Conducted January 17th, 2011
Karen reflects on her life and career and speaks about identity, her biggest influences, and legacy
So Karen, looking back on your long life, in Denmark and here, what would you say your greatest achievements have been? What are you most proud of?
My daughter, because she is really wonderful. And also she married the nicest man on earth. And I’m very happy living with them here in her house in Walthamstow. And I know we had a small wood at home, part of which my father and his brother had planted, but Epping Forest really is something else. It’s across the road, you just walk between the houses, the gardens and you’re in the middle of Epping Forest. I love that forest and I understand very well why Alan couldn’t think of leaving it. Even though the house had to be changed to be big enough for all of us (laughs). Do you like my little space?
Yes it’s beautiful, I love what you have created here.
Well when I have finished tidying all my bits, you know, papers and stuff, it will be nice. And I look forward.
Can you say looking back on your life what have been the best and the most painful times of your life?
The best… it’s really difficult to say – there have been so many wonderful things. I have loved to be a member of various international organisations to do with textiles which has taken me all round the world, even though I’ve had to miss out on some of them when other duties took me away from them. I think I shall never forget the visit to Russia, and seeing all the amazing things there. But perhaps the best of that was when we visited one of the palaces in what used to be called St. Petersburg – it still is St. Petersburg? And there we saw one fantastic palace that looked in absolute perfect condition. And then our guide told us that it had been totally ruined and it had been put together again, painstakingly, including the furniture. And I looked at the furniture, that was standing in the room and he said “we only had one chair of each suite and we reconstructed the rest of it from that.” And I thought ‘there’s something, that’s what pride in your country means – that you wanted it to be as it should be.’ And then someone else in the party said “but what happened in the revolution, I thought that everything was ruined”, he said “oh no, there was a death penalty for looting.” Ah, something I hadn’t known before. And that was somehow heartening. And another incredible thing was, we had a meeting with our Russian colleagues and of course you can’t imagine all the questions that came from either side. And how difficult some of them were to answer. But there was one that pleased us enormously – the English contingent that was – and that was that to become a proper conservator in Russia you have to spend 15 years as an apprentice, that’s quite something isn’t it?
And all paid for by the Russian state of course. So that was something else we learned.
Going back to where you’re living now, because you have lived in different places, you originally come from Denmark – where is home to you?
Oh, I think where I am, I don’t think there is any other way (laughs).
Can you say more about what you mean?
I like going home. I like being with my family, but most of them come to visit us whenever they can, which is really nice. I had seven brothers and sisters and now I have 25 great nephews and nieces. And sometimes they come, not all at the same time but it’s lovely to see them and to see ‘oh yes, he looks like uncle Peter’ (laughs), and wondering whether looking like is the same as being like, which actually it isn’t very often. I think its just wonderful to have family both here and in Denmark and in Canada and Australia and the United States.
So how would you identify yourself as being now – as a Danish woman or woman from Europe? Because you do talk a lot about being a Jute.
Ah yes, well of course it is only lately that we have been able to travel so fast in Denmark because when I was young you had to use both trains and ferries to get to Copenhagen. So that was an all-day journey. Now you do it in a few hours, because of the bridges that have been built – some of them under the sea. And that’s very good. But it did mean that Jutland was by itself for quite a long time so we were really a kind of people apart from everybody else. We still I suppose take pride in being Jutes, not that we should (laughs), but that’s how it is.
So do you still see yourself as a Jute?
As a Jute. And we are known for not giving up. Which came in very handy when I was setting up the Textile Conservation Centre. Because there were a lot of difficulties to overcome before that happened and I am so happy and relaxed to know that it’s going to Glasgow School of Art, which of course even in Denmark was very well known from a very long time ago.
As you have become older and more mature, does Danish come back to you more, do you want to speak more Danish and read more Danish?
No. One really quite big problem is that I’m never quite certain which language I am speaking. It’s very irritating, that.
Tell us more about what you mean.
Well if I’m in mixed company of Danes and English, I tend to carry on speaking the language I have spoken last, which of course doesn’t stop until I see the expression on my English friends’ faces (laughs) and then quickly change over. But it has its advantages and I’m very happy with all our family here as well as my family in Denmark and everywhere else in the world. Because I think perhaps Jutes tend to travel a bit more than most. So all my brothers went travelling when they were young and some of them didn’t come back. But my sisters travelled too. My two youngest sisters are doctors and they were able to finance themselves by doing night duties in hospitals in Sweden, for example. And so they became very proficient in Swedish and made friends everywhere.
Karen, can you tell us what’s had the greatest influence on your life?
On my life? I think it must have been… going to Copenhagen and becoming a student at the Kunsthåndværkerskolen [School of Arts and Crafts], which was then housed in the Museum of Decorative Arts. And where we had good contact with the staff, perhaps mostly in an informal way. I became particular friends with the curator of the textile department. And that was great because she had spent a lot of time in Sweden where they had started textile conservation, more or less as we know it now, with study of the objects and working on them at the same time. Because it is only when you have a piece of textile in pieces in front of you that you can study it with any certainty. Of course it helps an awful lot now with the microscopes that have been invented. But you have to be taught how to use them of course, which was part of what I was wanted to teach. So that was alright and it worked.
Karen can you tell me about three memories you have been thinking about over the past three days?
Yes, I’ve been trying to sort all my papers at the same time, so there has been an interaction all the way round, remembering things and trying to forget things (laughs).
Can you share one or two of them with us?
I am desperately trying to think while you are talking and I am sure I’ll remember it when you have gone. But I’ll try my best to think of some of the things now. I’ve been thinking of some of the different commissions we’ve had, beginning of course with working in Ealing where it all began. After I left the Victoria and Albert Museum I really intended to get back to weaving and design. That was a recurrent hope in all the years of doing something else. Never to have succeeded in that. And the first I did was to do a course at Ealing, no the first was at Hammersmith School of Art, printing fabrics, and it was there I met Peter Collingwood, whose name you may have heard of. He was a weaver who changed everything for weavers and made them quite respectable in fact. I don’t know if you saw the piece of fabric that’s hanging on the wall, just outside here. And he died a couple of years ago and Katrina and I went to his funeral. And his widow and son had made a little auction of some of his known pieces of weaving with the proceeds going to various medical organisations that he still continued to be a member of. He was a doctor before he became a weaver. After he had finished his medical studies he had to do his National Service and that happened to be in the near East. And that was where he became interested in weaving and started to learn about it as much as he could. And he was absolutely an amazing person. You learnt just by looking at him. He was clever, generous and very very sweet. And I’m hoping that his widow and his son come to visit this year. We have discussed it. And then who else? In Copenhagen I met and lived with the librarian of the Museum of the Decorative Arts who was married to professor Kaare Klint, who was the person who started the Danish furniture that you may have heard about. It was very very prominent in the 1950s all around the world. And now it’s copied everywhere, including in Britain. And they influenced me a lot, mainly by their professional attitude to their work.
These were people that really influenced you?
Yes and also the librarian did, because I hadn’t quite thought of what was behind my own interest in weaving. Somehow it became clearer living with such very clever people. There were other people of course who influenced me. When I came to England and first worked at the Royal School of Needlework, I think what struck me most there was that none of my colleagues appeared to have any interest in the work they were doing. And I was quite concerned about that and wondered why that would be, because there were some very interesting pieces that came to the workroom including the Jupon that was [worn] by the Black Prince and which now hangs over his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral. And I think it may have been that that started me off, worrying about the ancient textiles in Britain that were not, to my mind, being looked after the way that they should be. Because of people not knowing what they were working on.
I was thinking of trying to bring you back to something in your personal life. Earlier when you talked about what you were proud of, you were proud of having produced Katrina. Is there anything that you would particularly like to pass on to Katrina?
She’ll pick up what she wants. You don’t influence her (laughs).
Has there been anything that you have tried to bring her up with, or show her?
I tried my hardest to make her bilingual, yes. Really, really my hardest. It was really hard work but it was when she started to look at me the way you British do – ‘poor thing, she’s not like us’, that I couldn’t continue (laughs).
Tell us what you mean by that.
(Laughs). Well this is a funny thing in Britain, isn’t it? Practically no second generation foreigner in this country. You become English during your first, when you first come, and that makes you superior to everybody else (laughs) – that’s the point.
So does she speak Danish?
A little bit, and she can read the letters.
So you’ve managed to achieve that.
And when all her second cousins in Denmark and wherever came to visit she knew enough to be able to make sure that they knew what we were talking about, so that was nice.
Are there other things that you would like to say to your family, to your children? This is an opportunity to talk to them through the film.
Yes, I would like them to know each other. So Katrina has plans for my 90th birthday, which includes several parties for different strands of the family, and I’m hoping that as many as we can possibly find room for. Even in this house, but there might be rooms we can hire from round about. So that they can get to know each other, I think it’s important. I’m so pleased with those American cousins I met and still write to them.
So it’s important that the family meet each other and carry on?
Yes, that’s the thing.
So Karen can you tell me which have been the most distressing or difficult times in your life?
Well Norman got ill – TB. That was very very hard on us all. But we were very lucky. We were in Denmark. We went to Denmark just after it had been diagnosed here and friends and relations got him into a sanatorium in Denmark. There was a very long waiting list in England, so that was a wonderful thing that happened. And he was cured and he came back and he could get back to work. I was always concerned of course, but he did alright, he did fine. And he was able to keep us all and that was nice. You know you asked about, well this wasn’t really a hard time to begin with but we had a house in Acton. Do you know where Acton is? Very nice house. Only we got dry rot and I felt it was absolutely necessary that I got a job. And I thought well, at the Victoria and Albert they must need people to work on the tapestries, so I wrote to the Keeper who was then George Wingfield Digby and I said that I was a weaver who wanted to work with tapestries and would like to have his views on that. And he invited me to the museum and we had a long talk. Then I was offered a job. He couldn’t offer me a job because at the Victoria and Albert all the departments are very separate. But I was offered a job and I started. I think what shocked me, really really shocked me was that none of my colleagues had any interest in the objects either. Not even enough to go to the exhibitions. I felt that was very bad. It came up again, that part of the civil service that says you cannot mix with your neighbour (laughs) and it was really hard. I really tried my hardest. I suggested to my colleagues, in as careful terms as I could, that I should keep a record of what they were doing. “No this is ours and we’re not sharing it.” Ah, I don’t think that’s really the attitude. And then I stopped, and then I decided to leave.
Just before we started filming you were looking in the mirror. We were asking you what you saw, and then you had to sit down because of your back. We started talking about growing older. Can you tell us what it’s like, growing older, for you?
I think it’s very difficult because it comes bit by bit (laughs) and you don’t really know from one day to another that you have grown older. So you think that you can do everything as you used to, and then you find suddenly that you can’t and that’s a bad part.
What are the things that you regret that you can’t do any more?
Well I can’t walk in the forest. Not very far at any rate. Sometimes my lovely grandsons take me for a walk and support me all the way through and that’s nice. But it’s getting more difficult for me to manage that. And then the carpal tunnel operation has made it impossible to use my hands the way that I used to so I can’t sew or crochet and that was very very hard to cope with. That is really really difficult. Also you get tired much quicker than other people and then if you’re so caught up with the sort of things you want to do that you continue a long time after you know that you are tired, then it takes several days to get over it (laughs) and then of course I can’t stop when I’m really interested. Especially when I like to talk with people.
What about the operation in your hands Karen?
Well it’s one that’s done in the doctor’s surgery, by a surgeon that comes in to do it.
And what has it meant for you, having this operation?
I had to have a carpal tunnel operation, which has left my hands to feel cold and I’ve lost feeling so I can’t sew or crochet any longer. I manage just to be able to write, at least I can do something. Like the article I wrote. We were at a meeting in Athens. It was supposed to be about dowries, which is of course not a word that is used much in England, but it means that you’re supposed to be collecting in a bottom drawer for when you got married. In the case of the conference it was about dowries from a bygone age.
Do you have a message for your grandchildren?
Do the things you think are right. And they do. Both of them. They’re very very nice boys.
Karen is there something that you can tell us, a secret that you didn’t tell anybody until now, about your life, about your career? Is there any secret that you can tell us about?
Not really, not really. Everything just happened. I mean I had really believed that I would be able to carry on weaving and designing in London. And I was quite surprised to find that there was very little if any interest at all in good practical furniture. It just hadn’t arrived here.
Just a couple more questions I wanted to ask now Karen. Tell me one thing you regret that you can’t do anymore.
Long walks. I can’t go for long walks; I can’t go shopping on my own; I can’t even get to the new exhibitions on my own and that’s really quite hard. So it’s really quite hard to keep up with the things that I want to know about.
You’ve spent most of your life looking at the world, looking at things. Can you tell us a couple of the things you enjoy looking at now.
Well as I said I have been to so many places and experienced so many wonderful things to see, and meeting incredible people all around the world, and that makes me very happy now. And sometimes they come to visit. I think I will tell you about my very first foreign student. That was Mary Hunt Kahlenberg, who came to England with her then-husband who was in the diplomatic service. She had been working at the Textile Museum in Washington and had been advised that she should go to visit me, which she did. She worked with me all the time when she was in England, which was fantastic. Mary went back with her husband and she became even more deeply involved in textiles. Eventually it turned into a really deep interest in textiles from the Indonesian islands and eventually with her second husband she spent all holidays there. And they bought up lots of things and she tried her hardest to understand the cultures that she began to learn about and she began to collect fantastic, wonderful things. And now she has just had a book published about her own public collection. It’s not a book that you can read in bed, and I’m trying my hardest to read it so I can do a proper review of it but it’s fantastic. Particularly I look back on the times that they would be coming back from Indonesia or going there and spending time with us in London.
Is there anything that you would like to say to anyone who will be watching this film who has come to celebrate your 90th birthday, friends and family? What would you like to say?
Perhaps just that I am really really grateful that they want to come and see it. And I am so pleased that they are all here.
What were the things that guided you through life?
My feeling about that is a bit strange, because I don’t feel that there ever was any guidance. Things just happened, and I made the best of them.
But do you think you had any particular qualities or experiences that guided you?
Not really, no, but of course I do know about textiles. I do know about weaving and designing. And I have been happy to have a lot of very very good students who probably knew a lot more than I did. And it has been fun, all of it has been fun. I loved teaching, and I was very very lucky.
One of the ways that Danish girls grow up is starting to collect their dowry. And usually you have to begin as soon as we have even begun to think about being girls and getting married one day and all that. And so, in order to be a proper Danish girl when I grew up, we had to choose the Danish silver we wanted and the kind of porcelain and the patter, all of it we had to choose at a very young age and from then on you were only supposed to get a fork or a spoon or something for your birthday or for Christmas. And I didn’t really fancy that (laughs), I thought it was a really horrible prospect always to be given a fork or a spoon or teaspoon. Even when it got to be the more exotic things like tureens I didn’t want them (laughs) and that was for sure. My friends were not happy about that since they all knew what they wanted exactly and they had the whole lot, twelve of each before they decided – or someone else decided – that they should be married. And I didn’t want either. I didn’t want any of it, not even the textile bits.
What was it that you didn’t like about the idea?
Well my friends decided to give me jewellery instead which of course was fine (laughs), as you can imagine. And I don’t think that I really thought an awful lot about it. Not until I was invited to a meeting in Greece of the International Council of Museums and we were supposed to talk about dowries. And of course that’s easy enough for those from countries that still have the whole full blown dowry thing. And we hadn’t really thought about that as such in Denmark, so I wrote about something altogether different to speak about that as such in Denmark. Only, as the meeting went on, colleague after colleague got up to talk about what happened in their country, but always about what had happened in the past, when dowries were mainly for princesses and people very much richer than us. I suddenly thought ‘well we had dowries’, so when it was all over I decided to tell them about that, about how it was done in Denmark. And my colleagues preferred to have that printed, rather than the paper I had put so much effort into writing, which I’ve now totally forgotten what it was about (laughs), but it was quite a revelation that it happened. Also because the next time I visited my sister-in-law, I mean the next time I was in Denmark, my sister-in-law took me to a fair in Viborg where I come from. And all the things on show for sale were 12 piece sets of china, Copenhagen china and 12 piece sets of the oriental silver, all of the things that I had rejected. Now they were being rejected by the people who had been collecting them with such care and love and precision, because you can’t put fine damask in the washing machine and you can’t put fine porcelain with gold edges in the dishwasher either. And suddenly no one wanted any of those things. And I thought about how things changed, and a very crucial change in a culture I would think. And also I thought about how we had never dreamt of the stuff that was being collected not being cherished forever and ever and loved and cared for. And then of course I saw in my own home, my sisters – except for my youngest sister who hasn’t any children – didn’t want to have the fine china, none of us wanted it. You just can’t afford the time. Silver has to be polished; everything has to be kept. And suddenly all our dreams in a sort of way disappeared into the blue air and there was really nothing there, because of course there were far too many for any museum to absorb (laughs).
My cookery book. Well like all proper Danish farmer’s daughters, I naturally had to learn to cook and run a household with two males and a nanny and anything else that befitted the farm that I come from, which is the largest in the village. The domestic college I went to was especially for very young people – 14 to 18, where we would be taught the rudiments of all of this. Which in our case included how to cut up a calf and most importantly a pig. I’m afraid my drawing isn’t all that, but at least it’s got the curl on the tail. I had seen my mother do it many times, but I’m afraid I hadn’t actually noticed what it is that she did. I knew how to clean the intestines, that you put the sausage meat in. And actually that was really quite enough for me. But it was much easier to do it than it was to protest. So there we are. So we had to do the work and then we had to write down the recipes and it all had to be fitted into a certain shape and a certain order. Well that was – I was quite good at it really. (Looking through cookery book) That’s baking. And that’s, oh, that’s how to cook cod. Of course that’s something very important to a Dane but perhaps I should tell you how we do the rice pudding for Christmas. You don’t look convinced (laughs). You see rice pudding is served before the meal in a traditional way. At least it was in our household.
Do you know when you started recording recipes?
I must have been 17 and we all had to come up with a book like this. I can’t remember how many of us there were, but quite a lot really.
How did you feel about writing all this down recording the recipes?
I was a good girl really, I did as I was told for the most part. It’s just that when it came to having to do things I wasn’t interested in I somehow slipped up.
So you were possibly interested in doing this.
So the rice pudding, first of all you cooked the rice. One tablespoon of rice to a pint of milk and then you put salt in it, but no sugar. And then when it’s served, put it on the plate and then a dollop of butter in the middle, yes, which must not touch, because you dip the rice pudding in the butter and eat it. But it has this fantastic layer of sugar and cinnamon mixed together. And it’s the cinnamon and sugar together that really makes this pudding. So for Christmas it’s just amazing. There’s also an almond hidden in it. Since it’s white it hides in quite a small space really, I mean an almond is white (laughs). And the one who gets the almond doesn’t eat it, but holds it up proudly in order to claim his or her almond present, which traditionally is a marzipan pig (laughs) which is very nice.
Do you know how to make one of those?
No, you buy one of those.
So do you still use some of the recipes in that book?
Yes, it’s still the same. Yes. Sometimes people who are not keen on tradition may eat it all last (laughs) which is of course all wrong.
So having started to record in this way it looks like you carried on writing and recording…
No, then much later during the war I began to collect recipes, you know, special war time. This [cookery book] was just decoration, seeing that I was very keen on decoration.
So you collected for the look of them sometimes?
I suppose that the decorations have got some kind of interest too. Anyway you did sort of keep up to date with recipes and everything. Because of course during the war when you couldn’t get the ingredients, things changed and you had to work out what else you wanted. It’s a long long time since I looked at this last, but I did find a lot of interesting recipes.
Can you remember any favourite recipes you used to make?
No, I’m afraid not.
(Pointing at book) What’s that? Sand castles?
You can even have recipes for picnics. In English. I mean picnics in English, not the recipes. And I always liked to put the jokes that you found in the papers in with the rest of it. Tomatoes were not that well known till after the war. I don’t know if that’s the same here. No.
Did you have rations?
Yes, but not as seriously as you had here because of course the food was not as short as here. But clothing was in very short supply, so there wasn’t even rationing for that because it was in short supply. Or at least not that much. That didn’t mean that you didn’t have any clothes because people had enormous stores of old clothes and, as now, you sometimes like to dress up in your grandmother’s clothes. Bit smelly sometimes.
So after this book of collections, did you carry on writing and recording things?
Yes I just found that it was interesting now that I had a bit more interest. Now this was the end of the war.
(Pointing at book) What’s that?
This is to announce that General Montgomery has declared that all German resistance has stopped in Holland, North-West Germany and Denmark. “Read the Politiken tomorrow.” I think that it looks like it was one that was delivered, you know, free. Or perhaps lying about the streets for people to pick up. Of course my brothers joined the resistance the minute they could. Which was probably well before they should have but they were very keen. Our farm is a little bit out of the way, so it was an ideal place for meetings of all sorts, including illegal meetings. I myself started the sewing club as a good way of getting people together when it was illegal to have more than two or three people in one room (laughs).
Why did you hold the club?
I don’t know, it just came into my head. And I must say that we didn’t do much sewing, but we always had something on the go that we could bring. And we continued to meet until last time I was home and there was only one of us left in Denmark. Two, two and me, three.