…in the exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde at Tate Britain (12 Sept. 2012 – 13 Jan. 2013)
This large and all-encompassing exhibition lives up to its title in several ways. It emphasizes the revolutionary impact which these very young artists must have had on contemporary academic art: the landscapes painted en plein air in brilliant greens, the lack of idealization of the human figure, the direct engagement with social problems… but also the idea of the work of art as a whole object. In other words, the painting completed by a frame designed specifically for it, which would enhance its meaning with inscriptions and symbolic motifs, or provide an appropriately aesthetic interval between painting and wall, or reflect the time and location of its subject-matter.
Charles Allston Collins, Convent thoughts, 1850-51, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
This idea emerges in two early frame designs produced around three years after the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had formed in 1848: Millais’s frame for Convent thoughts by Collins, his fellow PRB; and Holman Hunt’s frame for The hireling shepherd.
Millais’s design for Convent thoughts is outrageously modernizing compared with the frame used for his Isabella, a couple of years earlier.
John Everett Millais, Isabella, 1848-49, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; detail
The latter (similar to that on Hunt’s Rienzi vowing to obtain justice…) is a commercial stock frame, bought off the peg. It has a deep hollow section and round top edge decorated with shallow impressed patterns in composition (‘compo’), and moulded corner ornaments – the sort of conventional mid-19th century frame an artist would use when submitting work to the Royal Academy. In contrast, the frame of Convent thoughts is a flat wooden plane with minimalist mouldings, decorated with two flamboyantly naturalistic plaster lilies, and the black-letter inscription ‘Sicut lilium’ (‘as the lily…’). It is at once highly symbolic and extremely decorative. Millais wrote of it to the purchaser, Thomas Combe, ‘I have designed a frame for Charles’ painting of “Lilies”, which, I expect, will be acknowledged to be the best frame in England’. It would not look out of place on a Belgian Symbolist painting of 50 years later.
William Holman Hunt, The hireling shepherd, 1850-51, Manchester Art Gallery
Hunt’s frame is less strikingly avant-garde, but it is still completely different from the normal academic frame type. It has a simple linear structure with a convex frieze, and is also both decorative and symbolic. The arrangement of naturalistic ears of wheat and ‘stooks’ parodies the curving lines, corners and centres of a Rococo frame: the sort of frame found on pastoral paintings by Watteau, Boucher, and Fragonard, with their ‘Dresden china bergers’ which Hunt was mocking with his ‘real’ farmhands. The wheat also underlines the destructive lure of the cornfield, from which the shepherd should protect his flock.
William Holman Hunt, The awakening conscience, 1853-54, Tate
Similarly, Hunt’s frame for The awakening conscience uses the uncomplicated structure of a Renaissance cassetta frame – a flat frieze between small mouldings – with an arched cuff or mount. The frieze is decorated with, according to F.G.Stephens, ‘…ringing bells, and marigolds, the emblems of warning and sorrow’, with a star in the top centre symbolizing the redeeming light which floods the painting from the reflected window.
Designs of this innovatory and imaginative quality did not leap fully formed from Hunt’s and Millais’s minds. As with early Pre-Raphaelite paintings there was considerable influence from the Nazarenes (see, for example, in the exhibition, the integral painted Gothic window frame in Overbeck’s Portrait of Franz Pforr). Ford Madox Brown, who had trained in Belgium and then befriended artists in the Nazarene group whilst in Rome, had a natural sympathy for Northern and Gothic art.
Ford Madox Brown, The first translation of the Bible into English: Wycliffe, 1847-48, unframed, Bradford Art Galleries
Ford Madox Brown, A Study for Wycliffe, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, possibly showing part of the original frame design
He designed a Gothic frame (now unfortunately lost) for Wycliffe Reading his Translation of the Bible…, which also originally had its own integral painted frame (above), whilst The Seeds and Fruits of English Poetry was composed like a secular altarpiece.
Rossetti would have seen both paintings in Brown’s studio when he briefly became a pupil there; and in 1849-50, he and Holman Hunt visited Paris and Belgium, where they found early Flemish paintings in very different frames from the Italian and French models popular in 19th century Britain.
These frames share elements which would reappear in the frames of Rossetti, Brown and Hunt: simple, often shallow, profiles; flat top edges or central friezes, sometimes bordered by small mouldings; deep hollows or slanting rainsills at the sight edge; inscriptions which expand upon the painted image; finishes which were not just gilded but might be stained or painted; and horizontal ‘butt’ joints (circled in red, above), instead of mitred joints . A further important feature in Pre-Raphaelite frames from the early 1850s was the use of oak gilded directly on the wood, with no intervening layer of gesso, so that the grain provided interesting texture; many examples of this can be seen in the exhibition.
After Rossetti and Hunt returned to London, there is a lapse of time during which they, Brown and Millais must have continually discussed the question of framing their work in a way which would differentiate it from ‘establishment art’, without arousing critical contempt. The reception of Rossetti’s first Gothic frames for Ecce Ancilla and The Girlhood of Mary Virgin had been savage (‘golden glories, fanciful scribblings on the frames, and other infantine absurdities’); he reframed them, just as Brown’s Wycliffe… was reframed for the art collector, Thomas Plint. However, the Brotherhood regrouped, and from 1854 there is a great burst of artist-designed frames from them which influenced modern framing all over Europe.
Whilst Hunt produced individual and idiosyncratic patterns for almost every painting, Brown and Rossetti concentrated mainly on groups of geometric designs. These began with a pattern (in the exhibition, on Rossetti’s Paolo and Francesca, 1855) which opposes circles, squares and lozenges, and led into the archetypal Pre-Raphaelite frame: the ‘reed-&-roundel’ frame of the early 1860s. Again, these were very avant-garde, compared to the conventional compo patterns they had been using 14 or 15 years before.
Ford Madox Brown, Jesus washing Peter’s feet, 1852-56, reframed 1865-66, Tate
Brown’s extraordinary design for Jesus washing Peter’s feet combines this reed-&-roundel frame with an inner gilded oak mount, decorated with more roundels and an inscription, and an outer bevelled and fluted back edge, stained black with stripes of gold. It is utterly unlike any design we would think of as typically mid-Victorian, and would not be out of place in a 20th century Art Deco interior.
It is also a monument to his co-operation with Rossetti. Millais ceased to invent his own frame patterns almost at once, and Hunt went his own eccentric way; Brown and Rossetti, however, together produced a number of pioneering designs which they used again and again, in various combinations of moulding and in different sizes. In the exhibition there is a group of Rossetti’s small early watercolours, which (as well as Paolo and Francesca in its circles-&-squares frame) includes several with gilded oak mounts and a frame of several small bay-leaf-&-berry mouldings (also used by Brown, on The hayfield).
Ford Madox Brown, The hayfield, 1855, Tate
There is Brown’s Coat of many colours, 1864-66, in an enlarged reed-&-roundel frame, and Jesus washing Peter’s feet. There is Rossetti’s Monna Vanna, in a ‘Watts’ frame, with a punched design like brocade on the frieze, and the same outer frame as Jesus washing Peter’s feet, of black flutes striped with gold. Brown described the latter pattern (without the black outer frame) as ‘a Venecian [sic] pattern (much liked now by friends of mine …) – to be had at Messrs Green & Co…’, and used it for his double portrait, Henry Fawcett, Esq., MP, and Mrs Fawcett (National Portrait Gallery).
D.G. Rossetti, Monna Vanna, 1866, Tate
This partnership in frame design has hovered, little enough recognized, on the periphery of Pre-Raphaelite studies: one of the most enduring and fruitful legacies of the Brotherhood itself. It influenced Burne-Jones (Clara von Bork and Sidonia von Bork, 1860, Georgiana Burne-Jones, 1883), John Brett (The hedger, 1859-60), Spencer Stanhope (Thoughts of the past, 1858), Simeon Solomon (Bacchus, 1867), Frederic Sandys (not the Magdalene in the exhibition, however), and other so-called second-wave Pre-Raphaelites. It probably played a part in the flowering of the Arts and Crafts movement and the late 19th century interest in individual, hand-crafted pieces of furniture, via William Morris. It lends the paintings their unconventional, slightly exotic air –and, yes, it justifies the sub-title of this exhibition: Victorian Avant-Garde.
All images here are courtesy of the respective museums, and most of the photos are by Alastair Johnson of Tate, to whom I am indebted and extremely grateful.
 Sir George Beaumont (1753-1827), one of the prime instigators of the National Gallery, London, had recommended that landscapes be the brown ‘of an old Cremona fiddle’.
 Sicut lilium inter spinas, sic amica mea inter filias… “As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters…..”, The Song of Solomon, 2:2.
 Instead of the diagonal mitre joint used on nearly all frames since the late 17th century, the butt joint has the two rails of a frame abut each other at right angles, leaving the joint visible as a horizontal or a vertical line at the front.
 Joseph Green the younger was the prime framemaker to the Pre-Raphaelites until about 1870. Brown may have used him from as early as 1846-47, when he took a studio near Green’s workshop.