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Lawrence's approach to picture framing

Some of Lawrence’s earliest works, small oval pastel portraits, dating to between 1782 and 1787, were presumably framed in Bath. These frames, modest standard types of the period, have a moulding with a plain hollow, a pearl sight edge and a gadrooned top edge (fig.2). A variant in slightly richer form with an overlapping husk pattern in place of the top edge gadrooning can be found on a few portraits dating to 1785 and 1786 (fig.3). Perhaps the best-known Bath framemaker of the period was John Deare (d.1794) of Kingsmead Street but no evidence has come to light as to Lawrence’s framemakers in Bath.


Fig.2. Sir Elijah Impey, pastel, by Thomas Lawrence, 1786 (National Portrait Gallery). Frame gilt compo on pine, plain surfaces burnished, width 1 ¼ ins (3 cm).

Fig.2. Sir Elijah Impey
pastel by Thomas Lawrence, 1786
(National Portrait Gallery)
Frame gilt compo on pine, plain surfaces burnished, width 1 ¼ ins (3 cm).
Click on the image above to view larger version

Fig.3. Warren Hastings, pastel, by Thomas Lawrence, 1786 (National Portrait Gallery). Frame gilt compo on pine, plain surfaces burnished, width1 ¼ ins (3 cm).

Fig.3. Warren Hastings
pastel by Thomas Lawrence, 1786
(National Portrait Gallery)
Frame gilt compo on pine, plain surfaces burnished, width 1 ¼ ins (3 cm).
Click on the image above to view larger version

When Lawrence came to London in 1787, he took lodgings at 4 Leicester Square, close to Sir Joshua Reynolds. He moved four times over the next ten years, occupying premises in Jermyn Street, Old Bond Street, Piccadilly and Greek Street, accessible both to the fashionable districts where his patrons might live and to the picture framers and workshops of Soho. It was not until 1814 that he set up in rather grander and more remote premises in Russell Square. Over these years in London he used three framemakers, William Adair, Michael Tijou and George Morant, discussed in more detail below, and dealt with another framing business, that of Thomas and James Byfield.

Lawrence was responsible for arranging the framing of many of his portraits, usually to his favoured pattern of the moment. As he explained to the Pattisons in 1817 concerning the frame for the double portrait of their two sons, William and Jacob (Polesden Lacy, National Trust), ‘When selecting a Frame myself, I usually choose one Pattern as most advantageous to my Pictures’, adding that the price of the frame was twenty guineas (Hardie 1904 p.270). It is clear that on occasion Lawrence would receive payment for frames and would subsequently pay his framemaker (George Somes Layard, Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Letter-bag, 1906, p.44).

The four frames types discussed below belong to successive decades from the 1790s to the 1820s. Though not necessarily the only patterns used by Lawrence, they are found on various of his pictures and epitomise the changing taste of the period. Each type found favour with Lawrence for a period of ten years or so, judging from surviving examples; they are almost like a uniform, marking the pictures as 'Lawrence' in a way which must have helped make his work stand out at the annual Royal Academy exhibitions. Lawrence kept a stock of frames for his own use. His former pupil, Samuel Lane, unwillingly allowed Lawrence to use two rooms in his house for storing pictures and frames in 1815, while Lawrence himself referred to his 'general stock of frames', apparently intended for exhibition use, when writing to the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1829 (Farington, vol.13, p.4654; Williams 1831, vol.2, p. 317).

Those Lawrence portraits not now in such frames seem either to have been reframed subsequently in reaction against the artist's taste for heavy frames, or were framed by the sitter rather than artist in the first place. In 1791, William Lock told Lawrence that he was sending his own framemaker to measure a picture, while in 1818 Lord Bath made it clear that his wife’s portrait, if completed, should be sent without a frame, ‘as the place he destined it for is in a room where all the pictures have frames of the same pattern’ (Royal Academy Archive, LAW/1/39, LAW/2/284, see also George Somes Layard, Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Letter-bag, 1906, p.128).

Carlo Maratta frames

Fig.4. Graham Moore, by Thomas Lawrence, 1792 (National Portrait  Gallery). Frame carved and gilt pine, width 5 ins (12.5 cm).

Fig. 4. Graham Moore
by Thomas Lawrence, 1792
(National Portrait Gallery)
Frame carved and gilt pine, width 5 ins (12.5 cm).
Click on the image above to view larger version

What is remarkable about the earliest of the four portraits, that on Lawrence’s Sir Graham Moore of 1792 (fig.4), is the traditional nature of its Carlo Maratta frame, an Italian style that had been used in Britain since the 1750s. The frame was hand carved at a juncture when mass-produced compo mouldings were beginning to undermine the carver's trade. Though broader than the Maratta frames of the 1750s and 1760s, it is otherwise not unlike those used by Francis Cotes or the young Reynolds. Indeed the pattern is very like one used by Reynolds for his full-length state portraits of George III from 1785 onwards. Lawrence's taste in frames is least well documented in the 1790s. However, when he succeeded Reynolds as Painter to the King in 1792, he appears not only to have kept to this Maratta pattern, with its prominent pearl sight edge, but also to have taken on the King's framemaker, William Adair, to frame some of his private work as well as his state portraits. 

French influence

Fig.5. Lord Castlereagh, by Thomas Lawrence, 1809-11 (National Portrait Gallery). Frame gilt compo on pine, width 5 ½ ins (14 cm).

Fig.5. Lord Castlereagh

by Thomas Lawrence, 1809-11.
(National Portrait Gallery)
Frame gilt compo on pine, width 5 ½ ins (14 cm).
Click on the image above to view larger version

The frame onLord Castlereagh (fig.5) of 1809-10 is quite different and represents a transition towards the much heavier styles of later decades. Of French inspiration, it has deep scoop sides decorated with flat interlacing husk-and-guilloche, top edges with flat gadrooning and heavy applied corners of shell-and-foliage, all the ornament now in compo, a hard plaster-based composition. This pattern, with minor variations (the guilloche sometimes replaced by a French leaf, or a boss substituted for the shell corner), is found on numerous works by Lawrence of the 1800s and, in modified form, on pictures by other artists. The effect is bold and massy, giving great weight to the containing corners, at least on small pictures like the Castlereagh portrait, and sharply focusing the eye inward by means of the decoration running at right angles to the sides of the frame. The introduction of compo encouraged deeper and wider frames because the cost of moulded ornamentation was much cheaper than that of carving. An example of this style in the exhibition,Thomas Lawrence:
Regency Power and Brilliance
is Baron Thurlow,
1802-3 (Royal coll.).

Surface pattern

Fig.6. George IV, by Thomas Lawrence, c.1814 (National Portrait Gallery). Frame gilt compo on pine, width 7 ½ ins (19 cm).

Fig.6. George IV
by Thomas Lawrence, c.1814
(National Portrait Gallery)
Frame gilt compo on pine, width 7 ½ ins (19 cm).
Click on the image above to view larger version

The freedom which compo gave the framemaker is even more apparent in the styles which followed. In Lawrence's George IV (fig.6) of about 1814 the corners are less prominent and the emphasis now is on surface pattern, in this case a motif of scrolling leaves which was a common feature in Regency decorative design. This sort of design, usually applied to an ogee section with a matt oil-gilt surface enlivened by punching, was widely influential, and was taken up by Lawrence's rival, Thomas Phillips, among others. The inner frieze of stylised leaves and acorns is another innovation, taken from contemporary decoration in furniture and architecture. Lawrence's framemaker for much of the 1810s was Michael Tijou (see below). Examples of this style in the exhibition,Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance include Lady Selina Meade, 1819 (Private coll.) and The Duke of Wellington, 1820-21 (Sir Robert Ogden).

The Morant frame

Fig.7. George Canning, by Thomas Lawrence, 1825 (National Portrait Gallery). Frame gilt compo on pine, width 11 ins (28 cm).

Fig.7. Detail of George Canning frame
by Thomas Lawrence, 1825
(National Portrait Gallery)
Frame gilt compo on pine, width 11 ins (28 cm).
Click on the image above to view larger version

The frame on Lawrence's full-length, George Canning of 1825 (fig.7) takes the design a stage further but significantly reduces the prominence of the corners and eliminates the centre ornaments. This type was used in one guise or another for portraits of all sizes but is most commonly found on Lawrence's full-lengths and half-lengths of the 1820s, including for example, Lord Liverpool of 1827 (National Portrait Gallery, on loan to National Gallery). Both the Liverpool frame and that on Canning still bear the label (fig.8) of Lawrence's framemaker of the 1820s, the interior decorator, carver and gilder, George Morant (see below). The small-scale ornament on the cross-hatched ogee sides takes inspiration from the French Régence style of the early eighteenth century but the motifs here are used as a repeating surface pattern and so are quite different in effect to the sculptural nature of the French prototype. Examples of this style in the exhibition,Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, include Charles William Lambton, exh. 1825 (Private coll. with Morant label, partly obscured), Lady Manners, exh. 1826, inner slip only (National Gallery of Scotland), Princess Sophia, 1825, with variations (Royal coll.) and Lawrence's Self-portrait, c.1825 (Royal Academy of Arts).

Lawrence's views on framing

In 1818 Lawrence advised the Duke of Wellington that his portraits should be placed in gilt frames, rather than fixed in the panels of a room, ‘the latter being as unfavorable to pictures as the former, from long experience, are proved to be advantageous’ (Gerald Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (ed.), The Private Correspondence of the first Duke of Wellington, 1952, p.157).

Lawrence's attitude to picture framing towards the end of his career is very clearly set out in a letter of 13 October 1828 to Mrs Benjamin Gott of Leeds, who wanted a narrower frame for her portrait and that of her husband than that suggested by Lawrence (Hugh Honour, ‘Sir Thomas Lawrence and Benjamin Gott’, Leeds Arts Calendar, no.25, 1954, pp.17-19). Lawrence put forward several precepts, emphasising how ‘a Frame is so much a part of the picture’: 

  • 'the comparative richness of the frames ... has been adopted with not the remotest view to their impression on the eye as mere splendid decoration'
  • 'the pattern has been selected by me'
  • 'its dimensions [are] determined solely with a view to the advantage of the Pictures'
  • a frame which is 'very plain and very narrow' is unbecoming, as is one which has 'large obtrusive Ornaments in the Centre, and corners'
  • 'A good frame ... should be sufficiently broad and rich, but the ornament of that richness composed throughout of small parts, and usually it should be unburnished'

Lawrence went on to argue with Mrs Gott for a wide frame, describing some of his recent portraits:

'You may remember, My dear Madam, the portrait of Sir Walter Scott which is not a whole length tho' it is something more than the Bishop's half length. The breadth of the moulding of that frame is 12 inches – the moulding of the frame of Sir Ashley Coopers is 10 inches. The breadth of the moulding of your intended frame is 9 inches. Will you suffer it to be 7 inches or between that and six? Less than six would I am certain be injurious to the Picture.'

The portrait of Scott, painted for George IV, remains in the Royal Collection. The frame Lawrence described would add 24 ins to the 52 ½ inch width of the portrait, an extreme ratio. In the eventuality Lawrence was forced to give way over the framing of Mrs Gott's portraits and to accept that she would use a narrower frame than he would have liked.

3. Lawrence's framemakers
Introduction (for publications cited in brief)


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