Framers in Focus: A series of essays on 19th century Melbourne frame makers, produced by the NGV Centre for Frame Research.
Melbourne-born Elizabeth (Lillie) Williamson designed, carved and gilded picture frames which were highly regarded in both England and Australia. Indeed, in the early twentieth century, she was one of Britain’s most celebrated wood carvers. Williamson’s frames were influenced by a range of historical styles, as well as the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau designs.
Coming from a wealthy background, her father co-owned the affluent Craig Williamson department store in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. While little is known of her early artistic training, she is recorded as a student at the National Gallery Art School in Melbourne in the early 1880s. In the years following her return from a Grand Tour of England and Europe, Williamson exhibited around five oil paintings in the annual exhibitions of the Victorian Artists Society, between 1888 and 1892. Around the turn of the century, she commenced carving lessons in Melbourne with Mr Dunne.1The Argus, Feb. 1923, p.10. Possibly refers to J.A. Dunn, listed 1891-7 at 269 Hoddle St, Abbotsford under ‘Carvers, Gilders, Picture Framemakers and Printsellers’ in the Sands & McDougall business directories (Maddocks 1999). At the time, woodworking was a popular craft activity pursued by women and Williamson developed her skills well beyond those of a leisurely pastime.
Williamson’s earliest recorded carved frame was made for the artist Tom Roberts around 1894. After a lengthy courtship Williamson and Roberts married in 1896, moving to London in 1903. She continued her studies in carving and gilding at the London City Council’s Central School of Art and letters written to family members indicate she arranged to have lessons with Mrs Batten, whom she regarded as the best gilder in England. During this period, she won several awards, including a medal and certificate for a carved and gilded frame at the Imperial International Exhibition in London in 1909. She also had one of her frames purchased by Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise who would have relished the opportunity to own a frame made by a female frame maker being a strong proponent of the arts and feminism. Williamson completed numerous private commissions for picture frames while continuing to create frames for Roberts, including those for two paintings he exhibited at the Royal Academy.
There is one frame known to be by Lillie Williamson in the NGV collection, on Penelope painted by Roberts painted in 1919. The flowing shape of the carving on this frame is reminiscent of both seventeenth century Dutch frames and Art Nouveau forms.
In addition, the NGV collection is fortunate to hold a collection of frame designs by Williamson, mostly dating from the early twentieth century. Many of the designs feature floral motifs such as lilies, waratahs and waterlilies. There are also drawings of berry and leaf frames and French Rococo style*Rococo is an 18th century French decorative style, featuring flowing curves, including ‘C’ and ‘S’ forms and shells. frames with complex cut-out areas*Where the ornament is pierced, with gaps revealing the wall behind the frame. in the carving. These life-size working drawings indicate Williamson’s artistic practice involving tracing paper and ‘carbon paper’ to copy repeated patterns, and transfer designs to the wood as a guide for carving.
Elizabeth Williamson, Picture frame design, (c 1906-1909), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, gift of Lisa Roberts, 1976.
Elizabeth Sarah (Lillie) Williamson was born in 1860 in Collingwood to Caleb Williamson and Elizabeth (nee Cakebread). Lillie and Tom Roberts were married in Melbourne at St Hilary’s Church East Kew in April 1896. They moved to Sydney where their only child Caleb Grafton was born in 1898. The family lived in London for around twenty years, returning to Australia in 1923. Lillie Williamson passed away on the 3rd January 1928 and was buried at Boroondara Cemetery, Kew, Victoria, Australia.
Pamela C. Gray, ‘A pioneer of Australian picture framing: An Introduction to the Work of Lillie Williamson’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, 1884, vol. 34, pp.48-58.
Holly McGowan-Jackson and Jessica Lehmann, ‘Australian Framing Royalty: Lillie Williamson’, Gallery, Jan-Feb 2020, pp.60-4.
John Payne, Framing the Nineteenth Century: Picture Frames 1837–1935, The Images Publishing Group Pty Ltd., Mulgrave, Victoria, 2007.
The Argus, Feb. 1923, p.10. Possibly refers to J.A. Dunn, listed 1891-7 at 269 Hoddle St, Abbotsford under ‘Carvers, Gilders, Picture Framemakers and Printsellers’ in the Sands & McDougall business directories (Maddocks 1999).