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Frames in the Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace exhibition

Picture Gallery. [Interior of Buckingham Palace.]©

Picture frames are often overlooked – their primary purpose being to protect the painting and offer a ‘bridge’ between the ‘real world’ of a gallery or interior and the subject depicted. However, frames in the Royal Collection can offer surprising evidence about the changing tastes of monarchs and collectors, coupled with clues as to which residencies and specific locations the paintings have been hung in in the past, as well as being examples of highly skilled craftsmanship in their own right.

Here we explore a few frames from our Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh.

Detail of frame for RCIN 7405325©

In 1850 a radical reframing campaign took place, affecting all the paintings displayed in the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace. Commissioned by Prince Albert, these frames of a shallow profile and repeating foliate ornament (based on foliage), replaced the deep Regency frames preferred by George IV, thus reducing the shadows cast on the paintings.

The result can be seen in the 1910 photograph of a wall of the Gallery. The introduction of these frames unified the interior space, bringing a sense of order which would have appealed to Prince Albert.

The majority of the frames were made by William Thomas, of 29 London Street, Fitzroy Square, who was appointed a carver and gilder to Queen Victoria in 1837 and worked extensively for the royal family from 1840. They are made of composition – a mixture of whiting (chalk), glue, resin and linseed which is pressed into moulds and then applied to a wooden substructure and later gilded.

The contrast between the substantial Regency frames and the shallow design commissioned by Prince Albert can be noted in a comparison between Douglas Morrison’s watercolour of the Picture Gallery in 1843 and the photograph of the interior of the Gallery c. 1910.  

The Picture Gallery, Buckingham Palace©
Frame for RCIN 405352, Rembrandt, Agatha Bas©

Prince Albert’s reframing campaign was one of the most significant in the history of the Royal Collection and many paintings remain in these frames. However, just over a hundred years later, in the 1970s, Oliver Millar (1923–2007), Surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures, chose to reframe some of these masterpieces once again. By this time tastes had again changed – there was a move to return paintings to what were considered more historically appropriate and harmonious frames, akin to what would have been their original frames. This was led by the pioneering picture framer Paul Levi (1919–2008) whose research into the profiles of 17th-century Dutch mouldings informed reframing in museum and private collections. At this time some of the finest Dutch paintings were reframed in dark stained wood reproduction frames, more in keeping with their original 17th-century surrounds. 

Detail of frame for The Harbour Scene at Sunset©

As part of this campaign other paintings received carved and gilded French-style frames more akin to those preferred by British collectors in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Notable paintings included in the exhibition were not displayed in the Picture Gallery in the 19th century and so have retained their historical frames.

One of the finest examples is the elegant, light French Rococo frame surrounding The Harbour Scene at Sunset by Claude Lorrain.


Which of these styles do you prefer?


Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace
Some of the most important paintings in the Royal Collection from the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace

The income from your ticket contributes directly to The Royal Collection Trust, a registered charity. The aims of The Royal Collection Trust are the care and conservation of the Royal Collection, and the promotion of access and enjoyment through exhibitions, publications, loans and educational activities.