It was a chance conversation during a routine day that led Ian Jenkins to establish a business that has been flourishing for more than 35 years.
He was out on a buying trip for a previous company when his supplier asked him: “Do you want to buy a business?”
Mr Jenkins said that he was not really interested but recalls thinking to himself later: “That is probably one of the silliest things I have said.”
He explained: “In the early 1970s, three of us had an antiques business at Drayton St Leonard, near Dorchester.
“But as time went on we were finding it less and less profitable and we were having to travel more and more miles.”
So the opening was timely. The opportunity was to take over a picture-framing enterprise which a young man had been running before going to university.
All his equipment was for sale and he had an already established market in Abingdon, through various shops which took in pictures for framing and which he delivered back again.
“Within a couple of weeks I had thought about it, bought it and brought everything to my home in north Abingdon,” said Mr Jenkins.
“Some went in the garage and some in the spare room. I operated from home, cutting out the glass on the dining-room table and making the frames in the spare bedroom.
“I continued in this way for a couple of years and then another opportunity arose.
“I was working for an estate agent who had an idea to stand out from the crowd — by displaying pictures of properties in frames on the office walls.
“He told me about a shop, The Old Bakery in Bath Street, Abingdon, which was on his books. It was in a very good location, slightly off the beaten track but just the right size. It was being sold by a builder and at the time had just soil for the floor. I had to have it rewired and heating installed.
“At the time I had no idea where the money was coming from but then my grandmother said she would like to invest.”
She was doing so because of what had happened to my grandfather’s business as a result of the slump in 1928.
His pattern-making business with a staff of 15 failed but it could have survived if he had held the freehold of the premises. She wanted to make sure that I would not be at risk of being evicted by a landlord.”
As a result, Surroundings took shape and has continued to this day thanks to Mr Jenkins’ combination of personal service and attention to detail.
He said: “I am one of the few craftsman framers. Although I work with machinery I create individual designs for my customers. I can always tell the difference between those done by computer and those done by hand. All my work is bespoke, I don’t sell ready-made frames.
“I stock a wide range of framing materials. I use mainly wood, which can be just plain or in gold, silver or other colours and with various stains and finishes. Frames can be flat, ornate or embossed. I create a frame appropriate for the picture.
“The cost of a frame will vary according to the customer’s choice of materials — whether they want a moulding handmade in Italy, or one mass-produced.”
Other requirements for the frame are the backing-board, for which Mr Jenkins uses mainly two millimetre MDF and acid-free barrier paper for the mounting of original art-work and everything of special value. Acid-free materials also protect older tapestry work.
For the mounts he can offer a choice of more than 40 different shades, some of which can be used to highlight particular colours in a painting.
And then there is the glass, for which the right type has to be chosen and is available with different coatings.
At the Bath Street shop Mr Jenkins has an assistant, Jane Gallagher, who discusses customers’ requirements and also frames some of the smaller works herself.
The shop is open on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Mr Jenkins still works from home at other times.
In the downstairs showroom sample materials are on display and the shop has two workrooms on the first floor.
Among its customers are artists.
“Quite a few come in when Oxfordshire Artweeks is approaching,” said Mr Jenkins.
“They have suddenly remembered how near it is to the time of their exhibitions.”
He sometimes has requests for pictures to be restored but does not deal with this.
“I am not a restorer or a conservator but I have experts to whom I can refer customers. I pass them on directly, I don’t act as a middle-man. They bring the picture back for framing when the restoration has been done,” he said.
When photographs of a great age are brought in, Mr Jenkins is prompt to ask whether they have been digitally scanned, advising that this is essential to ensure they will not eventually fade completely.
“Once they have been scanned, either the original or the scanned version can be framed,” he added.
“I have also advised people not to have some items framed..
“I ask them if they are sure they want to see it hanging on a wall, or would they be just as happy with taking it out of a folder or elsewhere from time to time and looking at it.
“I don’t believe in the hard sell. I want to make sure my customer is happy.”
Surroundings has carried out a number of prestigious commissions involving the framing of historic documents, for which Mr Jenkins obtained advice from the Ashmolean Museum and Bodleian Library in Oxford.
An unusual commission was to frame a teddy bear. This was a surprise gift for a female army officer from her staff. The bear was framed in a replica of a fire-alarm display unit, with the inscription ‘In case of emergency break glass.’”
Ultimately Mr Jenkins’ enthusiasm for his business shines through and ensures a healthy trade.
“We get a lot of repeat orders. I am never going to be a millionaire but I am never short of work. People are often thrilled with the results of their framing.”