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A pioneer of Australian picture framing: an introduction to the work of Lillie Williamson


A knowledge of picture frames can prove invaluable to an art historian seeking to date a painting or to confirm aspects of its provenance. Yet despite the fact that the history of European and American frames has been well documented in recent years, there is very little published material on framing in Australia. A case in point is the work of the important carver and gilder Elizabeth (‘Lillie’) Williamson (1860–1928), whose contribution to the history of framing in this country has to date received little or no attention in the literature. 

This article is not intended as a survey of the entire range of Lillie Williamson’s professional activities; rather, it represents a first attempt to examine in its historical context her work as a carver, gilder and framemaker. Another important function of this study – and the point at which we will begin our investigation of Williamson’s professional life – is to explore the attitude to picture frames of the Australian artist Tom Roberts, who married Lillie Williamson in 1896. It will be demonstrated that while Roberts generally relied on conventional, mass-produced frames to house his work, he also frequently used handmade and hand-carved frames, a number of which were the work of Lillie Williamson. 

At the present stage in our knowledge of Roberts’s interest in the framing of his pictures, his active involvement in this area may be traced to the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, held at Buxton’s Art Gallery, Melbourne, in 1889. The artists represented in this landmark exhibition demonstrated a radical new approach to the presentation and display of their work, not only exercising a degree of control over the way in which their pictures were framed, but also participating in the manufacture of the frames themselves. 

Wide and flat, cut from single planks of open-grained timber, and rustic in appearance,1See J. Payne & P. Chaloupka, ‘Framing the 9 x 5s’, Gallery: Bulletin of the National Gallery Society of Victoria, June 1986, p. 11. the frames used in the 9 by 5 exhibition were inspired by the notion of the ‘anti-academic’ picture frame as espoused by Anglo-American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903): 

[E]ach work of art [was] executed on the lid of a cigar box – so limiting its dimensions to 9 inches by 5. Roberts, ever alert and original, had initiated the scheme … Principally because of shortage of funds, but also because it was another novelty, the frames were as unusual as the ‘canvases’. Lengths of kauri were obtained from a timber yard, were cut into suitable sizes, put together and coloured – the whole a studio job.2R. H. Croll, Tom Roberts: Father of Australian Landscape Painting, Melbourne, 1935, p. 25. 

The critic from Table Talk perhaps best summed up the approach of the 9 by 5 artists when he wrote of observing Roberts, together with Charles Conder and Charles Douglas Richardson, splashing gold, silver, and bronze enamel paint onto dozens of neat, unpolished rectangles during the week before the opening of the exhibition.3Table Talk, 16 August 1889, p. 6. 

Although affordability was doubtless an important factor in the framing of the ‘9 by 5’ pictures, the handcrafted frames – which represented a radical departure from late-nineteenth-century conservative framing practice in Australia – were also designed with a view to achieving visual harmony with the paintings they housed, as well as with the decorative accessories of Mr Buxton’s studio. This factor, together with the consistent attention to rusticity, strongly suggests that Roberts and his fellow artists considered the new frames integral, and not merely incidental, to the way in which their works were presented, particularly within the context of their display at Buxton’s gallery. In devising the ‘look’ of the exhibition, the 9 by 5 artists would no doubt have been influenced by the theories of Whistler and, specifically, by his views relating to decorative unity.4The ‘Aesthetic’ style of interior decoration, pioneered by Whistler and others in England, had reached its peak in Melbourne during the 1880s and clearly exerted an influence on the 9 by 5 exhibition. Roberts himself had almost certainly seen Whistler’s much-publicised exhibition of panels, entitled Notes – Harmonies – Nocturnes, at Dowdeswells’ Gallery, Bond Street, London, in May 1884. 

During the decade that followed the 9 by 5 exhibition, Roberts continued to house the majority of his own paintings and drawings in standard, mass-produced frames. However, as we shall demonstrate here, it was probably during this period, in the wake of the innovations of the 1889 exhibition, that he also first began to commission handmade, hand-carved frames from Lillie Williamson. 

In order to assess the place of Williamson’s frames within the context of Roberts’s framing practices as a whole, it is important to look briefly at the frames that house the greater part of Roberts’s oeuvre from the 1890s and early 1900s. Although these frames embrace several decorative types, they reveal a preference, common in the late nineteenth century, for gilded neoclassical styles derived from European patterns. 

A number of these frames – such as those housing Coming south, 1886 (National Gallery of Victoria);5H. Topliss, Tom Roberts 1856–1931: A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1, Melbourne, 1985, no. 62. Professor Laurie, 1887 (University of Melbourne);6ibid., no. 91. Portrait of a Lady, late 1880s (private collection, Melbourne);7ibid., no. 161. and The she-oak, c.1889–91 (private collection, Melbourne)8ibid., no. 171. – were made by Thallon’s, a highly regarded Melbourne framemaking firm.9Among the many framers active in Melbourne from the 1860s, two companies dominated the market in the framing of oil paintings: the firm of Isaac Whitehead (Senior and Junior), and that of John and Thomas Thallon. Thallon’s were the principal framers in the late nineteenth century, and seem also to have been the preferred framers for the National Gallery of Victoria. The company’s frames can be found on paintings by Roberts and by many other well-known artists of the time, including Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin, Portia Geach, Charles Rolando, Jane Price and Violet Teague. The professional relationship between Thallon’s and Tom Roberts is confirmed by the appearance of the artist’s name in a surviving Thallon account book for the years 1888/89–1902, where it is shown that Roberts purchased several Thallon frames in the 1880s; unfortunately, however, the details in the ledger are not specific enough to enable identification of the individual works recorded. It is also of interest to note that in 1886 Roberts’s studio was at 95 Collins Street, Melbourne, the address at which Thallon’s then had their premises (Roberts’s 1887 painting Professor Laurie is in a Thallon frame labelled with this address). The Thallon ledger referred to above was examined in the Conservation Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. It was discovered in the archives of Jarmans, the framing company that inherited the equipment and records of Thallon’s. For further discussion of Thallon’s, see H. Maddocks & R. Sloggett, Framemakers in Melbourne, Melbourne, 1990, p. 1; see also Croll, p. 43. The Thallon frames are bronzed or gilded, have wide flats, and are decorated with running laurel or oak-leaf machine-pressed mouldings; typical of their era, they carry designs that have been adapted from earlier styles. 

The application to wooden profiles of machine-pressed patterned plaster composition in low relief was a common technique in the late nineteenth century. It involved carving highly detailed relief patterns into wooden blocks, from which press mouldings were made in the plaster ‘compo’; carton-pierre was then sometimes applied to the frame profile.10Carton-pierre is a kind of papier-mâché, made from glue, whiting, paper pulp and chalk. With the introduction of increasingly simplified construction techniques that allowed for easier and quicker manufacture, plaster eventually came to replace carved wood for use in patterned frames.11See M. McArthur & T. Mulford, ‘A Word about Frames’, in Thomas Bock: Convict Engraver, Society Portraitist (exh. cat.), Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston, & Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1991, pp. 80–2. 

What the use of this kind of frame meant in practice was that the only area in which an artist could exercise a degree of control over the appearance of his or her frames was in the choice of their patterning. But even this choice was a limited one. By the 1850s the body of traditional patterns that had emerged from the designs of the three previous centuries had been reduced to a small number of common, conventionalised forms; these were based on French, Italian and German designs, and on a few variable neoclassical patterns constructed from combinations of stock ornaments and motifs. 

Tom Roberts was by no means unusual in his use of mass-produced frames during this period; in the 1890s, at the height of Roberts’s career, few artists housed their works in specially designed and hand-crafted frames. Nevertheless, it is curious that Australian artists of the time relied to such an extent on frames that were almost totally derivative: by the 1840s skilled Italian framemakers had established businesses in Sydney and Melbourne and were making high-quality frames to order, as well as offering imported frames.12See R. Maguire, ‘The Fine Art of Framing’, Australian Antique Collector, January–June 1986, p. 44. 

Roberts did, on occasion, use European frames – albeit frames of a traditional design – for his Australian works. His 1895 portrait of Edward David Stewart Ogilvie (Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney),13Topliss, vol. 1, no. 241. for example, is housed in a particularly fine European frame (fig. 1). Roberts worked on this portrait at Yulgilbar, Ogilvie’s property in the Clarence River area of New South Wales. Evidence confirming that the present frame is that in which the portrait was originally housed is provided by a photograph that shows the painting hanging above a mantelpiece at Yulgilbar c.1900.14This photograph is now in the collection of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney. For a reproduction, see T. Lane & J. Serle, Australians at Home: A Documentary History of Australian Domestic Interiors from 1788 to 1914, Melbourne, 1990, pl. 302. 

The carved and gilded frame on the Ogilvie portrait is a very fine example of a seventeenth-century Florentine leaf frame type, composed of several intertwined and perforated layers with highly carved shell and leaf ornamentation. That Roberts had a special interest in this frame – the provenance of which has been difficult to ascertain15Lane & Serle, p. 273, note that in 1859, during their honeymoon, Edward and Theodosia Ogilvie had spent several months in Florence, where they visited galleries and the studios of artists and craftsmen. It is possible that the frame housing the Ogilvie portrait was purchased in Europe at this time, and subsequently brought to Australia. – is indicated by his sketch of it in a letter he wrote to his friend S. W. Pring in 1895 during the course of the portrait’s execution.16Tom Roberts, letter to S. W. Pring, 16 January 1895, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, MSS 1367/2 no. 8. 

Thus, while the majority of Roberts’s paintings from the 1890s reveal a reliance on conventional framing techniques and forms, the artist’s intermittent use of fine European frames suggests a continuing fascination with the visual relationship between frame and picture. This fascination is even further evidenced by Roberts’s occasional use of hand-crafted frames during this period, and, in particular, by what appear to be the first of his commissions to Lillie Williamson. 

Lillie Williamson was born in 1860, the daughter of Caleb Williamson, a wealthy department store proprietor, and Elizabeth Cakebread.17By the 1880s Caleb Williamson was managing Craig & Williamson, a prosperous department store in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. The family home was ‘Rangeview’, in Mary Street, Kew. Williamson must first have met Tom Roberts in 1885, or perhaps early the following year, as Roberts’s earliest surviving letter to her is dated 5 April 1886. Probably early that year, Roberts made a portrait of Lillie at Phillip Island, Victoria (Miss Elizabeth ‘Lillie’ Williamson at Phillip Island (present whereabouts unknown)),18Topliss, vol. 1, no. 71. and at around the same time, possibly shortly afterwards, he portrayed Caleb Williamson (private collection, Melbourne).19ibid., no. 94. In March 1886, Lillie went overseas with a friend, Mrs Lewis, and Mrs Lewis’s family. The group made the ‘Grand Tour’ of Great Britain and the Continent, visiting England, France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. In letters to her mother in Melbourne, Williamson mentions Roberts a number of times in passing, referring to his request for brushes and to the introduction he gave her to an artist friend in London. 

While the details of Williamson’s early art training are not known,20Woodworking was an extremely popular craft in Williamsons day, and was undertaken by women throughout Australia. Much of the carving of the time was influenced by designs in magazines such as The Studio and The Workers’ Quarterly (see J. Isaacs, 200 Years of Australian Women’s Domestic and Decorative Arts: The Gentle Arts, Sydney, 1987, p. 174). she apparently began carving frames for Roberts, as we have already indicated, as early as the 1890s. H. Topliss states that it was Williamson who designed and carved the frame for Roberts’s painting Peanahgo Billipimbah: Billie Millera (present whereabouts unknown), a work that was probably executed late in 189421Topliss, vol. 1, p. 72, no. 229. when Roberts travelled to Yulgilbar to paint the portrait of Edward Ogilvie. Another extant frame that Topliss records as having been carved by Williamson is that housing Roberts’s portrait of Mrs Joy Vandergrift Eccles (private collection, Tasmania), executed in 1898.22ibid., no. 309. If the frame on the latter painting is indeed Williamson’s work, it seems likely that she carved it specifically for this portrait. 

A third frame that has been noted by Topliss as the work of Williamson is that housing Roberts’s sketch of Caleb Roberts, c.1905 (private collection, Western Australia) (fig. 2).23ibid., no. 395a. This beautiful frame, whose flowing, naturalistic design features iris-like leaf patterns connected by intertwining stems, was in fact made several years earlier than Roberts’s painting: the date 1898 has been carved into the centre of the top transection. The design vocabulary of this frame, as well as its mode of execution, place it within the tradition of the English Arts and Crafts Movement, which had been in existence in Great Britain for some thirty years and had begun to attract interest in Australia during the 1890s.24See C. Miley, Beautiful and Useful: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Tasmania (exh. cat.), Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston, 1987, p. 13. I have located a drawing for this frame in a private collection in Melbourne (fig. 3). 

In addition to the examples cited by Topliss, designs for two further frames made by Williamson during the 1890s have been located by the author; these designs are now at the National Gallery of Victoria and in a private collection in Melbourne. 

Another frame from this period, which was found recently in the workshop of present-day Melbourne framemaker Lloyd Reeves and has been attributed to Williamson by Mr John Jones,25Mr John Jones, Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne, interview with author, 4 June 1991. may or may not have housed a painting by Tom Roberts (fig. 4). However, its attribution to Williamson seems certain. Dated 1895 in pencil on the verso, the frame is made of New Zealand kauri, a material Williamson is known to have used, and even more convincing evidence of authorship may be found in a frame design by Williamson in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. The National Gallery of Victoria drawing is clearly, in my view, a study for the simply carved, oil-gilded frame identified by John Jones. 

While less ornate than other frames by Williamson, the newly discovered frame resembles them in several respects and may represent an example of the framemaker’s early, as yet undeveloped, style. Similarities to the later frames can be seen in the swept arcing on all four sides and in the decorative profusion of the carved lobing of the auriculate corners. 

It is not yet possible to know whether the recently identified frame was originally carved for a Roberts painting. An apparently contemporary label on the reverse of the frame indicates that it once housed Arthur Streeton’s Sunlit hillside (present whereabouts unknown), and Williamson may well have worked for artists other than Tom Roberts. 

The examples given here make it clear that Williamson was making picture frames – and, specifically, picture frames for Tom Roberts – as early as the 1890s. The early 1900s was also a period of great industry for her. Having married Roberts, after a long courtship, on 30 April 1896,26Topliss, vol. 1, p. 72. she travelled with him to London early in 1903, in part so that he could complete The opening of the first Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, May 9, 1901 (the so-called Big picture), 1901–03 (High Court of Australia, Canberra).27ibid., no. 371. Roberts and Williamson remained in London until 1923, and it was during this period that Williamson was to become one of Britain’s most celebrated wood carvers. It has been ascertained that she won several prizes for her carving, and that on at least one occasion her work was purchased by a member of the British royal family. 

The singer Mme (Nancy) Elmhurst Goode recorded the purchase of a Williamson frame by Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, at an Arts and Crafts Exhibition c.1906. According to Mme Goode, the frame had a carved design of bryony berries and leaves,28See Croll, p. 157. a description that corresponds to a drawn design (for an oval frame) at the National Gallery of Victoria (fig. 5).

  

Unfortunately, the frame recorded by Mme Goode has not been located, although it appears in a photograph of Williamson at an exhibition of her work c.1906 (fig. 6) – possibly the same exhibition as that at which it was purchased by the Princess. 

Williamson’s successes in Britain in the early 1900s served also to establish her reputation in her own country. In 1908 the British Australasian reported: 

H.R.H. Princess Alexander of Teck consented to give the prizes in connection with the exhibition of women’s work in the annexe of the N.S.W. court on July 2nd, the prize winners being the Misses Thea Proctor, Frances Hodgkins, Dora Ohlfson, Dora Meeson Coates, Charlotte Davis, Dorothy Roberts, Eva Gilchrist, and Mrs Tom Roberts.29British Australasian, 16 July 1908. 

That same year, demonstrating her continuing commitment to developing all aspects of her work as a framemaker, Williamson wrote to her niece Eleanor Simpson: ‘I have been to see Mrs Batten, the best gilder in England and arranged to take lessons with her after Easter’.30Lillie Roberts, letter to Eleanor Simpson, 1908 (family papers, Melbourne). In 1909, ‘Mrs Tom Roberts’ was awarded a medal and certificate for a carved and gilded frame (present whereabouts unknown) exhibited by her in the Imperial International Exhibition at Shepherd’s Bush, London.31The certificate awarded to Williamson is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. 

In 1910, with part of her inheritance, Williamson built a combined house and studio at Golders Green, London. Roberts referred to the house fondly as ‘the pepper pot’32S. W. Pring, cited in Croll, p. 149. because of its odd shape: part of the house was semi-circular, with a chimney at the centre. The large studio where Williamson carved her frames stretched along the side of the house, facing north onto Bigwood Road. 

Throughout the London years, Williamson continued to carve frames for use by Roberts, and several of them are mentioned in the artist’s letters. In 1905, writing to fellow painter Frederick McCubbin, Roberts reported: ‘[T]he missus is wood carving and gilding – is doing the frame for my “Genii”. She has come out and begins to think London an interesting place’.33Tom Roberts, letter to Frederick McCubbin, 23 October 1905, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria, MS 8187. 

The date of this letter corresponds to the period when Roberts was working on a picture called The sleeper awakened, c.1905–13 (present whereabouts unknown).34Topliss, vol. 1, no. 388. A photograph in the artist’s scrapbook, the only extant evidence for the existence of this painting, indicates that it depicts a subject from The Arabian Nights35Roberts’s scrapbook is held at the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, MSS 4586. – the ‘Genii’ referred to in the letter to McCubbin may therefore be an affectionate reference to The sleeper awakened

In 1909 or 1910, two of Roberts’s works – Mme Hartl, c.1909 (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra),36Topliss, vol. 1, no. 406. and April girl (Miss Nettie Hollander), 1909 (private collection, Melbourne)37ibid., no. 407. – were hung in Williamson frames at the Royal Academy.38See unidentified newspaper article, cited in Croll, p. 98. Croll suggests, apparently erroneously, that the paintings were shown at the Royal Academy in 1908; Topliss, vol. 1, nos 406, 407, gives the date of the RA exhibition as 1910, but earlier in her catalogue records the exhibition as having taken place in 1909 (p. 75). 

Mme Hartl is still in its original frame (fig. 7), the only extant frame by Williamson that carries her signature. The frame, a rough pencil sketch for which appears in a Williamson sketchbook in private hands (fig. 8), is deeply carved and swept to the midpoint of its sections, which meet in a ‘clasp’ of carved ornamentation. Carved perforations at the midpoint of the lower transection give weight and balance both to the frame and to the portrait it houses. In this instance, Williamson’s frame appears to have been commissioned not by Roberts but by his sitter. In a letter of 28 October 1910 to her sister Lucy Simpson, Williamson relates that Mme Hartl paid ten pounds for her frame.39Lillie Williamson, letter to Lucy Simpson, 28 October 1910 (family papers, Melbourne). At least one other Williamson frame appears to have been commissioned by a private individual. A note in Williamson’s hand on the verso of a photograph (fig. 9) (National Gallery of Victoria) of a completed frame reveals that Lady Margaret ?Downville had requested the frame for a watercolour drawing of Lord Louth. Extant drawings for this carved, gilded and burnished frame indicate that its features included tudor roses, a carved crown forming an acroterium at the apex, and initials (fig. 10). 

 

The extent to which Williamson chose to make hand-carved frames as a protest against the modern industrial system of mass-production is difficult to assess, given the dearth of available documentary information. However, her exploration of a diverse range of decorative styles, and her integration of carved ornamentation into the structural fabric of her works, suggest that her framemaking was informed by a preference for manual and traditional methods of manufacture. 

Williamson’s involvement in the framing of works by Tom Roberts was to take a new turn with the artist’s important one-man exhibition at Walker’s Galleries, Bond Street, in 1914 – the first occasion since the 9 by 5 exhibition of 1889 that Roberts had taken a key role in supervising the framing of his works for exhibition. In a letter dated 1913, the artist wrote from Italy to S. W. Pring: 

North Switzerland and South, the warm blue peaks of Italia. I had a lot of work and now have arranged at Walkers in Bond Street. During the weeks there I did two of my best things … Well they’re to go into carved Italian frames that are first to go with any room. This sounds an extravagant expense but it isn’t.40Tom Roberts, letter to S. W. Pring, 31 October 1913, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria, MS 8187. 

In addition to the paintings in ‘carved Italian frames’, which were personally selected by the artist and possibly carved in Florence,41As yet I have not located any of the paintings from the exhibition in hand-carved Italian frames. at least three works in the London exhibition were recorded at the time as having been displayed in frames carved and gilded by Lillie Williamson. These included April girl, Mrs M. P. Thompson, 1912 (private collection, England),42Topliss, vol. 1, no. 434. and Pansies, 1913 (private collection, London).43ibid., no. 461. For a review of the exhibition, see the Morning Post, 14 February 1914. 

Pansies is still in its original frame (fig. 11), which was made by Williamson at the Golders Green studio.44Mr Noel Roberts, letter to the author, 15 August 1991. The swept articulation of the sections of this frame is characteristic of Williamson’s oeuvre: the carved decoration has a rich fluidity, with boldly conceived corner cartouches de-emphasising the frame’s rectangularity. The whole effect was most likely inspired by French rococo-style frames. The initial design for this frame, also extant, has been located by the author in a private collection (fig. 12). 

In 1919, Tom Roberts made a return visit to Australia, and in March 1920 he held an exhibition at the Athenaeum Hall in Melbourne. Seventy-two works were exhibited, most of them Italian scenes, flower studies and portraits that had been shown at Walker’s Galleries five years earlier.45See Croll, pp. 157–8. A note in the catalogue to the Melbourne exhibition informed the public that several of the frames used by the artist had been carved and gilded by ‘Mrs Roberts’, who, it was further noted, had won distinction in London as a designer and carver; the catalogue also stated that frames by ‘Mrs Roberts’ were eagerly sought by connoisseurs, and that one had been selected by Princess Louise.46ibid., pp. 119–20. 

Just over a decade later, in 1931, the critic Ernest Fysh applauded Roberts’s ‘good taste’ in the framing of his paintings. In particular, Fysh singled out the portrait Penelope, 1919 (National Gallery of Victoria),47Topliss, vol. 1, no. 491. a work that had been exhibited at the Athenaeum in 1920: 

[T]o learn good taste in the framing of pictures it is not altogether wise to take the [National Gallery of Victoria] too much for granted. It is true moreover that what suits a large gallery is not often quite adapted for a private sitting-room, and vice versa. For an example of a frame chosen with good taste to fit the picture one may venture to cite that which surrounds ‘Penelope’. This was carved, they say, by the artist’s wife, and it certainly makes the custom built frame look, as they doubtless feel, as uncomfortable as a flapper beside a well dressed lady.48E. Fysh, ‘The Framer’s Art’, Australian Home Beautiful, 1931, p. 33. 

The frame housing Penelope is indeed an interesting example of ‘a frame chosen with good taste to fit the picture’, for the strong organic line of the design integrates particularly well with the portrait image of Kitty Pring, daughter of Roberts’s old friend S. W. Pring (fig. 13).49Roberts’s portrait sketch was made while he was visiting Kitty Pring in Belgium (family papers, Melbourne). Equally worthy of note is the carving itself, which has been rendered on a convex profile and, sculptural in quality, has a strong sense of motion and life. In addition, the swept side-sections give the corners of the frame an ‘eared’ effect, while the viscous, wavelike gilded surface playfully responds to light reflection. Stylistically, this late frame represents a shift in Williamson’s carving, to a mode perhaps influenced by Art Nouveau. Another possible source of influence for the auricular style is the Dutch seventeenth-century Lutma frame, examples of which would have been seen by Williamson at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem during a holiday in Holland in 1906. Indeed, in his account of this holiday in a letter to Rodney Cherry, Roberts noted that ‘the Mrs did a good deal of carving over there’.50Tom Roberts, letter to Rodney Cherry, 25 October 1906 (family papers, Melbourne). 

As this article hopes to have shown, an important aspect of Lillie Williamson’s career as a framemaker and carver was her ongoing professional relationship with Tom Roberts – a relationship attested to not only by the extant examples of Williamson frames made for Roberts’s paintings, but also by many references in her own correspondence and in other family letters. It is also hoped that this introductory article51I intend to follow these preliminary investigations with a more comprehensive study of the life and work of Lillie Williamson. has indicated something of the evolution of Tom Roberts’s own interest in the integral relationship between a painting and its frame – from his early choice of simple, hand-hewn frames for the 9 by 5 exhibition, to the specially hand-carved frames, made both in Italy and in the workshop of Lillie Williamson, that he selected for his exhibition at Walker’s Galleries in 1914. There can be little doubt that Roberts’s fascination with the aesthetics of the picture frame – together with his appreciation of manual and traditional methods of frame manufacture – developed in the context of his personal and working relationship with Lillie Williamson.

Pamela Clelland Gray, Curator/Educator, The Dromkeen Collection of Australian Children’s Literature (in 1994).

Acknowledgements 

I am greatly indebted to the Roberts family for their generosity and access to family papers and photographs; to Mr Humphrey McQueen, currently writing a biography of Tom Roberts, who has generously shared his research; to Mr John Jones; and to Dr Hilary Maddocks for her support in the preparation of this article. 

 

Notes 

1          See J. Payne & P. Chaloupka, ‘Framing the 9 x 5s’, Gallery: Bulletin of the National Gallery Society of Victoria, June 1986, p. 11. 

2          R. H. Croll, Tom Roberts: Father of Australian Landscape Painting, Melbourne, 1935, p. 25. 

3          Table Talk, 16 August 1889, p. 6. 

4          The ‘Aesthetic’ style of interior decoration, pioneered by Whistler and others in England, had reached its peak in Melbourne during the 1880s and clearly exerted an influence on the 9 by 5 exhibition. Roberts himself had almost certainly seen Whistler’s much-publicised exhibition of panels, entitled Notes – Harmonies – Nocturnes, at Dowdeswells’ Gallery, Bond Street, London, in May 1884. 

5          H. Topliss, Tom Roberts 1856–1931: A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1, Melbourne, 1985, no. 62. 

6          ibid., no. 91. 

7          ibid., no. 161. 

8          ibid., no. 171. 

9          Among the many framers active in Melbourne from the 1860s, two companies dominated the market in the framing of oil paintings: the firm of Isaac Whitehead (Senior and Junior), and that of John and Thomas Thallon. Thallon’s were the principal framers in the late nineteenth century, and seem also to have been the preferred framers for the National Gallery of Victoria. The company’s frames can be found on paintings by Roberts and by many other well-known artists of the time, including Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin, Portia Geach, Charles Rolando, Jane Price and Violet Teague. The professional relationship between Thallon’s and Tom Roberts is confirmed by the appearance of the artist’s name in a surviving Thallon account book for the years 1888/89–1902, where it is shown that Roberts purchased several Thallon frames in the 1880s; unfortunately, however, the details in the ledger are not specific enough to enable identification of the individual works recorded. It is also of interest to note that in 1886 Roberts’s studio was at 95 Collins Street, Melbourne, the address at which Thallon’s then had their premises (Roberts’s 1887 painting Professor Laurie is in a Thallon frame labelled with this address). The Thallon ledger referred to above was examined in the Conservation Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. It was discovered in the archives of Jarmans, the framing company that inherited the equipment and records of Thallon’s. For further discussion of Thallon’s, see H. Maddocks & R. Sloggett, Framemakers in Melbourne, Melbourne, 1990, p. 1; see also Croll, p. 43. 

10        Carton-pierre is a kind of papier-mâché, made from glue, whiting, paper pulp and chalk. 

11        See M. McArthur & T. Mulford, ‘A Word about Frames’, in Thomas Bock: Convict Engraver, Society Portraitist (exh. cat.), Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston, & Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1991, pp. 80–2. 

12        See R. Maguire, ‘The Fine Art of Framing’, Australian Antique Collector, January–June 1986, p. 44. 

13        Topliss, vol. 1, no. 241. 

14        This photograph is now in the collection of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney. For a reproduction, see T. Lane & J. Serle, Australians at Home: A Documentary History of Australian Domestic Interiors from 1788 to 1914, Melbourne, 1990, pl. 302. 

15        Lane & Serle, p. 273, note that in 1859, during their honeymoon, Edward and Theodosia Ogilvie had spent several months in Florence, where they visited galleries and the studios of artists and craftsmen. It is possible that the frame housing the Ogilvie portrait was purchased in Europe at this time, and subsequently brought to Australia. 

16        Tom Roberts, letter to S. W. Pring, 16 January 1895, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, MSS 1367/2 no. 8. 

17        By the 1880s Caleb Williamson was managing Craig & Williamson, a prosperous department store in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. The family home was ‘Rangeview’, in Mary Street, Kew.

18        Topliss, vol. 1, no. 71. 

19        ibid., no. 94. 

20        Woodworking was an extremely popular craft in Williamsons day, and was undertaken by women throughout Australia. Much of the carving of the time was influenced by designs in magazines such as The Studio and The Workers’ Quarterly (see J. Isaacs, 200 Years of Australian Women’s Domestic and Decorative Arts: The Gentle Arts, Sydney, 1987, p. 174). 

21        Topliss, vol. 1, p. 72, no. 229. 

22        ibid., no. 309. 

23        ibid., no. 395a. 

24        See C. Miley, Beautiful and Useful: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Tasmania (exh. cat.), Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston, 1987, p. 13. 

25        Mr John Jones, Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne, interview with author, 4 June 1991. 

26        Topliss, vol. 1, p. 72. 

27        ibid., no. 371. 

28        See Croll, p. 157. 

29        British Australasian, 16 July 1908. 

30        Lillie Roberts, letter to Eleanor Simpson, 1908 (family papers, Melbourne). 

31        The certificate awarded to Williamson is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. 

32        S. W. Pring, cited in Croll, p. 149. 

33        Tom Roberts, letter to Frederick McCubbin, 23 October 1905, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria, MS 8187. 

34        Topliss, vol. 1, no. 388. 

35        Roberts’s scrapbook is held at the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, MSS 4586. 

36        Topliss, vol. 1, no. 406. 

37        ibid., no. 407. 

38        See unidentified newspaper article, cited in Croll, p. 98. Croll suggests, apparently erroneously, that the paintings were shown at the Royal Academy in 1908; Topliss, vol. 1, nos 406, 407, gives the date of the RA exhibition as 1910, but earlier in her catalogue records the exhibition as having taken place in 1909 (p. 75). 

39        Lillie Williamson, letter to Lucy Simpson, 28 October 1910 (family papers, Melbourne). 

40        Tom Roberts, letter to S. W. Pring, 31 October 1913, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria, MS 8187. 

41        As yet I have not located any of the paintings from the exhibition in hand-carved Italian frames. 

42        Topliss, vol. 1, no. 434. 

43        ibid., no. 461. For a review of the exhibition, see the Morning Post, 14 February 1914. 

44        Mr Noel Roberts, letter to the author, 15 August 1991. 

45        See Croll, pp. 157–8. 

46        ibid., pp. 119–20. 

47        Topliss, vol. 1, no. 491. 

48        E. Fysh, ‘The Framer’s Art’, Australian Home Beautiful, 1931, p. 33. 

49        Roberts’s portrait sketch was made while he was visiting Kitty Pring in Belgium (family papers, Melbourne). 

50        Tom Roberts, letter to Rodney Cherry, 25 October 1906 (family papers, Melbourne). 

51        I intend to follow these preliminary investigations with a more comprehensive study of the life and work of Lillie Williamson.