine motifs, rather as though they were precious gems whose consequence could only be enhanced by the richness of their settings.  They include a pair of portraits attributed to Raphael, of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro and his wife, Elisabetta Gonzaga, which date from the artist’s first couple of years in Florence (now displayed in the Uffizi). These have both at some point been given ‘Medici’ frames, but not, intriguingly, a matching pair. The spare simplicity of the portraits might be seen as sitting oddly with the restless ornamentation of the frames, but the marriage works surprisingly well – like, indeed, the partnership of a cameo enshrined in a filigree border by a goldsmith and inflated to a giant scale. The breadth of the gilded borders helps to focus the spectator’s attention on the portraits, isolating and projecting them from their surroundings – an important consideration for a work which was part of the Medici collection.

Raphael Madonna della segiola c1513to14 Palazzo Pitti sm

 Raphael, Madonna della segiola, c.1513-14, Palazzo Pitti, in late 17th century Baroque spandrel frame. Su concessione del Ministerio dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo

Another Medici-owned work by Raphael, the Madonna della segiola, which had entered the collection by 1589 but was not housed in the Palazzo Pitti until the 18th century, has been reframed in a later analogue of this voluptuously ornamented style, presumably so that it might be integrated as seamlessly as possible wherever it was first hung. It was painted in this frame by Zoffany in The Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-77, Royal Collection), which is notable for the accuracy of his depiction of both paintings and frames (although the hanging was arranged by the artist, in order to include all the pictures he wanted).  It is interesting to speculate how this very compact circular composition would have been framed in Rapahel’s day; he executed a number of tondi, but there seem to be few survivors even amongst this generally long-lived type of frame[ii]. The Madonna Terranuova in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, for instance, which appears to be authentically framed in a Tuscan design of the late 15th-early 16th century, is actually set in a replica frame carved in 1955.

Reproducing Raphael (St Cecelia, Bologna)

S Giovanni in Monte Bologna sm

Replica by Clemente Alberi (1861) after Raphael (1513-17), St Cecelia with SS Paul, John the Evangelist, Augustine & Mary Magdalene in original frame, 1st quarter 16th century, S. Giovanni in Monte, Bologna

Raphael’s work was particularly open to solipsistic choices of frame by his patrons and later collectors, and divorces from its earliest settings. This has continued up to the 20th century, resulting in such anomalies as that of the St Cecelia altarpiece (1513-17) commissioned by Beata Elena Duglioli dall’Olio for the family chapel in S. Giovanni in Monte, Bologna. The painting was looted by Napoleon in 1793 and spent twelve years in Paris; when it was returned in 1815 it was installed in the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, and a copy of the original frame was made for it; the latter remains in situ in the chapel, and holds a 19th century replica of Raphael’s altarpiece.

Raphael St Cecelia original frame S Giovanni in Monte Bologna sm

St Cecelia, the original frame, S. Giovanni in Monte, Bologna

The antique frame has been generally ascribed to Andrea Marchesi da Formigine (1480/90-1559)[iii], although recently the workshop of Giovanni Barili has been suggested as a possibility for its production. The refined richness of its gilded decoration (on a blue-painted ground) is characteristic of the style known as ‘Formiginesque’, with its emphasis on tightly scrolling foliate and floral motifs, carved in low relief, with very delicate details. To separate this exquisite work by a master carver and gilder from the painting it was designed for seems a particularly bizarre decision, and would not in all probability have happened but for Raphael’s fame, and the charismatic aura which attaches to his work. The replica frame in the gallery lacks the ornamental crest seen above, which rises above the open vista into heaven at the top of the painting, and acts as a focus, in its carved and gilded lamp, for the upturned gaze of St Cecelia.

Raphael and a 17th century French frame

Louvre image of Raphael 96-012331 sm

Raphael, Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, 1514-15, Musée du Louvre

In contrast to some of these reframings, the Portrait of Baldasarre Castiglione and its French Renaissance-style frame are the result of an imaginative marriage which is extremely successful. Raphael had met Castiglione (1478-1529) – diplomat, poet, man of letters – in his own native city of Urbino. He met him again in Rome, and undertook this portrait of the man who was by now his friend, probably to commemorate his appointment as ambassador from the court of Urbino to that of the Vatican. Castiglione acknowledged the lifelike truth and immediacy of the painting in a poem, in which he imagines his wife and infant son turning to it and addressing it as a substitute for their husband and father: his wife says,

‘I make tender approaches to it, I smile, I joke or speak, just as if it could give me an answer. By an acknowledgment and a nod it seems to me often to want to say something, and to speak with your voice… Your son recognizes his father and greets him with childish talk.’[iv]

Ten years later Castiglione was sent by Pope Clement VII to Madrid as a papal nuncio, and it has been suggested that he might possibly have taken the portrait with him[v] – his young wife had died after four years of marriage, and he had more reason to take the portrait than to leave it in Mantua. At this point it would most likely have been set in an early cassetta frame, and the natural complement of the subdued colouring of the portrait would probably have been some combination of parcel gilding with black tempera.


In 1529 Castiglione died in Toledo, of the plague. Either at that point or earlier (if it had not remained in Mantua all the time), the portrait seems to have been dispatched back to his home, where Antonio Beffa Negrini noted two portraits by Raphael[vi]. Nearly sixty years later, Castiglione’s son, Camillo, wrote to the great-grand nephew of the Guidobaldo da Montfeltro (above) whom Raphael had also painted – Francesco Maria II della Rovere, Duke of Urbino. He offered him the portrait of his father, in memory of the latter’s days at the court of Urbino, so that it could remain under the protection of its prince, and the Duke seems to have accepted it [vii].

Francesco Maria II died without a male heir in 1631; although half his estate was left to his granddaughter, some of his possessions appear to have been misappropriated and auctioned, and among these Raphael’s Portrait of Castiglione must have figured.  This seems to have been its route into the hands of Lucas van Uffelen, a banker living at that point in Venice but shortly to return to Amsterdam, and from whose collection it was auctioned in 1639[viii]. The portrait may very well have been reframed from its original setting by either or both these men, in order both to lay claim to it and to update it. Rembrandt, who sketched the portrait at the 1639 auction, made no suggestion of a frame, although it is unlikely to have been sold without one. It was bought at the auction by Alfonso Lopez, a Portuguese agent for the French King, for 3500 guilders[ix] (or about £33,000 in present day terms), who sold it in 1641 to Cardinal Mazarin[x]. Mazarin’s collection became a target for Louis XIV’s ambitions, as a symbol of status and power, and on the death of the Cardinal in 1661, the king acquired 34 of his paintings, including the portrait of Castiglione.

Raphael Castiglione detail

There are several points at which this spectacular frame could logically (and chronologically) have been married to the painting.  It might have been specially made in France for Lucas van Uffelen (Dutch collectors did sometimes employ grand-luxe French frames); created during the two years the portrait was in Lopez’s hands, to make it more saleable; or ditto, as an affirmation of status on entering Mazarin’s collection at the beginning of the 1640s. It might have been purchased whilst the painting was in the collection of the crown; or in 1788/89, when it was transferred from panel to canvas before being presented to the Louvre in 1791; it may have been acquired by the museum, of course, but this appears less likely. As regards the first two possibilities, information from inventories in Patrick Michel’s Mazarin, Prince de Collectionneurs, 1999, may indicate that this particular frame was not bought nor commissioned by the Cardinal for the portrait, and therefore had probably (although not certainly) not been previously applied to it. The 16th century portraits which Mazarin owned were generally set in parcel-gilt black frames, with what were then considered ‘higher’ forms of art (sacred and history paintings) in carved and gilded patterns.

The portrait stayed in Louis XIV’s possession from 1661 until his death in 1715; however, it did not then pass seamlessly to his infant heir. The Duc d’Antin, legitimate half-brother of the illegitimate children (by Mme de Montespan) of Louis XIV, purloined a quantity of ‘exquisite paintings taken from the king’s collection’ after the latter’s death, including the Castiglione, which hung in his bedchamber, along with Raphael’s 1518 Holy Family and twenty further great paintings[xi]. The duc kept this hanging (although it was only supposed to be temporary) for two decades; the Hôtel d’Antin became an important locus of Italian paintings, especially of the 16th century[xii]. There is no indication that he was responsible for reframing the portrait; although he acquired (and also filched) paintings, he was not essentially a collector. He was, however, head of the Bâtiments du Roi (from 1708-15 under Louis XIV, and then from 1715-36 under the regent, Philippe d’Orléans); this was the department of craftsmen who maintained, created and decorated the buildings and interiors of the royal apartments.

There, his commissioning of fine art for the French palaces seems to have been less than imaginative; in contrast, the carved boiseries produced under his aegis were spectacular and important[xiii]. Although Candace Clements notes that it is difficult to see how much this was due to the taste and leadership of the duc himself[xiv], it is possible that he was personally more interested in the creations of the maître sculpteurs responsible for the woodworking output of the Bâtiments than in his hoard of paintings. Perhaps he found the Castiglione frame on some other painting and filched it, as he had taken the portrait itself; perhaps one of the carvers found it for him in their own stockrooms.

Raphael Castiglione detail 2

Detail of sunflowers on the Castiglione frame

Its quality is apparent even to the casual observer. It has the structure of a cassetta frame, with matching borders of acanthus leaf-tips on a hazzled ground at the back edge and sight edge (‘hazzling’ is that zig-zag pattern engraved in the gesso). The central frieze is engraved with cross-hatching, and then overlaid with the high-relief sculpted and pierced band of flowering vines.  These contain sunflowers, roses, and cherry blossom, each of which can be interpreted both through secular and religious symbolism (a Renaissance flower is very unlikely to be used merely because it’s pretty). The meaning of the sunflower rides on the Greek legend of Clytie, who fell in love with Apollo, god of light, and was changed into a flower which turned its head to watch the progress of the sun’s chariot across the heavens.  This easily became a symbol for the man or woman who follows Christ, as well as for the follower of Apollo in his guise of patron of the arts (i.e. a poet, musician or artist will often have a sunflower around somewhere – Van Dyck, Van Gogh). The rose is an attribute of the Virgin Mary, and also of Christ’s Passion, as well as of faith; in secular terms, it is the flower of Venus, standing for love and sorrow, and fidelity, again. Cherry blossom is associated with the Eucharist, through the blood-red juice of the cherry, and with the Resurrection through its early flowering after winter; it also stands for the sweetness of charitable acts [xv].

Raphael Castiglione detail 3

Detail of cherry blossoms on the Castiglione frame

Both strands of symbolism support without elucidating the history of the frame.  If it had been commissioned for the portrait of Castiglione (by Lucas van Uffelen, Lopez or Mazarin), then these flowers are all suitable for a noted writer, poet and diplomat; a faithful servant of his prince and the Pope; the devoted husband of a young wife who died too soon. But they might just as easily apply to an early 17th century French painting of the Madonna and Child, possibly displaced from a chapel for a newer sacred work, and then also displaced from its frame. The likelihood seems perhaps fractionally on the side of the Duc d’Antin having set such a prestigious painting in an empty frame which serendipitously fitted it.

Titian and a related 17th century French frame

Titian Gerolamo Barbarigo c1510 NG1944 sm

Titian, Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo, c.1510, National Gallery, NG1944

An interesting and lateral connection arises with Titian’s portrait in the National Gallery, London, known at various points through its history as a Portrait of Ariosto, a Self-portrait, The man with the quilted sleeve and The man in blue, but most recently, picking up on Vasari’s reference to it, as Portrait of Gerolamo Barbarigo. Probably painted four or five years before Raphael’s portrait of Castiglione and with a rather similar composition, it also has a spectacular French Renaissance-style frame, carved with a vine in high relief (here an actual grapevine, laden with bunches of grapes). Both portraits were the work of comparatively young men (Raphael was about 30 and Titian very young, at around 20); the subjects of both were men with political careers and literary connections; and both paintings passed through the hands of Alfonso Lopez in the 1630s [xvi]. The coincidence that both should also have been placed in related frames carved with three-dimensional garlands of foliage and flowers, or foliage and fruit, is rather extraordinary, and requires more investigation.

Titian detail

Detail of vines on the Titian frame

All that can be stated about the frame of Raphael’s Castiglione at the moment is that it’s French; it dates from around 1625-50; it may have been commissioned for the painting by Lucas van Uffelen or Alfonso Lopez, or on behalf of Mazarin or Louis IV, with a very slight bias towards the Duc d’Antin; it may be a happy conjunction of taste and acquisition under a later jurisdiction. It’s also a spectacularly beautiful object, which sets off the equally beautiful painting it contains as though it were an actual garland of flowers.

Raphael Castiglione detail 4

Detail of roses on the Castiglione frame

With sincere thanks to Jim Bennett, who has given his time and work to enhance this article: 

Jim Bennett lives near Liverpool in the UK and is the author of 63 books, including books for children, books of poetry and many technical titles on transport and examinations. His poetry collections include: Drums at New Brighton  (Lifestyle 1999), Down in Liverpool (CD)  (Long Neck  2001), The Man Who Tried to Hug Clouds  (Bluechrome  2004 reprinted 2006), Larkhill   (Searle Publishing 2009), The Cartographer / Heswall (Indigo Dreams 2012). He has won many awards for his writing and performance including 3 DADAFest awards. He is also managing editor of www.poetrykit.orgone of the world’s most successful internet sites for poets. Jim taught Creative Writing at the University of Liverpool and now tours throughout the year giving readings and performances of his work.


Hasan and I were going to work together on the frames of Raphael’s paintings, and incorporate details of them, where possible, into his entries on Open Raphael; I hope that he would have approved of this piece.  He is hugely missed and deeply regretted.

Thank you to the institutions who have kindly helped with images – the Musée du Louvre, the National Gallery, and the Polo Museale Fiorentino.


 [i] Marilena Mosco, ‘Les cadres de Léopold de Medicis’, Revue de l’Art, no 76, 1987, pp.37-40.

[ii] The frame of the Conestabile Madonna in the Hermitage is supposed to have retained its original frame, which is even described, here & there on the internet, as having been designed by Raphael; other sources more circumspectly suggest that, having been transferred from panel to canvas, the picture is ‘now in a frame which might be the original one’. It’s certainly a very beautiful design, even if it looks more like a restello (and very possibly a Venetian restello) than a picture frame.

[iii]  Claus Grimm, Alte Bilderrahmen, Munich, 1977 & 1979, p.72.

[iv] Stephanie Dickey, ‘Rethinking Rembrandt’s Renaissance’, Canadian Journal of Netherlandic Studies, XXI, 2007, p. 2.

[v] Sabine Eiche, ‘The return of Baldassare Castiglione’, The Burlington Magazine, CXXIII, March 1981, p. 154.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Dickey, op. cit., p.4.

[x] J. Alsop, The Rare Art Traditions, p. 45

[xi] Rochelle Ziskin, Sheltering art: collecting & social identity in early 18th century Paris, Penn State University Press, 2012, p.138

[xii] The Hôtel d’Antin, later the Hôtel de Richelieu, was on the right-hand side of the rue Louis le Grand, running up to the boulevard des Italiens. It has disappeared (garden and all) under a vast building with a shiny granite groundfloor and gigantic fluted white columns above.

[xiii] Candace Clements, ‘The duc d’Antin, the Royal Administration of Pictures, and the painting competition of 1727’, The Art Bulletin, LXXVII, 4, Dec. 1996, p.651.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv]  Mirella Levi D’Ancona, The garden of the Renaissance: botanical symbolism in Italian painting, Casa Editrice Leo S.Olschki, 1977; and helpful extracts from this.

[xvi] Dickey, op. cit., p. 4. Titian’s portrait was parted from Raphael’s after this brief encounter; the Titian may have been acquired by Van Dyck, as a portrait of Ariosto by Titian turned up in the artist’s effects in 1644. Lord Darnley of Cobham Hall had acquired it by 1824; it was finally sold out of the family in 1903 to Sir George Donaldson, and then to the National Gallery in 1904. These last movements are documented in the National Gallery Archives, where there may be a mention of the frame.


National Gallery frames: an interview with Peter Schade

Peter Schade, Head of the Framing Department, has worked in the National Gallery, London, since 2005. He is responsible for the frames of the more than two thousand paintings which make up the UK’s major collection of European art.

Peter Schade working 

The Frame Blog: What exactly does your work at the National Gallery entail?

Peter Schade:  I spend most of my time trying to find appropriate old frames that are contemporary for the Gallery’s pictures.

FB: How were you trained, and what brought you into picture frames as a speciality?

PS: I became a woodcarver by accident. Under normal circumstances I would have done my Abitur (the German equivalent of ‘A’ Levels) and gone to University, but I was born in East Germany and at that time education was very tightly controlled, and so it was not possible for me. Instead I applied for an apprenticeship – specifically for one of the two woodcarving places which were offered, because carving appealed to my creative side. I moved to London in 1990, and that’s when I first worked with picture frames. I became a carver at Arnold Wiggins & Sons, which then had a very large workshop. After a few years I opened my own workshop, which I still maintain.

FB: In an institution like the National Gallery, you are dealing with many eras and nationalities of art. Does this make continual demands on you, to research new areas? – for example, provincial styles in Italy or France? How do you go about finding out what you need to know, when a work originates from an especially exotic or obscure region?

PS: Because we try to use old frames for the pictures, we are limited in our choice by their availability, so we’re generally happy to find something from the country of origin and roughly the same period. This should result in time in whole areas of the gallery being framed in patterns that relate harmoniously not only to the pictures but also to one another. We are not aiming to recreate entirely the original setting for each painting which, if at all, would only really be possible by using many reproduction frames.  The problem with reproduction frames is that they date very quickly – they always, in the end, reveal the time they were made, rather than the intended historically accurate appearance. We have over a hundred & fifty years’ worth of copied styles to look back upon here at the National Gallery, and this has helped to change our framing policy. Before I came to the Gallery, money for buying old frames had to be applied for from emergency funds, most frame changes were into replicas of original frames, and there wasn’t the emphasis there is now on original frames. I always try to find an antique frame that’s contemporary with the picture; I would only consider making a copy if there’s a time constraint, such as a forthcoming exhibition, or there’s very little possibility of acquiring an antique frame of the right size and period.


Working on the frame for Veronese, The Adoration of the Kings, 1573, 140 x 126 in. (355.6 x 320 cm), National Gallery, NG268

FB: Picture frames have at last become a respectable area of art historical study over the last 20 years. Has it made a great difference to the way in which you work, now that curators are much more alive to the importance of the frame on a painting?

PS: A few curators have an interest in and knowledge of picture frames – and of course Nicholas Penny [director of the National Gallery since 2008] has a long-standing interest in the subject – but I have not observed a general trend towards a greater understanding or a deeper curatorial interest in the framing of pictures. There has only been marginal academic interest in framing and the field is difficult to comprehend through library research alone. Provenance and other historical data are mostly lost for individual frames and judgements of taste and quality have to be made.

FB: How much consultation occurs between your department and the relevant curators when it comes to reframing a work of art?

PS: Reframings are suggested by the Framing Department and always have to be approved by the curator of the department the painting in question belongs to.

FB: How much involvement do you have with the temporary exhibitions mounted by the National Gallery? For instance, where the frame of a painting is too fragile to travel, is the choice of an exhibition frame left up to you?

PS:  Occasionally paintings come without frames and have to be framed for an exhibition, in which case I suggest a solution, depending on timing and budget. There, of course, we may construct a replica of an existing frame, or a copy of an antique pattern of the right period.

FB: Are there works in the National Gallery which can’t be reframed for any reason? Because they have been left or given to the Gallery as an integral work of art? or could you, in theory, reframe any of the paintings if the result were an improvement?

Pisanello N-0776

Pisanello, The Virgin and Child with Saints Anthony Abbot and George, c.1435-41, National Gallery, NG776

PS:  Some paintings are in their original frames and would not be reframed.  Some later frames are of greater historical interest such as the frame for Pisanello’s The Virgin and Child with Saints Anthony Abbot and George, which was designed by Sir Charles Eastlake for the painting [1].  I don’t think that the frame is suitable for the painting, but it will probably not be changed; it is mounted with 19th century imitations of medals by Pisanello.

FB: What do you think about collectors’ frames?  For instance, the National Gallery owns Poussin’s The Adoration of the Golden Calf, which, with its pendant, The Crossing of the Red Sea (now in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), was framed alike in 1710 by Jean-Baptiste le Ragois de Bretonvilliers for his Parisian hôtel. These frames are far more elaborate and much later in style than would originally have been used for Poussin’s work; how far should we go to protect the mutual history of painting and frame, at the expense of historical accuracy?

Poussin Golden Calf N-5597Nicolas Poussin, The Adoration of the Golden Calf, 1633-34, National Gallery, NG5597

PS:  We have at least three frames that were made for the pictures while they were part of French collections in the eighteenth century: Poussin’s The Adoration of the Golden Calf, Rembrandt’s Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels [& see NG Review 2008-2009, p. 30], and Elsheimer’s The Baptism of Christ.  Of these the frame for the Golden Calf is of the highest quality – probably, in terms of specialized craftsmanship, it’s the best frame that we have in the entire gallery. Surprisingly few frames have such a clear link to earlier collections through their frames. When these frames are of good quality and not distracting for the painting or the display we would not aim to change them.

FB: Are there many examples of frames which have been taken off their paintings, but having languished for some time in storage, have been restored to their original pictures? Like the frame of Ingres’s Madame Moitessier, for instance, which was thought to be too elaborate for the portrait? There are fashions in taste, with frames, as with everything else…

Jan Van Eyck N-0186

Jan van Eyck Portrait of Giovanni (?) Arnolfini and his Wife, 1434, National Gallery, NG186

PS:  All the frames that are removed from their paintings are now kept and could be put back.  For example, Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife is back in its 19th century Neo-Gothic frame[2], and Van Dyck’s Charity (c.1627-28) was put back into an elaborate English 19th century collector’s frame in 2005.  This kind of reappraisal is rare.

FB: Is there a work in the Gallery which you feel most satisfied with, as a result of finding the right frame for it?

Rembrandt Self portrait at age of 63 NG0221 sm

Rembrandt, Self Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669, National Gallery, NG21 1

PS:  We have found a few frames, which I would regard as ideal and permanent frames, for instance: Rembrandt, Self Portrait at the Age of 63; Lotto, The Physician Giovanni Agostino della Torre and his son Niccolò; and Giordano, Perseus turning Phineas and his Followers to Stone (see below for illustrations).  It is particularly pleasing when frames can be found that are of exactly the right size (such as the Lotto and the Rembrandt).  We have managed to do this about 25 times over the last eight years. The real test is, of course, how these frames will look in 50 or 100 years time.

FB: Where do you find the antique frames you need?

Poussin Nurture of Bacchus NG0039

Poussin, The nurture of Bacchus, c.1628, National Gallery, NG39

PS:  London frame dealers are a good starting point, but over the years we have bought frames from about twenty different sources. These include, as well as the frame dealers, general antique dealers, auction houses and private individuals. The dealers tend to be the most expensive option, but they also have the greatest choice. An example is the 17th century antique French frame which we acquired from a London dealer for Poussin’s The nurture of Bacchus. This had previously been framed in a 20th century replica of an 18th century French frame, so it was unsatisfactory from several points of view. As soon as we (I, and the curator of 17th & 18th century French paintings) saw the antique frame, we knew that we had to have it; it was the perfect solution to displaying such an important painting. It would have used up a sizeable percentage of my purchasing budget, but fortunately a generous private donor contributed to the cost.

Raphael Madonna of the pinks NG6596

Raphael, The Madonna of the pinks (‘La Madonna dei Garofani’), c. 1506-07, National Gallery, NG6596

On the other hand, I have discovered frames myself: the early 16th century Venetian frame on Raphael’s Madonna of the pinks came from a source I found while on holiday in Munich – it was almost exactly the right size, and a very reasonable price.

Leonardo N-1093

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, c.1491/2-99 & 1506-08, National Gallery, NG1093

Another option can be for the workshop to construct a frame around separate antique elements which come onto the market. A recent example of this is Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks, which underwent treatment a few years ago by our chief conservator, Larry Keith [3]. At the same time, three sides of an original 16th century altarpiece frame came up at an antiques auction in Genoa – two pilasters and the cornice.

Frame elements bought at auction for Virgin of the Rocks

They were typical of a Northern Italian aedicular frame of 1480-1510, and I could see that they were exactly the right size for The Virgin of the Rocks, which had previously been framed in the 19th century idea of a 16th century frame.

Giacomo da Maino sm

Giacomo del Maino & workshop, Altar of the Immaculate Conception, post-1495, S. Maurizio, Ponte in Valtellina

Larry travelled to Ponte in Valtellina, Lombardy, where there is a surviving frame (on the Altar of the Immaculate Conception) made by the workshop of Giacomo del Maino, from whom the original frame had been commissioned for The Virgin of the Rocks. It has elements very similar to the three sides of the frame which we had bought at auction, and we based parts of the reconstruction on that existing large frame.

FB: Do you have any pet wishes for reframing? A painting which you would like most of all to see in a suitable frame?

PS:  The most complicated issue for us is finding big enough frames, as many of the collection’s paintings are large. Most of the Gallery’s paintings could be better framed – the large Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt, for instance. The Rembrandt is 66 x 82 3/8 in. or 167.6 x 209.2 cm., which is a very large painting, and Netherlandish frames of this size are rare, so in this case – because we have no other option – we will eventually make a frame for it. Ebony frames can actually be copied reasonably well, since ebony doesn’t acquire a patina of age, like a gilded frame. When I started working in the National Gallery, there wasn’t an original ebony frame in the collection, which illustrates the lack of interest invested in the display of paintings through much of the western world during the 20th century.

Fifteen sunflowers NG London IN FRAME sm

Vincent van Gogh, Fifteen sunflowers, 1888, National Gallery, NG3863

FB: Is there a period or nationality of work which is more difficult to frame well, because of a lack of historical evidence, or because (like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers) the artist’s own frame would look out of keeping to modern eyes?

PS: Over the last eight years we have reframed pictures in almost every part of the Gallery. To my eye all of them are improvements on what we had before, but we will have to wait and see how successful they are in the long term. Recreating frames that were designed and made by artists is to my mind not possible or desirable.

FB: The Gallery must have a large archive of photos of framed paintings.  How do you build up a reference library of this sort, so different from the usual art historical library?

PS:  Photographs of current and former frames are stored in the Framing Department’s physical dossiers.  Nicolas Penny conducted a frame survey with the late Paul Levi in the 1990s, which examined every frame in our collection, and this research forms the backbone of our frame archive. We also archive digital images of frames taken in more recent years by the Gallery’s Photographic Department.

FB: How big a team of people do you have working in the department?

PS:  I am the Head of the Framing Department, which also employs a frame conservator and frame technician, plus a part-time administrator. Many of our more ambitious projects are undertaken in collaboration with freelance specialists. We are lucky that London has become the world centre for recreating and restoring old frames, and as a result a number of very experienced specialists are based here.


Working on the frame for Leonardo, The Virgin of the Rocks

FB: Do you, yourself, often create a whole frame from scratch? – designing, carving and gilding the whole object? Is there any aspect of making a frame that you particularly prefer?

PS:  I am more confident at all aspects of woodwork and would generally work with specialised gilders and finishers for the finished surface, but I have also painted, gilded and toned frames that are on display in the gallery. I like to revisit the frames that I’ve worked on, seeing which are more successful than others after they’ve settled in. But just being able to look back on what has been done in such a remarkable collection gives me great pleasure.

Lotto N-0699

Lotto, The Physician Giovanni Agostino della Torre and his son Niccolò, c.1513-16, National Gallery, NG699

FB: What do you feel about giving a newly-made frame a patina of age? Should gilding be left to age naturally, or should it be toned to look contemporary with the painting? Different countries have different approaches to this vexed question; what are your own views?

PS:  In my view, for the frame to function properly it has to complement the age of the painting. I am familiar with the different approaches to ageing the surface of a new frame, and in the end the finished surface is a judgement of taste. I aim to create a believable link between painting and frame; this cannot happen if the frame is obviously new. When painting and frame appear as a single object, the painting can be more readily experienced as a three-dimensional thing, the original work of art rather than an image that could be looked at in a book or on a screen.

FB: Do you think that the frame should be chosen solely in response to the work of art it is for, or should there be some consideration of the room where it is to hang, and the other frames which will surround it?

Giordano N-6487

Luca Giordano, Perseus turning Phineas and his Followers to Stone, early 1680s, National Gallery, NG6487

PS:  The frame should harmonize with the painting and intensify the illusion of space. It is important that it looks right in the room; frames are sometimes rejected because they would set the wrong accent by being too imposing (or not important enough), relative to the status of the particular painting within the Collection. The hang of the pictures in almost all the Gallery rooms changes very frequently and it is not possible to anticipate exactly which paintings would hang next to one another for any length of time.

FB: Do you have a favourite style of frame?

PS:  I don’t have a favourite style of frame, I enjoy the enormous variety of frame designs that have evolved in five hundred years of European framemaking.

FB: What would you like to do next?

PS:  Trying to improve the Gallery’s frames is a huge undertaking and can only be done very gradually; what we have done so far is only a beginning.  I hope that with curatorial goodwill and financial backing we will be able to continue with what we have started.

FB: Thank you for an extremely interesting and informative interview, and good luck with your next project!


Bronzino Madonna & child with saints c1540 NG sm

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

This is the most recent reframing at the National Gallery: a magnificent unaltered Tuscan Mannerist frame of exactly the right size for Bronzino’s Madonna and Child. The parcel-gilt finish and dramatically fluted scotia complement the dynamism of the composition and set off the jewelled colours and opalescent flesh; the strong inward thrust of the fluting also enhances the spatial depth of what might otherwise be a rather shallow pictorial structure. Bronzino, like Pontormo, is an artist whose work really repays framing in these historically accurate but very powerful Mannerist designs; compare Pontormo’s Halberdier (Getty Center).


With thanks to Peter Schade for his time, and to Hazel Aitken and Darragh Kenny of the National Gallery for their help with the images used in this article.

[1] Sir Charles Lock Eastlake (1793-1865) was the first Director of the National Gallery (from 1855), having been Keeper of the Gallery from 1843-48.  He was also a painter, and acted as buyer for the Gallery; he wished to display his acquisitions in suitable frames, and in galleries which were appropriately decorated and chronologically arranged. Brian Sewell notes of this particular frame, ‘the Neo-Gothic absurdity containing the Pisanello, he commissioned in Milan, possibly to his own design’.

[2] This is the frame which Holman Hunt recorded seeing on the Arnolfini Marriage Portrait in the 1840s, although when he was writing his book on the Pre-Raphaelites 60 years later, he remembered it as a ‘dignified ebony frame’. See William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1905, vol. I, p.54.

[3] See the article on the conservation and reframing of The Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery Technical Bulletin, vol. XXXII; downloadable pdf here; see also Michelle O’Malley, The business of art, 2005, Yale University Press, p.83. Further notes on reframing works in the Collection can be found in the National Gallery Reviews (online), for April 2007-March 2008 (p. 24 ff); April 2008-March 2009 (p. 28 ff); April 2010-March 2011 (p. 20 ff); and April 2012-March 2013 (p. 40 ff).

Women in picture framing

Header with Thuret & Diderot

Jacob Simon, Research Fellow at the National Portrait Gallery in London, explores the role of women in picture framing in England from the 1620s onwards, using examples from London and Birmingham.

For some women, picture framing was a business and a livelihood. For others, it formed an occupation.

 The artist’s wife at work

Framemaking has historically been a male preserve. There are however some early instances of an artist’s wife working as a framemaker or gilder. In the case of George Geldorp, a leading artist supplying frames in the reign of King Charles I, he identifies his wife’s role in gilding frames when billing Lord Salisbury for seven frames in 1626: ‘pour la dorure de 7 bordures que ma femme a dorée, pour l’or et ouvrage’ (for the gilding of seven frames that my wife has gilded, for gold and workmanship).[1] This sort of arrangement may have been quite common but usually went unrecorded.

John Michael Wright Sir Thomas Tyrrell Fire Judge Inner Temple ed

Fig. 1 John Michael Wright, Sir Thomas Tyrrell, oil on canvas, c. 1671. Inner Temple Hall Gallery. The Sunderland frame probably made by Mary Ashfield, Mary Fleshier or Mary Dorrell; it was probably originally gilt.

 One of the most important portrait commissions of the reign of King Charles II was that given to John Michael Wright by the City of London for twenty-two full-length portraits of the Fire Judges, who adjudicated the property and boundary claims arising from the Great Fire of London in 1666. These used to hang in the Guildhall in London but have now been dispersed owing to their poor condition. The splendid frames (fig. 1) for many of the portraits, perhaps based on a model by John Norris, were supplied in 1671 and subsequently by three women, Mary Ashfield, Mary Fleshier and Mary Dorrell.[2] It would be interesting to know how this significant commission was awarded at a time when women rarely received orders for frames. It has been suggested that the first two framemakers were the wives of Edmund Ashfield, portrait painter, and Balthazar Flessiers, portrait painter, or Tobias Flessiers, landscape painter and framemaker.

Edmund Ashfield Sir James Oxenden Christies sm

Fig. 2 Edmund Ashfield,  Sir James Oxenden, pastel, 1674 (Christie’s, 7 November 1995, lot 40). The Sunderland frame possibly made by Mary Ashfield.

 Perhaps Mary Ashfield made the frames for her husband’s pastel portraits (see fig. 2)? Mary Dorrell is not otherwise known unless she can be linked to the ‘Mrs Doruill’, who was paid for frames in 1678 by Philip Sidney, 3rd Earl of Leicester.[3]

St Magnus the Martyr NW view & clock sm

Fig. 2a  The North-west Prospect of the Parish Church of St. Magnus the Martyr, the North East End of London Bridge, copper engraving by Benjamin Cole, published in John Stow’s A Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster and the Borough of Southwark. Courtesy of Gillmark Gallery  The clock (detail inset) survives, shorn of its sculptures

In the mid-18th century, the leading rococo carver and designer, Thomas Johnson, described repairing the carved dial of the City church of St Magnus the Martyr, work which he says that he carried out with help from his wife, Mary, ‘whom I had learned to gild’. Johnson records in his autobiography that her gilding work was well received by the church committee whose chairman stated that his ‘wife had gilt the dial very well – that industry ought to be encouraged, and flung down a guinea for her; there were twenty-three gentlemen in company, and all of them followed the example’.[4] This would appear exceedingly generous.

On a rather different note, gilding frames was occasionally the preserve of the amateur in the mid-18th century, at a time when art making was fashionable among some ladies, whether Mrs Delany‘s flower cut outs, or the drawing lessons or the shell making of her friends. Gilding was another pursuit, as Lady Hertford told Lady Pomfret in about 1739: ‘Within doors we amuse ourselves… in gilding picture frames, and other small things: This is so much in fashion with us at present, that I believe, if our patience and pockets would hold out, we should gild all the cornices, tables, chairs and stools about the house.’[5]

The framemaker’s widow

A woman would sometimes take over the running of an established framing business at the death of her husband until her son was old enough to take control. Three examples spring to mind from the mid-nineteenth century: Mrs Elizabeth Foord (1798-1856), Mrs Mahala Bartington (d.1860) and Mrs Ann Thomas (b. c.1800). [6]

Eliza & C Foord invoice for NPG sm

Fig. 3 The billhead of Eliza and C. Foord from an invoice for framing, packing and hanging pictures for the National Portrait Gallery, 18 September 1857. National Portrait Gallery

Elizabeth Mary Foord’s husband, George, died in 1842, leaving her to manage Foord’s, the well-known picture framemakers in Wardour Street, Soho, until her death in 1856. Most unusually, she left her daughters the business, which then traded as Eliza & C. Foord, but evidently she had reservations since she stipulated that the business was ‘to be carried on under the entire and sole management of William Dickinson’, her foreman. If her daughters were to marry, the business and stock would pass to their brother Charles Foord and to Dickinson, as apparently happened in 1859 when the firm became Foord & Dickinson. Eliza & C. Foord supplied several frames to the newly founded National Portrait Gallery in 1857 (fig. 3), and the firm did much work for the Pre-Raphaelites and other leading artists.

M & B Bartington Frame label G F Watts Portrait of father 1833 Watts Museum

Fig. 4 M & B Bartington, framemaker’s label on the reverse of G.F. Watts’s portrait of his father, 1833. Watts Gallery

The splendidly named Mrs Mahala Bartington took over from her husband at his death in 1845 and ran the business as Mahala Bartington of Wardour Street, and then as Mahala Bartington & Son until 1860 (fig. 4), when her son came into the business.[7] And, thirdly, Ann Thomas continued William Thomas’s business from 1865 to 1873, when she was succeeded by her son; her husband had worked for Queen Victoria and for two artists who were royal warrant holders, Sir George Hayter and Sir Francis Grant.

There are a good many scattered references to women running, or working in, framing businesses. For example, Eleanor Lay, in Dean St, Soho, seems to have taken over from Henry Lay, presumably her husband, perhaps following his death. She charged £2.5s each for gilding five circular frames for the Navy boardroom at Somerset House in 1789.[8]

For these women, managing a frame making business seems to have been a skill learnt on the job or from their husbands, perhaps with support from their husband’s foreman. But the late 19th century saw the emergence of women with an art school training for whom framing could be as much an occupation as a business. Their focus was on frames for their husbands, for their fellow artists or for themselves. This is the subject of much of the rest of this history of women in picture framing.

Arts and Crafts and other frames

Two women in Birmingham, Anne Baker (1859-1947) and Myra Bunce (1854-1918), and two in London, Hilda Hewlett (1864-1943) and Katharine Furse (1875-1952), produced remarkable frames. Coming from literary homes or out of art school, they brought a fresh approach to picture framing. They contributed to the wider rise to prominence of the Arts and Crafts movement in which women played a major part at the turn of the century.

Mrs Joseph Southall burnishing the bole FAS sm

Fig. 5 Joseph Southall, Mrs Joseph Southall ‘Burnishing the bole’, 1912, pencil on paper. Courtesy of Bourne Fine Art

Anne Baker, wife of Joseph Southall, the Birmingham Arts and Crafts artist, took on the gilding of the frames he designed and made.[9] Her notes on gilding record the labour involved. This could be quite considerable for a large painting like Changing the Letter of 1908-9 (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery): four sessions putting on gesso, thirteen smoothing gesso, eight laying on bole, nine polishing bole, and twenty-four gilding, nearly 130 hours work. This was a very traditional, time-consuming approach. Burnishing the Bole (private collection), a pencil drawing by her husband, shows her burnishing a frame for his picture, Falaise, in 1912 (fig. 5). Southall also had some of his frames decorated by Edith Gere (1875-1959), who attended Birmingham School of Art before her marriage to Henry Payne, one of the teaching staff at the school.

Arthur Gaskin Kate & Myra Bunce Henry Payne CM Gere Life class at Birmingham School of Art c1887

Fig. 6 Arthur Gaskin with  Kate and Myra Bunce, Henry Payne, and C.M. Gere, in a photograph of the life class at Birmingham School of Art, c.1887. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

New materials were coming into fashion. Another artist from the Birmingham School of Art, Myra Bunce, worked in metals (fig. 6).[10] She was the daughter of John Thackray Bunce, editor of the Birmingham Daily Post.

Reredos St Mary s Longworth Painted by Kate Bunce 1856to1927 sm

Fig. 6a Kate Bunce, the reredos at St Mary’s church, 1904; framed by Myra Bunce. Longworth, Oxfordshire. Photo: Diz 2014

Her beaten metal frames play a significant part in the appearance of some of her sister, Kate’s, work as can be seen in the reredos for St Mary’s, Longworth, Oxfordshire, painted in 1904 (fig. 6a), and the easel painting The Keepsake in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (fig. 6b), both housed by Myra in gleaming beaten metal frames.

Kate Bunce The Keepsake 1898to1901 Birmingham MAG sm

Fig. 6b Kate Bunce, The Keepsake, 1898-1901; frame by Myra Bunce. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

In the face of the petty annoyances of life, Hilda Herbert, later Hilda Hewlett, vowed ‘never to be without some object or interest of such importance that all discomfort, annoyance or temporary misery counted as of quite secondary consideration’. Thus perhaps her willingness to undertake the challenge of making the frame for William Holman Hunt’s final version of The Light of the World (fig. 7). She had attended the National Art Training School at South Kensington before marrying the historical novelist, Maurice Hewlett. She was friends with Holman Hunt’s daughter, Gladys, and together they had made a cassone (or Italian marriage chest) which was exhibited at the New Gallery.

Holman Hunt The Light of the World St Paul s Cathedral sm

Fig. 7 William Holman Hunt (with the assistance of Edward Hughes), The Light of the World, c.1900-04.  © The Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral

Hewlett faced the challenge of working with an artist who had a particular interest in frames: for this picture Holman Hunt wanted a splendid classical aedicular frame, replete with symbolism. It was, she wrote, ‘a work of months of patience, not only because it was a very long job, and though Holman Hunt knew what he wanted, his sight was not good, his sketches were too vague for words: no – not for words, but for carving’. She worked on the frame with the help of a Miss Smith, who according to one report was said to be ‘an even greater adept at gilding and gesso after Italian models than Mrs Hewlett herself’.[11] Hilda Hewlett went on to become the first British woman aviator to win a pilot’s licence, to her husband’s disapproval. They separated in 1914 at a time she was becoming more and more engaged in her successful aircraft manufacturing business.

CW Furse Diana of the uplands Tate sm

Fig. 8 Charles Wellington Furse, Diana of the uplands, 1903-04. Tate

Another remarkable woman in picture framing, Katharine Furse was the daughter of the poet and critic, John Addington Symonds, and the niece of the painter Marianne North. She carved frames for her husband, the artist Charles Wellington Furse, whom she married in 1900.[12] She liked her gilding ‘bright and new’; he liked it dull, painting over the ambitious frame of Diana of the Uplands (fig. 8) on the Royal Academy’s varnishing day, much to her fury.

CW Furse Diana of the uplands  Lower centre sm

Fig. 8a Charles Wellington Furse, Diana of the uplands, detail of bottom rail of frame

For another painting, Furse’s 1903 portrait of the scientist and finger-printing pioneer, Sir Francis Galton (now in the National Portrait Gallery), the sitter proposed that Katharine Furse should carve his finger-prints on the frame, a request she sadly felt unable to meet. Her husband died in 1904, and she went on to play a prominent role as director of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (fig. 9).

Dame Katharine Furse photo by Elliott & Fry 1919 NPG

Fig. 9 Dame Katharine Furse by Elliott & Fry, postcard print, 1919
National Portrait Gallery; given by Dame Katharine Furse, 1935

Bloomsbury and beyond

The subject of framemaking and the Bloomsbury movement has yet to be investigated. Much of the furniture produced by the Omega Workshops was painted, and it is possible to point to some painted frames. Vanessa Bell’s The Conversation of 1913-16 (Courtauld Institute of Art) has a flat oak frame said to have been painted by the artist with a frieze of abstract forms in red between black inner and outer borders.

Nina Hamnett’s Sir Osbert Sitwell of c.1915-18 (National Portrait Gallery) is slightly more elaborate; the stippled finish and the step on the otherwise flat profile next to the sloping sight edge give the frame a highly distinctive character. Another example is her painting, The Student: Madame Dolores Courtney of 1917 (Ferens Art Gallery, Hull), traditional in profile but with a stippled finish. Despite lack of documentation it seems likely that both Bell and Hamnett decorated some of their own frames.

Molly Mount Temple centre Gluck right with portrait of Margaret Watts The Gluck Room FAS 1932

Fig. 11 Gluck (on the right) with her Portrait of Margaret Watts in The Gluck Room, created by the artist for her exhibition at the Fine Art Society, 1932

 In the 1930s the artist Hannah Gluckstein (‘Gluck’) (1895-1978) went about framing her work from a much more austere viewpoint than Bloomsbury. She produced frames with a stark three-step profile, usually painted white, and which she patented as the Gluck frame (fig. 11). ‘The essential feature of the Gluck frame’, according to a note in the catalogue of her 1937 Fine Art Society exhibition, ‘is that it becomes part of any wall whatever its character, colour or period… It can be painted the same colour as the wall, or covered with the same wall-paper, or made in any wall material’.[13]

In the 20th century references to women in frame making become more common. Charles David Soar (1853-1939), working in Kensington, included both his son John and his slightly younger daughter Grace in the business. She was recorded as a wood carver in the 1911 census. She is said by her father to have ‘turned out some good work until she turned it up on marriage’.[14] Joseph Tanous’s three daughters were mainstays of his Chelsea and Fulham business: Joan (b. 1919) was the eldest. Marcelle (b. 1920) married Roy Frandsen (d. 2001) and from 1945 they worked with her father, Joseph, in a studio in Cavaye Place, Chelsea, until his death in 1948 when they took on the business, renaming it as Roy Frandsen. The youngest sister, Elizabeth (‘Bette’) (b. 1924), managed her uncle, John’s business for 29 years until her retirement in 1989.[15] More recently Gabrielle Rendel has taken on the long-established framemaking firm of Bourlet, moving it back from Fulham to central London, while Louis Liddell has led the management of Riccardo Giaccherini Ltd.[16]

The National Portrait Gallery

At the National Portrait Gallery, apart from the early commissions to Eliza & C. Foord (see above), two case histories stand out. In 1883 a portrait of the Scottish writer and scientist, Mary Somerville, was accepted for the collection with a very elaborate frame carved in the Italian renaissance style by her daughter, Martha Somerville. When the picture arrived the Gallery’s Director, Sir George Scharf wrote, ‘The frame is most admirably wrought and from the skill displayed in it I am induced to believe that the same lady must have executed many specimens’. But by 1896, when the Gallery’s new building opened to the public, the frame had been replaced by another. See the web site feature, A frame by Martha Somerville, a Victorian carver in Italy, for a fuller account of this episode and a reproduction of the frame.

Emily Childers Hugh Childers 1891 NPG ed 2

Fig. 12  Emily Childers, Hugh Childers, 1891. National Portrait Gallery

Some years later in 1912 when Milly Childers’ portrait of her father (fig. 12), the former Home Secretary, Hugh Childers, was given to the Gallery, Miss Childers wrote to Charles Holmes, then the Gallery’s Director, sending ‘one or two specimens of the work of the artist I spoke of to you in connection with a frame for my father’s picture… you can gather… some idea of the capacity of the artist’. This artist seems to have been her close friend, Emmeline Deane (1858-1944). But Holmes promptly wrote back with regrets, ‘Your friends work is exceedingly attractive but… I think we must stick to this Watts pattern’. Holmes explained his preference for a Watts frame, as ‘the only one which would enable the portrait to be hung here harmoniously with other pictures of the same period’. This was a constant theme in the Gallery’s approach to framing at this period, whether the artist was male or female. ‘If a portrait has an exceptional frame’, Holmes went on, ‘we find the greatest difficulty in making it suit the various positions which… the pictures here have to take from time to time’.[17]

NPG 6439; George Melly by Maggi Hambling

Fig. 13 Maggi Hambling, George Melly, 1998. National Portrait Gallery

But attitudes have changed. One of the Gallery’s commissions, Maggi Hambling’s triple portrait of George Melly of 1998, has a frame (fig. 13) painted by the artist herself, extending elements of the composition onto the actual frame, a wide flat section chosen by the artist in consultation with Gallery staff and made up and encased in the same white canvas as used for the painting itself. Behind the idea for the extended composition lies a clear purpose, as Maggi Hambling has explained: ‘The extension of elements of the painting onto the frame are an attempt to suggest that George is only momentarily passing through the space of the canvas’.[18]

The historical role of women in framing

It may seem perverse to use a view of a French gilding workshop to illustrate a note on women in picture framing in England but this illustration is too good not to use (fig. 14).

Louis Emile Adan Interior of a frame gilding workshop Musée d Angers 2

Fig. 14  Louis Adan, called Emile, Frame gilding workshop. Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Angers

On the wall on the left in the background are two gessoed frames ‘in the white’, ready for gilding. Immediately below these frames the woman may be in the process of water-gilding a frame leant against the wall. At the table two women are burnishing a Louis XIV revival Salon frame.

Historically it was difficult for women to become framemakers in their own right, owing to the apprenticeship system and the structuring of craft manufacturing businesses. Even during World War I, when many women worked in furniture-making in place of men fighting at the Front, they were paid at only two-thirds the male rate for comparable work.

A remarkable American book, The Employments of Women: A Cyclopaedia of Woman’s Work, by Virginia Penny, published in 1863, is revealing about the position of women as employees in gilding and many other industries.[19] She gathered her information by conducting numerous interviews in New York City in 1859-61, and by correspondence. Despite its American perspective, her book provides wider insights. She was informed that in Dublin there were at least forty women employed in gilding, some in business for themselves. And that no more than forty women were employed in gilding in New York City. However, in Paris in 1848, out of more than a thousand wood gilders, a quarter were women, but paid half the male rate. She was told by an American gilder that women were employed because they were cheaper than men. A New Hampshire gilder thought that women were as good workers in the business as men. In furniture painting, a leading company told her that they employed women ‘because they will do the same work better, faster and cheaper than men’.

Whiley illustration Filling EDITED 2

Fig. 15  Cutting gold leaf at George M. Whiley Ltd in the 1930s.

The tendency has been for women to be allocated the more delicate tasks in picture framing. At George M. Whiley Ltd, Gold Leaf Manufacturers in London, the division of labour in producing gold leaf in the 1930s is tellingly spelt out in their publicity material: ‘The actual beating is done by men… while all the subsidiary work of preparing, cutting, filling, booking etc., is performed by women… the cutting of leaves, and placing them in books calls for most delicate manipulation’ (see fig. 15).[20] At Alfred Stiles & Sons in Hammersmith, one of the leading London framemaking firms, women were restricted to the mount cutting department where their ‘nimble’ fingers could be put to best use.

Historically when women have been found in framemaking it has often been in the shadow of their husband or another male relative. In the 20th century the role of female framemakers, such as Anne Baker and Katharine Furse, became more significant. Today, there are many women active in frame conservation and gilding even if the manufacture of frames sometimes seems to be more a man’s world.

Jacob Simon

February 2014

Contact address:

I am indebted to Lynn Roberts for gathering the illustrations together and making this text publicly available.

[1] Jacob Simon, The Art of the Picture Frame, 1996, p.130.

[2] James L. Howgego, ‘The Guildhall Fire Judges’, The Guildhall Miscellany, no.2, 1953, pp.20-30. For Flessiers, see British picture framemakers on the National Portrait Gallery website.

[3] Kent History Centre, U1475/A44, see ‘The art world in Britain 1660 to 1735‘.

[4] Jacob Simon, Thomas Johnson’s The Life of the Author, Furniture History Society, 2003, pp.52-53, also published in Furniture History, vol.29, 2003.

[5] W. Bingley (ed.), Correspondence between Frances, Countess of Hartford (afterwards Duchess of Somerset), and Henrietta Louisa, Countess of Pomfret, between the years 1738 and 1741, 2nd ed., 1806, vol.3, p.238, first published 1805.

[6] For Bartington, Foord and Thomas, see British picture framemakers, 1610-1950 on the National Portrait Gallery website. For Foord, see also Jacob Simon, The Art of the Picture Frame, 1996, p.134. Jan Marsh kindly focussed my attention on the role of the widow in continuing a business until her son could assume responsibilty.

[7] Lynn Roberts kindly drew my attention to the work of Mahala Bartington.

[8] Geoffrey Beard and Christopher Gilbert (eds.), Dictionary of English Furniture Makers 1660-1840, 1986, p.532.

[9] Joseph Southall 1861-1944 Artist-Craftsman, exh. cat., Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, 1980.

[10] Alan Crawford (ed.), By Hammer and Hand. The Arts and Crafts Movement in Birmingham, exh. cat., Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, 1984, pp.77-8. Reyahn King kindly drew my attention to the work of Myra Bunce.

[11] Judith Bronkhurst, William Holman Hunt, vol.1, pp.290-1, vol.2, p.319, quoting W.B. Hodgson in the Daily News, 9 March 1904, and C.F. Bell. See also Gail Hewlett, Old Bird:The Irrepressible Mrs Hewlett, 2010, pp.1, 75, quoting from Mrs Hewlett’s unpublished autobiography.

[12] Katharine Furse, Hearts and Pomegranates. The Story of Forty-five Years 1875 to 1920, 1940, p.216.

[13] Jacob Simon, The Art of the Picture Frame, 1996, p.185.

[14] Information from Peter Soar, April 2005, taken from a family history, written by Charles Soar shortly before his death in 1939.

[17] See NPG Press Copy Book, vol.30, p.192 (National Portrait Gallery archive). See also Jacob Simon, The Art of the Picture Frame, 1996, pp.180-1.

[18] National Portrait Gallery archive, RP 6439.

[19] Virginia Penny, The Employments of Women: A Cyclopaedia of Woman’s Work, Boston, 1863, pp.449-50.

[20] Geo. M. Whiley Ltd, Goldbeating, no date, trade publication.


With thanks from The Frame Blog to all the people and institutions who have so generously allowed their images to be used here; and thanks, again, to Alastair Johnson of Tate.


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