A note on Philip de László and picture framing

by Lynn Roberts

Philip de László was born in Hungary in 1869. He studied art in Budapest, Paris and Munich, but spent most of his working life in England, after moving from Vienna in 1907 until his death in 1937, becoming a successful and sought-after society portraitist. His first significant commission had been from the Bulgarian royal family in 1894; this was succeeded by work for Pope Leo XIII, the kings of England and Spain, the Kaiser, President Roosevelt, and the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. He is remembered today as a society portraitist, but his sitters included the great and good of all professions, as well as the less celebrated.

We can derive information about de László's framing practices both from his correspondence and from the physical evidence in the frames themselves. His letters to clients repeat, with variations, one particular sentence: ‘...I always prefer to paint in the frame, and if possible choose a genuine old one...' (National Portrait Gallery, De László Archive, Box 052). Many of these frames were obtained in London by de László himself; the majority from two framemakers, Emile Remy, whose label appears on quite a number of his paintings, and F.C. Buck of Baker Street, of whom de László wrote in 1933 that he ‘has been supplying frames to my sitters for the last thirty-two years' (Box 076). Both framemakers are discussed in more detail below.

Buck seems to have been mainly responsible (although doing some carving) for acquiring antique frames, whilst Remy carved a replica if none was available. For example, de László wrote to David Bowser about his portrait in 1923, ‘Buck, the Frame Maker, from whom the frame came, which is an original one of the Peter Lily time, will send you direct his bill...' (Box 055); whilst a letter to de László in 1912 describes a frame which Remy could make in ‘Watts' style for Miss Weisse's portrait (Box 011). In 1924 both men were involved with the four frames needed for the portrait of Lord Leverhulme and its three copies; Buck supplied what seems to have been a genuine 18th-century English Carlo Maratta frame for the original, whilst Remy sent in estimates of £56-60 each ‘for three hand-carved exact copies of the Carlo Maratti frame, 99" x 64" in 7" to be made with the best materials, and gilt in best English gold; the gilding to be rather darker than on the original frame' (Box 075).

Frame patterns associated with de László

Fig. 1 Cassetta frame in the Italian Renaissance style on Henry, 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, 1920 (National Portrait Gallery)

Fig. 1 Cassetta frame in the Italian Renaissance style
on Henry, 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, 1920
(National Portrait Gallery)

It is clear that there are several styles of frame associated with de László's portraits. From 1912, and possibly earlier, he was using, or recommending to his clients, a copy of an Italian Renaissance cassetta frame, with small sight and outer gilt mouldings containing a black painted flat or frieze (fig. 1). This appears on various paintings between 1918 and 1929; they include Mrs Philip de László (1918, Private collection), Henry, 5th Marquess of Lansdowne (1920, National Portrait Gallery) and Eileen, 7th Viscountess Stanhope (1921, Chevening). The frieze is decorated with corner panels (if a half-length), or with corner and centre panels (if a full-length), of engraved and gilded foliate ornament, of which there are at least two variant patterns. Copies of a later type of cassetta frame, with more prominent mouldings or even a reverse profile, can also be found on his work; these still retain the engraved decoration, however.

Fig. 2 Reproduction Baroque Spanish frame made by Emile Remy for Jerome K. Jerome, 1921 (National Portrait Gallery)

Fig. 2 Reproduction Baroque Spanish frame made
by Emile Remy for Jerome K. Jerome, 1921
(National Portrait Gallery)

Over much the same period de László also used an antique or reproduction Baroque Spanish frame, usually of reverse section which pushes the picture surface forward, towards the spectator, and intensifies the dramatic impact of the painted figure (fig. 2). These frames have a hollow profile, between small-scale outer mouldings and a larger, chunky sight moulding of half-flowers or leaves. The hollow is decorated with characteristically boldly carved corners, or, for full-length pictures, again, centres and corners, of large-petalled rosettes, leaves and volutes. These frames are either gilded overall, or the hollow behind the centres and corners is coloured black; they can be seen on Sir Walter Townley (1911, Government Art Collection) and Jerome K. Jerome (1921, National Portrait Gallery). However, a letter of 1919 from Countess Bathurst requests a blue Spanish frame ‘with gold scroll work' for her portrait (Box 055). The style may have been chosen because de László sometimes preferred to show his sitters against a black ground, and since their poses are generally classical and their costumes dramatic, a Spanish setting may have suggested itself. Spanish frames had also been popularized at the beginning of the century by John Singer Sargent and William Orpen.

Other frame patterns are associated with his work: for example, antique or replica Louis XIV and Louis XV styles, and English 18th-century and neoclassical frames. It is not always clear to what extent these may be credited to de László rather than to his clients. When working in Paris he himself always used Edouard Grosvallet of 126 or 128, Boulevard Haussmann (see ‘Frames' in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné of Works by Philip de László), and his correspondence reveals European sitters also purchasing frames from Grosvallet. In 1932 a letter from Annie Quensel in Stockholm informs de László that she has bought a Louis XVI frame in Paris from Grosvallet for her portrait (Box 021), and Mrs Simon Patino buys two frames from the same source (Box 081). A Dutch sitter, Maurits Hubert de Beaufort, writes to the artist in 1920 reporting that he has ordered a frame to de László's design; and in 1937 Frederick Cavendish-Bentinck, who is chary of using a reproduction frame in the room where his portrait will hang, is sent off by the artist to ‘Field's, the frame dealer in Endell St', to find an antique of the right size (Box 065).

On the other hand, de László himself is recorded as taking a ‘beautiful Louis XLV [sic]' frame from London to America, for the large double portrait of Mr and Mrs Larz Anderson. This was then enlarged by Grieve, ‘the best man in New York and indeed Paris or London'. De László wrote to Larz Anderson, ‘I should like to have you use this frame for I am sure there is no other of its quality in New York' (Anderson Papers, Anderson House, Society of the Cincinnati, 23 December 1925, information from Sandra de Laszlo).

The conclusion seems to be that de László's was generally the controlling intelligence, acquiring the right frame, antique or replica, himself, or sending his clients in pursuit of a suitable pattern; however, if the client disliked the frame, he was flexible if not approving: ‘...you could return it if you did not like it...' (Box 076). It would be interesting to know his opinion of Lady Castlereagh's taste; she complained that de László's frame for her picture was not heavy enough, and that her husband wanted ‘a nice old Laurence frame' (this would have been an early 19th-century composition ‘Lawrence' frame, rather than one of the 18th-century carved giltwood styles preferred by de László) (Box 061).

Fig. 3 Gilt ogee Venetian-style panel frame made by Emile Remy for Sir William Pulteney, 1917 (National Portrait Gallery)

Fig. 3 Gilt ogee Venetian-style panel frame made
by Emile Remy for Sir William Pulteney, 1917
(National Portrait Gallery)

Another historical type, a gilt ogee Venetian panelled frame (fig. 3) on Sir William Pulteney (1917, National Portrait Gallery), was made by Remy; this may have been chosen, like Cavendish-Bentinck's frame, to fit in with the interior where it would hang, although it does bear a relationship to the panelled ‘Peter Lily' frame from Buck which de László later used. When a portrait by de László of Victor, 9th Duke of Devonshire (1927-8, Chatsworth) was to be copied twice in 1928 and framed for display in sites associated with the Duke, de László recommended both his two framemakers for the job, Buck, described as a dealer in old frames (Fine Art Dealer, of 48 Baker Street), and Remy.

De László's framemakers

The framemaker, Emile Remy, is known from trade directories to have worked in London from 1904 to 1929. His first workshop was in the King's Road, Chelsea, and he later moved to New King's Road, Parsons Green. He is known to have supplied frames for Sir John Lavery (for instance, the carved Renaissance-style cassetta with a painted arabesque frieze on Sir Lionel Cust, 1912, National Portrait Gallery); he also worked for the dealer, Joseph Duveen, who required carved revival styles of very high quality to satisfy the American market. Remy was chosen by the Duchess of Devonshire to frame copies of de László's work, as his prices were 50% cheaper than Buck's. A letter from Remy in 1928 notes that he would charge £18 each for frames 'with the engraved corners', presumably of the Italian cassetta pattern, adding that 'if it were desired to have centres as well as engraved corners, which considering the size [65 x 43 1/4ins], would make the frames a little more ornate & decorative, this could be done at an extra cost of £3 each frame'. In the event the Duchess selected the pattern with corners and centres at £21 each. Remy's label is found on the Spanish gilt frame of Jerome K. Jerome (above).

Frederick Charles Buck worked on his own account as a carver, gilder and later framemaker and fine art dealer, from 1881 until his death in 1929, moving at the turn of the century from Wigmore Street to Baker Street. He seems to have traded in antique furniture as well as paintings, and also cleaned and restored works of art. However, he was as capable at carving as Remy; he made the lost frame, replete with carved symbols, for William Holman Hunt's The Miracle of Sacred Fire in the Church of the Sepulchre, exh.1899 (Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge). He is also said to have made the aedicular frame on Hunt's The Beloved, 1898 (Royal Collection, repr. Bronkhurst 2006 p.323), carved with pomegranates and mignonette in a scrolling design.

References to ‘Remy' appear in de László's correspondence after the latest date at which he had been thought to have continued working: that is, after 1929, the date at which Buck, too, had died; however, in the 1911 census it appears that he was being helped in his business not only by his wife but by his 15 year-old son. This might explain an exchange in 1932 with Sir William Aiken, in which it appears that both frame and picture have been damaged by negligent packing. Sir William agrees with de László that Remy is liable for the damages, adding, ‘young Remy takes his responsibilities lightly' (Box 051). Buck's business had also been continued by his son, Charles Frederick Buck, but de László seems not to have carried his loyalty to the father over to the son, and shortly after the contretemps with ‘young Remy' de László begins recommending another framemaker, A. Martin, of 45 Lawn Road, Hampstead (Box 052). An invoice from Martin exists as late as 1935 for an ‘18th.century English panel frame' to Miss E. Watts for £34 (Box 086).

De László's approach to framing

De László evidently set very great store on the framing of his work; by the 1930s, when his thoughts on art were recorded by his friend, A.L. Baldry, in Painting a Portrait by de Laszlo, his views on the harmonization of painting and frame had become inseparable from the process of creating a portrait. He is reported in the dialogue in which the book is couched as saying, 'My clean canvas is now on the easel before me, in its frame'. 'In its frame?' asks Baldry. 'Yes, certainly. I believe that the frame is an integral part of the picture and must be there from the beginning. If it is added at the last moment after the picture is finished there is always the risk that it may not agree with the character of the work.'

Variations on this statement appear time after time in the letters of confirmation sent out to de László's sitters by his secretary or wife. For example, in correspondence with Lady Moncreiffe in 1933, when she had asked whether she could change a frame by Buck to her ‘own old Chippendale', the artist's secretary replied, ‘Mr de Laszlo, as you know, paints his portraits in the frame, so that the picture and frame may be entirely in harmony, and the frame become in fact, a part of the picture' (Box 076). Other letters exist in which arrangements are made for the frame to be delivered before the sittings can begin: in 1936 Leggatt Brothers of St James's Street are to send a frame so that de László can begin his full-length portrait of Lady Brocket (Box 059). Elsewhere de László notes in 1935 that he prefers an antique frame or a ‘good copy' and to choose it himself (Box 059).

This was not his invariable practice earlier in the century, as the National Portrait Gallery's portrait, Jerome K. Jerome, was first framed in one of the Renaissance cassetta frames, before being reframed in its gilt Spanish-style setting. However, in at least one instance, his portrait of Prince Andrew of Greece, dated 1913, traces of paint are visible on the rebate of the frame itself, suggesting that de László spoke nothing less than the truth when he stated that, ‘I always choose the frame in which I paint, and make it a part of the picture' (Box 076).

Sources and further reading: Jacob Simon, The Art of the Picture Frame, National Portrait Gallery, 1996, pp.184-5, fig.117 (for the Jerome K. Jerome portrait). Correspondence in the Chatsworth archives, kindly communicated by Charles Noble, quoted by permission of the Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement. A.L. Baldry, Painting a Portrait by de Laszlo, 'How to Do It' Series, The Studio Ltd, 1934, pp.16-18. Tonko Grever, Annemieke Heuft and Sandra de Laszlo, de László in Holland: Dutch masterpieces by Philip Alexius de László, 2006, p.69 (other framing references or illustrations can be found on pp. 36, 41, 56, 64). For further information on the framemakers Buck and Remy, see the directory British picture framemakers.

This note was originally inspired by the exhibition of Philip de László's work in Christie's Great Rooms, January 2004, and has been revised for the display of de László's work at the National Portrait Gallery, March 2010, using the resources of the recently catalogued De László's Archive. Jacob Simon is grateful to Sandra de Laszlo and Dr Caroline Corbeau for drawing his attention to the paint on the rebate of the portrait of Prince Andrew of Greece, and  for information on labelled de László frames (Dr Corbeau was British & French Editor (2005-2012) of the Online (and in progress) Catalogue Raisonné of Works by Philip de László, M.V.O., P.R.B.A., 1869-1937  being complied by Sandra de Laszlo and her team of Editors) https://www.delaszlocatalogueraisonne.com/ .