26 Jul 21

Framers in Focus: W.R. Stevens

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

A contemporary of Isaac Whitehead, W.R. Stevens was an active frame maker of high-quality frames in Melbourne from the late 1860’s to the early years of the 20th century. Featuring detailed decorative compo ornament, his frames appear on works by prominent artists of the time such as Louis Buvelot. Frame labels from the 1870’s describe the company as carvers, gilders, looking-glass and picture frame makers. By the late 1880’s the frame labels promote ‘The Fine Art Gallery’, indicating that the business also sold artworks, as well as restoring paintings, re-gilding old frames and mounting maps and plans.

Steven’s commenced business in Melbourne in 1868 with David George Coope, a frame maker from Ballarat. For unknown reasons W.R. Stevens & Co is missing from the business directories from 1889-92. In 1892 ‘D.G. Coope’ is separately listed at 33 Elizabeth Street, while in 1894 Stevens is listed at this address, as well as a second premises in Swanston Street. From 1898, Stevens was assisted by his son Charles Stuart Stevens.

In 1871 Stevens was engaged by the National Gallery of Victoria to make four frames for paintings which were part of a group of works that established the NGV collection. This included an enormous classical revival frame for the painting The Pilgrim Fathers: Departure of a Puritan family for New England by Charles Cope. At this time Stevens also framed the first Australian painting to enter the NGV collection, Fruit, fish and flowers painted by Henry Short in 1860 and gifted by the artist the following year. The frame produced by Stevens appears to be the first framing of the painting and features an ogee*A term used to describe a frame moulding with an S-curve profile. profile decorated with an intricate diaper pattern and prominent corners.*The ornament of a picture frame that extends beyond the straight sides, especially at the corners or centres. The shape of the profile and decoration on the frame lengths appears to be based on the frame for Autumnal showers by Scottish artist Peter Graham, which came to the NGV in 1869. However, the corners appear to be unique to Stevens, appearing on another of his frames in the NGV collection.

Corner detail of frame on Henry Short, Fish, fruit and flowers, 1860.

Corner detail of frame on Louis Buvelot, Waterpool at Coleraine, 1871.

Biographical details

William Robert Stevens was born in London in 1837 to Joseph Samuel Stevens and Grace Albin Stevens, and was baptized later that year at St Luke, Old St, Finsbury, England. There is evidence suggesting family ties to frame making in London, with a listing in the Guildhall London trade directories for a carver, gilder and looking glass maker named Charles Stevens from 1844 at 40 Holywell Lane Shoreditch, with Sons from 1861, and then at 43 New Inn Yard E.C 1887-1900.

There is no exact record of when Stevens arrived in Australia, however he was listed in the English census before 1860 and his first record in Australia appears in 1860. Stevens married Mary Burke in 1860 in Melbourne at the age of 23. Together they had four children, Grace Stewart (b.1862), William James (b.1864), John Joseph (b.1868) and Charles Stuart (b.1871). Mary passed away in 1872 leaving him widowed. In 1881 Stevens married Emma Harvey and had three more children, Emma Jane (b.1883), Violet Louise (b.1885) and Robert Harvey (b.1886).

Stevens passed away on the 1st October 1907 and was subsequently buried at St Kilda Cemetery in Victoria.

Melbourne business addresses for Stevens (based on Maddocks 1999)

Business name Address Year
Stevens, W.R. Vale Street, St Kilda 1868-1869
Stevens, W.R. & Co. 10 Bourke Street East 1871-1872
78 Elizabeth Street 1873-1883
21 Elizabeth Street 1885, 1886, 1888
Stevens, W.R. 361 Swanston Street 1893
33 Elizabeth Street & 361 Swanston Street 1894, 1895, 1896
33 Elizabeth Street & 361 Swanston Street & 312 Flinders Street 1897
33 Elizabeth Street & 312 Swanston Street 1898, 1899
33 Elizabeth Street & 312 Flinders Street 1900
33 Elizabeth Street 1901-1904
11 Elizabeth Street 1905-1907
The Fine Art Gallery, 11 Elizabeth Street 1908, 1909

Further reading

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.

Phip Murray, The NGV story, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2011.

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