In the past decade, the Darbyshire workshop – originally a small studio in the East End of London – has grown into an expansive double-storey set-up on White Lion Street (the kitchen alone is as big as the old HQ was). There is also a country branch in Stroud, Gloucestershire; a convenient stone’s throw from the studios of Damien Hirst. After 20 years of framing and fabricating for the contemporary art world, Mark Darbyshire looks back on his career, working with generations of British art stars, and explains to Gemma de Cruz how he first got into the frame game and why he considers art college to be so important.
“The first show I framed for a commercial gallery was Tracey Emin’s My Major Retrospective [at White Cube in 1993/’94] which was all her memorabilia. There’s a story Tracey tells about how I said to her ‘are you sure you want to spend all this money on frames, because you might not sell anything’, and she always says, ‘ Thank God I didn’t take his advice’”.
So says Mark Darbyshire, recalling his entrée into the world of framing and fabrication. He’s right: Tracey does tell that story, but it’s always with a grin and the explanation that the work she was asking Mark to frame wasn’t much like the kind of conceptual art other artists were showing at the time.
“I wasn’t telling her not to do it”, Mark continues, “but when we added it all up, it came to a huge sum of money – two-and-a- half thousand pounds; that was a lot of money then – it still is”.
I know that Mark left Goldsmiths in 1986, when Tracey was between Maidstone and the Royal College, so I can’t figure out how he knew her, or indeed, how he was involved with framing her show. “I just met her out and about on the scene”, he explains. “We seemed to hit it off …”
I like the throwaway nature of that statement, partly because it brings up notions of young artists meeting through friends and supporting each other, but mostly because I have an idea that this is how Mark still meets many of his clients. Back in the late ’80s, the ‘scene’ essentially consisted of the group of graduates who would go on to become known as the YBAs, along with their various circles of friends. Like many of them, Mark was just out of Goldsmiths, balancing studio and home rents with a part-time job. When he decided to make some frames for a show of his own work, he realised he had an eye for it, and it wasn’t long before he became the go-to guy for quality bespoke framing. It just so happened that the friends he made frames for were destined to be the most important generation of artists to hit London since the 1960s.
I ask Mark what it’s like still working for that generation: is it just about business, now they’re all big-shot international artists; do they only talk through each others’ assistants? “It’s panned-out into long-term friendships”, Mark reveals. “Gary [Hume], Damien… I’ve known them for many years, and we see each other on a regular basis through work, but we can sit back and have a chat, too. Overlapping through all that are the waves of young artists.”
As the framing took off, Mark’s own art practice inevitably took a back seat. I ask him if he still feels like he’s getting a creative hit somehow through the work he does? “Framing is not art, but there is an art to it”, he explains. “It’s all about judgment and listening; quite often artists can be lost and need a bit of guidance”. He thinks on then tells me: “I found out recently that titles Donald Judd gave to his artworks were sometimes named after the fabricators who’d worked on them. If he had a big box made by Bob Smith, for example, he’d call that work Bob 1 or Bob 2, and that’s quite a nice way of dovetailing the art and the craft ”.
What, it seems, separated Mark from other conventional frame makers, both then and now, is that his art-school background gave him an instant clientele of young artists, and one job led to another through positive word of mouth. He agrees with this reading, but explains that there’s another important key factor: before Goldsmiths, he spent six years working at an engineering firm, which in no small way has informed his approach to fabrication and his ambition for the projects he has taken on. “I was an engineer’s apprentice from age 16; my father was an engineer, so I just went into it”. This sounds like a curious leap to me, so I ask Mark how, exactly, he went from engineering to art? “In ’82, we hit the recession and engineering bombed”, he explains. “I had a friend who’d gone to art school and I used to hang out with him and go to events. So art school looked very appealing. I used to go to the library and copy pictures out of the art books… just draw things… I made a portfolio and got onto Foundation. I toyed with the idea of being a product designer, but I thought, ‘I’m just going back into the same world I’m coming out of ’, so I said ‘sod it, just go for fine art’, and there was nothing more art than Goldsmiths. This predates its celebrity status: it was just a good [ fine art] course…”
It’s hard to believe, from our current economic vantage point, that quitting a job in engineering to study art was a more financially viable option. “I was rich in comparison to students now; my rent was paid, it was easy”, Mark remembers. “When I went to art school, you didn’t have debt when you left ; it was just three years where you made and thought about art, without thinking about the consequences. You just did it for the three years… it was a beautiful thing, and then you left . Now [students] are already preparing to be artists and have a gallery; [the YBAs] changed the nature of art and art school: they changed the nature of art education”.
That now idyllic-sounding time, when students would go to art school to make art, without ‘career’ expectations, because there was no outlet for them anyway, was something that Mark saw change – and, to a certain extent, was swept along with. “At Goldsmiths in the ’80s, the idea of commercialising art was actually radical; everybody was saying ‘we’re pure artists’, then Damien came along and said ‘we’re commercial as well, and we can make our own demands of the world’, and that’s where there was a big shift of power. When Damien made that statement, irrespective of what kind of art he makes now, what he was saying was ‘I’m empowered’. But that’s kind of lost in the time- continuum of art history”.
This moment, which Mark depicts, encapsulates such an important switch in the history of British art, and, politics. The recession of the early-to-mid ’80s was, in many ways, worse than the one we’re barely emerging from now, yet what came out of it was the contemporary art world as we know it today. The recession had created an open playing eld for a grass roots art scene to grow wild, one that would inexorably develop into a bona de art phenomenon, and in turn a pretty sound financial export. So much of this history is about fate, timing, the right people in the right place, paths crossing, whatever you want to call it. It’s an alchemy that is impossible to replicate, one fuelled by the power of the young to rebel against the entrenched art world hierarchy (which at that time was six or so stuffy galleries in Cork St).
Mark elucidates further. “ The YBA movement was somehow linked to commerce, but the whole thing was reactionary. What happened was Damien was being devil’s advocate; he thought, ‘we can make art commercial’, and that was a radical thing; it’s commonplace, now, that art could have a value, in monetary terms”. In fact, it was this attitude that changed the market, the prominence of art and where art was shown, and no one has looked back since. Darbyshire Frames has been entwined with that movement since it began, and grew as it did.
Nowadays, Mark Darbyshire’s outlook on life in general seems incredibly easy going for someone heading a company that employs over 50 staff . If he’s not on site with a client, installing at a gallery or overseeing production in Stroud, he’s thinking up new ways to improve facilities or current practice. It’s clear that he enjoys the pace and the challenge and has no interest in slowing down. “It’s partly to do with my restless nature”, he says with a wry smile.
The atmosphere at Darbyshire isn’t like that of a conventional workshop: there is art everywhere, and people are having conversations about it. What’s more, sixty percent of the current staff are art graduates. I ask Mark if he employs postgrads out of a nostalgia for his own art school days, or is it just that he thinks they’ll take to the job because they’ll have an understanding of what they’re framing. Mark mulls this for a while before replying. “Art education sends people into the world and they do lots of different things. Obviously, art college is partly about producing artists, but it is it also about educating people to have a certain view of the world – they might not necessarily become artists, they might become picture framers… But you need art schools to maintain a breadth of views on life. That’s what art schools do, they send people into the bigger mix with those sensibilities”.
At a time of constant discussion about the value of art education, it’s uplifting to hear a statement like this. Looking at Mark, with his mop-top and sweet suit, you’d think he was an inveterate mod, but he’s actually got a DIY punk streak running through him, and the reality is that Darbyshire Frames started up as a way for Mark to keep his art practice going, a mutual exchange between him and his friends that’s grown into a company which, by generally employing creative people, gives something back to the wider art community. I don’t think that he’d pitch it like that, but that’s essentially how it is.
The good relationship that Mark maintains with his staff is evident in the current exhibition in the Darbyshire Gallery (also at White Lion Street) of work by Peter Liversidge, an artist who worked for Mark back in the ’90s. Liversidge’s work sprawls through the gallery space and into the showroom: everything in it belongs either to Mark himself or members of the Darbyshire staff . The exhibition, ‘Peter Liversidge from the collections of the Darbyshire Employees’ is trademark Liversidge: dry and self deprecating in equal measure. There’s a bottle on a shelf covered in his clumsy handwriting bearing the legend Dirty Brown Booze: it’s reminiscent of the labels on craft beer bottles you find in Shoreditch: his with, theirs without, the comedy. Peter Liversidge’s work comes across as an attempt to win the award for being the greatest underachiever simultaneously revealing a gentle British eccentricity as his subjects fade in and out of pop culture, and art history. What’s interesting about this show is that it displays the work that is valued by those who own it, not the gallery, the ‘market’ or the artist: yet it forms a succinct, confident collection, it’s virtually a retrospective. There are small water colours, drawings, sculptures… all of it slightly tinged with sentimentality because of the dates between the work, ranging from ‘work he made when he was supposed to working’ (for Mark) in the mid ’90s, to more recent book publications containing ambitious project proposals.
The Darbyshire Gallery feels like an exhibition space where you’ll see contemporary art without an agenda. Mark tells me: “I’ve never wanted to run a gallery… so the question is, what is this space about? We don’t want it to be a gallery space; galleries promote artists and their work, and we’re not trying to sell art here. If someone comes in and wants to buy something they can contact the artist directly. We try to work an angle around it in some way. Peter Liversidge used to work for me as a picture framer, and we worked out that, between all the employees here, we own quite a substantial amount of his work”.
I’m guessing that Mark owns a fair share of the work here, and I ask him about other art he’s accumulated since he started the company, as gifts, trades, impulse buys, etc… He’s in the perfect place to see it all, fresh from the artists’ studios.
“I feel like I’ve got a collection”, Mark acknowledges, “because I’ve got more than I can put up on the walls. It’s not a major collection, but it’s work that I’ve picked up over the years that reminds me of my working life as much as anything. They may not have great value as such, but they have value in other ways. ere’s Gillian Wearing’s print from the 1997 Habitat days: we framed all of them and that reminds me of that time and working with Ben [Weaver], Gillian and Tracey [Emin]: they were good times.” He then tells me that it’s not just the date of the print that indicates its age, it’s also the style of the frame. [ The print Mark is referring to is Gillian Wearing’s Habitat print Melanie and Kelly, that was one of a group of 11 screenprints and one lithograph by various artists, framed to the artists’ specification. Published by Habitat 1997 in varying editions.]
As we finish the interview, I take a closer look at the print. Mark’s right; the frame is unmistakably ’90s. I remember when those prints came out, how the big names sold out in a frenzy before they’d even hit the stores, instant classics that were affordable and very desirable. When you see one of those prints now, it doesn’t so much remind you of the artist who made it, but of that time – they’re almost a souvenir of Brit Art in it’s heyday: trailblazing, taste-making, and emblematic of the chemistry between a group of artists… And, if it’s a truly authentic version, it will always be in a Darbyshire frame.