More Pre-Raphaelite frames…

by The Frame Blog

…in the exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde at Tate Britain (12 Sept. 2012 – 13 Jan. 2013)

Part II (Holman Hunt)

William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott, top of frame showing capitals & corner acroteria

The chronology of this Pre-Raphaelites exhibition is rather blurred by its thematic arrangement; however, the later frames are quite as extraordinary as the earlier examples. The separate paths taken by the members of the original Brotherhood become emphatically clear: Millais doesn’t seem to have designed any more frames after the groundbreaking setting of Collins’s Convent thoughts; his own painting, The return of the dove to the ark, which formed a loose pendant to it, has a much more conventional Baroque pattern, with a garland of bunched leaves – unless something (sprigs of naturalistic olive leaves?) has been lost from the spandrels either side of the arched top[1]. Ford Madox Brown continued to use the geometric designs he had developed with Rossetti throughout his career, with the odd divergence of his own, and Rossetti similarly produced an imaginative twist on the earlier patterns.

It was Holman Hunt, with his inventive capacity for clothing his paintings in an astonishingly varied array of frame patterns – carved in wood, carved in shallow relief in the gesso, covered in applied composition ornament to his own design, modelled in shallow relief and painted naturalistically, or stencilled – who continued to produce innovatory settings over a period of more than fifty years without any slackening of imaginative fire. Some of his most attractive designs are missing from the exhibition, which obviously has rather different themes to cover[2], so one example later in this review is a supplementary, ex-exhibition image, just because it would be a shame to ignore it.

Two early frames appear here, rather than in Part I, because they are symbolic in a religious sense – but without the Gothic cast of Rossetti’s early Biblical subjects[3] – and thus lead naturally on to Hunt’s later works. The first is that of The scapegoat.

Holman Hunt Scapegoat Full view sm

Holman Hunt, The scapegoat, 1854-56, Lady Lever Gallery, Port Sunlight

This frame has recently been conserved, which has cleansed it of its previously rather dull and dank patina, and restored the halo of bright gold which must have created a stunningly exotic effect when the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856. Salon frames in Britain were still generally after the type of the commercial stock frame on Millais’s Isabella; in contrast Hunt’s design for The scapegoat is a solid, slightly convex bar of gold, into which symbolic motifs have been carved in shallow relief. A future article will look at the technique used here, and describe the conservation process[4].  These motifs are designed to support the Old Testament subject of the painting, but interestingly they also work to expand upon the image itself by alluding to events in the New Testament. Thus, the panel at the top, with seven stars, uses a Biblical quotation to link the scapegoat to Christ, carrying our sins and our sorrows, and is echoed by a further quotation at the bottom, with a seven-branched candlestick, or menorah. The latter is a symbol of redemption, whilst the seven stars stand for the risen Christ.

Holman Hunt The scapegoat dove

Holman Hunt, The scapegoat, detail of left-hand rail with dove

On the two sides of the frame a dove with an olive branch decorates the left-hand, and a cruciform heartsease sprig the right-hand rail.

Holman Hunt The scapegoat heartsease

Holman Hunt, The scapegoat, detail of right-hand rail with heartease

Without this frame, therefore, the painting is a depiction of unrelieved suffering and despair, whilst united, as a complete artwork, it conveys spiritual hope in the redemptive power of Christ.

William Holman Hunt, The finding of the Saviour in the Temple, 1854-56, Birmingham City Art Gallery

 The frame of The finding of the Saviour… is even more emblematically complex. Holman Hunt described it as ‘designed by myself with ivory flat, in what I meant to be semi-barbaric splendour’[5], and when it toured the country from Truro to Carlisle between 1863 and 1868, it must have broken like a magnificent alien artefact into the provincial galleries of Victorian Britain. Hunt’s friend and colleague, F.G. Stephens, described it like this:

Even the very frame was not without its demands upon the thought of the painter.  One side of this, occupied by the cross-staff that sustained the brazen serpent… is typical of the olden law of Moses… on the other, a cross of thorns, with a garland of flowers about it [love-lies-bleeding], expresses the New Law. The centre is surmounted by a sun at full glory, and the moon eclipsed; the space from this to the corners is filled up with stars. At the foot a diaper of heartseases, the symbol of peace, – and daisies, – of humility, devotion, as well as universality[6].

The finding of the Saviour in the Temple, corner detail

 Stephens also quotes one of the early critical responses to a Pre-Raphaelite frame from the Manchester Guardian: ‘There are symbols everywhere… Nay, the symbols have overflowed the picture, and expanded themselves all over the frame.’ What the symbols are doing – just as on the frame of The scapegoat – is enlarging upon the painted image. In the picture we are shown an incident in the life of the young Christ, when he wanders away from his parents and is discovered by them arguing with the doctors in the temple; but then what the frame indicates to us, beyond the simple narrative, is that the New Law of Christ (the sun) will outshine the Judaic Law of the Old Testament (the eclipsed moon). Hunt has also used the silhouette of the frame, with its shallow gabled effect, and the rails crossed at the bottom corners, to suggest the outline of a temple, in an imaginative variation on a Gothic or Renaissance altarpiece.

William Holman Hunt, Isabella and the pot of basil, 1866-68, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle

When not confecting designs so completely radical that they seemed to have minimal connection to any historical source, Hunt went in search of previously unmined references.  The massive frame for Isabella and the pot of basil, with its heavy convex top edge – a half-round moulding decorated with flutes filled with imbricated coin ornaments – looks back to Italian and Spanish Mannerist frames from the 17th century, and may relate to a drawing by Hunt in the Pollitt Collection which shows a frame from a viewpoint beneath the bottom left corner[7].

 William Holman Hunt, Study of frames, The Pollitt Collection

Isabella and the pot of basil, corner detail

The equally solid cassetta frame of La dolce far niente has taken the refined Italian patterns of the 16th century and given them a robust reincarnation.

William Holman Hunt, The shadow of death, 1870-73, Manchester City Galleries

 The shadow of death, in another weighty frame apparently forged out of gold bars, is an example of his observations whilst travelling in Israel. A number of Hunt’s sketches in the Pollitt Collection are of architectural motifs which he recorded and used as stylistically appropriate ornaments for his frames, where he needed something decorative rather than wholly or partly symbolic.

William Holman Hunt, The shadow of death: architectural study , c.1870, The Pollitt Collection[8]

In this case, carved stonework in Jerusalem provided the striking honeycomb pattern for the corner panels on two versions of The shadow of death, separated by runs of stylized, six-pointed stars.

 The shadow of death, corner detail

 The combination of these ‘authentic’, specifically localized ornaments with Christian and Biblical emblems gives Hunt’s frame designs such a peculiarly intimate bond with the work they contain that to publish the painting without the setting is to diminish it significantly, and to deprive it of its superstructure of reference and local connection. This is equally true for his landscapes painted in Egypt and Israel, for which studies of geographically correct architecture and decorative detail were supplemented by, for instance, Owen Jones’s The grammar of ornament, published in 1856, which provided a fertile resource of archaic and historic motifs from various locations (Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek, Roman, Arabic, &c.).

William Holman Hunt, The triumph of the innocents, 1883-84, Tate

 Hunt painted two versions of The triumph of the innocents, one (Walker Gallery, Liverpool) begun in 1876, the year he also designed the frame, carved for him in 1878 by a ‘Mr Goodwin’ (almost certainly Charles, the brother of Albert Goodwin, a pupil of Hunt[9]). The Tate version is a replica, painted from 1883; the frame may also have been made by Goodwin, but although the pattern of pomegranates alternating with half scrolled leaves on the frieze is very similar, the pomegranates on the Tate frame are much more naturalistic than the smooth abstracted ovals on the Walker frame; and they alternate with pomegranate flowers.

The triumph of the innocents, detail (Tate)

 Central round medallions contain a wheel of pomegranate flowers (Walker), and a double scrolled leaf (Tate). A drawing for these motifs shows a first idea for the alternating scrolled leaves, and the medallion of flowers[10].  The pomegranates are symbols of the Resurrection; they are also extremely decorative, and Hunt’s treatment of them, set amongst the paired scrolling leaves, looks forward to the sinuous S-scrolls of Art Nouveau.

  William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott, c.1888-1905, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford (with Edward Robert Hughes)

 Hunt’s last great frame was completed 6 years before his death in 1910. It uses the form of an aedicular, or temple-like structure, which became very popular with artists such as Burne-Jones, Alma-Tadema, Lord Leighton, and Edward Poynter – although they used their particular patterns repeatedly on their work, whereas Hunt’s frame is a unique (and uniquely beautiful) creation, designed to support and intensify the theme of this particular painting. The columns are twined with briars, connecting the Lady to that other imprisoned heroine, Sleeping Beauty, and the scrolling honeysuckles at the bottom spring from a funerary urn. This hint of her end impelled Hunt to expand the story beyond the confines of the painting: ‘It was suggested to me that the fate of the Lady was too pitiful: I had Pandora’s Box with Hope lying hid carved upon the frame.[11]

The Lady of Shalott, detail of casket at crest of frame

 The artist Frederic Shields had met Ford Madox Brown and Rossetti in 1864, when they were in a full creative flow of frame design, and (not very successfully) attempted his own northern Gothic frame[12]. Hunt now called on him for help: ‘To Holman Hunt’s to design smoke for his frame for “Lady of Shalott”’[13]. The smoke – the escaping evils which had filled Pandora’s box – scrolls up in serpents of cloud, like the Lady’s hair and like the threads of her tapestry, unleashed by her own curiosity… but Hope (SPES) remains in the carved box.

And the final, non-exhibition Hunt frame: one of the set he designed for his mother-in-law (twice over), Mrs Mary Waugh, his first and second wives, Fanny and Edith, his self-portrait in the Uffizi, and the copy by Edward Hughes in the Atheneum, London.

 William Holman Hunt, Mrs. George Waugh, 1868, oil on fabric, 86.2 x 66.1 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund 1984.41

Another geometric design, this uses the completely flat architrave frame pioneered so successfully by Millais for Collins’s Convent thoughts. It is constructed using right-angled butt-joints which swing round the four corners in a swastika pattern, highlighted by a zig-zag engraved over them as though they had been riveted together. A line of inlaid bone paterae crosses the corners diagonally; there are roundels in the corners, and the inner and outer contours have rounded and triangular indentations. Once more we seem to be looking at what is almost an art deco design – massive, plain, un-Victorian, and profoundly avant-garde.

Most images included 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.

I’m afraid that I haven’t sought permission for the images from the Pollitt Collection, as I have no idea to whom they now belong; if the owners would like to get in touch, I can adjust the credit lines.

Part I: Pre-Raphaelite frames > here

Part III: A final look at Pre-Raphaelite frames > here

Restoring a Pre-Raphaelite frame> here

Poetry & the frame: Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel & its altarpiece setting > here

Love in the frame: the portraits & frames of John Brett > here


[1] It would, however, be fascinating to know whether Christ in the carpenter’s shop, now in a Renaissance revival aedicular frame, originally had a rather more Gothic setting, related to F.M.Brown’s and Rossetti’s early frames.

[2] Such as the suite of 5 frames for family portraits with inlaid bone quatrefoils across the mitres, of which one is shown here; the set of ‘Arabian’ stencilled architrave frames with decorated gold mounts for the watercolours painted in Israel; the repoussé copperwork frame made by John Williams of C.R. Ashbee’s Guild of Handicrafts in 1889 for the large version of May morning on Magdalen Tower, 1890, Lady Lever Art Gallery, and its smaller tondo cousin, Birmingham City Art Gallery; the frame of his son’s portrait with a frieze of apple boughs and fruit, modelled in plaster and painted by Hunt himself; and the many cassetta frames ornamented with Canterbury bells, imbricated fishscales and other inventive motifs. Fortunately, many of these are illustrated in Judith Bronkhurst, William Holman Hunt, A Catalogue Raisonné, 2006.

[3] Ecce Ancilla and The Girlhood of Mary Virgin.

[4] The conservation work was carried out by Victoria Jones at Liverpool in 2010. NB: This future article is subject to the National Museums of Liverpool allowing images of the frame to be published on The Frame Blog.

[5] Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1905, vol. II, p. 193.

[6] F.G. Stephens, W. Holman Hunt and his works, 1860, note 25, p.78.

[7] See Bronkhurst, op cit., vol. II, p. 239, fig. P169, c.1869.

[8] Ibid., p.149, fig. D291.

[9] Information from Jacob Simon, whose entry on Charles Goodwin will shortly be added to the Directory of British picture framemakers on the NPG website. Hunt used Goodwin because he ‘can work to pattern at less than £1000 per frame’.

[10] c.1876, John Constable; illustrated by Bronkhurst, ibid., p.164, fig.D328.

[11] Hunt’s note for the exhibition of the painting in Manchester, 1906.

[12] For Kneeling woman, 1860s, with Julian Hartnoll in 1980s.

[13] Shields’s diary, 3 March 1904, quoted by Ernestine Mills, The life & letters of Frederic Shields, 1912.