Women in picture framing

by The Frame Blog

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. See also Neil Stevenson’s post: John Michael Wright & the Fire Judges: An update.

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: jsimon@npg.org.uk


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.

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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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