Conducted December 9th, 2010
Karen speaks about her career after moving to England
I wanted to ask you about the time you were at home with Katrina round about 1948, and you started working at home. Can you tell us about that?
When Katrina was born I still wanted to be involved with working and thought it would be nice to work at home. We lived in Bayswater then, in the top flat of quite an old building off the Westbourne Grove. I quite liked living in Bayswater then – there were so many things going on and so many strange people to watch in the street (laughs), and then of course there was the park. So we would normally go to Kensington Gardens and walk around the pond and look at some of the little gardens at Kensington Palace and then go back, and then I would work at home. Sometimes I had commissions from the Royal School of Needlework and sometimes I worked on things I had been asked to work on for friends: toys and little things they thought they wanted and that I maybe enjoyed making. It was nice.
What kind of things did you really enjoy making?
Well I suppose mostly rugs, but my loom was enormously big and we couldn’t have it in our flat at the top of a house, so my husband Norman had colleagues who knew people. And one of them had a room in the flat of a fairly aged bachelor who was great when it was suggested that I did my work in his flat. And then I did some rugs and some of them like this, you know (points to peacock rug) long haired rugs. As you can see it’s peacock feathers inspired by Warwick Castle because the first one I made was commissioned by a dear friend from the Victoria and Albert Museum. And I really loved doing that, so when my sister asked if she could have one too I was quite pleased, yes. And I see that hanging on her chimney piece when I’m home and it still looks alright I’m glad to say.
Can you say what the pleasure was in making it? What are the skills involved in weaving?
Well of course first of all you have to think about what sort of design you like that fits in with what the person who commissioned it liked. And then you have to get the materials and decide on the technique. And perhaps it was always the techniques that interested me most. This is quite simple. A Ghiordes knot, that is the same as used in oriental rugs, I’m sure you’ve seen them. And well, weaving is so many things, of course you have to have a fair sense of space to be able to design for it. But I think more than anything, you do need to have an interest in figures, because weaving is more about figures perhaps than anything else, you know. Because arithmetic comes into it a great deal because that’s how you visualise what you are going to do. I’m quite good at that (laughs).
Thank you, that’s helpful to understand. Can you tell us about the toys?
Oh yes, someone gave me an old coat – very heavily filled, very stiff, it was black – and said I could do with it what I wanted. So I suddenly had this vision of making black dolls, which of course is not very nice now, I never thought about it like that though I have to say. I only thought of it in terms of the kind of shapes in the doll that I wanted. And then much much later I learnt that they were called golliwogs, and that wasn’t very nice. But I enjoyed making them and the children that I gave them to enjoyed playing with them and they didn’t think in terms of anything racist either, so that was alright. And the thing about the fabric that the coat was made from was that it wouldn’t unravel. So I thought of a way of making hair with little curls in by folding a piece over and cutting into it so you had all the loops ready-made, and then turning them round on the back of the doll’s head until they came over the front.
Katrina was a baby at home with you at that time, did you make any toys especially for her?
Oh yes, I did, I made all her clothes and at that time it wasn’t custom for little children to wear dungarees in England, but I made dungarees for her and my friends thought that was lovely and they asked me to make dungarees for their children too.
Was that something done more in Denmark?
I suppose. I suppose. I always felt that England was about 50 years behind the times and then went on to make a leap 50 years into the future so they were never more than 20 years behind (laughs). Not nice, but it was very strange to come to England and discover that there was absolutely no interest in modern design, or in fact design of any kind. And of course I just couldn’t bring myself to make anything in the style of the Royal School of Needlework if you know what I mean. When I came to England I did try to design other forms of weavings for sale as I had expected to do, but I discovered there really was no interest in design here and felt a little bit cast down by that. And I did my very best to raise the level of interest in design and in modern design in particular, like curtains, fabrics that you could see through and that the sun could come through in different patterns, and all the things that I’d been taught. But it didn’t really work. Then years and years later, when Katrina was about 16, 18, I was asked to sit on a committee for the Royal School of Needlework which had to do with design. And I did everything that I could to try to lift the standards to get teachers who were prepared to teach modern design, because I thought that would help the school to survive in hard times. And I loved the Royal School of Needlework because all my friends were there and I admired the spirit and I admired everything that they told me about things. The only thing was that I couldn’t bear the designs (laughs) and it was uphill work but I just kept on and on but to no avail, I have to say. But perhaps it’s better now. I haven’t had much time in later years to think about that because so many other things came along.
How did you feel when your designs were not appreciated?
Well I don’t know that I felt anything as such, I just knew that I wanted to change it and that it was uphill work.
Can you remember how long it was before you decided you wanted to go back to work?
Yes, we had moved to Acton and then we had problems with dry rot and stuff. And I needed to get a job and earn some regular money. And then I suddenly remembered that at the Victoria and Albert Museum they must surely need conservators to work with tapestries. And I wrote to the keeper of the textile department who invited me to come in and wanted to know my background and things. And as at the Royal School of Needlework my interview ended with me being offered a job at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in what was then called the art work room, which later became the conservation department. And I was really pleased when my work was appreciated. The first tapestry I did at the Victoria and Albert Museum was a French tapestry that had been repaired so many times that you really couldn’t see the design. At that time values of tapestries and embroideries were set by dealers and they wouldn’t accept things that showed signs of repair. To them, signs of repair were patches on the back. It didn’t matter that things were darned and darned again, so that you couldn’t see what was underneath the darns. As long as there wasn’t a patch on the back of it, it was alright. Well of course I couldn’t do anything with that because I would have to take out the old repairs and begin again and after a while I persuaded the people that this was what it should be and so we put this tapestry in a frame – cleaned it first, put it in a frame and unpacked all the darns and there was really very little left (laughs) when you unpicked the darns. And then I stitched down the warps onto a linen backing, having fought and got permission to do that. And we couldn’t see any change as we were working on the frame because that was as close to your eyes so you couldn’t really see what was going on except right in front of your eyes. Anyway eventually it was finished and it was hung, and then a miracle was there, was apparent. Because of having just stitched the warps down on the lining and kept absolutely every bit that was still left, suddenly the design came back and you could see the town in the distance, trees, and it was wonderful, it was wonderful. And I knew that I was right. And the keeper was pleased and everyone was pleased (laughs) and we changed the whole thing about tapestry conservation.
That must have been a wonderful moment.
It was, it was. I was pleased.
Was that the first time you had done proper conservation?
I think it probably was but you know we hadn’t made a lot of fuss about it, we just did it. And then it was left like this for a few years. Then after five years I thought that I wanted to work at home and left the Victoria and Albert Museum, and then went to work at our house in Ealing. Mostly, as it happened, on objects that were belonging to the Victoria and Albert Museum. But there were also objects from the rest of the world. And I was then joined by a French lady who had been taught conservation in Paris and who had a wonderful eye for everything and who knew absolutely to perfection how things should look. And she introduced colour in the couching of the threads and that made it even better. I mean there’s a lot to be said for the French feeling for art and design and we had a wonderful time together. That was when we suddenly found ourselves a training institution at our house in Ealing (laughs), very funny that. Danielle [Bosworth] eventually decided to leave London and she set up a work room where she did a lot of work for the National Trust in the West Country. And that was nice too. The first teaching as such began when our workroom was changed to the conservation department at the Victoria and Albert Museum. And I had talked to people before I had left, but they too had decided to leave. And so when the new people began, he had no people to work on tapestries. So he asked if I would teach a new person at home and I said yes of course. What I didn’t want was go back (laughs), but I was quite happy about people coming to me in Ealing to be taught and that was really nice. The very first student later became in charge of the conservation department at the Borough Collection in Glasgow, where the Textile Conservation Centre is now.
That must have been very rewarding.
Yes it was.
Can I just take you back to ask you, what were your reasons for leaving the V&A?
Well I couldn’t really see a future. I should probably have stayed but I couldn’t really. I mean the restrictions of the civil service then, was too complicated to think about.
Because you mentioned that piece of conservation that you did and it was appreciated.
Were your ideas taken seriously after that?
Yes they were but I mean there were restrictions on everybody in a place like that, and it was too much (laughs).
Now, you were talking about the teaching.
Oh yes that’s right, so that’s how it began. But because of me agreeing to teach students who came to my house in Ealing, then the people who were watching us around the world – which people of course were, I mean the Victoria and Albert Museum is a place to look out for – I suddenly had letters from the whole world practically, the museum world asking if I would take a student from them. I think it was when I found that I had a waiting list of 300 would-be students with funding, that I thought this would come on like this: not in a house in Ealing, not without any possibility of doing all the things that we wanted to do like getting a scientist to work with us, like having a proper property… you know, the higher stuff and all things that we needed. So my sister-in-law, who was my secretary – this was before Heather our neighbour was able to do that – she and two colleagues wrote what we called our memorandum. I don’t really know why we called it our memorandum but anyway it was about the need for teaching textile conservation in Britain, and I thought it would sound funny if I said ‘for the world’. Yes, if I said anything else, you see. And when we had finished, and started wondering what to do next (laughs) because now came the time when we had to take people interested in it, only we didn’t quite know how. I decided that I would take it to the keeper of the textile department at the Victoria and Albert Museum. And I did. He read it, he read every word, quietly while I sat on the other chair in his office, and watched his face. And then when he had finished reading it, he looked over his glasses and said, ‘ah, you shouldn’t have left here then, should you?’
What did he mean by that?
That I had to… that it had to be an independent thing. But I wondered about what it was that we hadn’t done, that was obviously necessary to think about. All the way back in the train I thought about it and then I realised that they didn’t know, that no one knew, how much work we were doing. So I spent the next three weeks going through my diaries to list the work we had done in 1970, and the hours that it had taken, and that came to about 11,000 for that year which was quite a lot, thinking in terms of–
Quite a lot when you think about the conditions under which we were working.
At this point maybe you could tell us about a particular object, any stories around the conservation of it – whether around a person that commissioned it or the objects themselves.
Yes, but I think I would like to have them here with me (laughs).
What, the objects themselves?
Well the people too. Well we worked for wonderful people and worked on absolutely amazing… I’ll give you the list so that you can see and you can pick something and then if I think I can talk about it then I will.
I remember the Ottoman tent.
Oh yes, the tent. Oh yes. It was on loan to the Polish Institute, by the Lanckoroński family in Poland and it was a tent made for entertaining in the army, probably the date would have been late 17th century or early 18th. And it was a small tent, as tents go, but from our point of view it was 28 feet long and 14 feet wide (laughs), so you can see that it wasn’t easy. There were so many wonderful things about that. First of all the design of course and how it was worked. And then discovering that the… we looked at paintings of tents and discovered that they were all green. And this one of course was red with appliqué. Ah, that was because the tents in the paintings were shown with their outsides and the green, while the creation was really on the inside for people to enjoy. That was one thing. And eventually when we had a scientist working with us, he looked into what the green colour was and discovered that it was a mixture of chemicals that worked in such a way that part of the surface of the linen that was used for the lining melted. Which helped to make it waterproof. Interesting, isn’t it? And well, it was in very very bad condition this tent, it took us a long time to do. We were so pleased when it was finished and it was hanging up at the Polish Institute, high up on the top floor, so that when you stood up on the top floor landing you could sort of look into it. Unfortunately there was only one wall left, but that was enough to give an impression, one wall and a roof and [inaudible] left and that gave us a wonderful impression of what it would have been like. Eventually the Countess who had commissioned our work, she wanted it back to Poland and gave it – it was only on loan to the Polish Institute – so she took it back to Poland and gave it to the Barbary Castle where they have an amazing collection of tents.
You say it was a Polish Countess who had it – how would she have had it?
Inherited through her family. One of her forefathers was an officer in the army that tried to defeat the Turks.
And how was she looking after it in her possession?
That was hard to tell because its history was not always known. But it couldn’t have been looked after very well. On the other hand of course it would also have hard wear during its lifetime, during the time it was actually used. I must say that the Countess herself was one of the really really great attractions about doing this job. She was tall, beautiful, very well dressed and we met her first at the Polish Institute. She wanted me to come, and all the people working with me, which at that time was about ten. So I made sure that they understood that that was how many there would be. And then we went to the Polish Institute and met her and looked at the tent again and discussed what we were going to do. And it was very interesting hearing what she had to say about it too, which was more or less what I’ve told you now. She invited us to tea in the Polish House club in Kensington, in Exhibition Road, which I’m sure you’ve passed several times on your way to the Victoria and Albert Museum (laughs). So we went there and they had already set the tables for dinner, but they cleared them and set them for tea for us. And I had to deal with various things and my sister-in-law Greta sat with the Countess, who then told her about her life. She had been three years in a German concentration camp. We looked at her and we thought she looks as though she would be the kind of person who could frighten you, even a concentration camp guard (laughs). She was very very interesting. Very nice, very interested in our work. And I never forget meeting her and how wonderful the whole thing really was.
So when you left the V&A and you worked from home on commissions, how did people know about you?
Well everybody knows about the V&A, and there were many visitors who came to see what we were doing. First of all I had met people while I was already working there, but of course before I started doing any teaching except there. Then people came to work at the museum and I was asked to teach them what to do on tapestries mainly, and then when I left and Norman Cavelle asked me to teach more people at home, that meant that all the people at home who knew about me already thought this might be an opening for them to send students to me there and that’s how it really began, because I was working quite closely with people from the Textile Museum in Washington and the Dutch Museum services in Amsterdam. And of course museums around Britain. And you could say that it was like taking a cork out of a bottle (laughs), it just spread.
So you could say then in summing it up that you were known from working at the V&A and there were significant people you came into contact with at the V&A. Would you like to name any of the people who helped along the way?
Yes, I’m not sure how much people like to be mentioned.
Fair enough. But you had become known by your reputation. What do you think you were known as at that time?
I think that you could say that everything happened just one small step at a time, so I’m not really sure that I thought about anything. I think it was just a matter of coping with things as they came. And of course I very soon got very interested in working with all the young people who came from different places, I hadn’t really known anything about teaching, but I did know that if you give people something in their hands for looking at they do get an awful lot more out of it than if you just talk about them. In 1964 there was a meeting of people who worked in conservation that included historians as well as conservators and I was asked to speak about my ideas about teaching, which I had sort of outlined in the memorandum, which I’ve already told you about.
This is the memorandum for the Textile Conservation Centre?
And so because of that, things just grew, just like that (laughs).
And that was because…?
There was nowhere that people could be taught properly and I had to say you cannot say that you are fully trained for however long you work with me because we haven’t got the facilities for doing the science part or indeed a scientist to work with us. And we can’t have that in an ordinary house in Ealing. I discovered that about the insurance, we had to insist that the clients inform their own insurance company that their object was in my house and some of them came and some of them looked round (laughs). I don’t know on what basis they decided how a house in Ealing was safe, but there you are.
So it had been inspected?
Yes. And everything was as much to anyone’s surprise as it was to us, that it was happening. But I did love all my students and it was fun and we had a lovely time. And we had fantastic things to work on.
It sounded like you really enjoyed the teaching. Can you tell us what it was about the students or the teaching that you enjoyed so much?
Just simply that they were interested. That they asked wonderful questions that I explained what I could and also, oh yes, at this meeting in 1964 I met Stella Mary Newton who was then teaching History of Dress at the Courtauld Institute and she had been looking for someone to teach her students about techniques, so she asked if I would be involved with it. And I thought well I’ll find out what it is (laughs), and said yes. And her students started to come one day a week for the first two terms of each course. What she said was ‘teach them about textiles’ and I thought that is a bit of a large brief, perhaps it can be whittled down a bit or something. And I asked her what is it exactly that you want me to teach them? And she said ‘yes teach them about textiles and keep them amused’ (laughs). So I thought this is the most brief I’m going to get (laughs), and then I thought what to do and then what I just said to you about how handling things is the best way of learning things. And of course handling things is not as easy to achieve as you think immediately, because if it’s going on in a museum you have to have all sorts of safeguards and strings attached. And I thought how do I do that? Then I thought I spent all the time since Katrina was born shopping in the Portobello market, with her in the pram. And I’ve seen all the stuff that was being sold for threepence or fourpence or sixpence, and that was expensive, and I had also seen that traders would actually throw it all away when the day was done, rather than take it all home again. Of course they were just small bits and some of them in bad condition and some of them worse. Well none of them I suppose were worth anything it all. So I thought I will make a theme for each time they are due – sixteen boxes full of stuff that person to one theme each. So first of all I had to get the boxes. I thought cardboard boxes are not really very practical, but they were these fish boxes, even if they smell a bit (laughs). So the fishmonger gave me boxes and I scrubbed them until they didn’t smell and then did that. I still remember putting boxes out around the room, then picking things that fitted the particular day in question. Fantastic thing really, when you come to think of it. I used all the stuff that I had made myself, from various courses and embroideries from my home. But if you first have anything that looks like a collection then suddenly their mother’s friends and everybody starts giving you things.
So it grew?
Can you remember what the themes were?
Not really, I’ll show you.
Can you remember one of them?
Yes, well the first one would have been about weaving. And for that I would have had lots of samples that my friend at the historical archaeological research centre in Denmark had used to prepare her work there. There were samples of the techniques there, all kinds of weaving, some ethnographic, some archaeological. And they were not all of them pretty or interesting, but one of the things that they all were was original to what they were meant to be. They were exactly what they were meant to be. The right materials; the right dyestuff; the right object for whatever they were made for. So they were real. So when they came we began with coffee in the kitchen, in my kitchen in Ealing which luckily was quite large, and then the box was put in the middle of the table and one person would begin, take out a piece and I would explain what it was and they would ask questions and they would really, you know, would take an interest in what was going on and hand it to the next one and it would go round, and the next piece and the next piece. And so it was just a sort of happy chatting exercise where you had to look and work out what things were and you had to understand what you were looking at. And then each of the students would undertake to study one aspect that she or he could choose from what she saw in the box, from anything really, that had to do with that particular day. And that was through to the next week, the next week would actually begin with those little sort of mini lectures, if you like, because I naturally had to give them how much time they would have, because we couldn’t spend a whole day on one object (laughs). And it’d also teach them a little bit when they have to confine themselves and you pick out the most salient things to talk about.
Can you give us any examples of the weaving techniques in the boxes, including from the market?
Well of course I also had the objects that had been what we had to do at art school. So for example there was a damask table cloth which really enabled me to get an understanding of what damask is and how you recognise it and which is the right side and all those things. And it was really quite simple, all of it. But with this advantage that you held the history in your hand and looked at and understood and then you had to study it further.
And how did your students respond to your way of teaching?
Well they were a bit bewildered the first time. A little bit bewildered perhaps for the first time, but they were clever girls, all of them, all of them, so it didn’t take more than once, perhaps twice before they had the idea.
And how did they run with it? What did they do with your ideas?
Well they then knew a bit more about everything that they had seen in the box. And the fact that they had to pick something to study during the coming week of course helped to widen their horizon a bit. And I have never forgotten visiting one of them when she had become head of the costume galleries in Bath. She said she couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t taught her. And I thought well that’s nice (laughs).
We’d go shopping in Portobello market with Katrina in the pram and if we saw something that I needed it would go under her (laughs), she would sit on it and looked after it until we got home.
What kind of things did you pick up?
Well there were pieces of fabric, pieces of embroidery – rarely whole pieces because they cost money, real money. What I collected were things that didn’t cost more than sixpence. You don’t even know that term…
(Laughs). It was great fun, and the dealers didn’t understand what I wanted with all that rubbish.
Did you ever have conversations with the dealers about how you were going to use it?
Sometimes, but they just thought I was mad, so… lots of mad people in Portobello market.
At that time did you know anybody else who was doing this kind of thing?
No, that was the problem, you see, because I did want some guidance but I never did meet anybody who could. Afterwards I realised that Stella knew that if she… she obviously read my mind and she knew if she gave me something to solve, I would. And that I wouldn’t do so well if she explained to me what she wanted. I think that must have been it because she stayed like that until she was a hundred, until she died.
You mean allowing you to run with a brief?
She lived in London in a wonderful house that her husband got during the war, when everybody wanted to get out of London. Stella could do anything. She was the one who started the History of Dress course I told you about. She also dated paintings at the National Gallery from the point of view of what was shown of the fashions. She started something.
So you started to tell us about how your teaching started with teaching at home. Can you tell us how it developed?
Ah yes the development. Well, since it began with the tapestries at the V&A, with teaching about tapestry to the people who were employed at the V&A, from the beginning it was object based. And when…
Can I just ask, were these students who had been sent from the V&A?
Yes, by the keeper of the new conservation department whose name was Norman Brommelle, spelt with two m’s and two l’s.
(Laughs). Huguenot origin, like Danny who worked with me in Ealing. Well, so when Stella [Newton] wanted me to do this job, I had a sort of beginning to it then. I knew that I could teach, by explaining objects, because of course, I knew… oh yes and also by taking into account all of the different courses that I had done. First of all the Kunsthåndværkerskolen [School of Arts and Crafts] in Copenhagen, then dress courses, embroidery courses.
Where had you done the dress and embroidery courses?
After leaving school several of my friends went to this sort of boarding school – it’s a very Danish thing that comes out of the high school idea in Denmark, which began in the middle of the 19th century.
Was this the Ungdomsskole?
Yes, but the Ungdomsskole came later. It began with teaching just young people from the country who hadn’t had a chance to go to school because of the distances. In Denmark we have about 525 islands. You can imagine that that causes a few traffic problems (laughs).
But you were telling us about some of the course you had done that helped you, your teaching process, that you understood how to teach and you talked about the dress, the clothes courses. Were there any other courses?
I made lace, that was fun. I’ve still got my lace board somewhere. I think it’s up in the attic.
So you brought all these skills together.
Yes, because of all of them are interrelated and you just begin and then it all sort of begins to fit.
Can you remember the objects that you were using? Do you want tell us about any of those that inspired you?
Yes, but I have to show them to you. I’ve got some of them here but you see one of the things about all this was it probably wouldn’t have worked if it hadn’t been for what I knew about objects. I don’t know, perhaps it would.
I think that’s very interesting because you are telling us what was needed. What did you know about objects? How would you sum that up?
I was able to recognise techniques of course and then sort of found out one by one, being neither a historian or an art historian it was sometimes a bit difficult, but you can find out everything if you just set your mind to it.
What would you say were the key things you brought together to do this teaching?
(Laughs). How do I answer it?
Well you’ve mentioned the skills that you had and the knowledge.
Yes I’m really disappointed about some of them having disappeared now. I had an operation, which is apparently quite common, which bit by bit has… it has a name, but I’ve forgot what it is. When both…
And what has happened? How has that affected you?
So now my hands have got numb. It’s horrible. I can’t use a needle any longer, I can’t feel a needle. Can’t crochet, can’t knit, can’t weave.
How does that feel, not being able to make things any more?
It’s awful. Well Katrina is very good at finding ways of keeping my hands warm. These are silk gloves, they are really light glove linings. And then other people make me these knitted half gloves (laughs).
Shall we move to the setting up of the Textile Conservation Centre itself?
Ah yes, how that began. As I told you we wrote the memorandum and tried to get people interested. It took a while because they weren’t as quick and clever as my students, the people we needed. But eventually all the necessary people got the idea and Stella Newton couldn’t have introduced me to the Courtauld Institute without the director approving and that was first of all Anthony Blunt, who I thought was absolutely marvellous. He told me about how he and his brothers had kept, or someone had kept all their baby clothes. He said your first exhibition should be our baby clothes (laughs). I thought now there’s an idea, that could be really nice, and then for some unaccountable reason I suddenly pictured him wearing them (laughs). But the person who helped us most there was Peter Lasko, who was director when I began to teach. And he also came up with suggestions for teaching. So that was great. And then, of course, we had always worked for Lord Chamberlain because all the stuff that they have. And that’s how we came to have the Queen’s sedan chair in the front garden. You saw the picture (laughs) and the… oh yes, how that came about getting to Hampton Court I’m not really sure, but I was asked to explain to a committee why it would be necessary to have a Textile Conservation Centre. And this committee was set up by the Standing Committee for Museums and Galleries whose secretary was Barbara Granger‐Taylor who really really helped me with everything that I didn’t know anything about, like how to address people, which I still don’t (laughs), but it didn’t seem that important. At this meeting I prepared a talk to explain, and there were all these men in black suits sitting round the table, beginning by looking bored. I’m so glad to say I managed to cheer them up a bit. And there was a small man, someone who appeared to be a secretary, at a table next to the big table, and at the end of me explaining about why it was necessary to have a textile conservation centre, he held up an envelope, on the back of which he’d written his questions, like you do. And he said ‘who should pay for all that?’ and I said I don’t know but I do know that you’re paying quite a lot already, because at Hampton Court I know that it takes seven years to do a tapestry and I said I don’t know anything about how much people are paid but I don’t think it could be done for less than £30–£40,000 for each, which I thought was a quite a lot. And afterwards he came up to speak to me and his name was Vivian Lipman and he was undersecretary – a government post is it? – with responsibility for public buildings, which I suppose would include Hampton Court, buildings like that. And he said ‘nearer 40 actually’ (laughs), that’s how he began. And I think that he thought that it was quite clever that I’d worked it out without knowing anything about it, as close as that (laughs). And he asked clever questions which luckily I was able to answer, continuing to jot things down on the back of the envelope. I think he even had to take the front (laughs). Anyway he became a good friend, Vivian Lipman.
Can you tell us why it was so important to set up the TCC?
Well if you think about the sort of history involved with the kind of textiles we deal with, you will see they are really the foundation of the culture of most countries. And that if we lose all that, we lose our foundation. I think that it is very important to keep your background intact. And I really think that if you don’t preserve your arts and crafts you lose the whole game, because that’s where innovations come from, that’s where all the things that you need to create, everything, including machinery. I mean if it hadn’t been for people making a loom there wouldn’t have been any employment in Yorkshire would there?
You’re saying very important things that are relevant for today.
And I still think that it was Vivian Lipman who got us into Hampton Court. I mean with responsibility for historic buildings. And I do know something that the Queen – we were told this by one of the courtiers – she considered that was likely to be the only official subsistence we would be given. Which turned out to be right (laughs). The Queen’s a clever lady.
And how important or significant do you think it was that it was held in Hampton Court? Was it important for the organisation?
It was important to have some space. First of all we were offered space by Cambridge University in a house that belonged to… I forgot the name. We went to see this, we were pleased to accept, only we had to raise the funding for it, which at a quarter of a million pounds was quite a lot then. It’s nothing now.
What do you think were your main achievements of setting up the Textiles Conservation Centre?
Well I’ve told you about writing the memorandum and about how eventually everybody began to act on that and we were very lucky to have a friend who was a solicitor, who, together with John King of the Victoria and Albert Museum and John Nevinson who was an independent historian, worked on getting our charitable status which took over four years. The charity commission grinds exceeding slow and during that time… I mean when it began we did not know how long it would take and when we were in the middle of it we didn’t know if we could hang on until it happened, and that was one of the things that was difficult. A few months before we got the charitable status, we were offered the space by Cambridge University and then when everything was finished and we’d got our charitable status we learnt from outside sources that the space was going to be used for painting conservation. No one had bothered to tell us, we had been sitting there all along trying to raise funding and doing everything. So we had to get them to make a statement to the effect that they no longer needed us, you know. Because otherwise we couldn’t continue unless we had clear lines about things. By this time we had actually moved into Hampton Court and we didn’t know even if we could stay there so it was all a bit horrible, that. This was all sorted and we were allowed to stay at Hampton Court and eventually we stayed from 1975 to 1999, no no no, sorry…
Don’t worry about the dates. What would you say were the main achievements of the TCC? I know you received an OBE.
That we managed to stick it out until it was set up, that we managed to find funding. Perhaps the main thing about it was that we had a waiting list – one of the reasons that we had to write the memorandum, that we had to start trying to get this thing set up, was that it was all too much and I got ill and I had to have an operation. When I came out the person who was supposed to be looking after things for me had undertaken so much work that we had a waiting list of four and a half years of useless things, at too low an estimate that we couldn’t even afford to continue. It turned out that what saved us in the end, even though it didn’t pay enough, [was that] we were still able to continue in Ealing until we could move to Hampton Court (laughs), but the day that we moved to Hampton Court was absolutely fantastic – 14th of April 1975. We’d made friends with a person who delivered stuff around the country and he had helped us take things back to places before and we asked him if he would move us to Hampton Court, and let us of course handle the things ourselves because we didn’t dare risk anything in the way of losing things or breaking things so we needed to be there. Of course he agreed with all that, and we got to Hampton Court with a big truck full of our frames, everything from Ealing. And when we got there, they opened the front entrance for us and we went to base quarters, the front entrance, and then we carried everything in to our apartment, apartment 22 where all of this stuff [that] had crammed us into tiny spaces (laughs) looked like nothing at all, even in the smallest apartment at Hampton Court. We moved in, we began to put things into place and then it was time to go home. And then we couldn’t get the lorry out, the truck, whatever you call it, because of course the weight had gone so it was about a foot higher than the entrance, so we couldn’t get out. Bit worrying, that. Then I thought oh those warders look nice and heavy, I’ll get some of those to… so I got half the warders at Hampton court leaving everything else unguarded of course to get into the truck and weigh it down so we could get out. It was sweet, it was wonderful.
So that was exciting, moving into Hampton Court. Part of the job, I understand, you would be working on site?
But was there also travelling involved with your work?
Yes quite a bit. Of course some things had to be done on site, but it’s not very easy, as you need all your equipment and we needed to… we did manage, which was amazing all things considered.
You also traveled around the world to lecture. Maybe you’d like to tell us about some of those trips?
Well after I retired I was invited to go to Australia to visit two former students there – one in Fremantle and the other in Brisbane. Both of them were teaching conservation… no, one was teaching conservation, the other was teaching History of Dress at the university in Brisbane. And they arranged a wonderful round trip and suddenly they said, one of them thought if she’s going to do all this and she’s going to lecture my students and everything then the British Council can pay. And they did. Nine weeks of travelling around Australia. That was nice. And we met so many interesting people and you know, all sorts of wonderful things. In Fremantle we heard about the ship that had floundered off the west coast of Australia which included a cargo of lace, some of which was made from cotton which was not believed to have come to any European influenced place until 100 years after that, so that was interesting too. I did find that whole experience totally overwhelming and wonderful. In Western Australia we were invited to speak, my husband came too, we were invited to some of the museums that had been set up that included stuff from the original settlers. One day we were invited to lunch at one of them to meet all the staff and then they told us about their lives. One of them, the leader of the museum – they were all volunteers, but she was the one nearest to being in charge – she told how her family had come to Australia in 1899 I think it was, when there were gifts of land to people who came to settle there. So they had been given land and they had been helped in every way to set up. And then the lady who was sitting next to her who was called Sheila Milos… nothing to do with anything, she said we came the year after and land grants had stopped and my ancestor put his family and wife and children, got them ashore and had a tent put up for them and then he had to leave to try to find work in Guildford, which was nearby. And when he had come back all the children had died, and I thought, just think of what people have been through, just think of this travelling, being forced to travel halfway around the world and settling and then this happens. You don’t realise how people live. And I have such respect for all of the Australian nation, thinking about [how] this was how it began. Escaping from something that was too much to bear. And coming to something that was even more hard.
I can see that travelling has been a very important part of your life.
Perhaps you could tell us about one of the most interesting places that you have travelled to – one that has inspired or interested you?
I don’t know with things like that… I find it awfully difficult to… I was fascinated by the Kremlin and all the dresses worn by Peter the Great (laughs).
What was it like to be in front of Peter the Great’s clothes?
There is something about people’s clothes. There really is something about people’s clothes. Well perhaps it’s because you can’t help thinking about what you know about them and I thought, just think how much he tried to do for his people and how much he succeeded. Just think about it. Even getting those workman’s clothes made must have been quite hard for him, considering. Well that was one thing. I must say that going to Barbary Castle hoping to see our tent and finding that it wasn’t on show was a bit of a… (laughs).
Another part of your career I know is your writing. At what point did you start putting your ideas into print?
Well that had to be more or less right away because we very very quickly discovered that there were people who claimed to have been trained by me who had only just visited the work room. And we couldn’t have that because of course it would ruin all the thoughts behind it.
So Karen when did you start writing?
Well I’m not really a writer but there came a point when I had to do some writing in order to interest people in the idea of a Textile Conservation Centre, which began as a Textile Institute. No, I had a proper name for it, the Institute for Textile Conservation, only our solicitor didn’t like the initials. I think if you think about it you will understand. So, he came up with the idea of Textile Conservation Centre, which of course is very much better. Well we went through an awful lot to get it started, especially the people who were helping me, who really really suffered, some of them. So I began to write in order to get people to see that we had a particular aim that we were working towards and that that would depend on everybody who was involved sharing our views. And that was why I had to do some writing. And I suppose the first was… I put it all together in that folder there. First of all our memorandum, which was about the need for a Textile Conservation Centre in England, and then how it might be achieved and who might be involved, and certainly who ought to support it. And of course also from the point of view that we had to persuade those people to raise funds for carrying out our ideas, which was really hard. It was also very hard to do all the work in our house in Ealing – it’s quite a large house but all the same it was too small for all the nation’s treasures.
What role did your writing have in the development of your ideas?
It turned out to have quite a lot. Quite a big part. But every word was written in desperation to get out. Because we had the whole of the nation’s treasures and other countries treasures and that left very little space for the students who were coming from all around. First from the Scandinavian countries and then Guatemala and Italy and France and most of the countries in Eastern Europe. Some of them had found it extraordinarily hard to get out of their country to come to us. We just had to be able to sing to the same tune. And that’s why I had to write. I was lucky to be able to have the help of people who had experience in editing who could cut it down a bit. Because when you start writing you do use too many words.
And what kinds of things were you writing?
I was writing about textiles, and about the work that we were doing and the need to involve scientists in our work. And I had to tell my students that they could not consider themselves properly trained until we’d got a scientist to work with us and show how we could go wrong and what might improve our work. And we were very very lucky, soon after the TCC was set up, to be offered a large grant by the Leverhulme Trust to employ a scientist. And our first scientist was Dr Anthony Smith, who had been working at the British Museum. And Tony Werner, who was the person in charge of his work, in charge of the scientific department at the British Museum, thought that Tony would be just right for us and he certainly was. He was just marvellous. When he began, neither of us really knew what we could expect from each other and Tony said ‘what would you like me to do?’ and I said I’m not really sure but I think we should go round to talk to everybody and see what they would like, and then perhaps organise your teaching accordingly including where it should be and when it should take place, and then generally to keep on taking an interest in the work that’s being done. Tony did that and it worked very well. And he is still a dear friend which is nice. And I think it was like that all the time – things did happen when we were really in desperate need of them. It was also because our clients wanted it to happen. Some of them didn’t know how necessary it was, but mostly they did and took an interest in everything that we did, which helped a lot.
Once you had achieved your aims of setting up the Textile Conservation Centre did you continue to write?
Yes I thought now I might be able to do something else but it didn’t turn out like that (laughs). But then really I don’t think I would have liked to have retired any earlier because I did enjoy being involved and doing the work.
And what did you write about after the TCC was set up?
Well sometimes about the work we had done. And I had lectured too about some of them. I think that I lectured about one of the jobs which I really, really loved. I was talking about it and writing about it and people continued to be interested in it and that was nice. That belonged to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office and was called Tipu’s Kit, which was more or less the personal objects which had been collected from the palace of Tipu Sultan when his palace was overrun by the British in 1799. Tipu was an Indian Maharaja who didn’t like the British at all. Perhaps it’s understandable (laughs). And he did do some nasty things like putting British soldiers into cannons and shooting them back over the lines – not very nice. But he was a great man with an interest in agriculture and in other ways of lifting the living standards of his people. And I think he was greatly loved by them. When he was killed no one really knew what took place but it was during the siege of the palace at Seringapatam and his body was found the next morning, I think that was the 4th of May, 1899. And his coat was found later, I think it was possibly the one we came to work on later, because after his death his personal belongings were taken to England and I think first offered to the royal family but then to other members that had been involved with his… I don’t think you’d call it ‘fight’ would you? With all the problems. And then some were kept at Buckingham Palace, or I think at Windsor and some were given to the Wellesley family who had been part of the defence of Britain. And mainly they had been on show at Windsor Castle, and I was asked to go and look at these. They had been taken to Buckingham Palace and were spread over large places in a room, fascinating, absolutely amazing collection to walk around and look at and think about and wonder what to do with them to make them look presentable, even desirable. And there were two coats, which were sort of a coat that was arrow proof and sabre proof. The reason for that being that it was quilted about an inch thick – quilted material with a beautiful brocaded cover and a printed lining inside, it was great. That was one coat. The other coat was even more sumptuous to look at but not as interesting. And then there were two helmets and some banners – I think three, four. And what else was there? What is it that they call the thing on uniforms, around a corset?
I’m sorry I can’t remember.
(Laughs). Well anyway that was there too and an even heavier quilted garment that went on top of everything, that was probably even more arrow proof than anything else. Well, we got it all to Ealing too and began the work. And the armoured coat that interested us the most, we left until last because I am of the opinion that if something is really, really difficult then you do all the easy bits first and then the difficult bits get easier, so this is what we did with them.
That’s fascinating – it sounds like you worked with really interesting pieces. Now I wanted to take you to another form of writing, your diary writing.
Ah, well that started many years ago. Not ordinary diaries because I come from Jutland and people from Jutland don’t talk about their feelings or anything silly like that. So it was always about happenings and practical aspects about our lives and the work that I was doing and things like that. So for example all of the people who worked with me had a slot in the diaries to say what they were working on and for how long they were working. There were other things of the same nature. And I did them religiously for many years. I’m not doing them now really, well I’m writing something but it’s not what it was. And I’m very very pleased that I did do this, because I told you about the memorandum and how the keeper – that was George Wingfield – didn’t seem to be impressed, and I thought that was perhaps because he didn’t know how much work we were doing. So after meeting him at the V&A I went home and went through the diaries and listed all the jobs we had done in 1970 and how long they had taken to do. And when I had done that I sent a copy to him and then suddenly things started moving because it was clear that we were doing an enormous amount of very important work.
Can you remember when and why you started writing diaries?
Well I suppose because my memory has never been that good, so I wanted to be able to look up things when I needed them. Also my sister-in-law was a stickler for accuracy (laughs) and she was our editor and she helped with everything, and she wouldn’t accept anything that I wasn’t absolutely certain about. So there you are.
And where would you write these diaries?
Oh well there wasn’t an awful lot of time for me because the journey to Hampton Court from Ealing took an hour. But I used to wake very early in the morning – four, five o’clock – and that was when I wrote in the diary and answered all my letters and did any other writing that was necessary. One of the things about writing in bed is that it’s too hard work to get out and then get in again, so you stick with what you’re doing (laughs). And I think I perhaps I should check that out again because suddenly everything is getting to be writing.
What language did you start writing your diaries in?
English, otherwise no one could type it for me.
And were all your diaries meant to be read – were they always public?
Well I had help, you see I never actually really learned to type. Except when I got a computer I was able to, you know, one finger, two fingers at the most (laughs). And so now I could, more or less, write my own work. But luckily Alan helps.
So you always wanted them to be read?
No but everything else, you know, the letters – I stuck with one language at a time so there was the diaries but also there were letters to be written and the lectures…
Can you recall a particular event you may have recorded in your diary?
I might have recorded about going to Buckingham Palace and getting the OBE (laughs), yes I might have done that. But what I do have about that day is what my sister-in-law wrote about it because of course we could invite someone to go with us, and Katrina was away so we invited Greta. And she wrote about it for Christmas I think, the next year. I sometimes look at that and think that it was really wonderful.
Do you want to share a memory from that day?
Well I think I won’t mention anything for you to say but seeing that we had done so much work for the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, and I knew some of the young people from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office that had been attached to the V&A to learn how to work as curators. So I knew most of them and we were taken from door to door. So when you get to Buckingham Palace, you are sent one way and you are sent another way. And so Norman and Greta left and I was taken in with all the other OBEs to the first room, where I saw some of my fellow OBEs, one of whom was a Fijian diplomat who was wearing the obligatory jacket and striped trousers, only it wasn’t trousers, it was a skirt, striped skirt, in purple pinstripes with the… what do you call that coat with the little tails?
I don’t know.
Well anyway proper diplomatic dress (laughs), except that it was a pinstriped skirt and it looked really nice. And I was fascinated by seeing that, of course. And then we were taken to the next room and the person who was taking us was one of the people I knew. He whispered something in my ear which was not entirely proper, I think ‘well, the young’ (laughs), and I was giggling and I thought I hope there’s no more people doing that because I do want to look proper when I meet the Queen. Yes, only that wasn’t to happen. The last one said ‘I was at Hampton Court yesterday and I really wanted to come and see you and all your pretty girls’. I sort of collapsed and then I started wondering how many madams would have been given the OBE (laughs) and thought now I really have to take hold of myself because the Queen is only ten paces away. I managed it.
That was a lovely story. What I wanted to do, was take you back to the way that you found of documenting things in your life.
My chief intention was that it should be simple enough for anybody working in conservation to do the documentation as the work progressed. I had started this at the V&A when no one wanted to know about it but it had given me enough understanding to see what the problems with that might be. I thought that we should probably have forms to fill in, that would need a word here, something like that. But inevitably it escalated and it got to be a bit more than that and probably just as well, things are different now, people do want to have documentation and our clients are very pleased to have the knowledge of what their object is for. And that pleases me every time I hear about it because, I mean unless we know what we are working on, what is the point? We should know what we are working on and we should know not only about the fabrics and the techniques but also where it was from, where it was used and how. And that’s happening.
So in your work, for the purposes of work and your career you have documented very well. What about when you were sightseeing, travelling, how did you record your experiences? Did you write letters?
The diaries went with me everywhere, the current diary went with me everywhere. So it was recorded in those.
Did you ever draw or take photographs?
No, mainly writing. And of course some photographs. And quite often when you were travelling you were given books or information about what you were shown there and what was going on from other people’s museums.
So going back to recording your travels, you said you used your diaries.
Well it was one way of keeping it all together.
And what kind of things would you record on your travels?
Well I suppose what we were taken to see. I’m also a member of the British Association of Ethnographers group. And we are all of us keen on arranging visits for our colleagues. I have arranged two visits to Denmark. Only one for the Ethnographers, the other was for the Costume Society. And another of my colleagues, Christopher Wall would also arrange visits, and he arranged visits to Cyprus for us once. And that was perhaps the most fascinating visit we ever made anywhere, because it was Easter so everything was about the church and the customs that they had. And on Easter Friday we were taken to a church where the most important service of the year was being held. Of course there are Greek Catholic churches, so there were no seats, except around the walls there are a few seats so that the very old and the infirm can rest their backs against the wall. And it took a long time before everything was assembled. And I think what I found most interesting during that time – remember I don’t understand Latin or indeed Greek – but there were all the babies crawling under the feet of the congregation (laughs) and the Priest and the processions.
Karen are you still writing a diary at the moment?
Yes but not as carefully as I used to.
Can I ask you what kind of things you are recording in your diary now?
What comes into the mind that has happened during a few hours before. But I keep forgetting things. What can you do?
And of course here Katrina is helping at the William Morris Gallery from time to time. I also like the Vestry House Museum where I think they are doing – both places are doing – an incredible job. But at the Vestry House Museum, to think that you can make so much out of what was the work house.
Now because we have the latest diary here, is there anything that you would like to read from that to us?
No because it’s not coherent, it’s just notes, just jottings. I’m sorry.
No that’s OK. I wanted to ask you a couple of final questions about your career, though we can return to it next time. What would you say your biggest achievement has been?
It’s really quite hard. Perhaps sticking out against all the opposition. Must be my Jutland inheritance (laughs), Jutes are renowned for their resistance. Ah, I don’t know. Of course it was really something getting the Centre set up and going there working. It was hard for many reasons because first of all we always needed money. And there didn’t seem to be any way in which we could support ourselves. And then on the other hand I don’t know any organisation like that that can pay their way. So perhaps I shouldn’t feel that it’s been really bad. But it’s wonderful to think about having people working to the principals that we started, in so many places in the world. It’s marvellous.
Do you have any regrets that you weren’t able to do or achieve?
Well perhaps I came to feel that I was really neglecting my husband and my daughter and that was bad. And so it was necessary to [inaudible] but the problem is that when you get started on something and all the problems come up, there are so many people involved you have to solve those problems before you can go on. You can’t just drop things when so many people are involved, both for their livelihood and also for the support that they have been giving us when really they were far too important to be doing all the nitty gritty as well. But I shall always be grateful to Donald King, Peter Lasko, Stella of course, all the people who helped us. And there were many – Clothworkers Company, there were so many.
And is there one last thing that you would like to get done that’s important for you to do with your work?
I think there are too many to mention (laughs).
Such wonderful changes, and it’s so fantastic to see what is being done now. And I feel that everything is coming together as befits this great nation and I’m grateful to be British today.
Is there anything about your career that you didn’t talk about and you would like to mention?
No because all that just happened. It was only a question of keeping up all the time. I was really not in front (laughs), I was pushing from the back.
In what way would you say textile conservation has progressed or changed?
We now take it for granted that you treat the objects of the past with respect and study them and get to understand the conditions that created them. And I think that is an important thing. At least we don’t have any more of those horrible paintings and drawings from Victorian times of factories and conditions. There are many things.
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