A bird’s eye view of English picture frames
Someone recently suggested that I put together a simple overview of English picture frames, for identification purposes as much as anything. I have used frames from our stock to put together the following. To make it that much easier I have mainly used standard ‘three-quarter length’ portrait frames (for a canvas measuring 30 x 25″). Many English paintings of the 17th/18/19 Centuries are portraits. This is one of the single most used sizes for all English paintings.
Please forgive all the generalisations in what follows – I am only trying to give a very general overview. Also note the use of names for these frames (in bold) – artists, collections and framers’ names to describe them which are, as much as anything, for the sake of convenience.
In the latter half of the 16th Century and first half of the 17th, picture frames in England are not much different from those from the Netherlands and Spain, indeed it is sometimes hard to differentiate frames from England and the Continent. The most typical of these is the painted oak cassetta frame –
This example has a gilded line along the sight edge and rather provincial gilded decoration to the flat part of the frame in the centres and corners. Note that these frames, being very simple, are fairly straightforward to copy and this frame, like so many others, while certainly old, may not really be 16C … Having said this, many frames of this type whether Spanish, Flemish or English can be very fine indeed (some others are illustrated on the page called ‘Other Europe’ on this website.)
With the restoration of the monarchy in the middle of the 17th Century there is a change in frame styles towards the more exuberant. The best known of these is the so-called Sunderland frame – which once again owes its heritage to the Netherlands, in this case to the ‘auricular’ style.
The NPG website has a good page on this type of frame.
A note on wood – Frames from the 16th Century are often made of oak. Later, through to the 20th Century most English frames are made from pine (traditionally also known as deal), usually gessoed and gilded or silvered. French frames, by contrast, continued to be made and carved in oak at least up to the start of the 19C. In general frames from France are technically ‘better’ made (and heavier to carry).
Other standard 17C patterns are the ‘Charles II’ type –
Both these frame types are very simple and formal in conception. The reverse leaf frame has something in common with frames from Bologna, insofar as they both have a simple leaf pattern on a reverse ogee section but they are quite different. The Charles II pattern, which I like very much, is distinctly English. There is a variant to this pattern, same section but with an overlapping leaf pattern running from centres to corners:
The Lely panel frame is associated with the paintings of Lely and was often silvered rather than gilded – the silver would have been lacquered with a yellowish shellac-based lacquer (also used in Italy where called mecca). The resulting colour – hard to render in a photograph – particularly suits the silvers, pinks and blues of Lely paintings. Apart from colouring the silver to an approximation of gold, the lacquer also protects it from tarnishing – in the example below one panel has lost the lacquer altogether and elsewhere on the frame, just visible, there are thin crackle lines where the lacquer has shrunk and the silver has oxidised, in both cases, to black.
The gadrooned (tear-drop) element of the frame becomes the main event in this frame from probably just slightly later, also silvered – Another type of English frame from the late 17C/early 18C begins the history of English frames mirroring French stylistic development of the 18C. Starting with a Louis XIII pattern with a standard section, two rows of carving on the sight edge and bunched laurel and berry (more often acorn-and-oakleaf in England) making up the body of the frame –
Here is a French version – tight, neat, all in oak –
And here an English – looser, more flowing and carved in pine –This example is silvered as is the one below, a particularly fine example of silver lacquered to look like gold –Here, another silvered frame showing the development from the acorn-and-oakleaf into a shallower carved scrolling ornament – know as ‘running pattern’ –
In a detail of this frame you can clearly see the section, carving and the thin oxidisation crackle lines I mentioned above. You can also see the use of hazzling (like stitching) and ring-punching around the carved ornament. The ring-punching in particular is very English, an O-shaped punch is used, and it helps to give some articulation to the background of the carving. In French frames this tends to be done with cross-hatching engraved into the dry gesso.
The first half of the 18C sees a development of the running pattern – (note that the little hollow behind the sight edge has become a flat area. Flat areas of gilding are generally avoided in picture frames because they can reflect the light in what could be a distracting way so the flat area is covered in sand before being gilded which prevents this unwanted effect – the same effect as the hazzling and ring-punching mentioned above).
The following four or five frames can be thought of as the heart of English picture framing – the most frequently used and the most popular both in the 18C and, subsequently, as models for copies.
The ‘running pattern’ –
The last stage of this development is to change the straight lines of the running pattern for curves making what is called a ‘swept’ frame, this first one not in great condition but the smaller one below a lovely example where the flat frieze has been dispensed with and the whole frame seems to ‘sweep’ –
The 18C also sees other standard patterns enter the framemakers’ repetoire. The ‘Kent’ frame is often associated with the 36 x 28″ portraits made for the Kit Kat Club – though this one is smaller. It is characterised by outset corners, shells set into them, and ‘drops’ falling down the outer vertical edges.
Note that this frame shows the effect of regilding. You can see the lovely water gilding chinking out from behind the matt and dusty oil gilding. In the 18/19 Cc frames in England were often regilded – most usually with oil gilding. Often there was scant reason for this (removal of the later gilding sometimes reveals near-perfect shiny water-gilding beneath) but it must have had something to do with fashion (and was also done, as I mention elsewhere on this website, to frames imported from France, particularly after the Revolution).
On this Kent frame the ornament on the flat is carved not in the wood, but in the gesso – very shallow and flat but effective.
Here is another frame, a corner runner, where the running pattern in the hollow and on the sight edge is made in the same way. This ornament, more geometric than leafy is often known as ‘Queen Anne’ (though this frame probably post-dates her reign (d. 1714).Below is a simpler variant of the Kent frame, with gadrooned top edge – The use of gadroons was also common in simpler frames deriving from the French Louis XV pastel section – Another simple frame from the 18C is this polished pearwood frame with carved and gilded sight edge, suitable for lesser portraits and sporting paintings, dogs and horses, which were increasingly popular as the century progressed.
With a move away from the ‘swept’ style there was still a need for grand portrait frames and one important pattern derives from an Italian (Roman, Neapolitan) standard frame – the Carlo Maratta –The frame section is a plain hollow with an inserted (separately carved and pinned on) ‘carlo’ ornament of alternating acanthus leaf and shield, the shields often burnished to reflect candlelight. If the full carved and swept frame is associated (to my mind, at least) with Gainsborough’s delightful portraits of women, then the carlo is associated with Reynolds portraits of self-satisfied military men in red tunics.
It can also be seen as a transitional style between the elaborate lightness of English Rococo taste and the beginnings of neo-Classicism.
The neo-Classical style developed at the end of the 18C and through the first half of the 19C, here an example with carved ornament (and a ribbon twist very similar to the carlo above) …
A similar example, often known as a ‘Morland’ frame has the same structure, but a more rounded top-edge bound by ribbons in the centres and corners – A third variant derives from French Empire design, same pattern as above but with composition ornament in the hollow –19C
The 19C saw a wealth of decorative art in England and there were many popular frame patterns. Most frames had ornament made in compo – what is often referred to as ‘plaster frames’ – though compo, made from gesso and glue mixed with linseed oil and rosin, is quite different from plaster. English compo has proved, however, to be much less stable than compo made in France (where a different recipe was used) and tends to shrink, crack and fall off.
Of the specifically English patterns, the Watts pattern is possibly the best known –The frame is a simple cassetta section, the frieze in oil-gilded oak veneer and the sight and outer edge with compo ornament. The use of gilded oak is particularly 19C English and is also associated with pre-Raphaelite frames like this one (a copy we made for a pastel by Rossetti) – with the characteristic triskelion motif in the corners.Other high Victorian frames do not rely on gilded oak but more on a mix of borrowings from earlier patterns. In this frame (below), Morland top edge, ogee from a pastel section, with engraved leaves on the frieze, recollecting the textile designs of William Morris – 20C
There are few specifically English frame patterns from the 20C. Many frames made in this period are no more than pastiches of earlier patterns. Certain artists are associated with one type of frame (Gluck, Bacon).
The only frame type that comes to mind as being specifically English in this period is that associated with Modernists like Moore, Passmore, Hepworth and Ben Nicholson –
English 19C frame
I was reminded of this frame recently while looking for something else. It is an unusual example of a 19C English frame and has clearly been made with great care. I love the way that the oak ‘frieze’ is raised up and the way that it contrasts with the gessoed inner section, which is roughly the same width. The rows of simple, quite small compo ornament, add a kind of lace edging to the section. The colour is perfect.
English 18C Swept 50 x 40″ portrait frame
Of all the frames on this website, this is the one I am least likely to sell. It encapsulates all that I love about English frames, being light, flat and delicate but with great presence. The carving of the frame is beautifully ‘drawn’ in the wood but not at all flashy. Essentially a flat piece of wood with the sight and back carvings on it, with the rocaille and pierced centres and corners applied onto it, emerging out of it.
What is remarkable about this kind of English craftsmanship is the fantastic elegance and economy of the design and manufacture. The surface is oil gilded, in good condition with a dry feel that adds to the overall effect.
Another Engish swept frame with assymetric carving on the centres, more in the French Louis XV style.
A good example of this kind of frame, which can either have a ‘wavy’ site edge where leafy ornament slightly encroaches on the picture surface, or a straight one as in this example. These frames are mostly of this pattern (flat section, masks top and bottom centres, leaves, swags, stems, flowers down the sides, others with a more leafy pattern) but the flat, graphic, nature of the ornament allowed the carver some leeway in the way it is used. I like the tasselled or jewelled swags half way up the sides and the lion’s paws set beside his head at the top. For more information on these frames, links to Dutch auricular frames and usage, see here.
English 17C laurel and berry frame, part dry-stripped.
Sometimes these frames have an oak leaf and acorn pattern, sometimes laurel and berry. This one is not very clearly either …
The frame is 17th Century, English. Standard 30 x 25″ portrait size. Someone thought it a good idea (19th C?) to paint the original silver leafed frame brown with an oil gilded site edge. What makes it stranger is that the brown paint has been given a bit of wood-graining. This photo shows it half-stripped, the brown paint manually picked away from the silver. The frame will be lacquered when the brown paint has been fully removed – this will prevent the silver from oxidising and going an irreversible black. Originally the lacquer would probably have been yellowish, so that the silver becomes more gold-like in appearance.
Carlo Marratta frame
The Carlo Maratta is a wonderful frame in candlelight — the burnished shields of the carved ornament in the hollow catch the light and twinkle. The section and the carlo ornament derive from Italian late 17C prototypes but the use of the ‘carlo stick’ in the hollow of the frame is typically English. Frames of this type are often associated with frames on portraits by Reynolds.
This frame was probably made in England circa 1720. The carving is of exceptional quality and may have been done by an Italian working in London. The section, site and back edge carving as well as the alternating leaf and shield ornament of the main body of the frame are all loose interpretations of the Roman frames, but the thin gesso and (partial) oil gilding suggest that the frame was made in England.
The overall balance of ornament and colour of this frame, the way the carving goes its serpentine way to the corner leaves, and the dark background colour makes me wonder who designed and made this lovely thing?
A beautiful English 18C frame — typical because of the quality of the carving which is so elegantly, cleanly and simply done. There is very thin gesso, just enough to fill the grain of the pine from which this frame is carved. There is no re-cutting but some punch-work (see below). The gilding is typical English 18C oil gilding. Apart from the overall balance of this frame, notice the gadrooned sight carving, the stylised sunflower motif around the cabochon corner bosses and the ‘wings’ coming out of the corners with a slight Chinoiserie feel.
Detail of one corner — again the economy of English frames that I like so much. There is no re-cutting of the gesso (which would be standard for any French frame of the period); instead, there is a varied articulation of the gilded surface. Light ring-punching on the ogee moulding, as a base for the carving of leaves and deeper point-punching on the corners, random like a leopard’s spots and more regimented in the cross-hatched panels. With the sand in the frieze, these ways of making the gold not-flat are very effective.
English 18C carved and gilded frame with panels in centres, 25 x 22 1/2″ (63.5 x 57 cms)
A very fine example of an English frame of the early 18C. This frame was almost black when bought but the layers of dust and dirt lifted off to reveal this lovely dry oil-gilded surface with water-gilded panels in the centres of the sides, themselves reminiscent of the panels found on late 17C Lely frames and frames from Venice. The frame has a good overall balance and I like the way the foliate decoration flows from the corners to the panels — almost like art nouveau ornament.
Three frames — the outer an English 17C ‘acorn and oakleaf’ frame with the remains of original silvering; the middle one a German? 18C frame, white painted and silvered and the inner frame an Italian 18C yellow and black painted moulding frame.
The outer English frame, which is a standard 30 x 25″ portrait size, shows its age – later gilding has been stripped off, there are some carving repairs – but this can be just as attractive as the same frame in ‘perfect’ original condition.
This photograph shows part of a Spanish frame on the right — and some good English frames — the gilded one below is a finely carved running pattern, the one above a narrow and very elegant drawings frame and behind that, on the wall, a provincial silvered Lely panel frame.
I like frames that combine different surfaces and this is a good example with increasing ‘roughness’ from the sight slip outwards. I also like the way the straps over the oakleaf and acorn moulded compo top edge look like pastry strips on a tasty pie — you can see the fruit underneath. What is also impressive is the economy of this frame, not difficult to make (once you are set up for the compo) but very effective.
A selection of frames from our stock