A Life Journey: Interview 5
- Nov 16, 2018
- By Stephen Cole
- In Interviews
Conducted November 22nd, 2010
Karen speaks about art college in Copenhagen, meeting her husband Norman, and her daughter Katrina
So Karen in the last interview, you told us that it was the most marvellous experience to go to the Copenhagen Art school.
Yes. Well I think I loved every minute of being there even though it was wartime and it was dangerous sometimes to be in Copenhagen. Of course one thing one did learn in a situation like that is that it’s not necessarily as bad as the papers and the radio tells. So our parents were for the most part really not very happy about us being there, but we rarely saw what they were worried about.
And how did you communicate with your family while you were in Copenhagen?
Telephone or letter. And sometimes they came to visit. Of course there was also the holidays when I went home. And we had to queue sometimes overnight for tickets, which was not what one really wanted (laughs). But we did.
Just to give us an idea, how long would a journey take for you to get from Copenhagen to Rødding?
Well it was about a day. Not because it was really being that long, because today when we’ve got more bridges it only takes a few hours, but at that time before the bridges we had to go by train and ferry and train again. It was difficult.
Quite a journey.
So maybe you’d like to tell us about actually being at the art college. Maybe you could tell us about some of the classes you attended.
Yes. Well perhaps I should explain the day: in the morning we would usually do practical work and then in the afternoon there was theory and there was working on design. Our teacher in design came from the Royal Academy and she would arrive in great style in the early afternoon and then we would work on designs for the rest of the day. Since the art school was housed in the Museum of the Decorative Arts, you would have thought that we would have spent a lot of time in the museum. Well I did, but it wasn’t a part of the teaching because our teacher, Gerda Henning, was really keen that we should be working on modern design and not get confused by working with the past. Perhaps that’s sensible but in the event… I had made friends with the head of the textile department and she was very kind, and she would show me things that I had no idea had existed and talked about her work and talked about other things as well. We were invited to go to Rosenborg, the little summer palace that King Christian IV had built in one of the parks in Copenhagen. It was a chronological museum, so we saw the dress of the King and Queen in the time of Christian IV, who became king in 1588 and died in 1648. And I suppose that that began my interest in the early textiles, but I had no thought about becoming a conservator at that time. That was just simply because of seeing what was happening in the various places. At Rosenborg we were taken to the workroom where they were working on the tapestries from Kronborg – you know, Elsinore in English [in Hamlet] – and it was very difficult for me to understand what was going on, really. In Denmark we didn’t have the great frames that I got to know about at the Royal School of Needlework so the object was spread over the floor really, lifted up over a table top – a table without a top, if you like. So I thought it looked really dangerous (laughs) with all the tapestries, that were missing large parts, not because of having been neglected, except for the fact that no-one really knew about them, so I don’t know if you can talk about neglect. But we were shown this and then we also realised that the people who were doing the work were not using weaving techniques, but sort of a funny kind of embroidery – they were all embroiderers and they didn’t know about weaving so perhaps that accounts for it, I would have thought. And I was quite concerned about this, because although I could see that the work was quite beautiful, in fact it altered the way that one looked at it as a tapestry because it interfered with the design and it interfered with the difference between the colours that had been used originally and what was used for repair. Later I discovered that it also changed the texture so much that the end result was that the tapestries no longer looked like woven tapestries but somehow like embroidery. But this was one of the areas where I got to find out that you had to look for yourself – you can’t just accept this is how it’s done. No, you have to look for yourself using your own experience that that isn’t really the right way, and this was among the things I discussed with Rigmor Krarup, who was the head of the textile department.
I’d be really interested to know what kind of discussions you had about it with Rigmor and with the other students.
Well I knew so little about how people got into this, how people worked on repairing things. I wasn’t quite sure what questions to ask, how to discuss it. But when Rigmor Krarup understood that I was generally interested in what was going on, she began to tell me about how in Sweden a lady called Agnes Branting – the aunt of Agnes Geijer – had set up an organisation to deal with the conservation of the Swedish textile past. I think it began with an interest in the textiles in the churches in Sweden, and eventually she and her niece Agnes Geijer set up Pietas, which was the organisation that dealt with the conservation throughout Sweden eventually, but it began with church textiles. And Rigmor Krarup showed me pictures of the work that they had done there and explained about their philosophy which was not to destroy anything, that is, not to take out any original part, however worn it was, but to work on keeping every part of an object and make sure that work that we did, that conservators did, would never interfere with the design of it. Eventually I learned that really counted for the kind of yarns that were used for repair. Of course originally the tapestries that I came to work on when I came to England was the fabric, the yarns were dyed with vegetable dyes or other natural dyes and no synthetics of any kind. And then I found that the natural dyes had their own way of changing which include fading but also actual changing of the colours, and so did the synthetic dyes that came in, much later, about 1850 or so. And in fact you could say that they dyed as harmoniously as the natural dyestuffs, only you couldn’t mix the two. It was when you mixed the two that the problems came in, and that sort of became one of the most interesting aspects.
Can I take you back to your days at college?
You said you did practical classes.
In the morning, yes.
Can you tell us what they would involve? What they would cover?
Well it would be weaving. Our teacher Fru [Mrs] Henning, Gerda Henning, had collected various types of loom including the Jacquard loom. And it was her intention that we should work on all the different types of looms to understand what actually happened when you weave and how your tools interfere with the design and looms too. So there was a lot of work to be done which included all of the different kinds of tools and looms that we used, and that had to be got through. And this was during the mornings, when we were assisted by Bente Myrner. She was the person in charge of the practical aspects of the weaving and she taught us patience and how to deal with awful things that happened (laughs). Sometimes awful things happened because the materials were wartime materials. There was a certain amount, of course, left over from before the war but they were Danish flax and not very good quality and not very good colour, but [we] had to do the techniques we were meant to do, so we had to put up with the quality of the yarns that were available. And among the objects that we had to weave was a table cloth, a full sized linen table cloth in damask weave, of course. And I set mine up, I wove about half, got to about the middle and then a thread that I hadn’t noticed had got between, had got into the shed (laughs). And 23 threads broke, quite a lot, and that was a really shocking moment when that happened (laughs). I know it sounds funny but it was a shocking thing.
How did you deal with it?
Well first of all, of course you had to continue the weaving, so you found all the threads that had got mixed up and you straightened them, and you pinned each in the place where it needed to be and then continued the weaving. The repair was not done until after the weaving was finished, it couldn’t be done while we were weaving. I succeeded and now it has been washed so many times you can’t tell where it is (laughs).
You still have it?
That would be interesting to see.
I’ve given it to my daughter and she is very pleased to have it. Perhaps you could find it and then take a picture of it.
Could you describe the atmosphere in one of your practical classes?
Well we were all good, all the students, there were 11 of us and we got to know each other quite well and we were very close. And we had a lot of interest in each other’s work and we shared design and pattern. We shared everything. And I’m glad to say that I’m still in contact with all the living ones, anyway (laughs), and some of their children.
So say for example when you were having trouble with your weaving like the example you gave us…
Would the other students help out, or…
Well first of all, of course, we were offered sympathy, I got sympathy (laughs). And then you had to solve it. In this case there wasn’t room for more than one person so I did all the repair myself (laughs).
A learning experience?
Yes, yes, it was a great experience. Perhaps that helped later.
So you told us about the weaving classes. What other classes were there? Practical?
Well weaving is quite a large subject so we concentrated on weaving. But other subjects taught at the art school were printing – not embroidery, but printing of textiles.
So you did weaving and printing?
No we didn’t do printing, only weaving, but printing was taught to other groups. But only the weavers and the cabinet makers were housed at the museum.
Can you tell us about the design classes? I think you told us that you had lectures in design?
Can you tell us a bit about them? Who taught you?
The person who taught us also taught at the Royal Academy.
What was their name?
Her name was… oh I’m so sorry but my short term memory is letting me down (laughs), perhaps I’ll remember in a minute.
Maybe you could just tell us what those classes were like?
Well, her style of teaching of course was different from Gerda Henning, as you would expect, but it was a very good way and we learnt a lot, including things that on the surface might not have a lot to do with design but nevertheless meant a great deal. For example, we talked about fashion and she said ‘fashion is one thing but to dress well you should dress according to your temperament and not according to fashion.’ And of course that is true, it is you that is being dressed, not the magazine.
So did you find that you applied that in your own life?
I think perhaps, yes, when I used to dress so that I looked like anything, yes. That’s a long time ago (laughs).
What do you mean?
Well it’s difficult in a wheelchair. It’s difficult.
So you don’t feel so able to express your temperament?
Yes, but it’s your personality that decides what you should wear, not fashion. I think that was a very useful thing to learn.
Could you give us any examples of how you might show or how you might have seen it at the time?
I’m not sure that I can give you an example really. A fellow student – beautiful she was, red hair – she experimented with colours to suit her hair and that included wearing amazing purples (laughs) and it was fascinating to see what she would be wearing from day to day, and that taught us quite a lot, just about colour.
So Karen how did you hear about the school in Copenhagen?
I suppose it must have been in the newspapers, because I didn’t know anything about it until I got there (laughs). Well I knew I wanted to go, but I don’t think I really understood what it meant until I got there.
What was it that you think you wanted to do at that point?
I’m not really sure. I just knew that that was what I wanted to do.
And was it that you wanted to do?
I wanted to learn to do weaving properly; I wanted to learn about design; I wanted to know about all those things. I don’t know (laughs).
That makes sense then.
It was really quite a different life from to the farm (laughs). On the other hand I had always worked with my hands. I had always been making things, and my mother had seen to it that I had the materials that I needed to work with. So I did know what I was doing, yes.
What would you say were the major things that you did learn from the art college?
Perhaps a bit of independence, both in looking and seeing. And putting things together.
Do you think it gave you what you had wanted from being at art college?
I think it did, but there was something else which I hadn’t really thought about up till now, but when I got to Copenhagen I needed a place to live. And this was during the first year. I discussed it with fellow students of course and one of them had a relative I think it was, who had a flat in his grandmother’s house and he had a room to let. And I was invited to go and look at the room and see if I wanted to be there. I got there and was a little bit taken aback to discover that there were two more besides him (laughs). They were all boys and I hadn’t thought about sharing with boys only, but I thought it was a nice room and I thought that after all I had four brothers and I knew about boys (laughs), and I thought I could probably survive that. And the person whose flat it was, it was his grandmother’s house, he was a bit older than us, than the two others. One was working in a bank and the third one, Erik, was at the Royal Academy, doing Art History. And he was just like my little brother (laughs).
In what way?
Well he was sensitive, had to be cared for and he would bring back the books that he had been using at the academy and then he would show me all the things in the book and he would talk about it. I think more because he wanted to talk about it, than because he wanted to tell me about it. But we got on very well and became very good friends, and a friendship that really lasted a life.
What was his name?
His name was Erik Reiff. And the brown pot there is his. He got his degree. I do miss him. He and his wife bought an old school and worked there, and he taught ceramics and he taught about art, and he and his wife set up exhibitions every year. This was far away from Copenhagen but I usually managed to visit them every time I came to Denmark. My sister is friends with them now, with her, with [Erik’s wife] Tove.
Sounds like a good, long friendship.
We were all good friends and they are all dead now – I can’t bear to think of it, they’re all younger than I. Except of course the one who owned the flat, he was older.
So maybe you would like to tell us something about the students. When you first started in the class, you were a farmer’s daughter – what were the others like?
Well I’m not sure – they were mostly related to the artists whose work we could see in the museum. And they were just them. But Ninna’s background, she was a country girl like me but I think her father was a teacher, and she had somehow managed to do volunteer work at the National Museum where she had met the person who meant most in the study of ancient textiles, named Margrethe Hald – some of whose books are behind me. I expect you will have heard about the ancient textiles in Denmark. We’ve got… I can’t remember how many, Bronze Age costumes, whole costumes, so you could get dressed like a punk. Her doctoral thesis was published in 1950 and in English in 1980. I’ve got a copy but I think [my son-in-law] Alan is looking, he was surprised to find how interesting all those old textiles really were, I am glad to say, and he has been reading about them too. Margrethe Hald began the proper study of what was found in the Danish, some were found in Bronze Age tombs but many in Bronze Age bogs. Sometimes they had been buried for reasons, you know like sacrifice, sometimes because maybe they had been criminals people found, but mostly they were sacrifices and dressed in their best clothes.
Does this relate in any way to the burial mounds near your farm?
Yes except they were never excavated in a proper way. You see, I think it was about 1880 that people began to understand that this was important stuff. Then the amazing thing is that knowledge in these early textiles are still getting better understood, proving of more interest. And I’m glad to say that they have now become of such interest that… I’m sorry words go out of my head… there are now special studies which has quite recently discovered that though they mostly look dark brown now, in fact they were dyed in exciting colours, strong exciting colours – even in the Bronze Age you had strong exciting colours to wear.
Can you tell us what kind of colours they might have been?
Well I expect you have heard of indigo, yes, which grows in India but there is a kind of indigo which can grow in colder countries, which is known as woad and I think the ancient britons used to paint themselves with woad, so it’s everywhere. And then there was madder which is a red colour, and saffron which is yellow and also mainly grown in hotter countries. But of course export began at a really early date so you could have blue, and you could have red, and you could have yellow and you could mix them and get more exciting colours like green.
Can you say at what point, what really made you interested in being a conservator at college?
When I came to England I soon realised that I did want to have a job, my husband had just left the army and he too was looking for what he was going to spend the rest of his life on, which meant study for him, but eventually his interest turned to book keeping, something that I hadn’t thought about at all. But I first of all wanted to see London, all the lovely things in London.
At college, can you say what you enjoyed doing most?
I did enjoy the weaving. I did enjoy learning about how to do patterns for Jacquard. I did enjoy, well all of it really. But perhaps mostly I was interested in the technical aspect: how things worked, how you transfer the design to a piece of cloth, all those things. And I think that’s really the thing. And that was of course why I spent most of my time out of hours, in the museum, looking at things. I still didn’t have any idea of repairing anything, just looking at it from the design and technical point of view.
So Karen when you were at home on the farm and you said to your parents ‘I want to go to art college’ how did they react?
Well one of the things about coming from Jutland, being a Jute, is that you never make statements, you just sort of mingle (laughs) so bit by bit you get the idea across and they get the idea that it won’t possibly do much good to disagree.
So tell us what happened when you told them?
Well my father, just before he died, he had agreed to me beginning to find out what it was about, with a weaver in Viborg whose family he knew. Well when he died, it was very difficult because I couldn’t quite cope with knowing how much he had been against me going. So it took a while before I told my mother that’s what I really wanted to do. But she did know, because you read each other’s minds you see when you are from that part of Jutland (laughs). And so she thought that I should find out what it was about and go to Copenhagen, and I went to see the people at the art school and they said I should come. And I did, and then that was what I wanted to do. And my mother was willing to find the money for me and I helped in whatever way that I could. Otherwise I would just get on with whatever was put in front of me in the way of work and doing things.
Can you say though why your father was so against you going?
Well he really could not see, at first, that girls should have a career. That was against all he understood. Remember this was the 1940s and girls didn’t work outside the home and they certainly didn’t go away and leave everything and everybody behind. And of course that would have to be, you see, in my case.
So when you told your father what was his reaction?
Well my father couldn’t see any point in girls having a career, after all they had to get married and have children and that was it. And I didn’t agree with that and I kept working for acceptance and then my father died. And that was such a terrible, terrible shock for everybody. He knew, my mother and he knew that he had a heart condition, but it had only been diagnosed a week before he died. And none of us knew or understood what would happen. So when he had a heart attack and died instantly, the shock to all of us meant that we had to readjust to absolutely everything. And after a while I realised I still wanted to go to Copenhagen. I still wanted to become a weaver and a designer, I still wanted to find out about how things worked outside farming. And my mother agreed and she helped in every way that she could and said that this is what I should do. So I went to Copenhagen and I spoke to the people at the art school who invited me to come and begin and be a part of it. And then after that all, then things that I have already told you about began to happen.
Just before, you were talking about your interest in the museum, when you were at college and you used to look around the objects. Can you tell us what you looked at?
Well I suppose first of all the textiles, but also comparing design in textile with what they were like on other objects like carvings, like drawings, like paintings. I think I knew from the beginning that it all belonged together and that really it’s foolish to think that you should split one part off from any other part of the development. And I think that was what became even more obvious to me when I came to England and began to become interested in conservation, which took some time.
Can you remember if there were any particular objects or textiles at the museum that inspired you?
There was a tapestry, it was called ‘The Judge’ and it was a tapestry that depicted a judge in full robes and how he carried a nosegay. I think I can even find a picture of it, but I can’t do it just now. And I think that was when I really realised that it is the details that tell the story in general and that is what you have to find out about.
The details in the design?
And what was it about that particular design do you think?
Well it was just this, that all parts of it were supporting the idea of a judge, which was what it was called, and I think that was one of those things that stuck in my mind when I became interested in conservation.
Any other objects?
Well yes I suppose, but I can’t quite remember just now, they’ve gone out of my head.
Don’t worry about it. So in the museum you were looking at old objects. What were the designs that influenced you whilst you were at college? Contemporary?
Well that would be modern design because all the people I knew had to do with the modern design. Of course there was professor [Kaare] Klint who was teaching furniture, and I suppose you’d call him the father of modern furniture. And there was my teacher Gerda Henning who was very well represented in the museum and there were her friends and colleagues. One of them allowed me to come and work with her during the holiday – Lis Ahlman was her name. And her designs were of the kind of simple, straightforward design: stripes and all the things that made you look at them as part of your general surroundings. And I was very very happy to be able to work in her workroom even for a short time, and we became quite friendly in the end.
And were there any particular principles of design that were applied in contemporary design of the time?
No I think that we had to look at things as they were and learnt simply form what they were, not from any preconceived notions of anything, just what we saw, what we wanted, what we were doing.
Did any contemporary designers inspire you then?
Well some of them you can see today, some of them that were started then are still in production in different places and I think influenced furniture making everywhere.
Were there any particular teachers you had who inspired you?
Well one of the teachers that meant a great deal to me was the assistant to Gerda Henning. She really made me understand what everybody else was working towards, because don’t forget I hadn’t been exposed to an awful lot of art before I came to Copenhagen. So it was about learning to see as much as learning to do, and this teacher’s name was Bente Myrner. And she taught us to understand the bones, if you like, of what we were working on, which were beautifully laid out for us by Gerda Henning but which were nevertheless a little bit above our immediate understanding so had to be explained a bit more. And I think that they were like two sides of the same object. You know we couldn’t really have learnt what we did without Bente interpreting for us, and Gerda Henning depended on Bente being there to explain and to make people see what she was about. It was a wonderful symbiotic relationship which we all benefited from. And I have got a photograph of my teacher somewhere.
Lovely, we’ll be able to use that.
Well it’s in the book.
Were there any other particular artists or designers who influenced you when you were at college?
Perhaps the person who meant the most to me was the librarian, who later married professor Klint. They were part of the same group of artists and teachers and influential people who made it all happen. And my life would not have been as it is if it had not been for Gerda Klint and her husband, and I shall always treasure their memories.
Can you say exactly what it was that they contributed to your life?
Oh I don’t think I can explain it any better than I have already (laughs).
Okay. Now you were talking about some of the friends you had at college.
Would you like to tell us about them?
Yes well there was Ninna, Ninna Rathje. She was the one who made me interested in the early textiles that were found in bogs and tombs and these were translated into understanding by Margrethe Hald, who was perhaps one of the first people to have studied textiles in depth, the old textiles, which thanks to the special qualities of the Danish soil are still there to be studied today. There are several Bronze Age costumes – men and women and a few pieces from the Stone Age and then quite a lot from the Iron Age. And eventually Viking stuff as well. And it’s fascinating to think that we have been wearing clothes and been concerned with fashion and with looking good for such a long time. I think that I particularly go overboard when I think about dyeing and dyestuffs because from the beginning people wanted to have bright clothes as well. And we have just discovered now that actually even from the beginning people probably did dye their fabrics or perhaps even in the yarn. And that’s because there is a research organisation set up in Denmark recently which has been funded to study all of these things and put it all together. So now we know the technology is there to find out what sort of dyestuffs and what sort of colours people wanted. And I think that’s marvellous.
So moving on to the social side of being in Copenhagen at that time, I understand you had parties?
Oh yes yes, but of course they had to be fitted in with the curfews imposed on us so parties would begin in the evening and not finish until eight o’clock in the morning (laughs).
A long time.
It didn’t matter if you fell asleep in the middle of it (laughs) which was something. But we did find ways of having fun in between all the bad things that happened, in all these things. And perhaps that is an essential part of growing up, wherever you grow up, whatever happens around you. And I was lucky to have good friends and we got together and we did have fun and we did learn at the same time and we did try to live. I suppose that’s the best way to describe it.
So tell us about a typical party that you might go to.
Well the cabinet makers’ parties were always the best (laughs), they somehow also managed to find entertainers to come in and dance for us or sing or whatever, doing things, and that was nice. And I think of that with great pleasure and gratitude that it was possible, because there were enough awful things that happened, we needed to know that there was a world outside of that. It is very difficult to understand how one man can cause so much unhappiness, that is what he did and his thoughts are still colouring our views on life still. That is awful. I hope he’s burning in hell.
Are you talking about…?
I don’t think I can talk about forgiveness (laughs).
But you did manage to have parties.
The cabinet makers managed to get entertainers, what kind of entertainers were they?
Well sometimes there were a couple of international stars that somehow had been left (laughs) in Denmark and Copenhagen, and they would come and sing and dance.
What did they do?
Well there was one singer, I can’t really remember, it was just part of it but they were there with us.
And where would a party be held?
Oh in the case of the cabinet makers it was in the art school. Everything was emptied out so there could be room for what we wanted, the fun of it.
What kind of music was it?
I’m not really the right person because I can’t quite remember that. Since it was Copenhagen and since we were all of us involved with the arts, it was what was fashionable at the time.
And were you able to get hold of drink or food?
Well there was always the black market (laughs) and of course if we could find the money we had no problems.
What kind of things might you be consuming?
Well I suppose the usual kind of drinks but some of them were not really the kind you ought to drink because (laughs) how can I put it… oh no no no I’m not talking about horrible drugs or anything like that, just simply that the quality of the stuff would not be acceptable to us now because this was war time.
And did people drink much alcohol?
When we could get it, yes.
Did people ever get drunk?
Not very drunk, there wasn’t all that much (laughs). Still there was enough to have fun.
And did people dance?
Yes, dance, yes that was very much part of everything, very much part of what you did then, when you were young.
So how would you describe the atmosphere and what you might have seen at one of your parties?
Well same as now at a party: finding fun, finding things to do.
What about – because it was during the war – what about clothes?
Well now that was a problem. We couldn’t have clothes rationing because there wasn’t anything to ration but you could always change things around: cut up your old clothes and stitch them together in another way (laughs), but it was a problem, a great problem. I was lucky to find an emerald green jacket in a junk shop which I wore for the rest of the war (laughs) together with trousers that had been made from my father’s trousers. So I managed to be dressed. We had a lovely neighbour who would be knitting things for us, I think the only times she wasn’t all that successful was when she decided to knit me a bathing suit in wool and it got heavy with the water so it became very revealing (laughs).
You must have had some fun wearing that.
Well yes it was a bit horrible when you discovered the effects of water on wool (laughs) but it was part of it.
So at the end of your course, which I think ended in 1946?
How did you see yourself then, as an artist or a designer? What did you think you were going to do for work at the end of your…
Well I had expected to set up a workroom and weave and take commissions like everybody else. I got a loom, 16 shafts, 54 inches wide – I could do anything on it really, only of course getting materials was not that easy. We were lucky to have consignments of Icelandic wool from time to time. One of my aunts would spin it for me and I would try to weave with that, not always very easy but we did mange reasonably well. Then there wasn’t really all that much time for me to be working as such because we were married in 1946 and I came to England. You’d like to know about how we met?
Yes I would like to ask you when did you meet?
I met my husband soon after the war finished. He was one of the people who came with General Montgomery to free Denmark (laughs). That was how we saw it. It was at a party because everyone wanted to celebrate the English soldiers and I remember the party but, awful to say, I don’t remember meeting my husband. However he kept turning up wherever I was. He was always there. And eventually he spoke to me and we began to understand. I was very lucky that I had been taught some English by the wife of the teacher in Rødding school. This was in 1935 because of American relatives coming to visit. So we were able to talk together – I had kept it up and gone to English classes in Copenhagen and so at least we could talk together. And then bit by bit it became more serious and he came back. He was moved on of course and then he came to visit and we saw each other again and got to know each other.
What was it that you think drew you to him? What was it that you liked about him in those early days?
He was a very quiet person and I think it must have been his persistence (laughs) which I suppose is really quite nice to think about.
And do you remember what he was really drawn to about you?
I never thought about that – I just took it for granted. Sorry (laughs).
How would you describe your husband when you met him, what kind of a person was he?
Kind, thoughtful, dependable. I just thought he was right, I couldn’t really think about a life without him as soon as we got to talk together. And then he wanted me to come to England with him. Of course that meant we had to get married, we couldn’t just, at that time, you couldn’t just do anything because you wanted to, you had to have the background for it and in our case that meant we should be married. So that was no problem for me except of course that I had always thought that I didn’t really want all that dependency on men stuff, I was a bit bolshie even then. But we talked with the pastor – remember I told you about the pastor who had so much influence on my life – and he said yes we should be married and that he would marry us in the naval church where he was now attached. I have a picture of it here. My mother came and one of my aunts, my father’s youngest sister and her husband and my sisters came, it was a beautiful occasion, and the librarian and her daughter, we were all together and we had a very, very nice wedding party and I shall never forget how kind everyone was in trying to make it all come together, to make it all work. I had to have a new dress of course, I mean who wouldn’t for their wedding even if there was no rationing. We did find a shop with a beautiful dress which I got. I think there is a picture of my wedding dress, Katrina would have it, she looks after everything to do with my past.
Did your husband’s family come over?
No I think that to them any place outside London was the end of the world – he had an aunt whom I loved dearly and her husband too, and I see my husband’s two cousins sometimes, one of them sadly died last year or the year before, but I’m glad to say he also has a dear girl cousin who comes to visit us when she can, she lives in Saffron Walden with her husband.
You may have told us, but where did your husband originally come from?
Yes, we did try to look for somewhere to live there but didn’t find anything, eventually we found a room in Kensington, South Kensington, far too expensive of course, but it was beautiful, I loved it.
How did you come to move to England?
My husband of course wouldn’t have much opportunity for a job in Denmark, not being able to speak Danish and not having that many qualifications. He was only 19 when he joined the army and when he left he went on a course in bookkeeping so that he could take on that kind of job. But he had nothing before that, so there was no question, we had to live in England. And I’m glad that we did too, even though it was quite difficult at first.
What was your first reaction when he said…
When I came to England?
Well about you leaving Denmark.
I don’t think that really upset me. Remember my family have never been people for sitting still anywhere (laughs), we have travelled a lot and we have been around the world. And I’ve got family everywhere I suppose, so that wasn’t really the question. The question was really what to do when I got here. Of course first of all I had to have a job and then a place to live. The job came about because I wanted to see London and everything in London before I settled down to anything. And that meant visiting the museums that I had already read about like the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum and everywhere in London really. And one day I was making my way to the Victoria and Albert Museum, coming from the park along Exhibition Road, and on the left side there was a building which said ‘Royal School of Needlework’ and ‘Exhibition Showroom’. Exhibition showroom, that must mean I can go in and have a look. So I went in to have a look and it was an amazing place with the most hideous things you could ever imagine (laughs). Oh I don’t really mean that. Yes I do. All the same I was walking round looking at the things and realising that there were things given by Queen Mary that were very beautiful, very interesting, and I suppose I spent my time looking at them. And then a lady came to my side and spoke to me. She was in charge of the showroom. I didn’t know that at the time. She introduced herself and we began to talk and she asked me when I was going back. And I said “I’m not, I’m married to an Englishman”. “Oh dear” (laughs), I’m not sure why she said that, but in any case we kept on talking. She asked me what I’d been doing and I told her about the weaving and she immediately thought of tapestries and then she said “are you looking for a job?”. And I said yes, and she said “would you like to work here?” (laughs), I hadn’t thought about it at all but I knew that they were doing work with tapestries and I thought well I know about tapestries so yes I’d like that.
[Recording interrupted due to end of tape. On resumption the interviewer asked the same question of Karen]
But I wanted to know where I was first, so I wanted to see the things that I had heard about in London before I got here, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, all these things. And so, I can’t exactly remember what led to me walking down Exhibition Road, but that’s where I saw a whole wall of a house with ‘The Royal School of Needlework’ and ‘Exhibition Showroom’ so I thought I would go and have a look and see what it was. I thought this must be an invitation to go in (laughs) and I went in and began to look and thought it was just totally unbearable and horrible, yes. Well these so called modern designs were just not… not very good (laughs), and then I saw that they also had a number of objects given by Queen Mary and they were beautiful and they were interesting and I was looking at them when someone came up to me and began to speak to me. I discovered later that she was the person in charge of looking after the showroom, Miss Heath, and she asked where I came from. I told her and then she asked me when I was going back and I said “Oh I’m not, I’m married to an Englishman” and that was when she said “oh dear”, and I couldn’t know what she could possibly mean by that, but in any case she asked about what my background was and then said “would you like a job?”. And what would I do? Work with tapestries. And I thought I do know a bit about tapestries so perhaps that would be alright, and then she called the workroom mistress – that was the title, ‘workroom mistress’ – and she came, Miss Racey, and Miss Racey asked all these questions and then said “would you like to begin on Monday?” (laughs). And I was a little bit taken aback but all the same, I thought very quickly and said I thought that would be alright (laughs). And I was really very pleased when I went out and thought about going back because I liked the atmosphere, and then on the Monday I came in and I was met by Margaret Bartlett who was second in command to Miss Racey. And Margaret had just finished the war, she had been a member of… an army contingent of women… well, it will come. And we became friends in the instant, very good friends and eventually when Katrina was born she became her godmother. So we felt sort of relatives. And this was really the beginning of me beginning to feel that I had a place in England and now it came to finding about how to work, how to understand what I was doing there. And I think that we began with me looking at the tools. You see they had these enormous tapestry frames that were just like huge embroidery frames. I’d never seen anything like that but I saw right away of course that this is the only way to work on tapestries: something that was big enough to hold a tapestry and also to keep it safe while you were working on it instead of what I told you about what I’d seen in Denmark, with the tapestry lying on the floor and tapestry lying on people’s feet or perhaps workroom before, that was fascinating to me, totally fascinating. There were four old, well I thought old, ladies – they must have been 50 (laughs) – and they were the people who taught the young ones and who looked after… they had been trained at the Royal School of Needlework’s own training school, and they had had a very thorough training in embroidery but not in design, only in actually doing the work. But it was totally fascinating to see what they did know and how it all worked.
I discovered that there was what they called an upholstery department where they prepared all the objects that came in for repair to go into the workroom and be taken over by the person who had been given the job of doing the repair. And it was very interesting to hear how they approached each job as it came in, because in order to understand it and in order that they could tell people what they should be doing – the work they should be doing – they remembered aspects of their own training. So when it came to design they never spoke about the overall design, but they looked at the details and remembered what they had been taught about how to do each detail. And that was what they taught. And it made me think an awful lot about this very different approach and how it affected the work that was being done, and how it accounted for the fact that the design was so bad (laughs). Many years later I was at a meeting, a sort of conference, it was an international conference, and it was to discuss design. And in this instance there was one lecturer speaking about the influence of English embroidery design on European work. And I thought for a minute what that could possibly mean. And I realised that you couldn’t begin to talk about the influence of design when you thought about the approach to how to deal with design because that was not part of it, could never be part of it, if you are only taught how to deal with one aspect, namely the details and how to carry out each detail – you can’t possibly talk about an influence of design because that didn’t come into it at all. But I did learn a great deal by all these various comparisons and I think that when I eventually did become interested in conservation I think that was probably what had the greatest impact on how I tackle [it].
Thank you, that’s very interesting in understanding where you got to. I just wanted to take you back again to Copenhagen. When you got married and knew you were going to come to England, what did your family say – your mother?
I think that perhaps my mother simply accepted that if I wanted to do something that was what I would do. After all I am the eldest and was always aware of that, everybody else was aware of that too – I wasn’t a bully ever (laughs) but I could, generally speaking, I mean I’d been brought up to look after my little brothers and sisters and I knew that they would do what I would ask them to do. That was just part of being the eldest. And in the same way, my mother accepted that I knew what I wanted and had considered whatever aspect that was necessary. That’s not to say that it was necessarily like that, but that was how I was seen.
Were there any more responses from the rest of the family at all apart from your mother?
Well of course my brothers, one by one – I mean I’m the eldest then there’s four brothers, and one by one they attained the same in my mother’s eyes that they knew what they were doing. And she would support everyone one of us exactly in the way that we needed.
So you knew you were going to come to England. What were your ideas about England before you came?
I think heavily influenced by Dickens (laughs). I don’t know. When I arrived here I couldn’t believe how awful everything was and dirty, worn, nothing white anywhere at all. Obviously I wasn’t rude enough to say that to anybody. At the same time, if people thought that I’d probably thought like that, they immediately got defensive and said “we’ve had a war on”. And I thought well, we’ve had a war on. I mean it’s been everywhere, so why is it so horrible here and in other places people are still keeping clean, still keeping things in repair – just not here, well I’m sorry (laughs), I shouldn’t feel like that but I did. I just thought it was so awful, so terrible. This lack of, it seemed to me, will to do something about it. This was what I couldn’t really… this was the awful part.
A kind of an apathy?
Yes, I suppose really. Perhaps I can illustrate with the worst thing that ever happened to me. Did I tell you about this before? The winter I arrived in England, 1947, was the worst winter in memory, in anybody’s memory, with snow and frost and everything freezing, including the lavatories. Everything was freezing. And so we saw the plumber came nearly every day with his men. I’m sure I must have told you about this…
Oh good. And one day I got to be less polite than I perhaps should have been and as the plumber finished this job that he’d been doing every day (laughs), it seemed to me for several weeks, I said “why do you have the pipes on the outside of houses? And wouldn’t it be better if they were on the inside so that they wouldn’t…”. Before I had finished talking he looked at me with that contempt of foreigners (laughs) that many British have and said ”you couldn’t get to them when they froze”. I couldn’t believe my ears. I’d read about this as a joke but to actually hear it being said (laughs), oh I thought how do you deal with things like that?
It illustrated that kind of apathy.
Yes, so that nothing really could ever change because no-one encouraged people to think constructively about anything.
Just leave things as they are?
Yes. It’s awful.
Visually, what were your first impressions of coming to England?
It was just that dirt and broken things and no one doing anything about it. And people being angry if I thought it wasn’t a good idea to leave things like that (laughs). And I thought perhaps I’d better shut up. Only I couldn’t (laughs).
How did your husband deal with it? Was what his character like?
Well he was… he agreed with me, but that was how it was.
That nothing could change?
Yes. And I got to think that perhaps in England it’s like this, you would always be 50 years behind the times and then perhaps there would be a leap forward to at least halfway towards where everybody else was (laughs).
If you’d said the same thing in Denmark to somebody, how do you think they would have taken it?
About suggesting a new idea.
Danes are quite open to new ideas, yes. I think that’s everybody of course including farmers. Except of course my father (laughs) when it came to girls working.
Can I ask you, when you came over, what did you bring with you?
Well, my mother had given me things to get started on, like china and a bit of silver and things like that. Besides Margaret, my next friend in England was Gwen [Bock]. She was… Katrina was born in Paddington hospital in 1948 and in the ward – not the delivery ward, the ward before – I met Gwen, who was married to a German Jew who had been interned in England and they had met and they were married. And we were talking in the dark in between pain. We were talking, getting to know each other, it was interesting I suppose from that point of view (laughs). And then in the morning of course, light. And then I realised I didn’t know what my new friend looked like (laughs), which was really horrible to think about because I definitely wanted to see her again. And then I looked across the ward and saw a baby with a profile exactly like his mother, and I suddenly thought, ‘I think that’s her, I think that’s her’ (laughs). And I called out and she called out and we recognised each other’s voices and we’ve been friends… well she’s dead now, but her son comes to visit. He lives in London and he comes to visit. Not Tony, because the family moved to Canada and that’s where Tony is still, but he comes to visit and I keep thinking about him sitting there, Gwen holding him up, and his profile being exactly like his mother’s and it was like family (laughs). Soothing. And Werner is still alive, I’m glad to say, and I hear about him. I think about how lucky I’ve been to have always made friends that I really had a lot in common with.
You mentioned when you had the incident with the plumber…
And you said he looked at you like, you know, one of these foreigners.
Yes – stupid (laughs).
Bloody foreigners (laughs).
What kind of experiences did you have about being a foreigner when you first came?
Well yes, well I mean that’s still there, that persisted, has persisted and will probably persist forever and ever. Well what can you do about it? You can only think poor things (laughs).
True. But how did you find it on the whole, with English people?
But you see don’t forget I made such wonderful friends who didn’t think like that, who were real people who wanted to know about the world, who took me in and Katrina and Norman. And yes it’s like that.
So tell us about Norman’s family.
As I said, his mother died when he was 10 and his aunt brought him and his brother up. His brother was two years older than Norman and he became tubercular when he was about 12 or 13 I suppose. So he spent a lot of time being treated unsuccessfully, it’s fair to say. But he was married to Greta, my sister – we called her our sister-in-law. And there’s a picture of her in the other room. In order to keep, you know… there wasn’t so much in the way of social services at that time so Greta had to work to keep them both. And she worked as a housekeeper for a while and they had a house where we stayed quite often with them, and Greta and I became very very good friends. And of course I loved Norman’s brother too but it was so sad to see how such a gifted, such a clever man, and he couldn’t fulfil the promise that was in him because of the illness. That was bad, that was hard to take for all of us. And after a while he did get better, enough to be able to do some work and then they got a caravan to live in, and Greta sometimes would then find jobs outside and would work from there. But when he died, when Ken died, I could only think about Greta being alone. They were very happy living there and they managed to do a lot of things together, and then the illness came back for Ken and he died. I could only think about Greta being all alone and no one at all to be with her in that horrible time. And so Norman and I found out about how I could find buses to get to her. Because he would need to look after Katrina and so I got out in the dark and I found one bus after another and eventually turned up (laughs). But they didn’t have a phone so she didn’t know that I would be coming. So when I knocked on the door and opened it it was a surprise (laughs). But it was good to be there, it was good. It was good. I miss her so much. But Norman had… his aunt who had brought him and his brother up, became a very good friend too, and her husband and their two sons. Only one son is alive now but I see them.
How did Norman take the death of his brother?
It was hard, very very hard. But TB is such a terrible thing and it conditions you to know that it’s going to happen to you. You have to, in order to… that people won’t live long.
And what was their relationship like?
Very very good. Norman was the youngest and he loved his brother. It was really his only relative, well apart from his aunt. It’s hard.
So moving back again to when you had been at The Royal School of Needlework in 1946 and you had Katrina… you mentioned you got pregnant and had Katrina.
Yes I stayed at the school [until] a fortnight before she was due, and everybody was so concerned for me because of me working (laughs) and everyone wanted to hold me. And whenever I was walking up and down the stairs to get to the school they got really very worried because I didn’t feel any different so I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about (laughs).
In those days did women work up until they were about to have babies?
Well I don’t know really about anybody else. I was the only pregnant person I knew (laughs). I did go to the clinic and I did see other people there but there has to be some reason for you to take on the things. But they looked after me, the school, everyone there.
How did you feel about being pregnant?
Well it was lovely (laughs) of course it was, of course it was, and it was fantastic when Katrina finally arrived. Now I left two weeks before she was due but actually she wasn’t born until three weeks after her due date (laughs), I didn’t understand about anything like that. I thought that she must not want to come into this world, but I don’t think it’s really like that.
How did you cope with her being late?
Well you do get a bit fed up in the end, takes so long. Prepared so much and then it takes so long and you think what have you done wrong (laughs). But she was alright, eight pounds two ounces, figures you never forget.
And did you have a good GP?
Yes, yes very good, but the hospital was not very good – a bit horrible.
Tell us about the hospital.
Oh I don’t remember, this was just before the NHS and of course something that was totally unbelievable. It was unbelievable to me that there wasn’t an NHS because in Denmark we did have proper security and proper doctors and nurses looking after us, and a health service.
Was there? What was the system like?
I can’t remember exactly but certainly I hadn’t dreamt that it wasn’t like that everywhere. And it wasn’t. I think the most interesting thing about that was that there was a clinic where we went, where expectant mothers went to be weighed and inoculated and done things to (laughs), and I had read in the papers that it wouldn’t be long before the National Health Service would be up and running, and thought that was marvellous that it was coming. At least there was one place where Britain was trying to be as good as the rest of the world. So I was talking about that quite freely at the clinic and discovered that some of the nurses thought that everybody who actually looked forward to the National Health Service was taking advantage of it. Yes. And it was such a strange thing, and I didn’t understand any part of that, of people who didn’t see that this was an important step forward.
Can you say, I mean what kind of things did you hear nurses saying?
Well until then most of what became the health service was a sort of charity and that was how the nurses wanted to keep it. I didn’t understand. But that was how it was, and it’s so strange that we’re talking about this now. We’re talking about something that I only half understood or not understood at all. But when you think about it, just think what a step forward it was, just think about how [Nye] Bevan was really amazing to have put it all together and seen it as a solution to this lack of care that had been before, that you could only be treated as a charity person. And now suddenly the world was different. And now they’re doing away with it. And I think that’s so disgusting.
What was the treatment like that you got in hospital?
Well I suppose alright, except that everybody who worked with patients treated the patients as charity cases because that was how they were brought up to think about them. So some of the nurses could be quite horrible, you know.
So you didn’t get good care?
No. Well mostly you did, but some of them were just awful.
So how long did you stay in hospital for?
Well that would have been two weeks. At that time it was like that.
And then what happened?
And then I went home and then you went back to the clinic to have the baby weighed this time (laughs). And there were some very nice people working at the clinic who wanted to help the young mothers who didn’t know what they were doing.
So you had a little girl…
And she was so beautiful, right from the beginning she was beautiful, lovely and of course Norman, oh this was the greatest thing that ever happened to him. He spoiled her outrageously from the very beginning as I’m sure you have noticed (laughs).
I didn’t – how did you decide upon the name Katrina?
Well when I saw her I thought that must be her name. And I thought she has to have two names. And then I thought well she could be Katrina Ellen after my mother, but Katrina, that is her name.
And was anyone else in the family named Katrina?
Well it is such an ordinary name, Katherine. I suppose it is an ordinary name really. I don’t suppose there are many families in the countryside of Denmark who didn’t have a Katrina or Katherine or Kate (laughs). But I don’t know. I have an aunt called Katrina, and a cousin called Katrina.
You were saying that Norman was delighted…
And he spoiled her – what kind of things did he do?
He could never take his eyes off her. And it lasted from when she was born until he died. It was Katrina. And that was nice. We were a happy little family. Not always with much money, but you know.
Where were you living at the time?
We got a flat in Bayswater, yes. Luckily my mother had given some money towards getting somewhere to live and that was more or less just enough to pay for this little flat in Bayswater that we had got. It was two bedrooms, sitting room, very nice, kitchen, bathroom. It was beautiful. It was at the top of a house in Monmouth Road off the Westbourne Grove.
It was a very nice house, you know, like millions of others in London.
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