Look Beyond What You Think You See: Wendy McLeod MacKnight’s The Frame-Up

Beaverbrook Art GalleryMay 25, 20180 Comments

How I translated a lifelong love of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery into The Frame-Up

By: Wendy McLeod MacKnight, author of The Frame-Up

I am not an art expert.

I walk into an art gallery, place the headphones on my head (or not) and happily listen to an art expert explain the artistic, historical, and social significance of whatever it is I am looking at.

But I have a terrible secret: that information often goes in one ear and out the other.

As I stand there looking, I am almost always thinking of other things.

I am wondering what kind of mood the artist was in that day. I wonder if the subject was bored. I wonder how long it took to paint, and if the artist was content with the final product.

And I make up stories in my head.

It’s been like that my whole life. I’ve never seen a painting that I didn’t want to step inside and explore. I’ve imagined what it would be like to be in there, looking back out at us, especially those of us who skip past them, never really SEEING.

I blame my over-active imagination on the scary movies that I watched as a child, the ones where the portraits had googly eyes that followed potential victims from room to room.

Harry Potter made my longing to be behind the frame even more intense. Oh sure, the wizarding world was interesting, but as a sociologist, I was most drawn to the parallel world that existed behind the frames at Hogwarts.

So, in 2015, when I was looking for ideas for my second children’s novel, I had only to look up at the art on my wall for inspiration. Did my great-grandmother’s picture of a cow ever find a way to visit the figural painting by my friend Janice Wright Cheney, or the portrait of my mother by Jack Humphrey? Did the residents of the paintings get along with each other?

And while I love the artwork in my home, I knew that to do justice to the story I wanted to tell, there was only one place to set it: the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.

I don’t remember how old I was when I first visited the Beaverbrook, but I recall being equal parts impressed and intimidated.

Now, as I began to craft my story, I looked at the paintings on the walls differently. I saw a world created by a man whose sheer force of will resulted in spectacular masterpieces finding themselves on the walls of a small city in Canada.

I saw paintings from different eras forced to live side-by-side for decades. How did Jan Myten’s The Cotterell Family get along with the shady man in Freud’s Hotel Bedroom?

Were there rules? (of course!)

How did they cope with boredom? (not well)

Did some of them become friends? (absolutely)

Did some of them fall in love? (what do you think?)

Did they wish they could talk to us? (sometimes)

And given that I was writing for children aged eight to thirteen, and for the adults in their lives who love a rousing story and art, I knew that at the core there would be three main characters:

• The mastermind behind everything: Lord Beaverbrook, still running the gallery to this day;

• The plucky heroine, Mona Dunn, who, in my humble estimation, deserves to be more famous than that other Mona (the Mona Lisa);

• And a boy from our side of the frame with great artistic sensibilities, Sargent Singer, whose accidental discovery of the parallel world at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery sets the whole story in motion.

Add a dash of mystery, some fantastic supporting characters both inside and outside the frames, and an adventure that takes places in both worlds (which, sadly, can never come together), and I had my story, The Frame-Up.

And lucky for me, Greenwillow Books, a children’s imprint of publishers HarperCollins, decided to publish my story. And not only publish it, but honor the characters and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery by including a full colour insert of the paintings which are characters in the book.

On June 5th, children all over North America (and other countries) will be invited to step inside the world of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. They will see the Gallery as I see it: as a magical, mythical place, created by Lord Beaverbrook lovingly maintained and appreciated by successive generations of staff and New Brunswickers.

Many of those children will visit the gallery virtually online. The fortunate — and I hope they are many — will visit it in person. All of them will, I hope, finish the book feeling the same sense of wonder about art that I feel, and be inspired to visit their own local art gallery or create masterpieces of their own.

And I hope you will join me at the gallery this coming Lord Beaverbrook Day, May 27, when I will be honoured to launch The Frame-Up. In the meantime, you can visit me at my website and read more about the book.

I promise that once you start to think of paintings as living things, they will come alive forever. As Max, AKA Lord Beaverbrook, says in The Frame-Up: “Why should I be surprised that the soul tucks itself into every nook and cranny it can find, like art, or stories or our heads?”


The Frame-Up ​will be launching at 2:00 pm on May 27th, as part of the Gallery's Lord Beaverbrook Day celebrations.

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