26 Jul 21

Framers in Focus: Alexander Fletcher

Framers in Focus: A series of essays on 19th century Melbourne frame makers produced by the NGV Centre for Frame Research.

Originally from Scotland, Fletcher was a photographer of note in New Zealand before migrating to Melbourne in 1870. Over the next 20 years his business activities expanded from a small-scale framer, to one of the city’s most prominent and influential art exhibitors and dealers. Fletcher’s business focus in the 1880’s was on the exhibition and sale of British and European paintings and prints, although there is evidence that he continued the framing and gilding aspects of the business.

Fletcher appears several times in the NGV’s Gallery Register of Accounts between June 1874 and October 1884 for the supply of new frames and the re-gilding and repair of other frames. However, only two frames in the NGV collection have been identified as by Fletcher, both retaining their framer’s labels. One is the frame for a miniature and the other a large watercolour. The latter frame appears to be composed of lengths of ‘stock’ moulding*A moulding that is mass-produced in lengths, and cut to size and assembled to form a frame. , which has been pre-made and then cut and assembled to the dimensions of the painting. Moreover, the detailed ornament on the main part of the frame looks to have been produced by machine, whereby the pattern is pressed into the moulding material using a metal roller decorated with an engraved design. Given Fletcher’s extensive importation of artworks from overseas it is possible he could have imported these frame mouldings from large European manufactories and cut and assembled them in Melbourne

David Law, Cliveden on the Thames, 1865-1883, in a Fletcher frame dated 1880-82.

Detail of the frame on David Law, Cliveden on the Thames.

Frame label from David Law, Cliveden on the Thames.

Despite his endorsement by the Governor as gilder and picture frame maker (as detailed on the frame maker’s label above) it seems that Fletcher’s frames were of secondary quality compared to the work of the leading framers Whitehead and Thallon. Apparently, Fletcher’s frames were favoured by collectors and institutions rather than the prominent artists of the day.

In the 1880’s ‘Fletcher’s Art Gallery’ in Collins Street was a popular and well-known business, recommended in travel guides. The Anglo-Australian Society of Artists exhibition was held at Fletcher’s in 1885. The directories indicate in 1884 and 1887 Fletcher shared premises with frame maker Isaac Whitehead junior at 87 Collins Street East, where the Whitehead business had been located for many years. Throughout the 1880’s Fletcher worked in an official capacity at numerous Great Exhibitions in Melbourne and other cities. His role was usually that of superintendent, involving the practical work of sourcing artworks from lenders, organizing the hanging of the works, and selling the artworks. These positions were beneficial for his business and increased his profile and connections within the industry. As an art dealer, among his clients were Alfred Felton, the industrialist who later bequest his massive fortune to the NGV, and the state galleries of South Australia and Victoria.

The year 1893 marks Fletcher’s last listing in the business directories and essentially his disappearance from the public record. Given the timing it seems likely that his business was impacted by the 1890s depression and the bank crash of April-May 1893, which caused widespread economic hardship.

Biographical notes

Alexander Neil Fletcher was born in 1837 in MacDuff Scotland to Neil Fletcher and Janet Black. Fletcher’s mother remarried to Donald McDonald in 1844 and the family migrated to New Zealand aboard the Gladiator on the 25th October 1861. While in Scotland, Fletcher’s occupation was listed as an engine smith. However, once in New Zealand Fletcher set up a photographic studio in November 1861.

Fletcher married Catherine Reid McGee, the daughter of the local publican Charles McGee, in The Manse, Nelson, New Zealand on the 3rd September 1870. The next day they embarked on a ship to Melbourne, settling in South Melbourne (known then as Emerald Hill). They had seven children, Alexander Neil (b.1871), Charles (b.1874), Henry (Harry) (b. 1877), Louis William (b.1880), George Bruce (b.1882), Janet McDonald (1884) and Catherine Mary Downer (1887).

In Fletcher’s personal life, he sadly lost his son Charles in a railway accident in 1912, and another son Alexander in 1914, before his own death later that year at the Old Colonist Home, on Rushall crescent in North Fitzroy.

Melbourne business addresses for Fletcher (based on Maddocks 1999*).

Business name Address Year
Fletcher, Alexander 116 Elizabeth St 1872-1876
Collins St East 1877
99 ½ Collins St West 1878, 1879
29 Collins St East 1880, 1882
87 Collins St East 1884, 1887
257 Collins St East 1888
176 Collins St 1889
Fletcher, A. 12 Lowerflat, Eastern market, Bourke Street East 1881, 1883, 1885, 1886
230 Collins St 1890-1892
117 Collins St 1893

*These include businesses listed under ‘Carvers, gilders, picture framemakers and printsellers’. Listings under other trade categories are not shown.

Further reading
Caroline W. Jordan, ‘Fletcher’s of Collins Street: Melbourne’s leading nineteenth-century art dealer, Alexander Fletcher’, The La Trobe Journal, 2005. Vol. 75, pp.77-93.

Dr Hilary Maddocks, ‘Picture Framemakers in Melbourne c.1860-1930’, Melbourne Journal of Technical Studies in Art: Frames, The University of Melbourne, 1999, pp. 1-32.

John Payne, Framing the Nineteenth Century: Picture Frames 1837–1935, The Images Publishing Group Pty Ltd., Mulgrave, Victoria, 2007.

Another frame by Alexander Fletcher in the NGV collection

Lady Margaret Grosvenor, (1888-1894), by William Charles ROSS

Read more about frames at the NGV’s Centre for Frame Research