Conducted July 16th, 1985
Karen talks about her early days up until the Royal School of Needlework job
Karen made several handwritten changes to the transcripts after the interviews were conducted. These were mostly minor edits for legibility or clarification, but in some instances she added additional information or corrected herself. We have highlighted these instances in the text, and you can use the toggle above to turn the highlights on or off.
Well, this is day one of our sessions for the AIC oral history file. And the obvious thing to start with is where and when you were born.
On a farm in Northern Jutland in Denmark. And do you want my birthday too?
Well, it would be helpful.
On the 8th of May, 1921. I’m the eldest daughter of a family of four boys and four girls. My eldest brother took over the farm when our father died.
So as for your early experiences in school, when did you start? Was that at four?
No, in Denmark you start school at seven.
So before that time, what did you do at home? Did you work with the farm?
Yes, and housework, too. One of our maids, when I was little, was a good needlewoman. She taught me to embroider before I could read. I suppose I must have been about six. She had a lot of patience. And that was very nice. Then, I made a loom, in a cigar box. My father smoked a lot of cigars and we always had lots of cigar boxes. I made little mats for my dolls house that I also was very fond of. I made all the furniture for it.
So, did you have a continuous warp, or was it sort of thing that one can take a string and tie it at two ends and make the warp in separate elements?
I don’t know really. Perhaps.
Do you have any of them left?
Oh, no. When I finish something, I am finished. I also used to enjoy making dolls clothes in national costumes from postcards that got sent to us from different people, that was quite fun. Then, the farm was a wonderful place to play. It was very high up and I suppose the fields must have one time been covered with Bronze Age barrows. There are still some left. We believed they were inhabited by Nisser, the Danish little people who claimed rice pudding on Christmas Eve in return for keeping our animals healthy.
The mounds [from your slides]?
Yes, the mounds. The ploughman would always be ploughing up things and I was quite fascinated by all those different things that came in. An urn once, a whole urn, and of course masses and masses of flint axes. As a child, I thought that these were specially made for keeping down the farm papers. It was later that I discovered that they had another purpose (laughs). The farm had been in the family for some time, so my aunts and uncles were frequent visitors and of course, my cousins too. We would sometimes be 22 people around the table during school holidays. My parents, brothers, sisters, cousins and school friends, the maids and the farmworkers. There was always a lot of interest in everything that happened on Meldgaard, including in what we found in the fields.
So were you ever at the uncovering of one of the mound people, or did you go to the National Museum to see them?
The ones that had been found by then were in the National Museum. It was generally speaking what we found and what other people had, and they came to show us, and visitors were interested. And we collected stuff. Before the farmhouse… my grandfather built the farmhouse and while it was being built the family lived in a small house that he had built in the garden. We used that for playing in, so we collected lots of things, from old furniture to anything we found in the fields. I suppose we didn’t really think about classifying them. Perhaps we should have. And then there was the church. In those days you went to church every Sunday, at least we did. I wasn’t all that keen on the sermons I suppose, so I would be looking at the things in the church which had come from Sødal, the manor house nearby, including embroideries, two pieces that I now know must have come from a four poster bed of the seventeenth century.
How wonderful. Did they just hang along the walls?
No, that was on the altar. Another piece was a framed embroidery, 16th century I think, showing the saints in rows of niches as in a building. And, what else. There was a painting of one of the former owners of Sødal, a big fat man and his wife who was a tiny, delicate little person. And I kept wondering why she’d married him. That was something else. But their clothes were quite fascinating. She wore a frontage and a very nice grey silk dress. And the altar was fun, it had angels flying all over it. Now I know that it was probably carved perhaps by someone travelling from places like southern Germany, or even Hungary. In those days I was quite convinced that those little angels were beautiful pink babies, as I said before, just like my brothers and sisters and cousins. Then in 1976 I was asked by the Royal Society of Arts to give a talk about how I came to do conservation. I thought I would begin with the little angels and I asked my sister to go and photograph them. And she did and she sent these slides of horrible wooden objects with grey paint (laughs).
Was it just a child’s image?
Yes, that’s the thing, you see. That’s what I saw, because that’s what I wanted to see, I suppose.
It was quite interesting though to make comparisons when I began to visit places like Czechoslovakia and Hungary and Southern Germany and seeing where the ideas had come from. They were different, very different but still recognisable.
I know there is a story you tell about some pieces that were repaired in the church.
Yes they were those pieces I have just described. I first saw them when I was 13, after they’d been repaired.
So these were things you’d seen all these years, so you knew them very well?
Yes, well, I didn’t know them well, I knew they were there, but I didn’t know them well. I didn’t get to know them well until they came back from being repaired at the National Museum in Copenhagen. And they’ve been repaired again now at the National Museum, this time by Else Østergaard.
Have you seen them [since their second repair]?
Yes, well, one of them.
And the story is that you were struck by the pieces, as they came back [the first time]?
Yes, more because of looking at the repair. Because it hadn’t occurred to me that one did anything like this, in order to keep things. And then I saw them come back, and they were so very, very nice looking, and colourful and interesting, and I could pick out the work that had been done to them. So that started me off looking for repairs in other things when I visited great houses or museums.
Is that when you were in your teens, then?
Yes, I suppose it must have been because then I went away to school and saw different things and began to really become aware of history. But the interest in conservation as such was furthered when I went to art school in Copenhagen and I was lucky enough to be invited to live with the librarian of the Museum of Decorative Arts [Gerda Klint] and her daughter [Lotte]. The school was housed in the same building. I got to know the people who worked there. And I got to know the ethics of conservation that they worked to.
So then these were the actual conservators that you met?
There weren’t really any conservators, they were curatorial staff, but they were looking after the objects, and they worked from the point of view of looking after them. One was Rigmor Krarup.
Just to get back a little bit, just for basic knowledge, was there someone in your family who was an artist, or someone who was a weaver, or anything that had something to do with textiles or art in general?
Well, my mother was a gardener before she was married and she was very very good at flower arrangements and things like that. And she generally speaking made everything really beautiful around her. She was always called in by the neighbours for special occasions to suggest how things could be made to look pretty.
Sort of an interior decorator?
Interior and for special occasions like weddings and christenings and funerals. Because in those days people were receiving visits to say goodbye to their dead in their own homes. And our farmhouse was built in the traditional way, with a large room that was empty except for storing things in between the parties and the christenings and the laying outs and the weddings. And in fact, the front door was built so that the coffins could be carried straight through from this room. The part of Denmark where I come from was quite old fashioned in many ways, and it was still the tradition then that all members of the household would eat together. And that when there were parties the daughters of friends of the family, would help with serving and meeting the guests and everything like that. And so it was a question really of living within traditions all the time, that were very strong and still alive.
Did that also include weaving traditions?
No, that had gone a long time before that. We did do embroidery though.
That was still traditional?
Not traditional, no. My mother was a very fine embroideress before she was married. I don’t think she did much after.
You mentioned that there was a maid. Did she help with the children or the house or….?
Well with everything. When we were quite small there was a nursemaid, but after that two maids, and they would work in the house and would also in the summertime help outside. Everybody did the milking, until we got milking machines. And they were mostly quite good at embroidery. In the winter, clothes would be made and repaired and embroidery would be done. That was when I was very little.
So then your father worked in the farm and there were obviously dairy cows. Did he grow crops also?
Yes, it was a mixed farm, it is a mixed farm.
And it’s still in the family?
Oh, yes. My brother has added an awful lot to the buildings and of course it’s quite mechanised now. So he’s managing to run it with just two helpers.
Great. So then you started school when you were seven and did they include things like, well Scandinavia is known for its teaching of embroidery and that sort of thing in school. Did yours also?
And so you had an advanced…
Training, yes, in a way, no specialisation though.
And then what was school experience like? Which schools did you go to?
Well, first of all the village school, and later I went to a folk high school, and there we did embroidery too, an awful lot more embroidery. And then I began to think about what to do, and I thought that weaving would be nice. So as luck would have it I was accepted at the art school in Copenhagen and went there. That was a three year course in weaving and design. And I was very pleased that I had a good background in embroidery before I came there because it did help quite a lot with seeing and understanding what we were taught.
So, then the village school was that in the neighbourhood and very close by?
Yes, well fairly.
And was it sort of a one room schoolhouse?
No, it was bigger than that. There were two teachers.
So it was a large populated area?
Yes, quite. Now it has been moved to the edge of the village and it’s a very big place now and is serving the whole district.
So, then you stayed there for how many years, do you remember?
From when I was seven I suppose until I was 14 or 15 or something like that. And I continued to have lessons in English and German.
Throughout high school?
No, before and after I left school, until high school.
Sorry, I’m a little confused. You went to the village school, and left at at about 14 or 15? And then continued with English and German at home?
Yes. The teacher’s wife was teaching me. It was a private arrangement.
Why was there a delay, was it a long distance or money?
Yes, a long distance. And it wasn’t the custom then.
Then high school started when you were what age?
17? I was ill in between with a bad leg, I’d forgotten about that.
So that was why you didn’t go?
Yes, I didn’t go as soon as I should have. It was a problem with an infection of the marrow of the bones.
It was. But I’m alright.
I can see.
And then I went to the art school.
And high school, then, it was like a boarding school?
And did they have dormitories?
And was it boys and girls at the school?
Not in the summer. In the winter it would have been, but I went in the summer.
Oh. And the subjects that you took, what were they?
History and embroidery, and nutrition and how to run a farmhouse with two maids and a nanny and how to cut up a calf and a pig.
So it was really practical?
Part of it was, yes.
And did they introduce some basic science? Chemistry?
Yes, you know, household… an introduction to organic chemistry.
So then you went to the art school?
And you were how old then?
Gosh, you know I can’t remember really. I think I must have been 21.
Okay. And at the art school then, that was when you were living with the librarian and her daughter?
At the Museum of the Decorative Arts.
And so she lived in the museum?
The museum had been built as a hospital in the 18th century. It is described by Hans Christian Anderson in his story about the galoshes of luck.
Oh, I don’t know it, that’s terrible.
Oh, that must have been spectacular.
Yes, it was very nice.
In the art school itself, what was the schedule like? What kind of classes? Was it free or was it very structured?
We had theory in the mornings, most mornings, and practical work in the afternoon.
The theory involved what sort of subjects?
Analysis of weaves and dyeing, including colour theories, design and drawing and, you know, all the things one does at art school, getting to understand traditional techniques, exhibition visits, etc.
Was it part of the revival arts and crafts, because of the handwork organisations?
The art school may have been part of that originally, but by the time I got there it was very much established as an art school. We were taught about modern design, and not much looking back. In fact, we were heavily discouraged I think from visiting museums.
Yes, at that time this seemed to be the fashion. But I was very lucky because of my relationship with the people working in the museum, who also introduced us to the National Museum which was closed. Remember this was during the war, many museums were closed. And certainly the National Museum study collection was, because it was high up in the building. Two of us went, the other was a fellow student who later started the textile – I don’t know if you call it “department” or textile section, of the Archeological Research Centre at Lejre.
Lejre, I’m not familiar with that.
There, perhaps I should have told you about this at some earlier point. A young man called Hans Ole Hansen, son of Martin A. Hansen, a writer who died quite early, was allowed as a child to build stone age houses in their garden and invite friends for the weekends to sleep in them. And then they accidentally burnt one and discovered all sorts of interesting things about where the pieces fell. These discoveries eventually led to the historical archeological research centre at Lejre near Roskilde where research is done over a wide field of archeology to find out what happens to houses as they decay. And my friend Ninna started the research on ancient textile techniques there which included things like reconstruction of round weave looms and generally speaking research into ancient techniques. Her work is still going on but she moved from Lejre, because she also has interest in animals and breeding, sheep, and horses.
So then, Ninna, was it?
Yeah, Ninna Rathje.
Was she also a fellow art school student?
She was in the same weaving course?
Were there others that joined this research centre from the art school, or what were their backgrounds?
Mostly, they were weavers, yes, organised from the National Museum in Copenhagen. For a long time the place was opened to international scholars who came from all over the world and worked during the summers on reconstructing techniques. You know, making ceramics as they did three thousand years ago and things. And as I said, breeding back farm animals to understand their origins.
So did you participate in this at all?
No, it started after I left in 1964. But, I’ve been there, I mean I have visited every time I was home.
So then during the three years, I take it you had, in the practical side, created quite a number of weavings?
What were they like, what were you interested in?
I think I’m mainly interested in fabrics for household use.
So it’s functional?
Yes, well, it was, including tapestry, but you know not dress so much, not dress fabrics, but generally speaking household textiles – table linen, upholstery, tapestries, rugs and carpets.
The designs then, were they created through the actual manipulation of the weaving loom, or was it actually more a tapestry finger manipulation?
Well, we began with drawing designs.
So it was a mathematical approach as well as an artistic?
I think when weaving you can’t do anything unless you have a mathematical approach.
I agree. And from there then, did you have a show at the end of the school?
And do you have any of those pieces still?
They’re dispersed all around.
Here, actually in this room1?
What’s left. Mostly I gave them away. I’m not very good at keeping anything. That I suppose is why all the stuff is here and not at home.
Okay. Well, after leaving the art school, was it a diploma then in art?
Yes, I forgot what it was called, whether it was a diploma or certificate; I’ve got that somewhere, too.
And then what did you do from there?
Well, then I met Norman.
In Denmark, yes. And after the art school I worked for a while in a place where we were weaving tapestries and carpets.
Was it sort of a formal atelier?
Or was it manufacturing, more industrial?
No, it wasn’t industrial. All hand.
And that was in Copenhagen?
And how long were you there?
I think it was only a few months, and then I got married, and came to England in 1946.
What was Norman doing in Denmark?
Well, he came to liberate Denmark the year before.
Ah ha! And you met him in Copenhagen?
Yes. There were masses and masses of parties for all our liberators of course.
I see. And how did you feel about coming to England?
I don’t think I thought a lot about it until I got here.
And how old were you?
Did you have a traditional Danish wedding?
Yeah, not a white wedding, but otherwise, quite traditional. It was in Copenhagen because we made up our minds quite late. I think because we only decided to get married about a week before (laughs).
We were married in the Royal Naval Church in Copenhagen, Holmenskirken, by one of the people who influenced me the most, Pastor Scheller Nielsen. He came to our village when I was seven, stayed until I was 14. And I suppose it could well be that it is really because of his interest in everything that I came into conservation.
Well, he was the one who made us all, perhaps me more than anybody, aware of the treasures in the church and what they meant and how important out history was.
So, did he in the end marry you and Norman?
I see. And he had moved to Copenhagen?
Yes. You know, when he showed me all these things in the church and began to look for repairs, it was really from the point of view that I could do just that as well as anybody, perhaps better. He encouraged all my interests. He knew me very very well. He also encouraged me to spend a lot of time with his wife and his family while I was at art school. One of the things about the wedding was that he used the English marriage ceremony, but he cut out the bit about obeying, because he couldn’t have Karen breaking her marriage vows on the first day (laughs).
That’s wonderful. That’s great.
I’m not so sure. He also managed to provide me with three marriage certificates, just in case I didn’t take marriage seriously enough (laughs). And he also suggested that we should spend some of the money we got as wedding presents on a ring for me, because he said English landladies are not going to like brides without rings. He knew I wouldn’t wear this outmoded symbol of women’s dependency on men.
So you were a feminist?
Oh, I was then, but when people started becoming feminists, I left all that, because I believe in freedom for everybody, not just women.
So what about Norman, then? What was he doing at this point? He was in the military?
He was demobbed by this time.
He was, excuse me?
Demobbed, you know, that meant left the army. Demobilised.
And he started training for something to do with furniture, but eventually he went in for bookkeeping and accountancy.
So he was working in furniture making?
So, joinery and that sort of thing?
And that lasted how long?
I can’t quite remember. But at any rate, he decided to take a course in bookkeeping and then he worked in personnel at Thomas Wall’s, until he joined the Furniture and Timber Training board.
And so when you came to England, what part of England did you come to?
And that was right after marriage?
Yes. And then I got a job at the Royal School of Needlework.
And that was right away?
Yes, more or less. It was after a month or so.
How about your English?
Well, it wasn’t too bad, I suppose. Because, remember I told you that I was taught English as a child. In Copenhagen, one of the ways that we demonstrated during the way was by attending English classes. After evening classes we would listen to where they were shooting tonight so we could go another way home.
Then at the Royal School of Needlework, what was the job?
Well, do you want to know how I got that?
Yes, I’d love to.
I hope that you’re not ever going to publish any of this. You promise to let me know beforehand?
So I can cut out anything.
Well, I was of course fascinated by being in London, wanted to see everything. One day I was going to the Victoria and Albert Museum to do some drawing and general studies. I walked along Exhibition Road and saw the Royal School of Needlework and Exhibition Showrooms advertised on a building. So I went in to have a look, and there was this amazing place with all those terribly, terribly old fashioned designs and cases full of stuff given by Queen Mary and I was in an absolute trance looking at all this awful stuff. And then a lady came up to speak to me, I didn’t know her name then, but later I learned that it was Miss Heath. She wanted to know what I was doing in London. She was very very nice and wanted to know everything about me. She asked where did I come from, I said Denmark. I was wearing my little red knitted cap and my Lili Marlene white trench coat? Do you know what that looked like?
No, is it traditional Danish?
No, it was just fashion at the end of the war.
But obviously, I didn’t look English. Miss Heath wanted to know when I was going home. And I said oh, I am not, I live here, I’m married to an Englishman. And she said. “Oh, dear, would you like a job?” So I asked, what would I be doing? And she said, restore tapestries, and I said, hmm, yes well, I know how to make them so I can repair them too. And then she called the head of the workroom, Miss Racey who came and asked me a few questions, too. And said, would you like to begin on Monday. And I said, “Supposing that I can’t do the work?” She said, would I like to try for a week, and I said, yes. And then at the end of the week, I was sitting there waiting all day long to hear whether they would keep me because by this time I’d got to know everybody, met my oldest friend in England who is now the Workroom Mistress, Margaret Bartlett, who became Katrina’s godmother. And Miss Racey had forgotten to say that she was really very pleased with my work (laughs).
At the end of the week?
Anyway, she did tell me before the day was out, perhaps because I asked her.
And so they said yes, they wanted you to come back on Monday?
So that was when… well, how many people were in the workshop for one thing?
I don’t quite know, I think there must have been about a dozen in the workroom, something like that.
And then you were all working on the same tapestry?
Well, there was a tapestry in the corner.
So they were also doing other things besides tapestries?
New work as well. I did a lot of embroidery, because of course that’s my thing. I mean, I knew about embroidery. I learnt to do gold work just a little.
Gold work meaning…?
You know, metalwork embroidery.
Laid and couch gold?
And what were the treatments like? Where did these pieces come from for one thing?
Oh, private houses, at least I think so, I never heard anything else. But people didn’t really talk about where they came from, it wasn’t the thing you did with heirlooms.
Why was that?
Because people could be very upset if they knew that the things they owned were bring talked about.
Because they would be devalued, or because they didn’t want it known that they had to be repaired?
No, I think just because they owned them, they didn’t want their possessions to be talked about. It is why, at the TCC, when something is privately owned, we don’t say to whom it belongs.
Yes. And then you would work on the pieces in a modern sense of conservation, or was it more restoration? What was the work like? And also, I’m sorry, what year was this?
46, 47, 48. It was repair, I think you called it. Yes, that of course meant I got to examine historic pieces in great detail. I sometimes couldn’t tell the design because they’d been repaired so many times. Then I would suggest things like, why don’t you commission a nice modern design? I would be pleased to weave it (laughs).
So did you?
No (laughs). I think the people were quite horrified by imagining a modern Danish design on an 18th century French chair.
Oh that would be pretty bad (laughs).
And absolutely amazing. But I learned a tremendous lot, including about tapestries. If you care to you could read my contribution to the tapestry symposium at the Gobelin Manufactory last year. It is about how I devised the method that we’re using here for tapestry conservation and how it was improved by Danielle Bosworth. It was written as a result of the Royal School of Needlework, well also of a visit to Rosenborg Castle when I was still at the art school in Copenhagen, to see what they were doing to tapestries there.
This is Rosenborg?
Rosenborg Castle, where the Danish Royal Celebrations were held.
And what were they doing?
Well, the Danish Royal tapestries that had been woven to the design of Hans Knieper were found at the turn of the century. They had been left in Kronborg Castle in the cellars, and they’d been eaten by rats and mice so they were in a very, very bad condition. A group of ladies got together to restore them and they were given space in Rosenborg Castle to do it. Unfortunately, all of them were embroiderers and they didn’t know much about weaving. They restored the designs very well and they look – at a distance – very, very good. But of course it is embroidery now.
What, when you say embroidered, did they use satin stitches?
French knots and that sort of thing?
No, no, it’s just the same kind of repair, except better in design, that was done to the tapestries from Lime Park. The Mortlakes from Lime Park.
So, it’s more like a very neat darning.
No, they unfortunately treated each warp thread as a couching thread on its own, which means that it’s very very hard work to undo the repair today.
Oh, I see, so you would actually stitch along each warp thread, sort of what we do, except not going in a weft direction, you would go in a warp direction?
Yes. But they did the design very well, it was just the technique that was wrong. I mean, if they hadn’t done it there wouldn’t have been anything left, so we mustn’t be too critical, but try to learn from their mistakes as well as our own.
And did they use a backing material?
I suppose they must have. I haven’t seen them since the Art School visit. Anyway, at the Royal School of Needlework there was this tapestry that you only worked on when there was nothing else for you to do. And you only undid just enough of the covering to expose the swatch to be worked on.
So you never saw the whole thing? How did you feel about working on something without knowing the whole?
At that time, I was being taught and had no opinion.
And who was your teacher?
Barbara McCreedy. She was trained here at Hampton Court and she went to work at the Royal School of Needlework. She lived in Kingston and she used to travel on the bus everyday from Kingston to the Royal School, a greenline bus. And there was this handsome young soldier, she couldn’t take her eyes off him, then she discovered he couldn’t take his eyes off her, either. After about six months he spoke to her. I mean in those days you didn’t rush love. Eventually he invited her out. And then two weeks later he proposed to her and then they got married right away.
Did that end her career then?
Yes, he was a New Zealander.
Oh, no, she went to New Zealand then?
Oh, my, oh dear. So how long did she spend with you?
Very nearly the whole time I was at the School.
These interviews were conducted in July 1985. In 1991 Kathy Gillis, a second-year Art Conservation student at the University of Delaware, transcribed the audio recordings for the FAIC’s oral history file. In 1992 Karen Finch added handwritten notes to the transcripts with corrections and additional information. In 2021, when publishing the transcripts on this website, Stephen Cole corrected some typos and added the highlights to show where Karen’s notes deviate from the original audio interview.
- The textile study room of the Textile Conservation Centre
© FAIC Oral History File housed at the Winterthur Museum, Library, and Archives