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Interior Decorating - Pictures and Their Framing

( Originally Published 1919 )


A VOLUME could not contain all the advice that might be offered upon this subject: the present chapter must be concise, but we shall endeavour to make it helpful.


First, then, have few pictures rather than many, and omit everything not really desirable. Avoid the cluttering of walls--if one picture is sufficient for a space do not use two. If the wall surface is highly decorative (as with a Morris or Crane paper or a cretonne effect) use none. Generally speaking, we are not attempting art-galleries : the pictures in a house are part of the decoration, and all decoration should be consistent and proportionate.

The writers already have a sufficient task on hand and have no inclination to take over that of changing human nature. Pictures are not usually purchased as decorative units—the best possible thing for a certain situation—but because they themselves appeal to the buyer. The matter of fitting them in is often left for future consideration or none at all. At least, then, let us appeal for the buying of good pictures only: for good art almost universally will fit. in—somewhere. The cultured may browse in many fields : it is difficult to guide those who have paid attention to other things in life and have neglected art, but they are at least safe in buying reproductions of the work of the masters of the past and present, provided the reproductions them-selves are worthy and adequate.

Avoid "Calendar art"; avoid the saccharinely sentimental of many Victorians, the harrowingly sentimental of such pictures as "The Doctor," and avoid the "soulful doggie" subject, unless perhaps for the nursery. Shun the hackneyed. Certain pictures have become so staled by over use that they only irritate anyone with individuality.

To those who wish to make their selections accord with environment it may be said: consider first the rooms in which they are to go and then their positions in these rooms. Do not put a dignified Holbein in a Rococo boudoir: do not put a, distinctly modern picture in a room patently of the past; do not purchase anything that will be "out of scale" with the space in which it is to go, or out of harmony with the surroundings.

If a room is of definite period character it is naturally wise to choose pictures of that period and frame them in accordance therewith (Plate 114), always remembering the latitude allowed by the principles of International-Interperiod Decoration set forth in Part III. An Italian Renaissance picture may usually be employed in a Tudor room, and an eighteenth century French print in a Georgian room.

Where a house is not strongly period in character, there is much latitude, but due discrimination should be used.

See things as a whole: avoid monotony in the choice of pictures as in everything else, but do not hang right pictures in wrong rooms or put together things that are alien in character: as extremes are most quickly apprehended let us say, for illustration, a Madonna and a fox-hunt.


Really good paintings in oil or water-colour are, of course, of the first consideration. Amateurish efforts at once condemn the taste of anyone ill-advised enough to hang them.

The old conventional flower pieces with vases and the landscape-and-architecture subjects of like period are of excellent decorative value. Some of these are now being reproduced by modern brushes.

Colourful and strongly decorative paintings and panels are appropriate for rooms in the "Modern" vein.


Colour prints are among the most delightful things at one's command. The original eighteenth century French and English prints are now almost priceless, but there are excellent reproductions at fair figures, as well as travesties which should be shunned at any price. This is also true of the old sporting print, so admirable in its proper environment.

"The Connoisseur" and some extra numbers of "The Studio" contain excellent reproductions of colour prints that may be used where small pictures are required.

Good old Japanese prints (not the modern garish things) are highly decorative and the work of the masters is great art. Some are naturally exceedingly rare and costly, but it is surprising how many good examples can still be bought at moderate figures.

The German lithographs are colourful but full of the deadly heaviness which seems to oppress all German art.

With the "Modern" style of decoration Bakst and other such strong and striking things are best. Some of the effective covers of such periodicals as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, House Beautiful, etc., may be used to great advantage when mounted as passe-partouts.

Reproductions of miniatures are frequently very attractive and dainty bits of colour decoration.

Monotint reproductions, lithographs, etchings and drawings are admirable for libraries, men's rooms, professional offices and living- and other rooms if of a scholarly or rather plain character. With the exception of etchings of figure subjects in the brighter vein, monotints are not so appropriate for use in rich and handsome drawing-rooms and boudoirs. The reason for this is given in the section on framing. Further-more, in a room where paintings in gold frames occur it is inadvisable to use monotints or other pictures in wooden mouldings.


Generally speaking, there are two differing classes of frames—the wide and heavy ones naturally appropriate to the solid medium of oil-colour and the lighter and slenderer mouldings used for water-colours, prints, and the like.

The good manufacturers of mouldings have eschewed the debased styles so prevalent a few years ago and excellent frames are now procurable. Very probably Whistler, who designed for his own pictures admirable frames, simple in line but sufficiently ornamental, was the leader in this reform, and the return to period styles has also had great influence (Plates 115 and 116). Bright and flashy gilt frames are now a thing of the past and duller gold is almost universally used. In this respect the pendulum occasionally swings too far and a little more life would be permissible. We should remember that the walls of our rooms are seldom so strongly lighted as the framers' shops and due allowance should be made. Some mouldings are so greatly dulled that when placed in their intended positions we find that too much decorative value has been lost.

This brings us to the question of what the decorative value of the picture in its frame should be. It is a decorative unit, and in size, apparent weight, character, colour, etc., it should neither jump into undue prominence nor be so unobtrusive as to sink into oblivion. If a decorator errs, it is likely to be in the direction of suppressing the picture-unit in favour of his general decorative scheme; if the artist errs it is usually in exalting it at the expense of the ensemble; there is a ditch on each side of the road, but it is not necessary to fall into either. In trying mouldings against a picture the attempt should therefore be made to visualise the combined picture and frame in the actual position they are to occupy.


The landscape or sea-piece should usually have a simpler frame than the ornamental figure subject; oftentimes the simpler it is the better. Yet it is difficult to formulate rules where each picture has requirements of its own. Frequently a painting of full and mellow harmony will look well in quite an ornamental setting if that be desired (Plate 101) and again a virile piece of work may be of sufficient strength to stand almost any frame. It is the picture that is full of detail or which is none too strong in ensemble which should not have further and distracting detail added in its frame. For old portraits nothing is so appropriate as the frames of their own time.

Unless newer portraits of women are emphatically modern in spirit we may use for them the very beautiful Adam, Louis Quinze, or Louis Seize designs. Men's portraits will be more appropriately framed in rather heavier and simpler mouldings, of which the Whistler styles are among the best examples.

There are many good non-committal designs for modern paintings of various classes.

The paintings of strongly decorative character—such as the figure-pieces of the great Frenchmen, primarily used for panels, architectural scenes and formal flower-pieces with sculptured vases—partake largely of the nature of architectural decorations and should be treated accordingly. An unusually beautiful setting is shown in Plate 117 and others occur in Plates 65 A, 58 and 112.

Glass is not usually employed over oil paintings except when they are of moderate dimensions, of much value, or of great smoothness and delicacy of treatment, as, for instance, the work of the Dutch genre' painters, fine portraits, flowers, and the like. The protection from dust and gas fumes afforded by glass is however so great that it might more often be used than it is. A strip is set in by the frame-maker so that it does not touch the picture.


Glass must necessarily be used for the protection of all pictures painted or printed upon paper.

In general their frames, whether of gold or of wood, should be slender, or of but moderate width, unobtrusive and yet beautiful in form-and line. They may be rather ornamental, as in Plate 118, or extremely simple and plain. Pictures with strong contrasts or masses of dark colour naturally need greater sustaining weight of effect in the frames than do those of lighter and slighter nature.

The logical frame for a colour-reproduction of a picture painted in a certain period is a reproduction, to the scale of the print, of its original frame, or at least of a frame that might appropriately have been used.

One of the beautiful Italian heads or figure-pieces with its appropriate frame would be in keeping with most homes of restrained and semi-Classic character as well as in those of the period; but if the frame were found to be too elaborate or too expensive in appearance for the particular place the picture is to occupy a simpler frame of more non-committal but generally Classical or dignified nature could be substituted.

The handsome old photograph frames of thirty to fifty years ago make admirable settings for portrait reproductions in colour. During the course of years the gold leaf has taken on dim and beautiful tones impossible to secure except through age. Such a frame, containing a reproduction of one of Sir Joshua's portraits, appears above the bookcase in Plate 119 A.

For a monotone reproduction of a period picture a wooden frame appropriate to the period should be used, or else a non-committal but not incongruous moulding. The tone of the frame should accord with that of the picture and be slightly lighter than its darkest masses. In the framing of period pictures only a man who knows this particular phase of the business should be employed.

With some of the eighteenth century monotone prints the black frames with high polish and with a narrow gold inside line may most appropriately be used. Some of those of lighter character may have mats and narrow gold mouldings.

Writers on decoration, of course, recognise that pictures must be in proper relation to the room and that frames must be in relation both to pictures and the room. Yet nowhere have we seen a practical word of caution upon the following point. In the section on pictures we deprecated the employment of monotone pictures in handsome and colourful rooms. This was not only because of the pictures themselves but because their inappropriateness is further emphasised by the wooden frames that usually and properly accompany them, the combination being unsuited for use in hand-some drawing-rooms and boudoirs, with satin-wood, mahogany or decorated furniture and rich textiles of silk or velvet.

We will go further. The almost universal prescription for Japanese prints, sanguines and drawings or reproductions in but slight colour is the wooden frame, the argument being that nothing should be used that will take away from the picture. But if such pictures are placed in handsome rooms brown, black or even grey wooden frames do precisely this: they are felt to be out of accord with the room and so both attract notice and detract from the picture. Gold was considered as a neutral by the decorative masters of the past, and dull gold mouldings of the same simplicity as the wooden frames are equally unobtrusive and still are handsome, and so appropriate for such environment. Down the long hall of an apartment known to the writers is a collection of Japanese prints on Japanese paper mounts and in frames of this narrow gold moulding: they are infinitely more attractive than they would have been in wood. But the Japanese use wooden frames for their prints ! Certainly; and they are quite appropriate for the Japanese interior. They also are for some of ours, but they do not accord with the richness of others. A grouping of four Japanese prints in one mat and frame is shown in Plate 92 B.

Mahogany and rosewood are more refined than oak, and if the furniture is mahogany and these woods agree with the pictures they may be used in a room of a lesser degree of richness than those we have been considering. A narrow gold inside line may often be used with these frames.

To sum up, our general contention is that the use of a brown or black wooden frame for a picture in colour is a derogation from the picture and had better be avoided.

A suggestion well worth bearing in mind is the painted frame—which although occasionally seen has largely escaped the attention of writers on decoration. Yet with painted or lacquered furniture, or woodwork in a deeper tone than the walls, what could be more suitable? In some instances the frames might be related to the fabrics employed in the room. An appropriate wooden frame may be bought and painted in oil in any desired tone or colour. If there is a mat between it and the picture the frame might be in the dominant note of the picture or it might harmonise with the woodwork of the room. A few of the possibilities opened up here may be considered.

The dull green, red or blue lacquer, and imitation lacquer, tones would be very likely to suit water-colours, pastels or colour-prints used in the same room as such pieces. If there were several pictures and one did not harmonise therewith it might be used elsewhere. So also it would not be difficult to select one of the colours of body or ornament of English, French, or Venetian eighteenth century or modern decorated furniture that would admirably frame the pictures used therewith, thus doing something out of the ordinary which yet would be in impeccable taste. Among such colourings would be found entrancing shades of old rose and mulberry, old blues and greens, soft yellows, tans and buffs. Many textiles, too, would give similar inspiration, and the less positive tints used for wood-work (if darker than the walls) such as the deep ivories and creams or French greys, would be exquisite with such paintings or prints. A gold line might be introduced with advantage in many instances, especially where gold enters into the furniture decoration or where there are notable candlesticks, side-lights or lamps of brass.

In an apartment the writers once knew there hung a Beardsley figure printed in vermilion on a white ground: it was in a vermilion frame. Since then the "Modern" style of decoration has come to the fore and the wall trim is frequently pronounced in colour. If this colour is found by experiment not to "kill" the strongly decorative pictures likely to be used therewith the keying of the two together would be excellent. A bit of strong colour in simpler rooms is also often advisable and by keeping such individual things apart from other pictures conflict is avoided.

In the carrying out of any of the preceding suggestions overdoing should naturally be shunned, as a touch too much invalidates an unusual effect.

Since the writing of the above we have seen in a Fifth Avenue shop an excellent treatment of a small reproduction of one of Velasquez's infantas, the tones of which are primarily red and grey. Its frame was a narrow band with a raised ridge on either side. The band was of fawn grey, the inner ridge of red, and the outer of dull gold, the gold extending over the whole outside edge of the frame. Near it was a modern picture in which the dominant was blue-violet. The frame was the same as that just described, except that the band was of the violet.


Framed photographs are in general much better stood upon tables, low bookcases, and such places, than hung upon the wall, and many attractive standing frames are now procurable. One or two portraits of artistic merit may be hung and in such cases the simpler the frame usually the better it is. They may either be framed passe-partout, close or with a mat or mount. If the frame is of wood it should key with the picture. A sepia oval photograph may well be enclosed in an oval frame of dull gold with bow-knot or other simple heading. If a mount is here used it should be of Japanese vellum or something similar in tone and not white. A grey photograph in a greyish mat might have a frame of dull silver if that will accord with the surroundings.


The use of these seems greatly to have disturbed some minds. The simple truth is that many pictures of all types other than oils look well either with mats (of not too great contrast) or without them, and those that do not are usually so clear in their indication of what should be done that there is no difficulty in deciding.

Engravings and etchings are usually printed with a margin of paper and this obviously should be pre-served. Apart from the artistic point of view it is to be remembered that the trimming off of such margins destroys the money-value of rare prints. Reproductions of portraits with dark backgrounds, whether rectangular or oval, frequently look better framed "close up." Perhaps, with caution, one may say that dark pictures are less likely to need mats than lighter and slighter ones, but most do so well either way that it is useless to legislate. The proper course is to consider the picture itself in connexion with the situation where it is to go. The objection that some—may we call them "hard-and-fasters?"—urge against mats and mounts is that it cuts up the decorative unit. Some-times it does not; sometimes it does; and sometimes that is the very best thing that could happen. Suppose we consider each in order : a rather spotty water-colour will be simplified by a mat; a dark picture in a dark frame will be cut up by the introduction of a light mat between; and we recall a hall of such extreme repose that this very thing was absolutely needed to give relief.

Mats and mounts should not be of dead white, but of ivory, cream or grey, and sometimes of darker tones. A gold mat inside a narrow gold edging gives practically the same effect as a wide, flat gold frame.

Margin naturally enlarges a picture and this may often be the determining factor as to its use or omission.


The principles of placing pictures on the wall are, of course, those of balance generally. The natural height is usually that of the eye or but little above; but, as there is nearly always some piece of furniture below, the picture should be in due relation to, and form one group with, that object and those others that may rest upon it. The accessories of vases, candlesticks and kindred objects that may stand upon a console, cabinet or highboy are of great usefulness in tying together the picture and the furniture.

An evil genius seems to prompt some people to hang pictures too high; the setting down of the picture-rail, when the ceiling is disproportionally high, advocated by the writers in the chapter on Walls will not only aid in overcoming this tendency but renders unnecessary the great length of wire required when the rail is at the cornice. It also makes picture-hanging much more convenient and less laborious.

The proper relation of picture to the furniture or mantel below it and the best arrangement of groups are easiest learned by the study of good examples.

As will be seen by some of these illustrations it is quite permissible to hang one or a very few pictures upon panelling, but they must be absolutely appropriate in character, colour, scale, framing and placing (Plate 8 is a good example). It is also permissible to hang appropriate pictures upon a wall of such restrained decorative character as that in Plate 70 B, but they should never appear upon so ornamental a surface as the cretonne paper shown in Plate 75.

As the reason for avoiding diagonal lines has several times been referred to, it should now hardly be necessary to point out that the triangular wire frequently seen (and seen sometimes in our own illustrations here) should not be used and that the tops of pictures should not hang out from the wall. An exception to the rule regarding triangular wires is in the hanging of oval frames, where the converging lines of the frame make it the obvious arrangement.

Silken cords are sometimes used to decorative ad-vantage in the hanging of eighteenth century colour-prints in drawing-rooms and boudoirs. The heavy cord used with the old portrait in Plate 79 A adds to its quaintness and is in place in the attractive atmosphere of¬ this room. When the frame is obviously heavy it is often a good device to make the hanging apparatus a deliberately decorative feature, employing silken cords and tassels as a means to suspend the frames.

The hanging of pictures with two perpendicular wires is of the simplest : the wire is passed through both screw-eyes on the back of the frame; one end of the wire is twisted into a loop over one picture hook, which is then hung upon the rail. By then placing the other hook on the rail and looping the wire over it (twisting but slightly for the moment) a picture of moderate weight can be tried at greater or less height until precisely the right altitude for appearance is determined. The second loop can then properly be made and the surplus wire cut off. The screw-eyes should be placed very near the top of the frame so that it will hang flat against the wall.

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