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Lawrence and Regency taste

If any one person can be seen as leading the taste in heavier frames in the early nineteenth century it was Sir Thomas Lawrence. Painter to the King at the age of twenty-three in 1792, knighted in 1815 and President of the Royal Academy from 1820, Lawrence became the acknowledged leader of his profession. His influence on picture framing was not welcomed by his older contemporary, James Northcote, who complained of the resulting expense: 'To be sure, the flaring gaudiness of our exhibitions has gone its utmost length, not only in the pictures, but in the frames as well; 'tis Lawrence who has brought up this fashion of having such expensive frames' (Ernest Fletcher (ed.), Conversations of James Northcote RA with James Ward, 1901, p.163).

The Royal Family viewing the exhibition of the Royal Academy, etching by P.A. Martini, after J.H. Ramberg, 1789 (National Portrait Gallery).

Fig. 1. The Royal Family viewing the exhibition of the Royal Academy
etching by P.A. Martini, after J.H. Ramberg, 1789
(National Portrait Gallery).
Click on the image above to view larger version

The increasing importance of public exhibitions following the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768 was to have a profound influence on the framing of pictures. Although it was not until the early nineteenth century that wide, rich frames became almost universal, complaints of 'massy gold frames' encumbering the Academy walls were being made as early as 1781, when it was said that 'the carver rather than the artist deservedly claims our attention' (Simon 1996 p.18). Frames continued to get wider and deeper over the next generation for a number of reasons. One was the fashion for a heavier more masculine style of architecture in the Regency period. Another was the introduction of composition, a plaster mixture known as 'compo', as a means of reproducing ornament since it gave framemakers the scope for much more elaborate decoration at reasonable cost. But the primary reason for adopting showier frames at exhibitions seems to have been that they were considered an effective means of selling pictures, or at least of attracting public attention.

Heavy frames were said to encourage buyers, both of the old master paintings flooding into Britain in the years following the French Revolution, and of the modern masters on the walls of the Royal Academy. In 1804 the dealer William Buchanan wrote to his agent in Rome, 'It is wonderful how much better pictures sell by being in handsome, rich, deep frames. I have mentioned before that English purchasers are much led by first impressions, and often buy upon the impulse of advantage as a handsome frame.' And in 1828 the genre painter Thomas Uwins, writing from Italy, made clear his opinion about selling pictures: 'I know the importance of first impressions. I believe frames pay more than pictures.' (Simon 1996 p.19).

It would however be a mistake to regard the need to sell pictures as the sole moving force behind large frames. The activities of collectors in the first half of the nineteenth century suggest that there was a prevailing ethos that wide frames were de rigeur from an aesthetic point of view. In the 1820s, for example, George IV had the frames on the Canalettos in his new gallery at Windsor Castle widened to four-and-a-half inches, by the carver and gilder, Joseph Crouzet, while in the 1840s the Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, one of the most important collectors and patrons of the period, was prepared to widen the frames on works acquired for his gallery at Drayton Manor (Simon 1996 p.19).

2. Lawrence's approach to picture framing
Introduction (for publications cited in brief)