Reframing a view of Sydney Harbour

In December last year the Library purchased its first Arthur Streeton painting – Panoramic View of Sydney Harbour and the city skyline (1894) — a wonderful addition to the Library’s collection.

Visitors to our Paintings from the Collection exhibition will have encountered this stunning panorama - painted on a long thin draper’s board - in its gilt frame and gold trimmed flat panelled slip. The painting had last changed hands in the 1980s, so this frame most likely dates from that time. 

Panoramic view of Sydney Harbour and the city skyline, 1894, painted by Arthur Streeton
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Original frames are often lost or replaced over time in a more modern or fashionable style, depending on the taste of owners. Although later frames are an important record of the history of a painting and its journey, the Library prefers to present paintings in the way they were originally displayed.

Emily Cecilia Bowden-Smith purchased the Streeton as a gift to her husband, Admiral Nathaniel Bowden-Smith, to mark his two-year stint in Sydney serving as Commander of the Australian Fleet. We know that the painting was displayed in Admiralty House as part of a farewell function Mrs Bowden-Smith had arranged, before they returned to London. What we don’t know is whether the painting was newly framed for the display, or did the Bowden-Smiths take it back to England unframed?

Panoramic view of Sydney Harbour and the city skyline, 1894, painted by Arthur Streeton
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Our first step was to look at similar narrow-format paintings by Streeton from the 1890s to 1907 to see how they were framed.  Luckily for us, our colleagues at the National Gallery of Victoria had already undertaken research for a suitable frame for several long cedar-panel paintings by Streeton in their collection.

The NGV found a valuable reference to early frame choices by Streeton – photographs from the Art Gallery of NSW archive of displays in 1916 and 1918 show the long paintings in broad wood frames, beaded along the outer edge and with a gilt flat bevelled inner edge.  This frame type was connected to an original frame on Sunlight (Cutting on a hot road) by Arthur Streeton, in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. 

The painting is a different format but painted in 1895 just a year after the Library’s painting – the frame is stepped with one flat wood frame fitted into another. Usually we would be careful not to use one frame style too many times for an artist’s work. However, we know Streeton did repeat this style for his narrow format Sydney Harbour paintings, so the repetition seemed appropriate.

Also, this flat wood style with wide bevelled gold inner-edge seemed an enhanced progression from the style of frame used in the ground-breaking 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition of 1889; a cheap but effective system of framing believed to have been carried out by the artists. Windy and Wet is an original frame from this exhibition, made from California redwood.

We enlisted the expertise of local master frame maker, David Butler, to construct the new frame. Supplied with measurements from the NGA frame, David sourced some beautiful American oak, a distinctive feature of the original frames, to make the two sections of the stepped frame. The inner bevel was created as a separate slip to allow for glazing - it was water gilded for a lustrous, satin-smooth finish. We did make one deviation – rather than apply a darkish stained finish that was used for the NGA frame and those in the early documentation - at David’s suggestion we went with a lighter, more golden stain to highlight the wood and compliment the light blues and soft lavenders of the painting.

View the painting in its new frame in the permanent Paintings from the Collection exhibition.

Helen Casey
Senior Conservator, Exhibitions and Loans

Special thanks to:

David Butler, Master Frame Maker, Specialist Framing Services

Holly McGowan-Jackson, Senior Conservator of Frames and Furniture, National Gallery of Victoria

David Wise, Senior Conservator of Paintings, National Gallery of Australia