31 Mar 20

Encompassing an empire

It is very likely that English artist E.M. Ward designed this remarkable frame specifically for his painting Josephine signing the act of her divorce. The frame decoration uses official emblems of the French Empire period and directly links to the historical theme of the picture, referencing traditional ‘trophy frames’, that were popular in Europe from the seventeenth century.

Napoléon was proclaimed Emperor of the French in 1804, and to help establish and promote the authority of the new regime visual emblems were specifically chosen by Napoléon and his advisors based on those used in previous eras. These symbols were first used for official purposes such as the Empire’s coat of arms and coronation robe. During the Napoléon period they came to be widely employed in architecture and the decorative arts including frames.

Fast forward half a century, and a British frame maker once again utilised symbols associated with the French Empire, reinterpreting them on a Victorian era frame. An exceptionally distinctive symbol are the large sculptural bees covering the mitre joins at each corner of the frame. Bees symbolised hard work, industry, purity and healing, and were also linked to the earliest rulers of France dating to the 5th century.1For a detailed account see Bees in the frame: Part 2 – the Napoléonic bee by the Frame Blog Less easily recognisable are the ornaments at the centres of the sides and below the ribbon bow at the top. The cone-shaped ‘Jupiter’s spindles’ emit thunderbolts, and in this case are mounted with eagle wings. In ancient Rome the combined emblems of the thunderbolt and eagle represented the incredible power of the god Jupiter. Additionally, at the top member, either side of the ribbon bow, there is an axe emerging from bundles of bound sticks. These early symbols known as fasces, represented strength through unity during the French Empire period.

Each frame length is decorated with stylised laurel leaves and berries, bound with a ribbon, representing a garland or wreath. Since ancient times a garland of laurel leaves, one and the same as bay leaves used in cooking, has represented honour and victory. Another unique aspect of the frame is the plaque at the centre of the bottom member surrounded by a naturalistic wreath of laurel leaves. The plaque bears hand-painted inscriptions identifying the main individuals depicted in the painting.

Examination of the back of the frame shows a handwritten inscription with the artist’s name and his address from 1852, giving further proof of the frame’s originality. There are also two labels for Thomas Agnew & Sons who were English art dealers as well as frame makers. However, rather than the production of the frame, the labels date to the purchase of the painting by Agnews in both 1871 and 1873.

Although the frame maker is yet unknown, it is clearly the work of a highly skilled artisan. Construction steps included shaping and assembling the timber substrate, its decoration with composition ornament pressed from specially carved moulds, and surface finishing with gold leaf. Unfortunately, the subtleties of the original gilding have been largely obscured by overgilding during a later restoration, although the original gilding remains on the central plaque. This unique frame continues to reflect the magnificence of the Napoléonic era and plays a vital role in expressing the story of the painting.