'I cannot send a Monet home with a speck under the glass'

Serendipity led songwriter Gary Dyson to start a second career as a picture-framer. He talks to John Lawless about his burgeoning business
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Gary Dyson celebrated securing a top job in a new industry last week with a Picasso and two Tracey Emins.

Not buying them as a present for himself, but framing them. Five years after discovering he had passed his play-by date as a singer-songwriter – "My latest royalties cheque was 90 per cent down on what I had been earning," he admits – Dyson is now one of Britain's top three picture-framers.

His frames alone can cost several hundred times as much as a high-street print. "Some are in excess of £2,000," says Dyson. "Anti-reflective glass with UV protection, just like you get on the best sunglass, can be £1,000."

But despite the prices, business is sky-rocketing. "I have 170 frames, including six Damien Hirsts, to finish before Wednesday," says Dyson. "So it's 14-hour days all weekend."

Customers include artists such as Gavin Turk, but many are City high-rollers who, in a recession, see art as a safe investment. "I constantly get asked to drop my prices, by some of the richest people around. That's probably why they can afford paintings worth thousands.

"But there's no dignity in dropping your prices. I have gone for the high-priced end of the market. I'm as good as the other two top picture framers in the country, as competitively-priced. Why should I work for less?"

Dyson and his three staff have just moved into the most high-tech art workshop in London, behind the Tate Modern gallery. "I cannot send a Monet home with a speck under the glass," says Dyson, "so it has a room that's totally dust-free."

Like most things that have guided the development of Dyson's business, the move wasn't exactly planned. "We had a workshop in Limehouse which got flooded from the floor above," says Dyson. "We had £500,000 worth of art in the place and water coming in through the ceiling. We had to leave in a hurry, and, within six weeks, we'd moved out permanently."

The most remarkable thing about Dyson Art, though, is that a stranger to picture-framing managed to muscle his way in at the very top.

How Dyson did it provides a lesson for anyone, who 10 or 15 years off retirement, finds themselves at the end of a long dole queue. "I'd had 20 years doing nicely in the music business," he says. "I'd had my own dance band, a couple of solo deals as a singer and worked with many of the big names."

Dyson co-wrote songs with and provided vocal backing for the likes of Joe Strummer of The Clash, 1980s teen idol Nick Kershaw, and 10CC's drummer Kevin Godley. He also directed documentaries for Genesis's We Can't Dance album, and for "Heal the World", Michael Jackson's fundraiser for poor children in Romania.

Then, in 2005, income from royalties that were supposed to keep him in his old age, plummeted.

"At that very moment," says Dyson, "I met a guy who was a picture framer, who was going to live in the Philippines and who wanted to sell all his equipment for £5,000.

"I said I'd ask around, as you do. But when I got home that evening there was a mailshot from NatWest saying that I could borrow £5,000 to start a new business.

"It seemed too much of an omen. I'd never borrowed any money in my life. But I did so. And bought the lot."

Dyson had the cheek to approach one of Britain's top framers, John Jones, who employs a staff of 40, to ask how the equipment actually worked. "He helped me," says Dyson. "It was an unbelievably generous thing to do, given that he knew I was going to compete with him."

Nowadays, financiers don't only arrive with pictures they need framing. "I have been approached by people who want to invest money in me," says Dyson, adding coyly: "I believe they are called venture capitalists."

They come calling because Dyson has made a technological leap. "People always want frames where you cannot see the tiniest cut-line or littlest screw holding them together," he says. "It's possible with wooden frames, but, with time, their painted surfaces can crack.

"With aluminium, there are no cracks, but you can see the small screws holding them together."

Dyson used the frame-making know-how acquired over five years, and a colleague's ability to play with computer models, to come up with what he has trademarked as the Dyson AluFrame.

The new frame, with no visible screws or cutlines, can have a face as slim as 20mm but is strong enough to take pictures measuring three metres by two metres, and carries only a 15 per cent price premium over wood.

"My aluminium frames," says Dyson, "are a conservator's and gallery owner's dream, as wood contains tannins etc which, over time, can damage art works. With a powder-coated finish that's durable, they are frames for life."

Artist Gavin Turk was among the first buyers. Demand is growing from abroad, with 10 AluFrames going to Ireland. And there's now talk of a long-term tie-up with a photographic print company that makes super-size prints.

The frames are a significant part of the reason Dyson's business, which consistently racked up 30 to 40 frames a week last year, is growing so fast.

Dyson believes that City high-rollers and senior managers have the biggest problem adjusting to unemployment. And he knows what they're going through. "I'd really lived the glam-life," he says. "So I know how psychologically damaging it can be to become a top-class reject.

"Mine wasn't such a massive career swerve as it may seem. Straight from school, I had a job carving gravestones. Somehow, framing pictures didn't seem a million miles away.

"But it would have been too easy to walk away from that opportunity. Somehow, I managed to say to myself: 'You're just another geezer, who's got to get out there and earn a living'. And that's just what happened."