Robin Gibson on his motorbike

It was in 1974, after Roy Strong left the National Portrait Gallery to run the Victoria and Albert Museum, that I first met Robin Gibson (1944 – 2010). Highly educated, he was a kind man with a gentle assertiveness that won the respective of everyone. His initial role at the Portrait Gallery was to oversee the reframing of the early portraits, most of which had extraordinary late C19th inventions. His ideas for new frames were clear and instructive which made my job so much easier. He had robust views of ageing and distressing, allowing me to exploit my earlier attempts on frames for Robert Stigwood (1934 – 2016) in the days when he lived at Barsham Manor. We had learnt the critical specifications of shot size and trajectory distance to produce realistic worm holes without disintegrating the frame – which initially happened quite regularly.

Montecute House

In 1975 Robin Gibson assumed responsibility for Montacute House, a collaboration with the National Trust that was important in making the National Portrait Gallery’s reserve collection available to an audience outside London.
The house was built in about 1598 and inhabited by the Phelips family until 1911 when it was rented out. Put up for sale in 1929, it was acquired by the National Trust in 1931.

On the second floor, the 172 foot Long Gallery is the longest of its type in England, and now hosts an impressive exhibition by the National Portrait Gallery.

Long gallery at Montacute


In 1975 Robin comissioned approximately twenty picture frames for the display of Tudor and Jacobean portraits in the newly restored long hall at Montacute. Robin came up with an interesting “chip carving” design over a quadrant profile. Essentially a very straght forward design, except that all the paintings were of slightly different sizes requiring individual spacing of the pattern to retain conformity of appearance.

Portrait in quadrant profile chip carved frame

But this was only part of a major comission that Robin made to the company. The interior designers wanted three chandeliers to feature down the centre of the room.

We were asked to make copies of an existing antique oak, Jacobean, 16 branch chandelier except that our ones needed to be wired for electric lighting conforming to British Standard ?? whatever that was back in the day. The National Gallery supplied the plans to work from and we made templates of the various sections of the body and the large and small arms. Some smithy work was required for the arms to slot into the body and when they were all assembled a local electrical contractor came to test their electrical integrity. Once done, the chandeliers were disassembled for delivery and a 26 seater vehicle was hired to take them to Montacute. It was quite a sight with rows of arms on the seats of the bus like passengers.

Wooden 16 branch chandelier


Job done and time to send in the invoice. Then, disaster.

Manic phone calls stating there were problems.

An urgent meeting was requested to dissect the situation – with no one saying what the problem was. At the Portrait Gallery meeting I was asked to explain why the Chandeliers were 6ft high, because if hanged in the long gallery at Montecute people would hit their heads on the boss. I explained that we had worked to the plans provided. Unfortunately no one at the National Portrait Gallery had specified a scale for us to work to, so we had made the the chandeliers to the scale on the plans!

After bureaucratic meetings a solution was found. One chandelier would be hung in the National Gallery, one would go to auction and I would keep the third which ended up in our shop.

Shop ceiling and chandelier


Copyright John Davies