The Gallery holds the most extensive collection of portraits in the world. Search over 215,000 works, 150,000 of which are illustrated from the 16th Century to the present day.

Extending frames

Musy Extending Frames advertisement


It is well known among artists and dealers that a frame gives a work of art authority - never show a prospective client a picture without a frame!

In the 18th and 19th centuries when canvases were generally painted to standard sizes there would usually have been a frame of the right size to hand to show a picture at short notice. In the 20th century the collapse of the old system of standard sizes encouraged the idea of the extending or adjustable frame.

A pair of Musy Extending Frames (fig. 1) were lent to the exhibition, The Art of the Picture Frame, at the National Portrait Gallery in 1996. Made of wood, papier-mâché and pressed card by R. Musy of Lyons in France, these frames were advertised in The Artist in March 1934 (fig. 2) by Lechertier Barbe Ltd as enabling 'an artist to show his pictures completely framed to a prospective client. They are instantly adjustable to accommodate pictures of various proportions'. This adjustment was made by sliding the hollow corners over the side sections. The frames came in three sizes: 9 1/2 x 13 3/4 ins extending to 13 1/4 x 20 ins; 13 1/2 x 18 1/2 ins extending to 19 1/4 x 26 1/4 ins, and 20 x 25 3/4 ins extending to 29 x 36 1/2 ins. Prizes ranged from £1.10s 6d to £4.8s according to the size and pattern chosen.

The Musy Extending Frame was not the only flexible frame on the market. Two other examples are mentioned here, one dating to 1857, the other to exactly a century later. In June 1857, Harriot Gouldsmith approached the artist, John Linnell, asking for his endorsement for a frame which was advertised as 'The Artist's New Constructed Frame, for containing more than one work of art,... opening with ease at the back, and which, with elastic strings, will contain several Works of Arts, to be changed without trouble' (Kathryn Moore Heleniak, 'Money and marketing problems: The plight of Harriot Gouldsmith (1786-1863), a professional female landscape painter', British Art Journal, vol. 6, no. 3, 2005, p.32.)

Quite a different system, noted in The Art Bulletin of the Fine Art Trade Guild in Spring 1957 as 'An Adjustable Frame at last', was marketed by an American company, the Multi-Frame Company of Springfield, New Jersey, and was described as a 'fantastic boon to artists and anyone who has to exhibit pictures of varying size'. The Multi-Frame Company's system was quite different to Musy's: 'The frame is handsomely finished, carved in a simple manner and has a 3¾ inch section. It consists of small one-inch pieces which join together on the principle of a child's constructional toy. It can thus be adjusted in one-inch steps to any size which is a full inch measurement between 14 x 18 ins and 38 x 42 ins'. The price of this 'wonder frame' was $39.50.

Do any examples of the Multi-Frame Company frame survive? Were there other makes on the market? How far were such frames used in practice by artists and dealers?

Jacob Simon
26 August 2006
[email protected]