Remembering Frank Perkins

Frank Perkins, the man whose name is found today on some of the finest diesel engines all over the world, was born in Peterborough, UK, the son, and grandson of agricultural engineers.



Despite having a degree in engineering, Frank did not join the family business immediately, but started farming in Hertfordshire. He eventually returned to Peterborough and began learning the engineering business at his father’s firm, Barford and Perkins, which had become part of the Agricultural and General Engineers (AGE) group.

By 1929, he was works director at another AGE company, Aveling and Porter, at Rochester in Kent, where he met Charles Chapman, the man with whom he was to start his own company.

At that time, diesel engines were popular for agricultural machinery, but considered too big, heavy and slow-running for road vehicles. In 1932, Frank and Charles agreed that a smaller engine that could fit into private cars, vans and light trucks would have an enormous and expanding market.

In June 1932, their new company, F Perkins Ltd, moved into offices in Queen Street, Peterborough and by 1951, it was announced as the biggest producer in the world of diesel engines in the 37–52 kW (50-70 hp) range.

Frank was now recognised as one of the most influential businessmen in the country, running one of the key companies in the crucial engineering sector.

However, in 1959, he announced his decision to retire from active management. After 37 years, it was the end of an era.

John Gilroy – portrait painter

In 1957, Frank like many people of the time, agreed to have his portrait painted by renowned British artist, John Thomas Young Gilroy. With a reputation as a fine portrait painter, John’s sitters had included royalty, past and present, as well as Prime Minister’s Winston Churchill and Edward Heath and Pope John XXIII.

John, who died in 1985, was also an illustrator and is best known for the series of designs he produced for Guinness for over 30 years. His most memorable designs included the slogan ‘Guinness is good for you’ and he introduced the toucan which latterly became synonymous with the brand.

‘Restoring Frank’

Over the years the portrait has taken pride of place in various locations around the Peterborough manufacturing site, including the board room, but time and differing environments have taken their toll on both the painting and the frame. 

To coincide with Perkins’ 90th anniversary, the company decided to give the oil painting some much needed love and care and so brought in the services of professional restorer Roger Cole from Painting Restorations. With more than 40 years’ experience in painting restoration, Frank could not have been in safer hands.

Roger took Frank to his studios at the end of July 2022 for several weeks of intensive work on both the painting and the frame.

What did we learn?

We knew a lot of dirt and tobacco staining would need to be removed from the portrait, but Roger’s examination revealed many other startling facts about the painting.

“Under examination in ultraviolet light and also microscopic magnification, it was clear that the painting had originally been carefully painted, but its care and protection since then has been very erratic.” Roger continued: “There have been attempts to erase decorators paint, fly damage and repainting – where some paint had flaked off because the picture had been above a radiator or intense heat or even direct sunlight.”

In our initial consultation with Roger, we were aware that some likely well-intentioned, but ultimately damaging, cleaning and repairs had been attempted by non-professionals in the past.

It is normal when cleaning an oil painting, for the original varnish on the painting to be removed as this deteriorates over time. But in Frank’s instance, Roger told us the varnish used on some areas of the painting was the type used by commercial decorators. This had to be removed with a great deal of care as some of it lay between layers of repairs and back filling to the oil painting itself. These ‘repairs’ altered Frank’s appearance and eliminated features of his clothing.

As good as new

Roger has now repaired and restored the portrait to its former glory, painstakingly repainting areas to match the original colour palette where necessary. “The most difficult part of this work was to keep as much of the original work by John Gilroy, the artist, and work to his palette of colour. Therefore, the picture is now much nearer to the original than it has been for many years,” Roger said.

To complete Frank’s restoration Roger and his team of restorers used around 40 different brushes for the repainting and cleaning processes. Each restorer wore magnifying lenses for these tasks, even if they normally wore spectacles.

Each solvent used – there were 11 – was tested beforehand to ensure each was the best one for its specific task to clean or remove the different paints and varnishes.

The frame also had its own story to tell, as it was a second-hand frame which was modified to fit the painting – which was slightly smaller than the frame’s aperture. A ‘slip’ was created to bridge this gap originally – which was painted a stark white.

Roger went on to tell us: “This has all been removed, reconstructed, and then painted so that it is no longer evident. This white slip led to someone changing a vertical white line in the composition of the original picture to a stark white emulsion paint line which distorted the entire balance of the painting. The white slip has now been replaced and the vertical line in the picture returned to its original oil painted 'toned down' colour’.”

On display

Now Frank is back at home on display in the Heritage Centre, a small team of employees will ensure the portrait will be hung away from direct heat, sunlight, and receives a light dusting only, so we can protect the portrait of our company founder for many years to come.

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Roger Cole

Restorer Roger Cole with the restored portrait of Frank Perkins

Frank Perkins portrait before

The painting before restoration. Click here to enlarge. 

Frank Perkins portrait after

Click here to see the painting after restoration.