You don’t want any rough edges when buying a frame for your picture – yet the new building for framers John Jones, opened earlier this month, has a very appealing roughness, to judge by photos from the opening party. Its concrete ceilings are bare, its floors simple wood, its windows plain and unadorned. You don’t really need an overly aesthetic building, I suppose, when art itself is your stock in trade.
Earlier this year, when I went to Finsbury Park to interview Kate and Matthew Jones (Matthew is one of John Jones’ sons), the shell of the John Jones Art Building was there and its thrilling contents were on the way – which is somehow apt, given that John Jones specialises in making shells for thrilling contents. There is now a conservation studio ten times larger than before, a project space for free exhibitions and more and better rooms for examining art, making frames and greeting clients.
Inside their old building – a large factory space across several open floors, somewhat corrugated and rackety but clean and bright – Kate, Matthew and I stand around a framer’s table, where pictures are brought in, laid out, examined and measured and their future frames envisaged. On each of the workbenches is a box with different coloured mounts, and behind a partition is a wall of frames in right angles, gilt corners or black or silver or nude wood, ready to be brought out and placed against a picture.
Before I talked to the Joneses, I had mostly thought about frames in aesthetic terms – which ones will make the picture pop? But one of the first words Matthew Jones uses is ‘safe’. The safest thing for a picture, the best for its preservation, says Matthew, is ‘to keep it in a drawer, out of sight’ – ‘in the dark’, Kate chips in. But that, oddly enough, is not why most people buy art, so the frame is meant to display the work without letting it decay. Unless, of course, as with those beautiful Dutch still lives of fruit and flowers, the decay is the point.
Pictured above: The first floor of the new John Jones Art Building
There are many threats a picture needs to be protected from: physical disturbance (a dislodging knock), direct sunlight, heat and changes in heat, humidity and changes in humidity, gases given off by freshly painted walls. This requires a scientific approach to framing, something more than an eighteenth-century obsession with ormolu curlicues. But this has only been a recent development: ‘Conservation comes before design now, a bit of change,’ says Matthew Jones. ‘Ten years ago it was all about the design first.’
It was a global conservators’ conference at the British Museum in 2004 which inspired John Jones to use a technician’s eye for framing. Now, instead of standard glass, glass has a UV filter (like sunblock for your Sigmar Polke). The fillet that keeps the glass from the picture is now Perspex instead of wood, which gives off gases, to which photographs are especially vulnerable. (‘Off-gassing’ became my word of the day.)
In front of us is a perfect example. Someone has brought in to be framed a large black and white Irving Penn photograph of two women holding buckets; they have a simple dignity and a more complex bafflement at being the subject of such a picture. ‘With this image here,’ says Matthew, ‘because it’s so fragile, so perfect, we didn’t even want an unbuffered board in direct contact with the work, so we just raised the mount away by a secondary board just to generate a shadow.’
‘That’s where the design aesthetic comes in,’ says Kate. ‘We wanted it to be particularly thick because it gives more of a precious feel, but from a scientific point of view we could have gone with a thinner board, but it wouldn’t have looked so good.’ As far as I had been concerned, ‘the design aesthetic’ of a frame meant an impossibly vacillating decision between a 10mm-wide black wood frame and a 12mm-wide black wood frame; I had never imagined all the science and art that went into what looks, when best, like a simple wooden box.
Pictured above: One of John Jones’ skilled staff
I can barely hear Robin Fletcher speak over the screaming of the saw. In his cavernous workshop, lengths of wood reach from floor to ceiling, while a man in ear-defenders cuts a stretch on the central table to the right size. Upstairs it will be glued, glazed and perhaps gilded to make a frame.
Fletcher, who has run Fletcher Gallery Services since 1979, is – though he would never say or even concede it – a prince of the art world. When you mention his name to starry art-dealers, they acknowledge him with respect as the best in the framing business.
When you talk to other framers, there is something quite close to awe. Put it like this: if you’ve seen a framed Contemporary picture by a major artist at a major gallery or a major art fair or a major museum, the chances are that Robin Fletcher’s fingerprints are on it. Or were – Fletcher doesn’t seem like he’d ever let a smudged work out of the shop.
Fletcher found his way into framing in the most practical fashion: an art-school graduate, he had to frame his own work. Realising the cash flow was steadier as a framer than as an art dealer (which he and some friends had tried), he started his own firm with £2,000. With his ‘fairly minimal modern framing – little boxes, I call them’ and unusual efficiency (unusual for the art world, at any rate), business progressed.
The art world in the Seventies and Eighties was much smaller, much less diverse, but there were still names we recognise today – Nicholas Logsdail’s Lisson Gallery, Anthony d’Offay, Gilbert & George – and Fletcher was in with them. He has framed for Lisson almost since he started, and has hair-raising tales of evenings with the mischievous Gilbert & George. (He affectionately recalls when he, an assistant and G&G got through 72 bottles of beers on one summer evening: ‘They just want to see if you’re going to fall apart or not. They love that, they love to just push it on and see if you fall apart.’)
The great development for the London art world was the rude arrival of the Young British Artists in the late Eighties – ‘the explosion’, as Fletcher says. The Frieze Art Fair and imitators ensued, hundreds of new galleries, the regeneration of large chunks of inner East London, the plush flourishing of the major auction houses.
Fletcher confesses he’s probably been carried along by the tide, rather than stirring up the waves himself, as ‘a model of bad business planning’, but his shop behind Smithfield in the Barbican with its six staff is still humming (and screaming). Last financial year, he framed five thousand pictures.
Pictured above: The John Jones Art Building, opened in June 2014
In an era when the public derides the craft (or lack thereof) that goes into art, frame-making is indisputably a craft – and a form of employment which the current art-market boom is supporting.
John Jones now has 110 staff, with nearly seventy focused on production, but finding them isn’t easy. When I ask Kate Jones how you qualify as a framer, she gives a cheerfully frustrated reply: ‘It’s a really good question!’ There are countless disciplines to start with – glazing, gilding, conservation, construction.
‘Most of the training we do in-house, so for example the gilding department, which is really specialist – we struggle to find really good gilders so often we’ll find a gilder, bring them into the company and they’ll go through a training process and it takes two years working in-house before they get to the level of being ready to go.’
Because of the lack of a clear route into framing – and because of its expanding prospects – John Jones are hoping to develop a diploma or a degree. ‘What we’ve been speaking to our local council about for some time is developing an apprenticeship scheme where we can bring young people in, put them through a year or two-year apprenticeship scheme with them learning in all the different departments.’
Fifty per cent of staff are artists who are working until they can afford to be full-time artists; others are from museums, galleries and auction houses (a new trend, showing the field’s desirability); and current gilders include an ex-chef from a family with a heritage of leather goods, both useful transferable skills. But he was the right person, more importantly: he had intense patience, was ‘quite obsessive about detail’: ‘Everything has to be perfect.’
Pictured above: The party to celebrate the opening of the John Jones Art Building
When it comes to having frames made, there is a kind of paternalism at work: you get the impression that framers don’t always think the customer (or even the artist) knows best. Matthew Jones points out a number of steps owners should take: they should have the frame checked every eight years, have conservators take a look at the picture, have a condition report made. While this is all for the good of the picture, it makes owning a painting seem, well, rather a chore.
Of course, the alternatives – neglect and damage – are hardly less bothersome. Kate Jones mentions a customer who brought in a picture which had had some sellotape applied to the back, touching the print. ‘If we hadn’t opened them up,’ says Kate, ‘if we hadn’t upgraded the mount, over time that acid square would have started to show through the front of the print. It would have ended up affecting the picture.’ And this picture was from, the buyer said, ‘a really good gallery’.
There are also aesthetic dilemmas. Robin Fletcher talks about ‘the recurring nightmare of the person who wants the invisible frame’, when what they should be asking for is a white-box frame, which the eye ignores almost automatically. Once he fruitlessly advised a headstrong customer against a black mount; the next day, the customer came in to concede and have the work remounted.
Fletcher has had artists sent over by galleries who want to pick out this colour or that: ‘I said, “No, you don’t want to pick up the red in that – this is not a poster, you know.”‘ It seems like there is an almost moral calculation going on in Fletcher’s mind: how to make sure the dignity – and primacy – of the picture is respected. A tarty frame is not just an offence in itself but also because it injures the image.
When Robin Fletcher compares his work to that of a Savile Row tailor, you can see what he’s getting at, with the (horrible word) bespoke treatment for each picture, the care for materials and longevity. Also like tailors, framers get closer to their subject than most, and it can be a revelation.
‘I never liked Francis Bacon’s work very much,’ he says, ‘until one of my clients sent round a portrait that Bacon had done of him, fresh. I unwrapped it and thought, “Oh my god, I didn’t realise.” The brush on those big pope paintings looks like a four-inch brush but in fact he used a number two sable,’ a small, fine brush. Instead of a few literal broad brushstrokes, there are ‘hundreds and thousands that make it up’, a disguising display of miniature-work. It completely changed Fletcher’s mind. In the frame indeed.
Photographs of the John Jones Arts Building copyright Adrian Houston 2014