26 Jul 21

Framers in Focus: Nineteenth-century Melbourne frame makers

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

Nineteenth-century frame making in Melbourne reflected the economic and cultural development of the region. The 1851 discovery of gold in Victoria marked the start of a forty-year boom period with dramatic population and economic growth. This led to an expansion in the art market and work opportunities for artists, which along with the prevailing fashion for decorative interiors, created a large demand for picture frames. In contrast, the early 1890s saw Melbourne at the epicentre of a great economic depression with more than a third of all income earners in the city out of work. Many frame-making businesses struggled and although some firms closed, others did continue to operate into the twentieth century.

A frame maker and artist depicted in Melbourne Punch, 19 October 1882. Courtesy of Trove, National Library of Australia.

During the 1850s to 1870s, most frame makers trained in their craft in the United Kingdom and Europe prior to immigrating to Australia. Artworks requiring framing included those created using traditional painting and printmaking techniques, as well as newly developed photographic and printing processes. Most firms offered their clients a range of products and services in addition to framing, including packing and shipping artworks, supplying artists’ materials, dealing in and restoring pictures, and manufacturing architectural elements and furniture such as large mirrors (known as looking glasses).

Through the NGV Centre for Frame Research a series of ‘Framers in Focus’ essays have been written about key frame makers and framing businesses established in Melbourne during the nineteenth century. In addition, a timeline of Early Melbourne Frame Makers shows the active period of each framer, in relation to significant events both for local artists and Melbournians more broadly.

Several frame makers have been the subject of in-depth investigations in published literature; however, for many framers from this period, much less is known. Historic frames that retain frame maker’s labels provide the most direct evidence of a frame maker’s output (see ‘What do frame maker labels reveal?’), while archival material, such as business directories, newspaper articles, advertisements and genealogical sources, offer valuable additional information. In recent years, extensive digitisation and online publication of archival documents has provided further useful material to supplement the published record.

Henry Burn, Swanston Street from the Bridge, 1861, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Gift of John H. Connell, 1914.

From 1857, frame makers in Melbourne were listed annually in the Sands & Kenny (later known as Sands & McDougall) street and business directories, under the headings ‘Carvers and gilders’, ‘Woodcarvers’, and from 1869 as ‘Carvers, gilders, picture framemakers and printsellers’. At the end of the 1850s, there were only ten of these businesses listed in the directories, with this number growing to more than two hundred in the 1890s.

The listed businesses include those producing frames in-house, and/or supplying frames assembled from imported mouldings*A term generally used to describe a timber length that has been shaped using tools such as scrapers, planes or rotary cutters. It is the basic shape of the frame profile. . They employed workers with a range of trade skills such as joinery, ornamenting in composition (a mouldable dough-like material) and gilding. Additionally, some of the firms listed may have supplied frames under their own label that were actually manufactured by other local businesses.

In the information presented, the NGV’s Conservation team acknowledges the extensive previous work published, including articles in the Melbourne Journal of Technical Studies in Art: Frames from 1999. These include Dr Hilary Maddocks article ‘Picture framemakers in Melbourne c. 1860–1930’, which forms the basis of the frame maker addresses on this site. An invaluable reference about frames held in the NGV Collection is Framing the Nineteenth Century: Picture Frames 1837–1935 (2007) by John Payne, former Senior Paintings Conservator, National Gallery of Victoria. Other key publications are listed in the ‘Further reading’ section for each frame maker. This essay series aims to capture information about the main frame makers of the period, with additional frame makers to be included as further information comes to light.

Further reading

School of Historical & Philosophical Studies, The University of Melbourne, ‘Depressions’, eMelbourne the city past and present,, accessed 7 Sep., 2020.

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.

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