As Douglas McLeod Period Frames enters its fifth decade in Salisbury, Gay Pirrie-Weir finds out the essentials of the perfect picture frame
You might be the keenest fan of Fake or Fortune, but have you ever thought about the frames that are carefully removed and set aside before all that “provenance” is explored? Nor had I, until we were sent to “the only place” in Salisbury to get an engraving framed – Douglas McLeod Period Frames in Trinity Street. The shop is a treasure trove of wood, metal, composite, papier maché, plaster and even plastic with which to surround your precious wall hanging, priced from something in the £1 job lot box to a huge and magnificent gilded frame, currently on offer for £8,500.
If you have ever, anywhere, seen a frame that has caught your eye for its intricate detail, its carving, its colour, its unusual texture, its age or its subtly enhancing suitability, the chances are that the specialist business in the back streets of the city has something like it – and if they haven’t they can replicate it in the hidden workshop further out of the city centre.
The business was started on 5th October 1982. At that time, the UK’s only specialist historic framing services were based in the capital, where the major auction houses still organised sales exclusively for frames and “runners” scoured provincial salerooms and fairs to snap up bargains and “run them past” the specialists, en route to potential purchasers.
If you had a family heirloom portrait or landscape, the chances are it had a significant frame, and some were much more “significant” than others, dating back centuries, created by famous craftsmen and worth far more than the pictures they edged. And one of these treasures might just turn up on the parlour wall … or even in the attic.
Douglas McLeod continued with his international architectural work, but in his ‘spare time’ taught himself the historic skills of gilding and restoration, carving, moulding and all the arcane mysteries associated with the ancient craft. Some of the formulae he uses originated in the 17th century and are still closely guarded secrets.
After a spell in Saudi Arabia designing houses for expatriates, Douglas shifted his focus towards the framing business. He had always loved old frames – he bought them from local auctions, and customers began to arrive in the shop with battered, but sometimes beautiful, frames they found at home and were reluctant to take to the tip. People who wanted frames came in, and came back again and again, always impressed by the range of frames they could see and buy and the experienced advice they received. Douglas and his staff learned new skills, perfected those they had and acquired new tools, templates and other gizmos.
As the years went on, wife Susie and son Alexander, daughter Kate Robson and her husband Barry, and Andy Hollywood, (who, at 62, describes himself as the world’s oldest apprentice … although he is also a plumber, bus driver and multi-skilled factotum), all joined the family business. There’s also the indispensable lurcher Grace, ready to greet shop customers.
After leaving London, the McLeods set up a gallery at Dunn’s House in Salisbury, moving on to a rented shop at 10 Trinity Street and eventually to the current shop, which they bought as a home and business in 2000.
Some are keepers
Forty one years on, Susie is proud to say that the shop really does have something for everyone, from the granny wanting a plain black frame for a football team picture to the owner of a noted painting with a damaged frame from a grand stately home.
The Trinity Street shop is an inspiration in itself – but there are more than 2,000 frames in the workshop, where Douglas and his assistants will restore them as closely as possible to the originals. Some are so precious they will never be sold but will be cherished as examples of a particular style or process. Customers come not only from Salisbury and Wiltshire, but all over the UK and further afield.
Historically sand was used to enhance the texture of a frame – a technique Douglas thinks might have begun in ancient Egypt. A “sanded” frame was brought to the shop, three sides intact but the fourth beyond repair. A sand search was promptly instigated, and after forays to various local beaches, Douglas and Susie found that the sand at Hengistbury Head near Christchurch was the closest match. Even that wasn’t enough – Susie had to sieve the sand to isolate the correctly-sized grains.
‘That’s a labour of love,’ she says. ‘You can’t get rich doing that sort of work, but it’s worth it.’
Another favourite antique frame has little raised blobs of gilded something? – ‘Seeds,’ says Susie.
Some artists, Whistler and Watts among them, were very definite about the style and material used to frame their works, and the style of frame they designed now has their names. In the shop you can see examples of these as well as original, reproduction and modern frames with the very latest conservation techniques.
Douglas has various gilding processes to match original colours and to suit the woods and materials of the frames. He has used gold leaf, but there is less call for it now that the price of gold has skyrocketed.
Susie and her staff have taken in many unusual items for framing, from the familiar oils, watercolours, etchings, engravings, drawings and photographs, to fabrics, treasured clothes, locks of hair and badges.
McLeod frames have been loaned to film and television companies and, more often, to college students as props.
‘One student came in with a chicken’s heart in formaldehyde for us to frame. It was LONG before Damien Hirst,’ says Susie.
The company has done work for the National Trust. Large and grand development projects often bring interior designers to the shop, in search of a number of frames to lend a theme to the required decor.
One of the oldest frames in the shop is a silver oval mirror dating from the 1680s. Douglas also has a frame from the mid-18th century which he is convinced originates in a French royal residence – ‘But I can’t prove it,’ he says, regretfully.
While he and Susie nod to the passing of time, there’s absolutely no talk of retirement, and while new equipment is constantly being added in the workshop to ease the creation of more accurately matching framing materials, they know that there is no substitute for painstaking traditional skills.
‘One thing to remember is that you can always use a frame that is older than the picture. It’s often not so successful if you try to do it the other way …
But if you can hang it on a wall, we can frame it,’ says Douglas.