Framing a Watercolour

Explore the different framing trends for watercolour paintings and the John Sell Cotman exhibition with Kitson Archive volunteer, Claire Firth.

Whilst cataloguing Sydney Kitson’s Cotmania volume 10 research diary (1934-1935), I came across two interesting press cuttings regarding framing trends for watercolour paintings. With plans well under way for the Re-thinking John Sell Cotman exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery in October 2017, I was curious to explore this topic more.

Beautiful wood frame painted with copper paint. Inside the frame there is a Cotman's painting of the River Yare in the county of Norfolk. It was painted using a lot of green, blue and brown colours.
On the River Yare, Cotman, c. 1809 – Oil on Panel – This painting records a subject on the river Yare somewhere downstream of Norwich. 

In the cuttings – titled Picture and Frame – Martin Hardie, then Keeper of the V&A Museum in London, discusses his preference for mounting watercolours in white or cream. Upon taking up his post at the museum in 1921, he pushed for this simplicity in framing over the ornate, gold mounts which had been popular a century earlier.

Towards the end of the 18th century, white and cream mounts with a tinted border were the norm. However, this soon began to change as the 19th century dawned. By 1820 the idea of watercolours bounded by a gold frame was in fashion as they competed with oils encased in lavish gold frames. The writer W.H. Pyne advocated this change in trend of watercolours, “bearing out in effect against a mass of glittering gold, as powerfully as pictures in oil”.


Subtle neutral wood frame. Inside the frame there is a Cotman's painting of the Refectory of Walsingham Priory in Norfolk. It was painted with oils using a lot of white, brown and blue colours.
The Refectory of Walsingham Priory, Norfolk c. 1808 – Graphite and watercolour on lair paper – Cotman was particularly attracted to humble dwellings such as the lean-to shack nestled amongst the ruins in this scene. 

By the mid-19th century, both Prince Albert and the painter George Cattermole voiced their preference for white mounts, advocating that watercolours should be displayed in such a way. Despite this, the popularity of gilded frames with gold mounts flourished, possibly due to their popularity amongst the nouveaux riche, enjoying a feeling of value for money as well as a lavish addition to their elaborately furnished Victorian drawing rooms.

Hardie also discusses painter James Whistler’s preference for gold frames, which he believes ultimately overwhelm the subtlety of Whistler’s works. It wasn’t until 1914 the case for white mounts returned, this time led by the painter Terrick Williams, who faced plenty of opposition from the diehard conservatives. By 1915 a rule was passed by the Royal Society of Painters and Watercolours that gold mounts were no longer required, and elaborate frames were banned.

By Claire Firth, Kitson Archive volunteer.

Enjoy a rare chance to see the different framing aesthetics side by side this Autumn through the John Sell Cotman exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery.

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