Decorative prints in the frame

For a snip of the price of an antique you can find a set of framed prints to liven up your home, says Rosalind Russell
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Artists may wince at the suggestion, but most people choosing pictures to hang in their homes pick ones that will match the curtains. This theory is supported by Martin Trowbridge, whose framed decorative prints business has an annual turnover of several million.

The son of an Admiral who was the last British Governor of Western Australia, Martin says his introduction to marketing art was "selling dodgy fake oil paintings door-to-door in the Sydney suburbs."

Preparing to visit his family during his holidays from Oxford University, he went through old copies of the Illustrated London News and ripped out pictures of Western Australia. For an outlay of a fiver each, on his arrival in WA he sold them for pounds 150 each. Cheering work for an impecunious student who admits that being the son of the Governor was very useful in business.

The youthful entrepreneur's ambition was, at the end of his degree course, to earn as much as his friends who went into banking, but doing half the work. He appears to have succeeded. Now 36, Martin employs 50 staff, has a gallery in London's King's Road and three more in the US.

One of the major influences on the current fashions in prints and frames, he says, is the move towards using stronger, more unusual colours in fabrics and paint. Farrow and Ball and the National Trust paints palette has encouraged decorators into bolder schemes. "Nobody would have looked at sepia five years ago, but it is popular now because it won't clash with the room."

The Trowbridge Gallery sells antique and repro framed prints, prices varying according to rarity of the image. A repro "Poppies" (Papaver laciniatum rubrum) taken from the 1613 edition of Basilius Besler's "Hortus Eystettensis" costs pounds 250, framed. Antique Beslers range from pounds 800 to pounds 3,500. As an extra, anyone buying a number of prints from the gallery, and unsure about their skill as a picture hanger, is offered the services of an expert hanger.

Moving on from "pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap" beginnings, the company is now firmly fixed in the upper end of the framed prints market. Print subjects cover everything from animals, fruit and domestic interiors to architectural drawings and medieval manuscripts. One of their most popular ranges - and Martin's own favourite - is the 17th century flower prints.

"They have a strength and simplicity to them, unlike the fluffier Victorian prints. They are more masculine, so men are happy to have flower prints in the room." Twelve botanical images, representing one for each month of the year, are now being set in mirrors, made in the French style using gold and silver leaf. At pounds 185 each plus VAT, they are proving very popular with collectors.

At those prices, however, customers aren't likely to be buying on impulse. Definitely cheaper and undeniably cheerful is the print range produced by Wiltshire-based Handmade Designs.

At the recent Country Living Fair at the Business Design Centre in London, their's was one of the few stands - among a sea of lumpy ethnic jumpers and sackcloth frocks - worth the scrum to get into. Artist Martin Wiscombe is one of the directors of the company, painting the originals onto wood, so the effect is carried over onto the print. Topiary, botanical images, fruit trees and herbs can all be bought as sets, or singly. The range includes English naive art and American folk art. But the framed prints attracting the attention of most show-goers were those in the Driftwood art collection.

Wiscombe has painted a series of 32 images - also sold as postcards - depicting seaside scenes, including puffins, beach huts, lighthouses, fishing boats and seals. It's a very New England style, so it's not surprising exports to the US have been encouraging. At the Country Living Fair, the driftwood "bleached" effect framed prints were selling for pounds 10 each. Via mail order, the price is pounds 10.99 plus pounds 4.55 post and packaging.

Trowbridge Gallery, 0171 371 8733; Handmade Designs Limited, 01980 630600.

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