26 Jul 21

Framers in Focus: Isaac Whitehead


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

Throughout the 1860’s and 1870’s Isaac Whitehead was the preeminent frame maker in Melbourne supplying frames for many established artists, including Eugene von Guerard, Louis Buvelot, Nicholas Chevalier and Thomas Clark. As well as being a skilled artisan, Whitehead was a trained painter and exhibited his paintings nationally and internationally. He was recognised for both his frames and paintings and was an active member of the artistic community in Melbourne. One of his pictures A spring morning near Fernshaw, painted in 1880, is in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria.

Whitehead was originally from Ireland and probably learnt his trade from his father, a skilled carver and gilder. In the Irish Almanac of 1848/1851 Isaac was listed as operating his own business as a picture framer. Whitehead exhibited several items including picture frames at the Great Industrial Exhibition in Dublin in 1853 and lived for some years in England. He established his frame making business in Victoria in 1859 in the suburbs of Melbourne, moving to the central location of Collins Street in 1862. At this time the frame makers John MacLachlan and Richard Norton were favoured by the leading artists. However, Whitehead soon dominated the prestige frame market. Other makers of high-quality frames at the time were Henry Wilson (operating in the late 1850’s and early 1860’s) and W.R. Stevens (from late 1860’s through to the turn of the century).

Whitehead’s business offered a diverse range of products and services. These included the manufacture of picture and mirror frames, drawing room furniture and architectural fittings, and the cleaning and restoration of paintings. Whitehead exhibited a range of his products, including picture frames, at the Victorian Exhibition 1861 and the Australasian Intercolonial Exhibition 1866-7. In 1874 he was selected to exhibit paintings and frames in the Victorian Intercolonial Preparatory to the Philadelphia Centenary, for which he received medal awards. Whitehead also received vice-regal recognition, listing ‘By Appointment of His Excellency the Governor’ on many of his frame labels.


Corner detail of the Whitehead (Snr) frame on Eugène von Guérard, Spring in the Valley of the Mitta Mitta with the Bogong Ranges, 1866.

Whitehead is most well-known for his frames from the mid-1860’s which combine a classical revival*A nineteenth century frame style based on ancient Greek and Roman architecture. profile with naturalistic botanical corner ornaments and detailed designs on the frame lengths, based on classical, botanical and arabesque*Type of interlacing, geometric ornament derived from Arabic designs. patterns. Although Whitehead developed his own distinctive version, this style of frame appears to be derived from British forms, as seen on works in overseas and Australian collections. In other Whitehead examples, Rococo revival*Later versions of the Rococo style that originated in France in the 18th century, with swept edges and prominent ornament at the corners and centres. style corners are commonly used. Many of the frames feature slips*A narrow inner frame, generally flat or bevelled, that sits within the rebate at the sight edge of the main frame. (inner frames) with curved upper corners.

Whitehead’s earlier frames, from the early 1860’s, are in a Rococo revival style*Later versions of the Rococo style that originated in France in the 18th century, with swept edges and prominent ornament at the corners and centres., similar to other frames produced in Melbourne at the time. They feature detailed, scrolling ornament on the inner part of the frame and often a band of sanded decoration, located between two bead mouldings.*A moulding with a semi-circular profile. Also called astragal. These frames have decorative corners based on Rococo patterns.

Whitehead retired in 1877, however the business carried on into the early 20th century with his son Isaac Whitehead Junior at the helm. The company continued to produce high-quality frames, generally classical revival in style, at times in imitation of contemporary English frames in the NGV collection. However, around this time the Thallon company came to prominence and became the favoured framer of many leading artists.


Corner detail of the Whitehead (Jnr) frame on Rupert Bunny, Sea Idyll, (c.1890). The design appears to be based on the original frame on J.W. Waterhouse, Ulysses and the sirens, 1891, also in the NGV collection.

Melbourne business addresses for Whitehead (based on Maddocks 1999, unless otherwise indicated).

Business name Address Year
Isaac Whitehead 135 Gertrude St, Fitzroy 1859 1The Argus, 9 July 1859, p.7
Whitehead, Isaac 51 Young St, Collingwood 1861
83 Collins St East 1863-1866
87 Collins St East 1867-1876
Whitehead, Isaac Snr 87 Collins St East 1877
Whitehead, Isaac Jnr 87 Collins St East 1878-1888
178 Collins St 1889
Whitehead, Isaac 178 Collins St 1890-1893
181 Collins St 1894-1898
Off 199 Little Collins St 1900
178 Collins St 1901-1903
201 Little Collins St 1904-1905

Biographical notes

Isaac Whitehead was born in c.1819 in Ireland, the son of Joseph Whitehead, a carver and gilder, and Ann Studdard. Isaac married Rebecca Mailey and the couple had five children: Joseph (b.1840), Annie Amelia (c.1846), Isaac (b.1848), Richard (c.1856) and Alicia Rebecca (b.1858). The family came to Australia around 1858. Isaac Whitehead senior passed away in 1881, and his wife Rebecca passed away in 1883 in Prahran, Melbourne.

Unfortunately, after only one year of Isaac Whitehead junior taking up operation of the business he was labelled ‘insolvent’ (unable to pay his bills) and the local papers of the time declared an estate sale of his belongings on a Friday the 13th of June 1879.2The Herald, 11 June 1879, p.3 Isaac (junior) had been charged with trespass of an adjoining business premises a year earlier.3The Australasian, 23 Nov. 1878, p.22 However, despite these setbacks he continued with the business until 1905.

Isaac Whitehead jnr. married Elizabeth Lamb in 1865, Elizabeth being the sister of John Lamb who married Isaac’s sister Annie Amelia the year prior in 1864. Their children were Minnie Elizabeth, Herbert Isaac, Shirley John Joseph, Vernon Joseph Whitehead, William Gordon and Ethel May. Tragically Elizabeth died in a horse and buggy accident in 1894 in Wodonga aged 54 years old.4Wodonga and Towong Sentinel, 21 Sep. 1894, p.3

Isaac joined the Collingwood Rifles around 1860 and was extensively involved throughout his life with various military groups, such as the Victorian Scottish Regiment, serving for 38 years up until his death. His son Vernon Joseph was also involved holding a commission as Captain in the Australian Garrison Artillery. In Isaacs’s death notice he is labelled as a Major in the first Victorian Indian Regiment. Newspaper accounts record that Isaac suffered an unusual medical condition, catalepsy, which is characterized by a trance or seizure with a loss of sensation and consciousness accompanied by rigidity of the body presenting as physically dead. Apparently as a child he was declared dead, with the coffin ordered, but he regained his vital functions. Isaac died in 1906 after a short illness in Williamstown aged 62.5Williamstown Chronical, 12 May 1906, p.3

Further reading

Ana Maria Espinoza, ‘A Framemaker of Colonial Melbourne: Isaac Whitehead c.1819-1881’, Melbourne Journal of Technical Studies in Art: Frames, The University of Melbourne, 1999, pp. 33-48.

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.

A selection of additional frames by Isaac Whitehead, senior and junior, in the NGV collection

Josiah Wedgwood, medallion, (1872), by WEDGWOOD, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire (manufacturer); William HACKWOOD (modeller)

Edward Trenchard (1890) by Tom ROBERTS

The Queen’s bouquet, (1891), by Berthe MOUCHETTE

Pandy Mills, Wales, 1847, by James Baker PYNE

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

Notes

1

The Argus, 9 July 1859, p.7

2

The Herald, 11 June 1879, p.3

3

The Australasian, 23 Nov. 1878, p.22

4

Wodonga and Towong Sentinel, 21 Sep. 1894, p.3

5

Williamstown Chronical, 12 May 1906, p.3