Framing references in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Correspondence

by Lynn Roberts, November 2004, revised February 2006

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's letters provide an exceptional insight into the ideas and opinions of a Pre-Raphaelite artist who originated many new framing designs. The new edition of his letters, The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, edited by William E. Fredeman (Cambridge, 2002-5, five vols), includes an index, notably omitted from the 1965 version edited by Doughty and Wahl, making it easier to explore the artist's references to frames, framemakers, colourmen and related matters. For instance, the index for the first volume, 'The Formative Years: I. 1835-1854', flags Rossetti's trip to Bruges (letter reference 1849.19-20). Here is his reaction to the work of Van Eyck, Memling and David: an immediate menu for the pictures he had in mind when he painted and framed Ecce Ancilla Domini! and The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. We also find his throwaway reference to the attack in The Athenaeum on Ecce Ancilla, with its 'fanciful scribblings on the frame[s]' (1850.7).

Unfortunately there is no separate index category for 'frames' or 'framing'. It is necessary to look under the names of the makers themselves (Foord & Dickinson, Joseph Green, Joseph Hogarth, Dayson and Henry Murcott), the picture titles, and the patrons. For example, the reframing of Ecce Ancilla in a reed-and-roundel design is mentioned in an unidentified entry under Joseph Green, by the picture title in an entry for 'framing' under the patron Francis MacCracken, and by the title in a reference to Green in the section for Rossetti himself.

If the researcher knows what he or she is looking for, then the index does help considerably; in the last resort it can be trawled for key words. For example, under 'Browning, Robert: General: (1856)', we find 'DGR on Page's portrait & revs of Men & Women, [18]56.4, RB on frame, 4n3'. This reference leads to an illustration of William Page's framed portrait of Browning, alongside Rossetti's letter to Browning in which he criticizes both painting and frame, and the accompanying note quoting Browning's opinion that the frame was 'suitable'.

Inscribed frames

Far more interesting is Rossetti's discussion of the way he would like to frame some photographs by William Bell Scott. The entry, 'Scott, William Bell: Artistic works: The History of the English Border, DGR wants to frame photos of, [18]59.2 & n1', leads to a letter of January 1859: 'I want to have your Wallington photographs framed together. I shall have them framed in a wide flat of plain oak, which clears up the white of a photograph wonderfully. Would the inscriptions opposite be right? - & if so, would you add the other 2, or more than 2, as I will have them written at once on the frame'. The subsequent entry in the index points to a later letter concerning these photographs: 'They are before me now, looking magnificent in a broad oak flat under the glass (the only right thing for photographs, and it clears up the white so) and all the inscriptions correct. I really believe that if they were published in a series of photographs framed as these are, they would do you immense good'.

It is also possible to miss references altogether; if the researcher were tracking Rossetti's inscribed frames, some would be noted in the index, such as ' Sir Launcelot in the Queen's Chamber inscrip on frame, [1859]. 7n2', where the editor provides the inscription in his note to this letter; whilst Rossetti's own suggestion in his letter to Ellen Heaton on Mary in the House of John, that 'The motto on the frame might be "a little while & ye shall not see me, & again a little & ye shall see me"' is given no entry in the index.

Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown

Throughout Rossetti's correspondence, sprinkled thinly but enticingly, are sufficient references to framing and the practical side of completing a painting to make a distinct category within an index like this highly desirable. He writes to Ford Madox Brown in joking mood, 2 November 1853, 'The frame for my watercolour [ The Death of Beatrice for Francis MacCracken] has just come and it is

&c &c &c &c.'

But he can describe in great detail, also to Brown, what he wants done in the case of a particular frame (March 1867):
'I send you the bad copy of Tibullus. If the figures seem too small for the frame, you might tell Green to make the pattern all on a little smaller scale - indeed I almost fancy such was the case in the first made ­ i.e. for the double watercolour of Dante. You might tell them to examine my drawing in this point if they have it. It will have to have a small black flat next the sight, within the little arrow moulding, but I do not think the gold flat should be narrower than at present. The ornaments on the circles to be all of the chefs-square & wheel kind, as we said last night, and as flat in relief as the last one made for you. I want two frames, one for Tibullus & one for the Companion. This second however can be made exactly like yours - without any black. Will you let me know whether you think on mature reflection that the frame will suit the Tibullus, and also any accessory ideas, and then I will write to Green giving the order and telling him to go to you for directions.'

This pattern was still current in 1871, when Rossetti asked Brown to order a copy of the second frame for himself, for a work he was engaged on for the collector Frederick Craven: 'You had better employ Bartram.' By this time Rossetti had quarrelled with Joseph Green and moved on to the framemakers Foord and Dickinson.
Rossetti also discusses design problems with Brown, showing how closely they worked together on these early gilt oak reed-and-roundel frames (9 September 1867): 'What do you think of substituting for the reeds (in the Tibullus case and all things with small figures, a low relief flat fluting-section thus - [small diagram here]. This would be less salient than the other and would tell when only the two flat patterns are used in the squares & circles. Also for same cases, instead of arrow moulding, this - [small diagram here] the circles being again not rounded knobs but almost square edged & flat'.

Rossetti and other framing references

On 14 August 1861 he notes to his brother, William Michael, 'Dixon had the coolness to write to me the other day, wanting the proper measurements and mode of making for oak frames!' which may well refer to the novel practice, once rife in northern countries and revived by Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown, of setting their work in oak 'flats' or mounts, fastened with butt joints rather than by mitres, and gilded directly onto the wood. This intriguing comment has no tag in the index whatsoever, being merely noted under 'Dixon, Thomas'.

In writing to the art agent and entrepreneur, Charles Augustus Howell, on 11 November 1872, Rossetti included a rare sketch of a picture frame: 'The Proserpine gets on fast and I must be ordering the frame. I really don't know what to do better than the one I have adopted for most of my heads, only instead of leaving the flat round the circles plain, I should try a pounced pattern as in that Venetian frame [sketch of picture frame]. I must write to F[oord]. & D[ickinson]. at once with measurements.'

The 'Venetian frame' is probably that on Monna Vanna, where the frieze of the inner gilt frame is enriched with a scrolling foliate pattern, picked out in punchwork. The sketch in the letter shows one of the large roundel frames, where raised circular motifs are set onto the bevelled central frieze. It is a very swift drawing, out of proportion and with the barest indication of mouldings, but its value for students of Rossetti's frames is in its uniqueness.

Howell took a practical part in the framing process, as is evident from another letter of 2 December 1872, from Rossetti to his patron Frederick Leyland: 'The Borgia has gone to Howell, as it needs his special care, he having done the mounting all along. The frame of it is with F. & D. who will send it on to Howell.'

Elsewhere in the Correspondence we can learn about Rossetti's attitude to his earliest frames, to antique frames, and to the frames of other artists. On 22 January 1870 he writes to the author and editor, Charles Eliot Norton, 'I duly got long ago the drawing of Clerk Saunders [watercolour by Elizabeth Siddal]. I have had the silvered flat gilded, which makes a wonderful improvement in the tone, which the former leaden tint damaged terribly. Silver flats were one of the wilder experiments of our frame-making in those days.'

On 26 July 1871, writing from Kelmscott to William Bell Scott, he notes that he is working 'on a drawing for a small picture I mean to paint here to fit a beautiful old frame I have'; and then, on 17 January 1873, to Ford Madox Brown, 'I have now got the old portrait here which was being varnished and the frame regilt with inscription Anno Dom: 1578. The frame is so beautiful that I must get it copied for things of my own.'

And finally, to Brown in June 1874, 'nothing of yours among the things Leyland sold last Saturday. His big Leighton [ Syracusan Bride Leading Wild Beasts to the Temple of Diana ] fetched - what do you think? £2,677! And the thing is really bad even of its own kind! I believe that flash frame he put on it did the job!'