A final look at 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 III

Millais Autumn Leaves Full view sm

Millais, Autumn leaves, 1855-56, Manchester City Galleries

Whilst Hunt was taking up the modernist baton cast down by Millais’s frame for Convent thoughts,  Millais himself seemed to be bidding farewell to Pre-Raphaelitism with what some consider to be one of his finest early paintings, Autumn leaves. This has a frame which is the reverse of pioneering: it is a 19th century revival of the 17th century British ‘Lely’ or panel frame, its centres and corners decorated with flower sprays in shallow relief between shaped panels or reposes.

Millais Autumn Leaves corner detail sm

Millais, Autumn leaves, detail

The ornament here is carved in wood, and covered with gesso. This may be Millais’s choice of frame or possibly a client’s; it is a caricature of a ‘Lely’ frame, aesthetically rather clumsy – with the gigantism of the twisted ribbon moulding near the sight edge – and, whatever its origins, marks Millais’s move away from any pioneering interest in frame design.

FM Brown Cromwell Full view sm

Ford Madox Brown, Cromwell, 1874, Lady Lever Gallery, Port Sunlight

The revival ‘Lely’ frame was also used several times by Ford Madox Brown; his are more decoratively authentic versions of the original 17th century pattern, but – in the spirit of the earlier frames he designed with Rossetti – he has the frame gilded directly on the wood. He also uses the pattern emblematically, for paintings which seem to be celebrations of English history, life or literature: for example, Work, 1852-63, and Byron’s dream, 1874, both Manchester City Galleries, and Cromwell on his farm, 1874, Lady Lever Art Gallery (Autumn leaves and Work may have been reframed some time after they were finished).

FM Brown Cromwell corner detail sm

Ford Madox Brown, Cromwell, detail

Such a pattern may seem retrograde in comparison with what Hunt was doing, or it may be seen as the natural next step (an historic and domestic frame after the Gothic and northern European influence of the earliest Pre-Raphaelite designs). From this point of view it is also in keeping with the PRB’s rejection of Italian Renaissance and 18th century French ideals as the standard of aspiration for Victorian artists: the ‘Lely’ frame seems to have been, at least for Brown, if not for Millais, a political declaration of a new ‘British’ art.

Rossetti Astarte Syriaca Full view sm

D.G. Rossetti, Astarte Syriaca, 1877, Manchester City Galleries

Rossetti, meanwhile, was developing a pattern of his own: the medallion frame, which he used in various configurations on many of his later works, between c.1868/71 and his death in 1882. It derives from the geometric patterns he had created with Brown, using the same opposition of linear & curved forms and planar surfaces to create a tension which had at the same time a decorative and flattening effect on the paintings. The series of small bust-length oil paintings of women, sensuous, ornamental, and set in an ambiguous space with little depth, which he had been producing from c.1859, had been framed in a moulding with a triangular section marked with staggered circular indentations on either side. Brown famously described this as ‘Rossetti’s thumbmark pattern’[1] (Fair Rosamund, 1861, has been suggested by Alastair Grieve[2] as having the earliest of these frames; unfortunately no examples of them are included in the exhibition).

The medallion frame takes the place, for large works, of the thumbmark pattern on the small figure paintings.  It uses one of the cambered surfaces of the triangular moulding, enlarging it, and installing it as the central frieze of the frame, sloping down and inward towards the picture plane. Brown uses a similar cambered moulding on many of his frames (for example, Jesus washing Peter’s feet  has a fluted gold sight and a fluted black back edge inclined from the wall to the centre top of the frame). The spare geometry of these elements seems hardly noteworthy to us now, but compared with the ‘Salon’ frame usual in exhibitions at the Royal Academy, with a hollow or ogee profile, large corner cartouches and a plethora of pressed compo floriferousness, the effect must have been electrifying.

Rossetti Astarte Syriaca left side detail sm

D.G. Rossetti, Astarte Syriaca, 1877, detail

The medallions are sited across this slanting frieze, their surface parallel with that of the painting; they are patterned like ‘the seed formations of an exotic fruit’ [3], and may have been developed specifically for the various paintings of Janey Morris as Proserpine. The first of these (now missing) was painted around 1871; two more were painted during the next two years, the third cut down to the head and surviving as Blanzifiore; altogether eight versions were painted [4]. The medallions have been compared to pomegranates (the attribute of Proserpine), but they are more abstract and enigmatic – apples? oranges? They can be found in the exhibition on the frames of The Beloved, Lady Lilith and A vision of Fiametta [5], and elsewhere on at least six other works [6]. The ambiguous fruit can be interpreted flexibly, according to the picture, as a symbol of woman’s seduction by man, man’s seduction by woman, fertility and goodness, or ashes and destruction – so, very unlike Holman Hunt’s use of symbolism on his frames.

Rossetti Beata Beatrix Full view sm

D.G. Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, c.1864-70, Tate

Beata Beatrix has an idiosyncratic and unique example of the medallion frame which remakes the pattern in a much more precisely symbolic form. Rossetti had been painting subjects from Dante’s Divina commedia from the early 1850s, developing literary, emblematic frames for them just as Hunt created religious and didactic patterns for his own work. So Rossetti’s 1854 watercolour, The salutation of Beatrice  , has the sun in the corners and seven-pointed stars along the frieze [7]. The frame for the 1859-63 version , created in 1863 to house what were originally two cupboard doors, is much more elaborate, with an outer black-&-gold fluted frame, and a gilt oak mount painted with poppies in the corners, a figure of Amor in the middle, and inscriptions from Dante’s Vita nuova and the Divina commedia [8]. In comparison to the latter, the frame of Beata Beatrix reverts to a more restrained and focused design. Symbolic imagery is restricted to the four medallions on the frieze, and the quotations to the date of Beatrice’s death [9] & the grieving inscription, ‘Quomodo sedet sola civitas ’[10].

Rossetti Beata Beatrix lower centre detail sm

D.G. Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, c.1864-70, detail

The medallions are modelled in low relief with the sun, top centre (Christ, or the Platonic ideal); the moon, left (Beatrice, in her spiritual journey to the sun); stars, on the right; and the sea-girt earth, bottom centre (again, with the date of Beatrice’s death). The whole frame functions like one of Holman Hunt’s, providing a gloss which expands upon the painted image to express ‘…the Love which moves the sun and the other stars’ [11].  The painting, which depicts both the death of Dante’s love, Beatrice Portinari, and the death of Rossetti’s wife, Lizzie Siddal, opens out from the moment when the soul is rapt away from the body on earth, to show (through the frame) its subsequent spiritual journey to its heavenly home.

It is impossible to overstate the influence of Rossetti’s, Brown’s and Hunt’s frames on the development of artists’ designs during the second half of the nineteenth century. Burne-Jones, for instance, had a close working relationship with Rossetti and Brown, and his first frames were very dependent upon the patterns used by the older artists. He was, coincidentally, the son of a framemaker – although not, unfortunately, one competent to cope with the innovative styles he was suddenly called on to produce, so that the frame of Clara von Bork (included in the exhibition with its pendant, Sidonia von Bork) has had to have its outer frame replaced. The frames of both these small watercolours are direct imitations of the pattern used by Rossetti and Brown for their early small works; for instance, Brown’s The hayfield, 1855-56, Tate [12].

Burne-Jones’s early oil paintings were also framed in styles which were more or less indebted to Brown and Rossetti [13], using gilt oak mounts, fluted borders and roundels.  However, in 1861 he visited Italy, and the Renaissance wormed its way into his creative imagination, both in his painting style and in the design of his frames. The Story of Troy (Birmingham MAG) with its integral painted ‘frame’ was begun in c.1870-72 and worked on until Burne-Jones’s death in 1898; it’s generally agreed that it was inspired by Mantegna’s altarpiece of the Virgin and Child with Saints, in the magnificent aedicular frame probably designed by the artist (Church of S. Zeno, Verona).

Burne Jones The Days of Creation in original frame ill Sotheby s London 13June1934 Lot99 Harvard Art Museums

Burne-Jones, The Days of Creation, 1870-1876, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.457

The first actual aedicular frame which Burne-Jones produced seems to have been that for his set of six watercolours, The Days of Creation [14]. It was a simplified altarpiece frame with panel-like pilasters, modillion ‘feet’, and a decorative entablature with the frieze inscribed in Latin. Altogether it looked very like a painted Renaissance cassone, revealing that Burne-Jones had learned both from his travels in Italy, and from his experience of working on painted furniture for Morris & Co., to leave the style of decorative, geometric, northern-influenced frame he had produced under Brown’s and Rossetti’s patronage, and to break out in a Renaissance of his own.

Grosvenor Gallery 1877

The Grosvenor Gallery, New Bond Street, The Illustrated London News, 5 May 1877, p.419

He was not alone; Frederic, Lord Leighton, Alma-Tadema, Edwin Long and others were all producing paintings influenced by the Renaissance or Classical world, and designing appropriate frames to hold them.  In 1877 the Grosvenor Gallery, New Bond Street, opened its doors for its first exhibition; it had been founded by Sir Coutts Lindsay in opposition, or at least in contrast, to the Royal Academy, and artists like Burne-Jones, whose work was out of kilter with the aesthetic of the Academy, were drawn to its more congenial classicizing rooms. The first exhibition contained, as well as The Days of Creation, work by Watts, Spencer Stanhope, Alma-Tadema, Walter Crane, and Holman Hunt, all of it in magnificently individual artists’ frames – many of them Classical aedicules. Richard Williams, of the framemakers Foord & Dickinson, visited the exhibition, ignored the paintings, and delivered his verdict:  ‘But it is a fine lot of frames!’ [15]  The frame of The Days of Creation was even mentioned in newspaper reports, first by William Michael Rossetti in his review of the exhibition (‘…six subjects in a common frame of ornamental design’[16] ), and then again when it was sold at Sotheby’s as part of The Graham Collection: ‘The beautiful decorative set of six panels… representing the six days of Creation, which was extremely well seen on the side wall of the room in its fine ornamental frame’ [17].

Burne Jones Golden Stairs Full view sm

Burne-Jones, The golden stairs, 1876-80, Tate

After this one-off design, Burne-Jones evolved a family of frames based on 15th century Italian models. They include cassetta (‘little box’) frames, like that on The golden stairs; fully aedicular frames, like that of King Cophetua, and a hybrid between the two (a cassetta with added entablature and predella moulding at top and base). There are some individual frames in the family, but most of them share the same feature: a frieze decorated in applied composition with Renaissance-style candelabrum ornaments springing from fluted urns.

Burne Jones Golden Stairs corner detail sm

Burne-Jones, The golden stairs, detail

The use of this shallow compo decoration allowed for an opulent finish, held in check by its flatness and by the linear contours of the frame, with an outer egg-&-dart ornament on larger works to give definition and weight. These frames seem to have been introduced from the late 1870s, and continued to be used through the 1890s [18]. They emphasize the other-worldliness of the paintings, and the aedicular versions lend the optical effect of a door or window frame leading into the ‘beautiful romantic dream of something that never was’, as Burne-Jones described his art.

King Cophetua before cons2011 small

Burne-Jone, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1884, Tate

The frame for King Cophetua was one of the more individualized designs; a monumental setting for a huge painting, possibly influenced by Crivelli’s Madonna della Rondine, 1491, which had been acquired by the National Gallery, London, in 1862, still in its original aedicular frame.

The composite capitals, candelabrum ornament, and palmettes in the frieze and capitals of the Crivelli frame are certainly close to Burne-Jones’s use of similar features (anthemia replacing the palmettes) in his Cophetua frame, to which he has added a clutch of cherubs’ heads. The frame acquired an extra head to add to its original three, when it was enlarged to take a glazing door sometime after the 1898-99 Burne-Jones Memorial Exhibition; expert conservation has now restored its authentic appearance .

King Cophetua frame. Base after cons. 2012

Here, of course, the cherubs are really putti or little cupids, as the painting is concerned with romantic rather than heavenly love….

Burne Jones Perseus 1st Full view sm

Burne-Jones, The rock of doom, 1885-88, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart (no.6 from the Perseus series)

Burne-Jones also used a later Italian frame pattern, the style of which is balanced on the cusp of the transition from Renaissance to Baroque. It is based on a Venetian design of the late 16th or early 17th century, probably adapted by the artist from an original frame noted in Venice in 1871 or 1873 (since nothing similar seems to have been accessible in London at the time). It is strikingly unlike both contemporary academic and artists’ frames, since it uses the Baroque opposition of concave & convex surfaces and the play of light & shadow to bring animation to the picture it contains. It can be seen in the exhibition on three of the paintings from the Perseus series which have been lent from the eight now in the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, including this one (above), The rock of doom, the sixth of the set. The finished series was intended to comprise ten paintings, but Burne-Jones never completed them. Preparatory drawings in Tate show that the series, which had been commissioned by Arthur Balfour for the music room of his London house, was originally designed as a complete decorative scheme for the room, and would have been set (in plain frames) within a background of shallow relief scrolling foliage in plaster, executed by William Morris.

Burne Jones Perseus 1st corner detail sm

Burne-Jones, The rock of doom, detail

Instead of this, the scrolling foliage was confined to the frames themselves. These are formed of a complex band of six orders of decoration, the top moulding being a torus of pierced, scrolling acanthus leaves. This is actually a convex shell, applied over a gilded concave moulding. As the spectator moves before the work, light is reflected through the pierced carvings from the burnished hollow below, bringing an effect of shimmering life and movement to the painting. Burne-Jones also used this frame pattern for his more sensuous and colourful ‘Venetian’ paintings, such as Le Chant d’Amour and Laus Veneris [19]. A delightful, possibly emblematic and hard-to-spot feature is the presence of tiny swans’ heads wreathed among the acanthus leaves; they may be symbols of music, or perhaps attributes of Apollo or Venus.

Burne Jones Perseus Swan's head

Burne-Jones, The rock of doom, detail of swan’s head

This pattern may not be as refined and detailed in its workmanship as a 16th century Italian or 18th century French frame, but in the context of later 19th century design in Britain, with its compo encrusted surfaces, Dutch leaf replacing gold and machine-turned mouldings, it is an imaginative attempt to revive some of the more attractive elements of earlier styles. Not innovatory like the designs of Brown, Hunt and Rossetti, it is perhaps an example of the antique recycled and reinvigorated.

There has been a critical divide over this exhibition and its subtitle. Possibly someone who has got his  eye almost exclusively in to 20th and 21st century art still finds it difficult to accept the pioneering impetus of art which was (still) recently seen as weedy, whimsical and unpainterly. Perhaps such a person, if he could be walked around the Tate exhibition with the paintings blanked out, and forced to concentrate exclusively on the extraordinarily imaginative and modernizing spirit of design evident in so many of the frames, might come to see the works of art as a whole in a different light; might even concede that the Pre-Raphaelites were indeed the Victorian avant-garde.

All images included here are courtesy of the respective museums, and most of the photos are again by Alastair Johnson of Tate, to whom I am ever more indebted and extremely grateful.

Part I: Pre-Raphaelite frames > here

Part II: More 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

What artists, critics & collectors say about frames: Part 2> here

Poetry & the frame: May morning on Magdalen Tower > here

Two Pre-Raphaelite paintings from the Leverhulme Collection> here

A Victorian Obsession…The Pérez Simón Collection > here 


[1] Letter from Brown to his patron, Leathart, 16 January 1863; information from Mary Bennett.

[2] Alastair Grieve, ‘The applied art of D.G. Rossetti: I His picture-frames,’ Burlington Magazine, CXV, January 1973, pp.16 ff.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Unknown location, 1873; Tate, 1874; private collection, d.1877; Birmingham MAG, d. 1882; ex-LS Lowry collection, d. 1877, sold Christie’s, November 1987.

[5] I’m not sure about the frame of Found; I think that it is probably a replica.

[6] For example: The Blessed Damozel, & La donna della finestra, both Fogg Art Museum, Mass.; Mnemosyne/ The lamp of memory/ La Ricordanza, the Bancroft Collection, Wilmington; La Pia de ‘Tolomei, Spencer Museum of Art, Kansas; The day-dream, V&A, London; and the version of Beata Beatrix in Birmingham CAG.

[7] These are NeoPlatonic symbols used by Dante and Petrarch as images for the earthly beloved, and the ideal Virtue to which she is the spiritual guide.

[8] Whilst this diptych of The salutation… is in the Art Gallery of Ontario, the central panel (from when the paintings were part of a cupboard) has been separately framed, christened Dantis Amor, and is now in Tate (also in the exhibition).

[9] This was inscribed either side of the top medallion, but has all but disappeared.

[10] Describing how the city of Florence mourned the death of Beatrice: ‘How solitary does the city sit…’

[11] Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, ll. 142–145, translated by CH Sisson, 1981.

[12] Another example of Burne-Jones using this pattern can be seen on Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor, 1861, Yale Center for British Art.

[13] For instance, the two versions of The Adoration of the Shepherds, Tate & private collection, and Sts Apollonia and Agatha, Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro.

[14] Each panel has a hand-written inscription on the back:

Burne Jones Inscription reverse of no 2 Days of Creation

‘This picture is not complete by itself but is No. X of a series of six water colour pictures representing the Days of Creation which are placed in a frame designed by the Painter, from which he desires that they may not be removed’. Unfortunately, when the Days were bought by the American collector Grenville L. Winthrop in 1934, the panels were reframed singly in plain gilt mouldings and the original setting lost.

[15] Jacob Simon, The Art of the Picture Frame, 1996, p.134.

[16] W.M. Rossetti, The Academy, 5 May 1877, pp.396-97.

[17] W.M. Rossetti, The Times, 5 April 1886, p.12; the sale was held on 3 April 1886.

[18] These frames were possibly first used on the Pygmalion series of 1875-78, now in Birmigham MAG. The hybrid version, with entablatures and plinths, can be seen on The Annunciation, 1876-79 and The tree of forgiveness, 1881-82, both Lady Lever Art Gallery.

[19] Le chant d’amour, 1868-77, Metropolitan Museum, NY, and Laus Veneris, 1873-78, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle (since reframed in a painted Neo-Baroque cassetta frame, with appropriate symbols scratched through the paint into the gold leaf beneath); also The beguiling of Merlin, 1873-74, Lady Lever Gallery, Port Sunlight; The mirror of Venus, 1873-77, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon; and The mill, 1870-82, V & A.

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