(Telegraph) Christopher Howse–Sacred mysteries: Framing a door into heaven

Most reproductions of Whistler’s Nocturne Blue and Gold ”“ Old Battersea Bridge (1877) show it without the frame. On the gilt wood frame that the painter had designed he put the stylised butterfly sigil that served for the signature that he had not put on the canvas. I was glad to see the whole thing reproduced as a frontispiece to the book Whistler and the Thames that went with the exhibition at Dulwich last year.

The same habit of leaving out frames in reproductions is even more of a loss with The Scapegoat, by Holman Hunt, dating from 20 years earlier. When he exhibited it at the Royal Academy in 1856, instead of a stock commercial Salon frame, he supplied a solid, slightly convex bar of gold, into which symbolic motifs had been carved in shallow relief.

As the historian of picture frames, Lynn Roberts, points out, the motifs he used “are designed to support the Old Testament subject of the painting, but interestingly they also work to expand upon the image itself by alluding to events in the New Testament”. Thus, below the canvas is a seven-branched candlestick, but next to it a cross. One each side of the canvas are reliefs of a dove with a sprig of olive and a heartsease in a cruciform array of leaves.

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