Conducted February 11th, 2011
Karen discusses a selection of photos from her early life
So tell us about the picture we’re looking at now. This is Meldgaard.
Well yes, it’s been in the family for a while and as you can see I lived in the part of Jutland that’s known as moraine country.
Sorry, can you say that word again?
Moraine country, that is how far the ice melted in the ice age, yes. So that means that the whole landscape consists of little lakes and little streams and hills like this. That doesn’t look like a hill, but actually it’s a steep slope, and you just see the tops of the trees there. And my grandfather had the house built in 1886 I think it was, and my father had the cow house and the pigsties built much much later (laughs) and he also had the machine house built that you see there. But everything else, originally this had a straw roof and that was the stables and that’s the only old building left in this. Because this little house was built by my grandfather while he had the big farm house built, so that the family could live in it – it was very very primitive with stamped earth floor, yes, very draughty that (laughs).
How did you keep warm? What was the heating?
Well of course I wasn’t there at the time, the 1880s (laughs).
You weren’t there.
Well it had a baker’s oven built in the middle of the house. My brother has since pulled that out because he and my sister-in-law thought that might make a nice guest house, only it wasn’t really. They put in new floors and they rotted in no time at all, as they would. Originally there had been one room that end and another room that end, but the flooring had rotted so this place was only used for storing turds for the heat – that was, until we got central heating.
In one of the interviews you talk about your mother modernising the dairy.
You can understand why.
Yes, can you show us what she did and where?
Well that’s in this building, so it’s not very easy to show. But there were farm workers’ bedrooms there. Those she had changed into one large room with more modern equipment. The garden must have been started by father and his brother. So most of the fruit trees are very large – were very large, because they’ve all gone by now.
What kind of fruit was it?
Apples and pears and plumbs and very nice fruit for the most part, but those are not the trees we would have now because these were enormous trees. Now of course fruit trees are much smaller so that you can reach the fruit.
Yes. I think there must be more pictures where I can show you what has been done to the house.
So where was the nearest town from here?
At the end of that road, it was about a kilometre away. My father had to drive.
So all of this area around here would be Meldgaard?
Yes, those are just fields.
Let’s see if there’s another picture.
Mother thought it would be nice with the little pond and as you can see it has flowers and everything.
So we’re looking at the garden now at Meldgaard.
So that’s the flagstaff, where we normally fly the Danish flag, which is the oldest in Europe.
Is it really?
Yes, it dates back to 1219 and it has a cross on it so that it’s a white cross on a red background. And you can see how this must be towards the end of the day when the water lilies are folding up.
So who’s in the picture?
That’s my eldest brother, Søren; my youngest brother Steen; and my little brother Laurits. There is one other brother but he’s not in this picture. And that’s my two youngest sisters, Ruth and Inge.
Can you tell us about each one?
Yes. Both of my little sisters are doctors. This one [Inge] started out as a ballet dancer and decided to switch to medicine.
They sound quite different but there’s probably a connection.
Well I think that it has some connection really. Because she discovered that most ballet dancers suffer terribly from horrible things to do with their bones and legs, but I’m sure you’ve heard about that. They have to retire quite early, but even so most of them are marked for life. Not very nice. Anyway that’s what she wanted to do.
What’s her name again?
This is Inge, that’s Ruth. She knew she wanted to be a doctor right from the beginning.
And what were they like as little girls, as sisters?
They were lovely. I loved my little sisters. There’s one more sister, she’s not on this picture. She was the one who was here earlier in the week, to be sure that I would be alright when Katrina and Alan went to Glasgow.
So she just came to visit you then?
She’s married to an Australian who captained oil tankers. And when he retired from that, he did try to live in Denmark a little bit, but he didn’t like it much, so he decided to live in England. And my sister did not want to live in England because she didn’t want to be away from her grandchildren as you can well understand. So she visits him on a regular basis more or less. And he has quite a good house in Honiton, with lots of space for his hobby which is to restore antique cars. So he has these amazing cars in his garage. And sometimes if you’re very good he’ll take one out and give us a spin.
I love this picture of your brothers and sisters just looking at the lily pond.
Yes it’s good isn’t it?
What about this brother, is this Søren?
It was really the intention for him to be a farmer, but he had asthma and so my parents thought of another future for him and that was becoming a veterinary surgeon, which he was quite happy with but then my father died and that meant that it was his duty to stay home and help my mother on the farm. So he went to agricultural college but he came back and stayed a farmer.
So he did what he wanted to do.
And much the same with the next one Laurits, he definitely wanted to be a farmer all his life. And it wasn’t very easy for them to settle who should have the farm after that, which was hard on everybody.
So how was it decided?
Well eventually he got his own farm, not too far away from us and it had a wood attached which he loved and he used to arrange special parties for the village children to get to know the woods.
Yes, that’s nice. And he too is dead.
When did he die?
It’s a few years ago now. Katrina will have the dates. And my little brother Steen. He was the one I told you about – well they were all members of the Resistance, but he was the one who started delivering illegal papers at 12. And once set them on their way from the church tower (laughs).
I wonder when that would have been taken.
I think about 1950.
After the war.
I think it must have been…
How old do you think they would have been then?
…because my father died in 1942… no it couldn’t have been…
Not to worry.
I’ll have to put my glasses on, sorry.
So tell us, what is the picture we’re looking at now Karen?
That is the farmhouse and it’s one end of the farmhouse, the one with the entrance to the kitchen, just there. And the other end is the entrance where visitors go in. No, you can’t see it there because that’s from the other side. And my mother is sitting in the middle and my sister Ruth is there, my sister Inge is there and that’s two farm workers. No that’s my brother, my eldest brother Søren. And that’s one of the farm workers. Alfred had been our cow man when we were little. And he and his wife bought a small holding nearby and sort of stayed part of the family forever. We loved him very much.
Yes he looks very close to your sister, she’s sitting on his shoulders.
Yes that’s Inge. And that’s my cousin Magnus who got polio at the age of six, as you can see. Very bad.
Where did he live?
In a small town quite close. So he got himself a motorbike.
Which is in the picture as well.
With a sidecar. He could do anything with his hands. He trained to be a photographer and he did very well at that.
And did he stay in Denmark?
Yes, and he also got married. It wasn’t so bad when he was young but it was hard on him when he grew up.
Yes. We were very good friends.
Did you say who this person was at the end of the picture?
Yes that was one of our farm workers, very nice man. I think he must have been the cow man, but I can’t quite remember.
So it sounds like you had quite close relationships with the farm workers.
Of course, they came from the same kind of family as we did, so they came really to learn from my parents, the farm workers and the maids.
And did they live in the farm house?
Yes there were rooms above, yes.
And so would their families live there as well?
Did you have any particular favourite farm workers?
What was it that you liked about Alfred?
Well he had been with us since we were tiny and so we always considered him and his wife members of our family. We lived very close. And when my father died they were among the people who helped my mother the most. It was not easy.
When your father died. You told us something about that in previous interviews. It sounded like it was a very difficult and confusing time.
I’ve written a little about that, it will be published quite soon. Any day now in fact.
Where is it being published?
I shall get a copy of that.
And this is cobbled, the ground outside. Yes, cobblestones, and there are two steps up and they are enormous blocks of granite.
And games, where did you used to play?
In the old house.
In the house itself?
That was our playhouse. The room at that end was fairly intact and we had all our toys there, our pieces of furniture. We were very fond of that place.
Can you remember the kinds of games you played, toys you had?
Well we had cards of course and books and dolls and – well, I had dolls. My brother had Meccano and all sorts of others, but of course it was mostly outdoor life with bikes, yes.
Yes, I can imagine. So what are we looking at now? The pre-historic barrow?
This one was not on our field, that was in a neighbouring field and as you can see there’s an opening. And that particular barrow had been excavated, so there was an opening into it. And we used to crawl in, elbows and knees.
What did it look like in there? Can you remember?
(Laughs). Yes. Of course it was very dark. And it smelled horribly, well because it was damp. And of course it was simply scary. But not so much to us, except of course we were really scared, but all the same not enough to not want to scare our cousins even more.
(Laughs). What did you do? Did you make up stories about them?
Can you remember any?
No, and we dared them to go in and they were scared and they didn’t. They knew that we would laugh at them if they didn’t (laughs).
They still wouldn’t go in?
Yes they did, they had to because we were quite intimidating (laughs).
Which cousins were these, were they the American ones?
Yes all of them. And sometimes even friends who came to visit.
So how long were they, underground, the prehistoric barrows?
Eight, nine feet. Quite big really.
And how tall were they?
And that’s Jacob there, pretending to be totally… no you couldn’t stand up. I mean we could as children but grown ups couldn’t stand up. I suppose it could all have collapsed but we didn’t think about that.
We were really horrible children.
Were you? In what way?
Well daring people and cousins. Well, I suppose we were just like other children (laughs).
When you were growing up did you ever hear of any stories about the barrows, fairy tales or myths?
Yes because we believed… first of all we were brought up to believe that they were inhabited by giants which naturally does not really fit, and then these giants were tended by Nisse, that’s the little people of Denmark. And the Nisse looked after the animals and were really quite good unless you upset them and then they were awful – bad bad bad. And so they looked after the animals and we fed them on Christmas eve – rice pudding with almonds in (laughs). And we knew that Nisse existed because every morning all the rice pudding had gone.
Where did you leave the rice pudding?
In the cow house. We had about 14 cats but…
That had nothing to do with it.
(Laughs). Of course those cats were wild, they were just there to keep the mice down. Some time later my sisters tried to make them pets, but they wouldn’t have it.
They were too wild? But they didn’t mind rice pudding?
No (laughs), oh they did. Well where else did it go?
So it didn’t sound like the stories about the giants put you children off the tombs, the barrows.
Well it was all part of those fairy tales and Father Christmas and, you know. Yes of course we liked to hear the tales and of course we believed in them like everybody. At the same time it’s just the same as Father Christmas.
Yes true. So did you scare your cousins with those stories?
No, but we intimidated them (laughs). And of course children never tell on anybody. Well you certainly wouldn’t tell on your brothers and sisters or cousins, nor would we tell on our maids and farm workers, whatever they got up to.
No but you can now.
What kind of stuff did they get up to?
Well I remember one time… my parents bedroom had a wardrobe with an enormous mirror in it. So when they were out, the maids would practice the Charleston in front of it. I was fascinated. I sat there and watched and watched. I tried to do it as well (laughs).
That must have been great.
I would no more have dreamt of telling on them than my brothers and sisters.
And I guess the maids would have known that as well?
Yes they would. And if we had they probably never would have done anything for us when we were home.
What do you think your parents would have done if they’d known?
They probably did know but it was… I mean obviously the maids knew that they weren’t supposed to be in my parents bedroom when they were out.
What were relationships like between your mother and the maids and the farm workers?
Well since they came more to learn… well they came to work, obviously, but that was obviously learning. It was friendly. My parents would usually be invited to their weddings and christenings. Oh but there was one. She was Frieda, she was the granddaughter of a neighbour. When the neighbour’s son took over the farm, she used to come and look after us, more sort of nanny, I don’t know what you’d call it, because it’s different, it’s not the same. And so we were very close to Frieda too. And when I came home from England she’d had two beautiful little children. And when she had left, my mother told me that her sisters and brothers were dying one by one from some horrible illness. I know what it’s called, but can’t remember what it is now. And I said ‘is Frieda alright?’. I don’t know if she stayed alright, but she was then. And her children appeared to be alright, but her brothers and sisters all died.
You know where illnesses come from. But in this case it was the saddest thing.
Was it a genetic one in the family?
Yes, must be something genetic in the family.
And you were very close to them?
So what are we looking at now?
This was the generation before. So that’s my grandmother.
On your father’s side?
That’s my father.
Your father on the left of the picture.
He (pointing at photo) was a farm worker – I don’t know exactly what his position was. And I’m not sure who she is either, but this is my aunt Berta.
Wearing a white smocking dress?
And that must be Sørine who died in the Spanish flu epidemic. And my aunt Marie and my uncle [Poul] – my father’s brother – who also died in the Spanish flu.
What was his name again?
My father’s name was Søren, like his father, and his eldest brother his name was Poul. This was his eldest sister Laurine and her husband-to-be. You can’t see it but they’re holding hands.
This is a photocopy of the original.
My cousin found all these photos, and whatever he thought would be of interest he had a copy made.
So which is your grandmother?
What kind of a woman was she? Do you know?
I think she must have been incredibly strong, because her husband died when my father was 15. So he was the farmer from then on. That meant that he was as much God as Jim was on his ship. And so his five sisters waited on him hand and foot. Always.
I take it this must have been taken after his father died.
Yes, after his father died. That was my father. I’m not sure who she is. She must have been a maid but it’s just that she doesn’t look one. Perhaps it was different in that generation. So my sister Grethe who sent this to me, she got the birth years. So that’s my father.
Inge Maria, that’s that one.
Is your father wearing boots there or are they clogs?
Clogs, yes. I think we called them Dutch clogs. There was another type we called French clogs which had leather uppers.
The picture we’re looking at now is a family picture taken… when do you think that was taken?
That was when I was 14.
So that’s my father and my mother. And that’s my sister Grethe, the one who stayed with me just now. And that’s Laurits and Søren, who are both dead. Poul who lives in Canada, and Steen who lives in Australia. My little brother. I visited him in Australia, he met me at the airport and he was just like my father.
Yes he looked so exactly like him.
That must have been strange.
Yes it was.
And what’s he like as a person? What’s his character like?
He’s wonderful still.
The little boy who distributed the leaflets.
His wife is dead now which is sad.
And what did he do in Australia?
I’m not sure exactly what, but it did mean he was away a lot… Oh I hate this photograph.
Oh yes, and here’s another photograph of your mother?
I hate it because the clothes haven’t been chosen to be photographed together.
So they all clash?
So that’s Inge and Ruth and Grethe and my mother.
Can you say something about Inge?
She was small, as we all are really. And like us all she has a strong mind. And she knew exactly that she wanted to be a ballet dancer from before that age even. And she also knew she wanted to be a doctor. Grethe trained as a nursery teacher, kindergarten teacher. That’s what she wanted to do. And when she was 18 she decided it was time to learn to drive. So she did. I think the car hadn’t been used for some time. My father got it in 1935, a Vauxhall (laughs), I didn’t know what that meant. But he bought it from my vicar just before he left to go to Copenhagen.
And did many women learn to drive in those days?
No she was just outstanding. No she just wanted [to drive] so that she and my mother could go out and find fun things to do (laughs) you know like shopping. Because of course men thought that every pursuit a woman had was silly. So they wanted to be independent.
So they could go anywhere they wanted to?
That’s the thing.
Where do you think they went?
Well it was mostly to Viborg, and then they would always finish the day having coffee in one of those cafes that abound on the continent, but not in England for some reason.
And the clothes they are wearing, who would have made them? Would they have made them themselves?
Well it’s not like her to be wearing anything like that.
This is Ruth?
She’s wearing a kind of tartan long dress.
It’s not like her?
I don’t know why, because she’s usually very smart.
Do you think she was told what to wear?
Yes perhaps. I mean it’s so awful because of the way that they clash. And also with their personalities.
It doesn’t fit their personalities?
But it’s good to get a commentary on the photograph.
Is there anything else that you want to say about the photograph?
No, except that I love them (laughs). They’re coming for my birthday.
Your 90th birthday?
Well not my mother.
That’s wonderful, you’ll all be together. Will you be watching what they’re wearing? Make sure that nothing clashes?
They will, without doubt. Inge is very elegant now.
You won’t have any trouble with her then.
And she of course still walks like a ballet dancer.
You know, toes first.
You won’t be embarrassed about her then?
(Laughs). My mother had a number of devoted slaves (laughs), well that’s not fair, but she got something in her head and she could always find someone to help her make it.
That’s a skill.
And that was the same when she thought of this little pond with the water lilies. The furniture I remember from when I was quite small was in a different part of the garden. The garden’s quite large. And that (pointing at photo) was my name, Karen Møller.
This is a picture of you in the garden with the pond and the waterlilies and Alfred, you said?
And can you take us back to… what did you mean when you said that your mother could get slaves? What did you mean by that?
(Laughs). Just good friends and former farm workers.
And what did they do for her? Was this about making the pond?
She also had a sort of little hut next to it. She had an amazing imagination and she could always find someone who could share that imagination. I mean she only had to describe something and there would be someone.
She sounds like she was a good communicator, is that true?
She must have been.
And inspire people to do things for her?
She must have been.
We’re looking at a picture of you and some friends at art school in Copenhagen. Can you tell us about it? Was it a party?
It was a party, towards the end of the party, and we were all a bit tired (laughs).
You wouldn’t know. Who’s in the picture?
Well it’s only that… this is some other time.
Can you remember any of the people in the picture?
Yes, I can, [inaudible], and I think that’s Yans Kovol, can’t remember him, I think he must have been the eldest. I think they were all quite close friends. I can’t actually see who that is.
It’s a bit grey that picture, to be honest.
Not to worry. But you used to have quite a few parties at art college at night?
Yes, I liked parties.
Did you ever meet anybody?
No, I was a bit fussy.
But somehow that’s outside. He’s different.
So now we’ve got a picture of Norman.
Norman Finch. The man you were to marry.
Where did you meet him?
Well, you see it was one of those parties. There were so many of those parties, especially when the war had finished and we were free and celebrated our freedom. And of course, who better to do that with than invite the English soldiers, who must have been a bit surprised sometimes.
So this picture that we’re looking at now is taken in his uniform. Is that how you would have known him when you first met him?
When I first met him, yes. Of course this was in 1945, which was after the war, so it didn’t take him long to get out of uniform. Which was just as well – I wasn’t too keen on it (laughs).
No. Did you have conversations about that?
Yes. You see, my first English teacher began to teach me when I was 12 or 13. And she was the one who gave me that little duckling (points to duckling in her room).
On the mantelpiece.
Yes. She was married to our teacher. She also taught some of my brothers English, because the school hadn’t started teaching yet. Now all schools do, but I think that you can hear that she was a very good teacher.
She had a very bright student as well.
As well, yes (laughs). Yes well, that’s easy.
So learning English was obviously very handy for you being able to communicate with Norman.
Because there were so many books that I wanted to read.
And I did.
What were those early courting days like with Norman?
Well, of course it was mainly writing letters. I mean he didn’t come to Denmark that much.
So when he met your family, how did they communicate?
Well again, my English by this time was really reasonable. I had no problem understanding them but they definitely didn’t like foreigners, nor did Norman’s friends.
That’s how it is.
How did this show?
Unfriendly, picking at you.
So were they a bit cold with you at first?
Yes. Perhaps I wasn’t nice to them either. It’s difficult to know.
And you also have… I mean being the daughter on a large farm comes into it too. A bit stuck up too, I suppose. You wouldn’t believe that would you (laughs).
Not now. But you have had a whole life since then, haven’t you, which makes things different.
It’s funny isn’t it?
How did Norman react when people were cold and offhand with you?
Well he was, in a way, so like Alan, for whom it is easy to make contact with anybody. I mean it was because of Norman being so nice that it all worked.
But how did you feel about them being cold towards you?
Well it’s up to them. I don’t have to speak to them. So we got our little flat in Bayswater as soon as we could, moved away and I didn’t want to see them. And that was that.
So you didn’t really see them after you moved to Bayswater?
Did Norman mind that?
No he didn’t complain or anything. We did see his aunt, whom I loved, and uncle.
What were their names?
Michael Tidder and auntie May (laughs), ah they were nice. I still see three of Norman’s cousins – two of Norman’s cousins; one died. On the other side, that was. I just didn’t like his father.
What was his father like?
I thought he was absolutely horrible. And I mean, it’s not very nice to be like that, but at the same time, I can’t change.
So we’re looking at…
The Royal Navy church in Copenhagen.
What’s the church called?
Royal Naval church. Well, you see because the vicar, when he left our village, his next [residence] was at that church. And so he was there in Copenhagen when I was in Copenhagen. And I spent a lot of times in his house, spent time with his wife, all his children, especially the eldest. We write to each other still.
Still? So yes, tell us about your wedding dress, Karen.
Well you can only see that bit there. Gosh I can’t remember anything.
Do you remember what colour it was?
Yes brown, and that was a cream coloured jacket.
What was it made of? It looks like it’s fur.
No it wasn’t. It’s a fabric.
And would that have been something that was rationed?
No it was just meant to look like…
OK so can you remember that day?
Tell us about it.
My uncle and aunt had come over from Jutland to be there as well. And my mother of course was there. And the Pastor had got a special dispensation, because there wasn’t time for doing it in time the normal way.
Why was that?
Well Norman was just on leave and we decided it would be nice to be married.
So it was a kind of snatched wedding, a snatched time?
And can you remember who was there?
This was from the church from the village at home.
But not the church you were married in?
They had similar things except I think our village church was older. This was the embroidery that started me off on conservation.
He said ‘you won’t get a room with an English landlady if you don’t have a ring’. Right, we went and bought a ring (laughs), but it never got a name in it and then it got stolen.
Oh no, in Denmark or in England?
No in England, in Ealing. That was the most horrible thing. Shall I tell you about that now or later?
And then we went and had a meal out and my uncle tried to do his usual speech. Well he always did a speech. But it was in Copenhagen and the restaurant isn’t really big enough, but he did it all the same.
Was he the one in the family that always did the speeches?
Well it was at that time. It’s my sister Grethe now.
So you might be getting one from her?
Yes, and we… oh it was very nice, very nice. And then Norman had to leave. I suppose I must have gone back to… yes because I wanted to finish my course. I’m not one to give up (laughs).
So you went back?
So what was the atmosphere like at the wedding, was it very celebratory and happy?
Yes it was. I think Norman was a bit surprised.
What was he surprised by?
That people were so pleased that I had married him. No, I think that they liked him because he was a very very nice person. That’s the thing.
And how did he communicate with them? Because who spoke English in your family apart from you?
Well Grethe spoke English quite well, and the rest of my family did too.
What about your mother? Did your mother speak any?
No but that seemed to work very well, she was so deaf anyway that it didn’t make any difference (laughs). No but they got on really well, Norman and her, always.
So how did they communicate? Just by non-verbal stuff?
Well, they just did. Quite interesting really.
Did Norman remind you of anybody in your family at all? Would you say ‘oh he’s like…’?
No. No, well there was… one of the reasons I wanted to learn English was because there was an American uncle and his family were coming to visit, and that was in 1935 and that was why I put so much into learning English. And then I kept it up afterwards by reading. I’ve always read a lot and I didn’t find it difficult to read in English either. Then as soon as I could, it was arranged for me to go to England. And then that’s when we first we stayed with Norman’s people, which was the most awful time in my life.
Is that something you want to talk about?
No. Absolutely not. And that was when I decided I should get to know London. Norman got a job, so I walked around London and immediately decided that South Kensington was the nicest part. And I visited the museums there, and then it didn’t take very long before I found first a weaving shop – workroom – in South Kensington. And then after that, the Royal School of Needlework. And I had two appointments in one day. One was with the weaving workshop and the other at the Royal School.
I know it was incredible what you did. Can I ask you whilst we’re thinking and talking about Norman, was Norman like anyone you had met before?
No, well… not really. First of all I knew farmers, of course. And people at home and then in Copenhagen, most of my friends were artists and Norman was far from being an artist. Well I don’t know maybe he was really. He certainly got on very well with all my friends, which was good. And that continued for the rest of their lives, all of their lives. That’s Greta and she was married to Norman’s brother, who died when he was 38.
So this picture that we’re looking at now is you holding your OBE, but you’re with Norman in that picture.
Yes and that certainly is the OBE.
You’re looking so delighted there.
Because Greta was… we could invite one person and Katrina couldn’t come so Greta came. And she enjoyed it very much. What we all thought was fun was when the orchestra played ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head’. I’ve forgotten now why that was, but it was dead funny.
(Laughs). But it obviously had some meaning at the time?
So there’s you and Norman. Did Norman work with you quite a lot?
[Karen is now looking through some of the album]
Yes when we got to. You see first of all I worked at home and that meant an awful lot of moving about and doing things. I’ve forgotten where we took these pictures. Do you think that Katrina looks like me at all?
A little bit – similar eyes.
And Jacob, yes, too.
We’re looking at a picture taken roughly… when would that be? It doesn’t have a date on it.
Funny that I can’t remember that.
But you were saying about Norman, that Norman worked with you.
He got TB and that was very very difficult, very very hard. And it meant that we always had to be aware that he shouldn’t get over tired. So he retired as soon as he could. And I think that was tied up with us going to Hampton Court, and there he did everything.
Just before the break you were talking about Norman and how he helped you when you moved to Hampton Court.
And that was absolutely fantastic because he very soon made friends with warders and people, he would show them where things were and they would help. The warders were wonderful, they helped with everything that you could imagine. And Norman would then be involved, it meant that he could make things easy for me throughout because it was quite different from working at home, as you can imagine. Then the Courtauld Institute asked me to teach the history of dress to students, about textiles that is. It was Stella Mary Newton who asked me to teach about textiles and I tried to get a bit more of a brief out of her, but she wasn’t having any of it. She did add one thing and that was ‘and keep them amused’ (laughs), and I thought well that’s the easy part, and it was. It wasn’t only me he helped, he helped all the students.
Norman helped all the students, in what way?
Moving things about and explaining some things – not about the textiles but me, and about how it started, which naturally you could say was a surprising thing. But it all did start with the embroideries in our church. And that they had been there since the middle ages and that our textiles were the pride and joy of the congregation really – those who noticed them. I was just so amazed to see them there. I didn’t know anything until they came back from Copenhagen having been conserved just before my confirmation, so our vicar would explain about them and together we’d talk about the church and all the other things that were in the church. And you could say for sure that was how the Textile Conservation Centre got started. That was a long time ago now, but it was really very very nice to see it grow and to be involved from the beginning and I am so grateful to Frances Lennard and of course to Nell Hoare that they sent me pictures of what’s going on and what it looks like now. I would have liked to have gone to the opening in Glasgow but I just… well you can see, I just can’t manage that.
It would be a big journey for you.
Too tiring. But Katrina and Alan were there.
And they know what went into setting it up.
Before we turned the recorder on, you said you would like to talk about your role in setting up the Textile Conservation Centre.
Well it couldn’t have been done without the people who helped me, like Donald King who had been my superior at the Victoria and Albert Museum. And of course all the other people in the Textile Department at the Victoria and Albert. One of them was Santina Levey who was also at the opening of the new Textile Conservation Centre in Glasgow. When I left the Victoria and Albert Museum I had trained two people to work on tapestries and that had gone very well. And then the artwork room was made into a conservation department and there with the keeper on top, Norman Brommelle, and so when the two people I had trained decided to go on to something else he asked me if I would teach more people for him, seven more in fact (laughs). And one of them – the very first one – was Janet Notman who came from the V&A, and then she decided to leave too after a year or two, and this time she went to Glasgow, to the Borough collection, and she set up the conservation department there. And so, what with one thing and another we certainly spread things (laughs). And Janet was at the opening of the new TCC as well.
Yes, which was nice. And she came and spoke to Katrina and told her that she might come to London. That would be nice, I’d love to see her. And I really would like to go to Glasgow to see how things are going, but you can see it’s just that I get so tired. It’s not easy when you’re 90 (laughs).
Nearly 90… 90 in May.
Yes. I only wish people didn’t keep dying. Or at least waited until I had gone.
Yes, they could have been a bit more considerate couldn’t they?
I think you must be aware that there are many people who appreciate the work you have done.
Could you say who and in what way?
Well I mean, just think about the hundreds of people who have got jobs as a consequence. And jobs that they like, which is more.
What kind of work?
In conservation. But of course it’s a foundation, you can go on to other things. You can teach about textiles as I did. You can teach about the history of textiles and how it got started. I’m very grateful to Southampton University for what they did, because they enabled our students to publish quite a lot. And I think that’s really important. And now Glasgow will be continuing.
They will be getting the benefits of the foundation work?
I don’t really know about the foundation. That was something that happened. But I’m sure that they’re doing – well I trust that they are doing – good work. But I don’t know anything about it.
But I was thinking I wanted you to be able to talk about the influence the Textile Conservation Centre has had on learning and education and conservation. Could you think about some of the work that your ex-students are doing or have done?
It’s great isn’t it?
What kind of jobs have you mentioned?
Well in conservation, or teaching other things to do with textiles, I think it’s terribly important that the course at the Textile Conservation Centre should include a sound foundation in how things are made – how the different techniques work, embroidery and weaving and the looms, how they work. It’s very important because otherwise you can’t really see when you are confronted with something new. In my experience you get confronted with something new all the time and don’t even know that they are new until you have worked with them for a bit (laughs). Well we were looking at this petticoat that looks like quilting but is in fact woven. I first saw it in 1965 when it was first brought to my work room as a quilted object and it looks so much like quilting that I didn’t actually understand that it wasn’t quilting but weaving until I came to work on it. And someone had tried to lengthen it by adding a piece here at the top in the waist, and I was supposed to take that out. And I did that and then realised that there wasn’t a seam where there should have been a seam. (Looking through photographs) I’m afraid these photographs are not really good enough to show. (Looking at photo of petticoat) There should have been a seam there and there wasn’t. And then I looked again and discovered that that was because it was woven. At the top part the two separate weaves were joined together with little weave stitches in between, and they opened when this was finished. Of course one of the reasons for that would be not to have bulk over the hips. And then the next thing would be to weave the design and then to give an impression of it being filled. And that was done by using… in the dove weave, so on the back it was a plain weave that was done with hand-spun cotton to get the bulk, and then the satin weave on the top couldn’t help but stick out as you can see there.
And you would only have been able to have done this because of your knowledge of weaving, is what you’re saying?
Yes, I am really.
So you were saying that the new centre in Glasgow is very important, that basic…
That’s why I’ve [believed] so strongly that people need to know about weaving.
Is there anything more particularly that you want to say about your role in setting up the Textile Conservation Centre at Hampton Court?
It was very very hard work setting it up. It was hard work because nothing like that had happened in Britain before. And they had begun it in Sweden but because of the difference in conditions between Britain and Denmark, for that matter, it couldn’t be tackled in exactly the same way as it had in Sweden. I had to devise a way of running the Textile Conservation Centre from both a teaching point of view and working point of view to suit British conditions, and it looks as if I managed that.
It certainly did.
It was marvellous visiting Glasgow University and seeing what they were… I mean I haven’t been but Katrina went and she told me so much about it that I feel that I was there (laughs).
And this is a few days after the opening ceremony.
Yes and I think that it will continue to work, I am quite sure of it. My first Scottish student was there (laughs), and one that came much much later but felt the same way about the TCC. Years ago I was there about another kind of meeting and had lunch with my first student and the one who had just left. And the one who had just left said ‘I thought you worked us awfully hard, but then I got my first job and I knew what to do’ and I thought could any teacher wish for more (laughs), that was nice. That’s nice. I hope everything will continue to go well.
What other things have students said to you about that time at the TCC?
I don’t know. Perhaps sometimes they thought I wasn’t doing it the same way as everybody else. And then I might have to say that’s why (laughs), I don’t know. I’ve been very lucky in the students I’ve had. Very.
Did you ever have any students that challenged the way you did anything?
Oh yes, but one of the things about that, when they left and they got their first job, they suddenly realised (laughs), and then they would comment on it, which was also nice.
What would they come back and say?
‘Now I know why you wanted this and this and this’. And I thought that that was nice. In particular that they could say it.