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Lawrence's influence on picture framing

Whether the fashion for heavy frames can really be laid at Lawrence's door is difficult to prove but he can be credited with bringing framing to a new magnificence. Indeed, in the scale of his frames, Lawrence was rarely surpassed by any major portrait painter in Britain.

John Constable, when on the hanging committee of the Royal Academy in 1830, found that the excessive size of the frames gave him considerable trouble; an exhibitor he remonstrated with on this point defended himself by saying that his frames were made exactly on the pattern of those of Sir Thomas Lawrence, leading Constable to reply, 'It is very easy to imitate Lawrence in his frames' (C.R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, 1951 edition, pp.186-7). This exhibitor may have been the portrait painter, Henry William Pickersgill, to whom Constable wrote complaining of the enormous frames on pictures at the Royal Academy, ‘For yourself, you plead the example of Lawrence, which I wonder at’, adding that it was ‘all of the piece with the manner in which he [Lawrence] viewed the art’ (R.B. Beckett (ed.), John Constable's Correspondence: vol.IV Patrons, Dealers and Fellow Artists, Suffolk Records Society, vol.10, 1966, p.283).

Lawrence's influence on framing can be seen in the work of two other leading Royal Academicians, Thomas Phillips and Sir David Wilkie. Many of Phillips's frames relate to the type that Lawrence was using in the 1810s but have bolder corners; while Lawrence abandoned this style, Phillips continued to use it for the rest of his career so that his frames of the 1830s (e.g., Simon 1996 fig.105) are much like Lawrence’s of twenty years before. Wilkie liked 'a frame with rich corners and then more plain in the middle'; his frames are more varied than Phillips's but in his later work he usually favoured the small-scale ornament of Lawrence's frames of the 1820s while giving greater prominence to the centre and corner motifs, as in his small seated full-length Duke of York, 1823 (repr. Simon 1996 fig.106).

Already, within Lawrence’s lifetime, other framemakers were using his patterns, and acknowledging them by name, for example in July 1828 when John Smith framed a picture by Joshua Reynolds, newly acquired by Robert Peel, in ‘Sir Thos Lawrence pattern’ presumably to match the frames made by Morant a few years earlier for portraits commissioned by Peel from Lawrence himself. Smith continued to supply Lawrence pattern frames specifically for Peel into the early 1830s. Subsequently, another framemaker, Robert Thick worked for Sir Robert Peel, from 1841 to 1850 (Simon 1996 p.170). Many of his frames for Peel were in the Lawrence style, including those for Frederick Richard Say’s Earl of Ellenborough, c.1846, and Duke of Newcastle, 1848 (National Portrait Gallery, the former repr. Simon 1996 p.116).

T.R. Longley, otherwise unknown, advertised his large and well-assorted stock of picture and other frames, including a 'Sir Thomas Lawrence' frame at £1.6s, size 30 x 25 inch (The Art-Union April 1845 p.115). Richard Scully, a prominent late 19th-century London composition picture frame moulding manufacturer, was offering Lawrence frames in his wholesale trade catalogue in the late 19th century.

The so-called Lawrence frame remained current until the 1920s: the National Portrait Gallery’s framemaker was describing such frames as ‘Lawrence Pattern’ in 1919 (Simon 1996 p.170), while the Countess of Londonderry asked the portrait painter Philip de Laszlo for ‘a nice old Lawrence frame’ when she wanted a heavier frame for her portrait (National Portrait Gallery, de Laszlo archive, 061-0071). Ashworth Kirk, the Nottingham moulding manufacturers, were offering Lawrence frames in their wholesale trade catalogue as recently as the 1920s.

Introduction (for publications cited in brief)

Jacob Simon
[email protected] 
October 2010