In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s there was a great post-war euphoria that was rebellious and hedonistic which seemed to primarily emanate from art schools and the art world.

Whilst teaching art in Norfolk, I fell in with a group of artisans and layabout emigrée philosophers from London. A number of them were in the provincial Art Trade comprising of dealers, restorers, artists and Gallery owners. The one missing expertise was conservation, and in particular, re-lining.

There it was, teach myself re-lining whilst in the Art room and I could leave the dreaded job.

Art lessons were the dumping ground for any classes difficult to fit on the timetable but the Headmaster thought I was bringing revolutionary teaching practices for the E to F forms. For the first time the children would see “real” paintings and I could talk briefly about the artist (if known – or even if not known). None of the children had ever left the county and many had never left their villages other than to go to school – swamp land.

I muddled through with makeshift equipment but knew I had to get proper training.

In 1969 my mother was teaching English to the Embassy children at St Peter’s Eaton Square. Among others she knew was the very pro-British Spanish Ambassador to England who in turn knew the Director of the Prado; and so my overseas studies were arranged.

I said goodbye to family and friends and went to sunny climes for THE interview with the Director of the Prado.

The procedure was like having an audience with a king. I was ushered to stand and wait in front of magnificent double doors whilst the “usher” knocked to raise attention. After a silence showing suitable domination over a peasant, a voice curtly rasped something in Spanish which must have been “enter”, and the usher opened the doors to let me in.

I mentally gasped at the magificance of the room which was fit for a king. In front of me was an elaborately carved walnut desk, the largest I have ever seen, and behind it sat the Director.

In my innocence and not speaking Spanish, I thought it appropriate to address him in French as it was the nearest thing to diplomatic parleying.

Having stuttered a few sentences, he stood up and in a perfect Oxford English, said “ there are no postions available”. Dumbfounded I explained that the Spanish Ambassador to England had spoken to the Prado conservation department and I was assured that a post was available and to boot that I had given up my job in order to study at the Prado.

He simply lifted up his arms and opened his hands in a gesture like the Pope uses when offering blessings to the unworthy, and reiterated “There are no positions available”.

The money lasted two weeks before I left and headed to my parents’ home in North Wembley to try and unravel where it had all gone wrong.

And so it unravelled that Franco had closed the borders to Gibraltar, recalled the Ambassador from England and that the Spanish weren’t too keen on the French neither.

It couldn’t have been worse.

An Englishman going to Spain at the time of the Gibraltar crisis and speaking in French to the Spanish Director, who it later transpired was a staunch supporter of Franco and was anti-British.

You couldn’t make it up.

And so it came to pass that at breakfast, before heading back to Norfolk, I saw a “position available in the National Gallery Conservation Department”.

Learnt from school, “The first rule of life is that life is unfair, and the second rule is to turn one’s disadvantages to one’s advantages.”

I went to the National Gallery’s “Tradesmen” side door and explained to the porter that I had seen the advert and I was just back from the Prado.
I was taken to a small room to be interviewed by the Personel Officer. I explained I had re-lined for 2 years and was just back from the Prado.

In a serious tone he told me that I could have the application form, but don’t think this means I would get the job because 50 people a day come to the door and don’t get a job other than a porter.

A month later I started at the Gallery under the eagle eyes of an ex-regimental sergeant major – Major Howard.

In no uncertain terms I was told to forget what I thought I knew and that he would tell me what I should know.

He became another of my heroes.

If he had said that the only way to do a particular relining required going out in the garden at midnight, running around in the nude and pouring beer over my head – believe me I would have done it.

From Arthur Lucas to Helmut Ruhemann, Major Howard was admired and consulted for his extraordinary sixth sense of the unseen condition of a painting.

It was an immense privelege to work in the Gallery, particularly the opportunity to have the gallery to oneself every morning before the public entered. It was then that I acquired a love of picture frames and made countless scale drawings of my prefered frames.

I also met Martyn Wyld again who was a year my senior at Chelsea Art School and who was later to hit the dizzy title of Head Restorer of the National Gallery.

Although I recognised that relining was immensely profitable, it was also very repetitive, something I couldn’t manage, and after a year I left to seek my fortune with frames.

I believe Major Howard foresaw that I would go, and with great kindness took the trouble to take me to one side and instruct me in the ways of the real Art world I would be entering – it was like a father to a son.

He said so much, but above all, one small notion would forever stay with me – “never present an invoice in rounded up figures – always show the pence”. He wished me well and gave me an introduction to Mr. Levi, the then Framer Extrordinaire.

Mr. Levi was very welcoming when I visited, He showed me round his workshops which were of the Victorian ilk with workers in cramped conditions on various floors. He emphasised “craftsmanship”, “uniqueness”, “fully carved” then took me down to the basement where there was a small Italian carving machine!

I said nothing but neither did he. When I left he shook me by the hand and said “Dear boy, please remember, there is no money in picture framing.”

A number of years later Wiggins offered me an identical carving machine ? – which I bought as a keepsake.



Copyright John Davies