Late Victorian: Eastlake, Aesthetic...
The later decades of the 19th C. were an age of grandeur and opulent display. Fine gilded frames of the period were constructed of wide length moldings incorporating a variety of naturalistic and geometric motifs. They were embellished with corner ornaments, all made on a scale to match their grand surroundings. Frames manufactured for the more general market were also built up from length moldings, but they lack the individualized ornamentation of the finer frames, and were more often finished in oil gilt, which lacks the brilliance of water gilt, and cannot be burnished to a high lustre. Their decorative quality is, nonetheless, highly useful today.
It was the excessive extravagance of Victorian picture frames that the English designer Charles Eastlake (1836-1906) railed against in his book, Hints on Household Taste, first published in 1868. Eastlake denigrated picture frames, in which "...the wood is overlaid with a species of composition, molded into wretched forms, which pass for ornament as soon as they are gilded....This sort of frame distracts the eye by its fussiness." (p. 193) Although he did not totally reject the inventions of the Industrial Revolution, Eastlake longed for a simpler age, and he admired the hand-carved frames of the 18th C. Eastlake wanted frames to be functional. He preferred ornament incised rather than carved in relief, which he felt was too distracting to the eye, and the molding slanted back toward the wall, so as not to cast the picture in shadow.
Eastlake style frames, a label which Mr. Eastlake disowned in a later edition of his book, were made from manufactured length molding, which artisans coated with gesso and ebonized. They also created marbleized surfaces in various shades of green or grey or brown. After the framemaker cut the lengths to size and assembled the frame, he incised floral or geometric patterns into the black surface, revealing the white gesso beneath. This final touch give the frames an individual quality, which belies their industrial origins.
Another variant on Victorian frame design at the end of the 19th C. was the Aesthetic style, an amalgomation of Medievalism and Orientalism. Like the Eastlake style, Aesthetic frames are often ebonized and have incised surface patterns with naturalistic forms. Others are molded in low relief and highlighted with metallic paints in gold, silver and copper colors. The variety of their surface patterns reveals a remarkable Victorian inventiveness and creativity. This variety is well-illustrated by the examples to the right, gathered from the many that adorn my corner sample wall.
The Industrial Revolution brought with it the art of photography and the chromolithograph, as well as mass production of picture frames. Landscape and portraiture were no longer the sole domain of the rich. The middle classes decorated their walls with photographic likenesses of themselves and reproductions of famous paintings. There were thousands of fancy moldings manufactured to satisfy the demand for frames to house these artworks. Many of these frames were in the Aesthetic and Eastlake styles.