The New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

by Lynn Roberts

A completely reworked and updated edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography was published in both print and online versions in September 2004. It is a mammoth work, comprising 60 volumes in its printed format; and the online version, with its powerful search facility, is of interest for anyone whose research concerns the makers of picture frames (to subscribe, visit www.oxforddnb.com).

The results thrown up by a search based on generalized terms ('frame maker', 'picture frames', 'carver and gilder', etc.) need to be filtered to obtain information of any value, but such searches can produce interesting connections and references. For example, search under 'picture frames' and only six results appear: but these point towards the biographies of Ford Madox Brown, Peter Drummond, Daniel Marot, Simon or Charles Stanley, Athenian Stuart, and Sir Isaac Wolfson. Brown is to be expected, for the innovative frame designs he produced in association with D.G. Rossetti in the second half of the nineteenth century. So too is Daniel Marot, architect and designer, and the British architect Athenian Stuart, who, like William Kent and Robert Adam, designed every detail of the interiors of his rooms to form a coherent whole, from dado rails and tables to picture frames. Peter Drummond, a nineteenth-century Scottish bookseller and writer, was a picture frame maker early in his career; whilst Simon (or Charles) Stanley was an eighteenth-century stuccoist and sculptor who produced picture frames as well as decorative plasterwork and chimneypieces.

Sir Isaac Wolfson, however, is slightly surprising; following the link to his biography it appears that the businessman and philanthropist was the son of Solomon Wolfson, a Jewish immigrant who left Russian Poland in the 1890s to become a frame maker in Glasgow. Wolfson worked for his father, initially in his workshop and then as a travelling salesman for his products. When he made his fortune through Great Universal Stores he revealed the influence of his upbringing in his support for Orthodox Jewry and in the art collection he amassed. Searching for the phrase 'frame maker' produces Arthur Ellis, a twentieth-century football referee, and John Sainsbury, originator of the foodstore, both of whose fathers were, like Sir Isaac Wolfson's, picture frame makers; and 'carver and gilder' leads to the Byfield family of wood engravers, whose father, John, was a carver and gilder in Soho.

The search for 'frame maker' produces eight references altogether; they include Isaac Gosset, picture frame maker and wax modeller, who worked for many of the most famous artists and patrons of the eighteenth century including Hogarth, and Gainsborough, under whose entry he also appears. Another frame maker thrown up by this search is Charles Rowley, who owned an important framing business in Manchester in the nineteenth century, and whose memoirs refer to work for artists such as Rossetti. Rather more indirectly there is Sir Henry Raeburn, who, when he had established himself as a portrait painter in Edinburgh, moved into a house large enough to accommodate a picture gallery, a studio the size of the entire first floor, and 'a workshop for a frame maker'.

Searchable phrases such as 'carver' achieve more spectacular results: one hundred and eighty; whilst 'carver and gilder' produces twenty. The latter is the more helpful phrase, however, as it points to craftsmen who were making little else but picture frames. It turns up well-known names, such as Thomas Johnson, referred to in the entry on Edward Alcock, an 18th-century portraitist who lent money to Johnson to set up his business. It also a reveals a slew of minor artisans, interesting for their connections as well as their work. Charles Bianconi, for example, emigrated from Italy and in 1806 set up as a carver and gilder in Ireland, a business which he ran for twenty years; however, this step showed him the necessity for good transport, and he is remembered mainly for setting up a carrier service which opened up the interior of Ireland.

For further details, see www.oxforddnb.com