Karen’s birthday and Norman

Karen’s birthday and Norman
May 8, 2024 • By Katrina Finch0 comments

Details of reeds

It is now six years since Karen died and today we celebrate what would have been her 103rd birthday.

Karen loved to celebrate her birthday which is why each year we mark it on her website.

For her birthday this year we are publishing an article by Dr Philip Sykas about Karen’s treasured collection of historical loom reeds. She kept them with her for many years, apart from a brief stay in the Horniman Museum. We now have them in our house. But are hoping to donate them to a museum this year.

We have continued the work of transcribing and publishing the lectures she gave annually to the students at the TCC.

Where possible we have included the images she used to accompany her lectures, knowing that she very much enjoyed researching them and showing them to the students.

Karen’s flatlet inside our house remains more or less the same as when she died – a potent reason why we feel her presence all the time.

A substantial part of her archive lives there and we are delighted that Philip Sykas has been able to spend more time over the past year sorting and organising it and packing it into archival boxes.

Archivists struggle to catalogue new donations so we are doing our best to ensure that it is in a searchable condition.

A significant part of the archive housed with us is Karen’s extensive correspondence. She maintained contact with a very broad range of correspondents: family, friends, work colleagues, students, as well as of course her official correspondence. Most of the latter is already held in the Glasgow University Archive.

A wonderful find this year has been what appears to be a complete set of correspondence between my father and mother dated from May 1945 to November 1946. They met at the end of the Second World War (May 1945) in Copenhagen, Karen had just completed her Art School training and Norman was in the British 8th army.

They married on 8 September 1946 but Karen didn’t finally settle in England till November 1946. Up until then Norman was still required to carry out army work, especially in Germany, and in any case it took some time for Karen to be granted permission to live in England.

The letters – all handwritten – are long and show how they got to know each other as they shared thoughts about life, for example, should women work after marriage – of course was my other’s opinion; about politics, including whether or not socialism was the answer to the world’s problems. At the end of this exploration, they decided to get married.

Reading these letters inspired us not only to remember Karen on her birthday, but also to remember Norman.

Norman’s unsung contribution to Karen’s work

This is what Karen was recorded saying about how they met:

“It was at a party because everyone wanted to celebrate the English soldiers and I remember the party but, awful to say, I don’t remember meeting my husband. However he kept turning up wherever I was. He was always there. And eventually he spoke to me and we began to understand. … He was a very quiet person and I think it must have been his persistence (laughs) which I suppose is really quite nice to think about. … Kind, thoughtful, dependable. I just thought he was right, I couldn’t really think about a life without him as soon as we got to talk together.”

Karen and Norman’s wedding, 8th September 1946

(from A Life Journey, Interview 5)

My father is often overlooked in my mother’s history, but she would not have been able to achieve what she did without him.

He put his own life second at all times so that Karen could concentrate on working in the field she had chosen; and without him looking after her, me and many household responsibilities, as well as being the main breadwinner for many years, the TCC would not have been founded.

He was housekeeper, cook, handyman, gardener and father who dedicated much of his free time to developing me: intellectually, he taught me to read and be sufficiently proficient in maths to pass my ‘O’ level; for fun he taught me to remember all the capitals in the world; he encouraged my physical aspirations, teaching me to ride a bike, to roller skate, to throw and catch balls and to engage in competitive sport. He taught me board games and card games; how to wash up efficiently (Karen never liked to wash up) and how to save energy and expense by not overusing water and electricity (to my shame I didn’t understand the point of this at the time).

Norman and Katrina on a tractor, c. 1954

After Karen left the V&A Museum and established her conservation studios, first in Acton and then in Ealing, she was simultaneously driving forward her commitment to create a national centre for textile conservation. To fulfil this ambition, national and international networking was essential. She had to travel, in the UK as well as abroad. My father (after organising the tickets etc), was left to keep the home and me ticking over. I remember fondly that Karen’s absence gave us a chance to indulge in all the ‘bad for you’ foods that Karen eschewed.

Uncomplainingly he opened our home to a continuous stream of people who stayed in the house while learning what they could from Karen. In fact he didn’t just put up with this, he looked after everyone, making sure they had everything they needed. He was the kindest, gentlest person. He even put up with the anxiety of housing invaluable artefacts – Haile Selassie’s crown, the Queen’s sedan chair from Windsor Castle, the Esther tapestry and so on.

Norman became seriously ill just before the TCC was about to open and wasn’t able to return to work, but instead, when he was sufficiently recovered, he helped the Centre in whichever way he could, driving my mother backwards and forwards from Ealing to Hampton Court; taking care of the books for the TCC; repairing, decorating and painting whatever was needed at the centre; ensuring the security of the apartments, and as always taking care of everyone. He also offered his help and experience to other organisations involved in Karen’s field, such as the Friends of Fashion at the Museum of London.

Karen and Norman outside Western Gardens, late 1970s

And he did all this because he believed in my mother and her work, and he loved her.

In 1981 and 1986, my parents were blessed with the births of their adored grandsons, Joshua and Jacob. Nothing made them happier than looking after them and watching them grow. Norman taught them to play cricket and board games. Both Karen and Norman took them on interesting outings to broaden their cultural horizons.

And those ideas they explored in the mid-1940s: my mother was definitely a working wife and mother; they no longer talked about socialism, but my mother took me on Ban the Bomb demonstrations when I was still in my pram. Later on we all went on Aldermaston marches, and my father never forgot his working class roots. They were both committed to the ideal of an egalitarian world devoid of prejudice.

My father died in 1996 aged 74 and his funeral service was held at St Martin’s Church in Acton.

On 3 May this year my mother’s ashes were buried next to Norman’s in St Martin’s garden of remembrance. Norman loved Paul Robeson so we played ‘Old Man River’ and ‘Go Down Moses” in the church and Alan and Jacob performed This Train (Is Bound for Glory).

We are satisfied that now all is as it should be.

Katrina Finch