Favourite Scenes: Framed

The moment in "Framed" when the National Gallery expert explains about the Wilton Diptych and discovers he has an unexpected audience.

Framed: the Wilton Diptych

Returning to a book to look for a favourite passage is rather like visiting somewhere you've been on holiday. You've got one particular spot or walk you want to go back to, but you're suddenly reminded of all sorts of nooks & crannies which bring back happy memories of times you've enjoyed.

It was like that for me, going back to Frank Cottrell Boyce's Framed. As I started to leaf through the book looking for the Wilton Diptych scene (it happens later on than I had remembered) I couldn't resist reading as I went along. I ended up reading pretty much all of it just for the sheer enjoyment. There are funny characters and amusing moments galore along with very real human feelings and interactions. Look out for the butcher who's afraid of liver or the elderly spinsters whose weekly drive down the mountain is a local event. If you're a parent, wince at teenager Marie's reaction to a particular painting (a theme the author wittily returns to in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). Laugh as the local schoolteacher briskly overrides Mr Lester's quibbles about Health & Safety and gives the children a lesson in the work which kept their fathers and grandfathers underground all day.

Of course the whole thing turns on the artistic masterpieces which, by means of a plot device, are being held in a disused slate mine behind a nondescript Welsh town. From one angle, the whole book is about exposing its readers to the wonders of art and to the effect it can have on people. But the story wouldn't work anything like as well without the central character of 10-year-old Dylan Hughes, innocent and loyal, who records the characteristics of all the cars which pass through their garage (for any reason whatsoever) and who is determined not to let anyone give his town any less credit than it deserves.

There's a poignancy to the book as Mr Hughes, unable to face the fact that he can't support his family, attempts an insurance fraud and runs away leaving Mrs Hughes with Dylan, his older and younger sisters and his baby brother. Minnie is younger than Dylan but is the brains of the family. Only occasionally does Dylan remember that she's just his little sister. "Big brothers are supposed to look after little sisters. And who is supposed to look after big brothers? Dads. And where was mine?" All of the author's books so far feature fatherhood in a prominent role. True, Cosmic is the only one which can be said to be about father-ness as such. But all of them look very hard at what it is to be a father in good times and in bad.

If you look at the story from a certain angle, it serves a pedagogical function, highlighting paintings in the National Gallery and giving different but highly plausible reactions to them. If I get the time, I'll write a comparison between Framed and Stone Heart. Their genres are quite different -- comic family story vs fantasy adventure -- but they both give their readers a glimpse into a class of artform available free to anyone who can get to London.

The plot in Framed has as its basis a comic misunderstanding between Quentin Lester, a National Gallery curator and expert on great painters and Dylan Hughes, the only boy in Manod and expert on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles At this point in the story, Quentin's car has broken down when taking the Wilton Diptych to London for display in the reduced National Gallery. He takes another car but forgets to take the painting with him. The Hughes family find the picture when repairing the car and are enthralled by it. When Quentin returns to pick it up, he's unexpectedly faced with the population of two schools who've come to see the show.

He lifted the little gold book out of the box and opened it on the table. "It's a diptych," he said, "a sort of tiny portable altar. It was made for Richard II." Then he stopped.

Terrible Evans had just come in from upstairs. And Jade Porty. They smiled at him and stood behind our Marie, looking at the picture. He carried on. "It's all gold leaf. We know who everyone is in the picture because everyone has their emblem -- a sort of logo. For instance, the king holding the arrow is Edmund, who was killed by Danish archers. The king holding the ring is Edwaed the Confessor, who is supposed to have given his wedding ring to a beggar and the..."

He stopped again. Two of Marie's mates had come in now, and also the red-haired girl from Mr Chipz and Mam with Max. They all smiled at himn. He smiled back and carried on.

"So you see, it's less like a painting and more like a puzzle."

"Or a code," said Minnie, looking at me.

"Or a code. Indeed," said Lester. Then he stopped. The rest of Marie's mates had come in now. The ones at the back were standing on chairs.

"This is turning into quite the public lecture. Where were we? Well, King Richard is wearing a white deer. That's his emblem. And the angels are wearing it in his honour. It's on the back of the frame as well. Look." And he went to close it, then stopped again. About another hundred females had come in. They all smiled. He smiled back, but looked at me. I smiled too.

"Well, perhaps I'd better..." He was going to put the picture back in the box, but all these millions of girls did a big disappointed "Ooooh". They sounded like the Kop after a missed penalty. He was too scared to stop then. He said, "Well, what else can I tell you? Oh. Yes. The little pommel at the top of the banner here. It looks like a simple silver orb, but if you look closely you can see it contains another picture -- of a castle on an island. Can you see? We only discovered that quite recently when the picture was cleaned. A hidden masterpiece. The could be an emblem of Manod, of course -- something that looks quite small and insignificant but which hides something wonderful -- namely, these paintings."

He was at it again. Small and insignificant! He can change his own tyres next time.

"So there we have it. The Wilton Diptych. Painted towards the end of the fourteenth century, artist unknown. Goodnight."

He grabbed the painting, snapped it shut and shot out through the door before you could say "0-60 in seven seconds."

To keep the length down, I've omitted the section just before this one where Dylan and his sisters give their own enthusastic appreciation of the piece. But it's worth reading first.

Sunday 1st January 2012