FAIC Oral History Interview: Session 2
- Apr 28, 2021
- By Stephen Cole
- In Interviews
Conducted July 17th, 1985
Karen discusses life at the V&A, and writing the memorandum
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 two, it’s July 17th, 1985, and this is an interview with Karen Finch. Actually, I wanted to pick up on what we were talking about yesterday, and the Royal School of Needlework. I was wondering if the people like yourself were considered apprentices, or were you considered paid staff?
I was staff.
And then you mentioned in the conservation newsletter, about Barbara McCreedy. Was she your teacher, or was she another staff member?
She was another member of staff who had been trained here at Hampton Court Palace before the war.
And then yesterday you mentioned Margaret Bartlett, and was she also staff?
Yes, and now the head of the workroom.
And what were their backgrounds?
She, like most of the other people in the workroom, had graduated from the training school of the Royal School of Needlework, which was begun in 1872. Margaret had just returned to the RSN after war service in the ATS as a driving instructor.
And were the techniques like what you had experienced at the Rosenborg Castle? Was it embroidery or weaving?
I suppose the people at Rosenborg had a good training in embroidery. But I do not know what their training was. The Royal School of Needlework course included some amazingly complicated techniques of gold work and white work. The RSN provided a very, very thorough training. Look at these two works, each depicting a saint. They were part of the diploma work of two sisters, Jessie and Alice Jones. They eventually gave all their samples to me.1
Isn’t it amazing?
So, it looks like satin stitch, the background and the figures?
No, its splitstitch.
Splitstitch, oh my gosh.
The kind of technique that was used in the Opus Anglicanum embroidery.
And gold work in the halo. They’re beautiful.
One thing from the conservation point of view that you might take note of, is that some of the colours changed, I’m sure that the saints didn’t at any time grow beards.
No, not the females anyway (laughs).
We’ve also got their church work samplers someplace, I don’t know where I put them. You should see them before you go. Because they too are absolutely amazing. From a conservation point of view, you should note that they were worked with an aluminium thread, and the aluminium thread powders. The powder is still on top.
Oh, yes, actually I’ve seen those, they’re wonderful.
Yes, they are, aren’t they?
Despite the problem.
Yes, despite the problem. This is, so you can see, that is…
The quality of the work was very fine. You were working at the Royal School of Needlework from 1946 until about when?
1948, until Katrina was born.
Ah, I was going to ask that.
So, she was born in 1948?
And then did you stay at home?
Yes, I did until she was six. I worked at home for the Royal School of Needlework, and I did a good deal of other things too, including designing toys and baby clothes, of course.
Yes I sold a few things, not a lot, but a few things.
So then the designs, were they modern designs?
Yes, very much so. I hadn’t really then got any patience with anybody who worked in designs other than of their own time.
Hmm. Then, what about in the beginning when you were working at the Royal School of Needlework, was this a period when Norman was doing his training?
Yes. And then after that he began to do bookkeeping. First he was employed at Wall’s, Thomas Wall’s, who makes sausages and ice cream. Not in the same factory, of course.
But, so then, you at that time, were pretty much the bread winner then?
No, because his initial training was funded by the army.
I see, well that’s good. I was thinking, with your feminist views…
Yes. By the time Katrina was born, he was able to support us. And he was in the Personnel Department at Wall’s and I think he really enjoyed that.
Good. This is regressing I think a little bit, but did you at this time meet other conservators? I’m thinking of is someone like Agnes Geijer, who was very influential in Sweden?
No, because I wasn’t thinking of conservation at that time. I would dearly have liked to continue with the designing and the making of things. That was what I wanted, that and to be a housewife, that’s my dream.
Really, that’s a surprise.
No, I think there’s a lot to be said for being a housewife and working in your own home. You can make a little bit of time to do the things that you want to do.
Being a housewife, meaning?
Making things nice for your family, running the house, having parties and organising your own time.
Somehow, that surprises me, of all the people, you would be the last one, just because you seem to keep yourself so busy, with outside things, that it seems like you would be the last person…
Well, there probably would be outside things, too, I mean there are lots of things that housewives do.
Like, well, in our case, we lived in Bayswater at first and had a flat on the top floor of a house. There I met a lot of interesting people, including in a neighbourhood organisation and when Katrina was expected and then in the hospital. I made friends with a person who had a son exactly the same time as Katrina was born, and we’re still friends. She lives in Canada now, we don’t see each other a lot, but we still feel quite close. I like exhibitions, I love going out, and I love above all else to organise parties. And I haven’t done anything that I really want to do now for ten years. So, I should be very very happy….
If the housewife could bloom?
Well, so then, you’re home and working with designs, and then how did you get back into conservation?
Ah, we got dry rot. What was it that happened now? Yes, we moved from Bayswater to a house in Acton, then discovered that there was dry rot on the floor, and the roof was coming off, and I had to get a job. And then I remembered about conservation in Denmark at the National Museum and the Museum of Decorative Arts. And I thought the V&A was bound to have a Conservation Department too, so I wrote to the Keeper of the textile department, George Wingfield Digby, and he invited me to come in and have a look and to meet Mrs. Birkill, who was then in charge of textile conservation. We liked each other very much, and I was engaged to come in to do tapestries though these were not under Mrs. Birkill, because tapestry conservation was men’s work.
Oh, really? Were there men who had done that before the V&A?
Yes, but unfortunately, one was away in a sanatorium and the other was away doing National Service. I didn’t meet them until five months after.
So then you started alone?
And when they came back…?
When they came back, I wanted to leave, I’d had enough being a civil servant.
Was that difficult?
Well, my record should prove that I’m not the best kind of person to just knuckle down to restrictions without wanting to know why they are there. One of my friends once described the V&A as an elephant with fourteen legs, and the problems of getting them to move in unison.
Yes. Any big institution.
Yes. Well, that was one thing. I could see what I wanted to do to improve both the work and the conditions under which it was done. I think you read how I developed the tapestry conservation that we’re now doing here, and which, in fact, is being followed all over the world, I’m pleased to say.
Yes. And it was during those five months then, that you really…?
Well, that’s when I began it. Remember, my interest lay in design and design was being obliterated by the methods of repair then in general use. So I questioned their validity. I decided to leave the museum after five months, but on the day when I was going to hand in my notice, I was asked to come to Mr. Digby’s office, and he told me with a great deal of pleasure that he had managed to persuade the treasury to make a separate job in the conservation department for me, because they had recognised that I was going to do good things. So I stayed for five years – there are scars on my soul still.
This new job then, was it specially for tapestries work, or was it in general conservation?
It developed from tapestry to working and cleaning of all types of textiles. It was up to me to develop suitable methods of working and cleaning. I suppose you could say that since washing had not been done to any scale in any museum before then, it would have been as well if I had left it alone. Because I really don’t think we should be washing textiles as much as we do. Tapestries excluded. We are now working very consciously on cutting down all the work involved in conservation, to do as little as we can, consistent with what the object is going to be used for. I think the more we can cut out water and chemicals, the better it is, but at the same time, there’s also the fact that silk does seem to benefit from washing. To return to tapestries, I think that the greatest forward step was when I was allowed to take out the patches in the sky. You read my description of that?
There was a tapestry that had many many repairs in the sky, which was silk, if I remember right.
And you then developed the couching method?
The beginnings of it. Danielle Bosworth improved it greatly and Caroline Clark has improved it too.
So, then, who else was in the V&A at that time?
Evelyn Birkill and her four assistants.
Are these all in the textiles?
Yes, they worked in the textile section of the Conservation Department. Then the two people who’d been doing tapestries left.
The two men?
Yes, and I was put in charge of the Tapestry Conservation Section, which was a separate section and I was given an assistant, first Kirsten Dovey from Denmark and then Mary Abbot, who’s since left conservation. And Jennifer something, I can’t remember her last name. I trained them one by one.
How about the two men, do you remember their names?
One was John Locksley.
Did he continue?
I think he worked at home, yes. He had been trained by someone who had been trained by William Morris.
Oh, how wonderful.
Or at least by someone in the William Morris circle. Someone who’d been trained to William Morris techniques. So he was very keen on re-weaving.
And the other?
I can’t remember his name. He was a young man, he was very nice.
Did he also continue, do you know?
I don’t think so, I really don’t know, because as far as I was concerned, they just left.
And you mentioned Mary and Jennifer and Evelyn, was it?
Evelyn Birkill, yes. Wonderful, marvellous person. She and her husband were both musicians, and she travelled with him all over Europe, playing musical instruments.
So, in the setting up of washing, was that something that you had to contact the scientist about?
Scientist, and visits to laundries and dry cleaning establishments. Remember nothing had ever been done on those lines before, so it was all absolutely new and you had to start empirically. I remember visiting a place that was called the Pink Elephant.
Did you say pink elephant?
Yes, and I saw that the way that they dried costumes, was by putting them on sort of bags that could be blown up so that they dried in shape.
And was this professional dry cleaning or something of that sort?
Dry cleaning and washing. A small establishment I believe.
Was that in London?
Yes. And then after that I visited a larger establishment, Madeleine Ginsburg came too, she arranged it through one of her marvellous contacts.
And she was working privately somewhere?
No, Madeleine Ginsburg was in the Textile Department. She is a dress historian and was responsible for the V&A collection of dress.
That’s right. She was the keeper? Or was she a conservator?
I understand that the curatorial staff work in the Textile Department and they have no conservators work in any other department except the Conservation Department.
So that they were not physically in the same area?
They were separate?
Was there contact?
Curatorial staff came to see what we were doing. I had a very good contact with them all and liked to work with experts on the various objects. The Departments at the V&A are very separate but I learned a great deal through being friends with the Textile Department. I did because those were the people I wanted to be with. Those were the people I worked with because of their individual expertise. I do believe in teamwork – as you will have noticed.
And the conservation department was…
It was called Art Work Room then – until 1960, when it became the Conservation Department.
In other words they had more than textiles in the same room?
So, metals? What other fields were there?
Well, in the room where I began to work on tapestries there were two silversmiths, and other metalworkers. I made friends with a lovely person who was repairing glass and ceramics.
And who was he?
His name was George France. Another one who was doing stone and ceramics was Ken Hempel. And Mr. [Horace] Clark.
And what was he?
He did miniatures and I was very very fond of him too. He has retired now, he lives in the Isle of Wight. He sometimes telephones. He was very very interested in what I was doing. At that time the Art Work Room had a foreman in charge and he wasn’t too keen on people who had more training than he had himself. But, luckily I worked very closely with Mr. Clark who was interested in what I was doing and he helped in every way there possibly could be – and so did Mrs. Birkill. They both helped me to develop the methods that they could see would be very useful in conservation.
So then did you also get in contact with others who had been doing washing, or it just wasn’t done?
No, but I did anyway. Among the people that I came into contact with early on was Louisa Bellinger who had started washing at the Textile Museum in Washington. We would be together all the time that she was in England. It was absolutely wonderful working with her, she was such fun, so inspiring. When she came to England, she would usually phone from the airport and then we would fetch her because by then we lived in Ealing and Heathrow Airport is quite close. And she would stay the night and we would stay up all night talking and catching up with things.
Did you talk mostly about conservation?
All sorts of things. Including her house in Washington State and her nephews and what they were doing and her childhood. She was a really fantastic person. The other people that I made contact with then were Jentina Leene from Holland and Johan Lodewijks. They came over to England to show the work that they were doing on sticking. And I could see all sorts of useful possibilities in what they were doing, and so helped to develop some of the techniques. And of course, we’ve been friends ever since. Last week in Hungary, Johan Lodewijks was there too.
So then, what were the washing methods that you came up with?
Well, you see, things began really on a very small scale. I had to adapt what was available at first. There was a tapestry washing room at the V&A with a filled trough that was about this wide.
That’s about a metre wide or something.
Yes, it was a double trough with a filled space in the middle, and troughs on either side. The tapestries would go into one trough for the washing.
Would it be on a roll?
No, just sort of dumped in.
Dumped in, okay.
And then you pulled it up through the middle and then it went over to the other side. But of course, it took an enormous amount of time and was back-breaking work.
And all the weight.
Yes, oh yes, it was very damaging. All the dirt re-deposited from the water and no proper rinsing, and then eventually when it was finished, it was dragged onto a hoist and lifted up and a fan was put on. I didn’t think it was very good, so I began by putting a large board on top. The troughs were built on the floor, so you couldn’t just move them. I used a large board so that the tapestries could be laid flat. It was a little bit dangerous because the board wasn’t all that safe, you know, it wobbled. But at any rate, yes, I began the methods of washing tapestries that we’re still using today.
So in other words, it was a method where they could be washed all at once and flat?
Yes. And left to dry flat.
And left to dry in the same place?
Yes, and that was when I discovered that old repairs might run. And there was one occasion when I had to rush around to find all the newspaper and all the rags that they were using in the carpentry department to mop up before a repair started running. I also discovered how you can manipulate old textiles there, because I was asked to do the vestments that belonged to a traveling priest, 17th century I think they were, Cromwell’s Commonwealth. The ALB had stretched enormously, totally out of shape, but when it was wet, it could quite easily be manipulated into shape again, by patting it till it was flat. It looked quite nice on display. And, ah yes, then the gloves and things, the 17th century English raised work embroidery that you can see on display in the English Galleries at the V&A. Those things were black, because the dust had settled on the gold, it wasn’t just that they were tarnished, they were dirty, it was there that I began to develop methods to try and get rid of the dirt by picking up every little bit on the tip of a sable brush. I think now perhaps a better method would have been using little bits of cotton wool on sticks. And I used ammonia and water, not enough to wet all the gold, just enough to detach the dirt on the gold. It worked very nicely. But in those days I thought it was necessary to lacquer things, and that I now know is a total mistake, because you can’t exclude air, you can only lacquer what you can see on the top of the embroidery. Still after 17 years, I had occasion to look at the things again and I’m glad to say that they hadn’t changed, which is more a tribute to the quality of the cases at the V&A than it is to anything that I did. Similar work on similar objects, which I did some time after I left the V&A, darkened in a year because they were kept in National Trust houses in open conditions. Of course, that in itself taught me an awful lot about how little you should really do. I mean clean things like that if they’re dirty and it’s bad, but don’t go to excessive lengths about changing discolouration due to tarnish because it’s going to happen again, and you cause damage trying to remove tarnish. It’s a question of using proper display methods with light and presentation generally, to make the public interested, because it doesn’t really matter that an object looks old and damaged as long as it is stable in the condition is has reached. Why shouldn’t the public see the truth of time?
Conservators in the past aimed at making things look new – I am glad that we are now aiming at keeping their information safe.
You also mentioned that with the washing. Did you also look into detergents and surfactants?
This was the thing which our friends from Holland were working on. Dr. Leene was very interested in this whole aspect and a research programme was started a long time before. The Central Laboratory was set up in Holland, in Amsterdam. The Research programme was started at Delft at the Technical High School of Delft. You can get the proper address from somewhere else (laughs). The first international meeting about textiles and their conservation was organised by Dr. Leene and her staff in 1964 at Delft. I gave my first paper on the training of textile conservators at this meeting.
And by this time, you were in Ealing?
And before that, was cleaning done with just water?
Yes, and lissapol, which turned into synperonic.
So you were already using non-ionic detergents before it was even…
Yes. Because Louisa Bellinger had told me about the methods she had started at the Textile Museum.
And Agnes Geijer, was she about?
Yes, she had started all these things in Sweden, and of course they all filtered through.
When did you first meet her?
That was quite late. Well, I think I met her while I was at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but I don’t think that I really got to understand what she was doing until later.
And then you were there for five years. And what finally made you decide to break away from the fourteen legged…
Someone said to me “all we want from you people is just enough technical knowledge to be able to do what the keepers tell you to do”, and I didn’t fancy that way of working.
And how about the keepers then. You kept a very good relationship throughout?
Yes, this was someone else.
Someone from outside?
Someone from another department. No, the Textile Department was just fantastic, I was very very pleased to work with them, and as you know, Donald King became our president when we started the TCC. Without him it just wouldn’t have happened. When I left the V&A you see, I wanted to become a housewife, and take up design and making things, and you know, do all the things that I’d done before. My interest in ancient techniques had been stimulated by the work I had done at the Victoria and Albert Museum, being able to handle so many interesting things. At home I began to work on techniques right away. And then well, no one at the V&A would really believe that that was what I wanted to do. They kept sending nice people with nice things for conservation.
I wouldn’t have believed you either (laughs).
And I couldn’t say no. Then after two years they asked me if I would train someone else in tapestry conservation for them, a new person.
So did they find a replacement for you?
Well, Mary had left by this time. After that I trained Jennifer. Funny I can’t remember her name. I can see what she looked like, can’t remember her name (laughs). She stayed for two years, and then Janet Notman got the job. She had been trained in weaving at the Central College of Art by Marianne Straub, who had also trained Mary Abbot. And I realised that they were doing fantastic work because of the background Marianne had given them in weaving.
Where was she from?
Marianne Straub is a textile pioneer who has designed for industry for many years. We’ve got a book by her in the library where you can read all about her.
Where is she based, in what country?
She is based in England but she came from Switzerland. She lives in Manchester now, and she has also become more and more interested in ancient techniques and she is a member of the Early Textile Study Group.
For the ancient techniques?
Yes. So, Janet came and that was when I began to develop my techniques of teaching, including the tapestry sampler and what it had to contain. It was bigger then than it is now, but essentially the same thing, designed especially for the purpose of teaching tapestry conservators.
You mean in the training they had to do?
Yeah, begin by doing samplers. Janet didn’t have to do it, but we began to think about it and we continued to work quite closely together.
Something like what’s done here for the general training now at the Textile Conservation Centre where you do stitching samples?
Yes, well, when I get more time, I want to do more to develop that aspect, because it is tremendously important. It does need someone with a training in textiles to put it together. And right now we haven’t got anybody who’s got a training in textiles except myself.
Meaning textile techniques?
Well, yes, in weaving or design or embroidery or anything like that. It may be that I shouldn’t have been so insistent on people’s attitude toward conservation being more important than their textile background. Because you see I think the people are doing the best and most important work on conservation have benefitted greatly from the background that they’ve got here in the techniques. At first they were taught very rigorously. When we began here at the Centre there were many of my friends able to come to teach different aspects of several techniques, but bit by bit they had to do other things, look after husbands, and things. And so now that is one thing that I’d really like to get back to what is was. Also in the beginning we always had a box for each lecture that that made it not so much a lecture as a demonstration. But, the boxes grew too big and it seemed better that they should be put into appropriate collections for private study.
Could we go back to Ealing and all the students that kept coming. So you really didn’t ask for students?
Never. We had some 300 inquiries from would-be students every year for about 10 years before and after setting up the TCC – of whom about 30 were eligible.
Were you actually working on things for the V&A or for private people or how did you get commissions?
For the V&A and also they suggested that people should come to me. One of them was Charles Stewart who since gave his collection of costume to the Royal Scottish Museum. You’ve heard about this I think.
We had a marvellous relationship, still do. And I must probably have conserved some two hundred dresses of different periods for him, and many more dolls and toys, not only for him, but for public collections too. I began to work for the Geffrye Museum, the Horniman Museum, the National Trust of course, and the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. We worked for more museums than private owners and very rarely for dealers. The next person I was asked to teach was from Holland and I really didn’t want the responsibility of that.
When you got a student, did you have to make a commitment to them or did they have to make a commitment to you, being there for certain times?
No, only that their work for me should pay for their teaching. I could only teach remedial conservation because I had not got the facilities to teach conservation science. They would have to get that from somewhere else. Many of the students stayed with us, it was great fun. We had people from Holland and then more people from the V&A and from other museums too, both here and abroad including Scandinavia and the USA.
Do you have a list of all the people that came through?
Somewhere there is a list, Greta made a list.
And how about Greta, how does she fit into all of this?
Well, that was the most marvellous thing, she was married to Norman’s brother.
And what was Greta’s name before?
Finch. Before that it was Davis. Norman’s brother was Finch, of course. And then he died. And Greta came to London to live. And then she met Len and they were married.
I see, so it’s Len Putnam?
Yes. And they lived in Chiswick first, and we started to work together soon after I left the V&A Museum. Greta would help as a secretary, and with work, and she would lecture, and we wrote things together. We worked very closely, we still do, but of course now she’s getting very tired. We’re going over this afternoon to try and finish the revision of the book.
Oh, wonderful. Caring for Textiles?
Yes. It’s going to be called something else.
Oh is it?
The Care and Preservation of Textiles, I think.
I noticed that the Museum Book Shop is already announcing…
That it’s coming?
Yes, that it’s coming.
It’s got two more chapters, one on presentation because of what we’ve just been saying, you should do as little as possible and leave the rest to presentation. So I put in a chapter about colour which interests me a lot. I’ve forgotten what the other chapter is but we have discussed writing about volunteers and what their work should be.
So Greta was there from the very start?
Yes, she’s so much a part of it that I forget… I don’t take her for granted, but I forget to think about it because she is part of everything. We set up the TCC together.
And did she take an interest in it before, when you were still at the V&A, or did it start when you came back to Ealing?
I think that my family just simply wanted me to leave the V&A as quickly as possible. Because it was really much more fun being at home. I mean I could organise my own time and do the things I wanted to do. In the workroom in Ealing I wanted things to be organised in such a way that I wasn’t responsible for anybody eating, so I wouldn’t employ anybody. And also, given that we finished any undertaking that we’d taken on, I would be able to just stop and not do anymore. This was the idea.
And did you do the things that concern the Centre right now, such as estimating, and that sort of thing, was that a difficult proposition?
Yes, Danielle joined the circus, if you like, in 1964, very much part time, because she had Laura to bring up and her husband Paul to look after.
And this is Danielle Bosworth?
Yes, we began to work more closely together from 1967, I think it was. And what was it you asked?
Well, I was just…
Oh, yes, estimating, that was the thing. We had to learn to do estimating. And the only way that we could think that it would be fair to the clients, since we had all these people about who weren’t trained, was that we estimated on the time she would take or I would take to do it. And then we would each of us estimate separately. And she would count in French, and I would count in English (laughs).
And then did you get together in English?
Yes, when we’d finished, I would three-double everything she said, and double what I said, and we would take an average. It didn’t work out too badly for us. That way of estimating is probably a good way, but what you have to take into account is that both of us work very fast. Estimating success depends on the people you work with and whether they can put their minds to work at a consistent speed. This is difficult for people who are not used to depend on manual skills.
Then what about…
And Norman kept the books, because obviously we had to pay income tax on everything. But as I said, I wouldn’t employ anybody so we didn’t have any problems with other people’s tax or insurances. When eventually VAT was introduced things had to change.
Do you remember when that was?
I don’t know, I think it was…
I guess it’s not important.
But it did mean that we couldn’t go on working like that. And that was when I thought I had had enough. Enough is enough. And, how far are you going to take us today, and what is the time?
It’s now 10 to 11.
Ah, we have a few more minutes. In 1969, I had to have a major operation, kidney stones. Recovering in all that mess of work problems was unforgettably awful.
That took a long time?
Yes. But we were fantastically lucky, we always had the most marvellous people with us, on one occasion, we had a Swedish ballet dancer living with us, and two au pairs, a Dane and a Norwegian. They did all sorts of studies in London. They mostly just stayed with us and paid for their board and lodging by working for me.
Taking care of Christina?
Katrina, excuse me, oh dear.
Yes, when necessary I visit them when I’m in Denmark, or at any rate the Danish ones. The other ones come to visit us from time to time. It was lovely. And they did a lot to help. Oh yes, and Katrina’s friends would sometimes move in with us too.
Sounds like a busy household.
It was, yes, it was amazing really.
Did the students who came, did they stay with you?
So, even crazier.
Sometimes. Some stayed, some found places to stay in the area. It depended on how long a time they were going to stay. I remember one Czechoslovakian girl making Czechoslovakian dumplings for us all. With apricots. Absolutely amazing, oh just wonderful. And that was in the middle of having builders in, so they had to taste them too. We had builders in to change various things in the house.
To adapt it to your needs for conservation, or for expanding for all the people?
No, I think it was for the needs for conservation and just living. Changing the kitchen, and rewiring the electricity. And oh yes, one of Katrina’s friends who was training to become a theatre manager stayed with us, she was a very good cook. Well, let me see, ’69, I began to think that enough’s enough. In the beginning of ‘71, I had really got all the ideas for the Centre clear in my head, so with Greta and other friends we put together what we called a memorandum, outlining the needs of the country, for textile conservation. I took that to show to Mr. Wingfield Digby at the Victoria and Albert Museum. When he had read it, he said, “shouldn’t have left here, should you?” And I thought that wasn’t the response that I had expected, there must be something wrong with this. So on the way back in the train I realised what was wrong. It was that he, in common with all the people for whom we’d been working, didn’t know how much work we were actually producing.
You mean at home?
Yes. So, I kept diaries and of course records of everything. So I spent three weeks on listing all the work we had done, the hours, everything for the whole of 1970. It came to 11,000 hours and an awful lot of objects. And then we sent that to the people for whom we’d been working and we asked them to come to a meeting.
We sent this list together with the memorandum to all the people for whom we’d been working, the National Trust, The Lord Chamberlain’s office, the Area Museum Services. Our first chairman, was the director of the Area Museum Services, his name is Richard Harrison, he’s now in charge of the Mary Rose project. Then we called a meeting of them all in our house in Ealing. There were nineteen people I think, all round our table, set up in our sitting room. With the cats sort of bouncing around licking their fingers. I said, “now we’ve got this far. We know what should be done, I would be quite happy simply stop working, finish what we have on hand, or send it back to the owners so you can start something else between yourselves. If on the other hand, you want us to continue, we’ll do that, but things must change, we can’t go on like this”. There were many things, including security, to discuss. It was really impossible to carry on working in our house.
Was it also that you were getting more demands for training, and objects also?
Yes, and having to say again and again, this is not training, you must not consider it to be training, because to be a properly trained textile conservator, you must have the appropriate science background. You cannot ever consider yourself a trained conservator just because you’ve been here doing some stitching. It got worse and worse, because you see the more it became fashionable the more people wanted to come. That was one thing, and then there was the security of the house. We had 34 locks that had to be checked every night before we’d go to bed. Every time I went anywhere, which was very rare, I would be worrying, sort of looking for signs of burning on the horizon. It was terrible. I was absolutely convinced that nothing could be worse than that terrible anxiety having so many valuable things on the premises, and you know, the nation’s treasures, escalating in value all the time.
So, the committee then, did they agree with you, that there was this great need after your…
They all agreed with that, yes. And then Donald King, Alun Thomas and John Nevinson were appointed as an ad hoc committee for the purpose of getting the charitable status. And Alun Thomas started the work on that right away.
I know Donald King is Keeper of textiles at the V&A.
He was. He is retired now.
Yeah, he was, and I’m not familiar with the other names.
John Nevinson was a textile historian of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
And Alun Thomas is our solicitor. His wife was then the secretary of the Costume Society, and knew about our work. He’d been wonderful. Everybody has.
So then it was decided… what year was this, ‘71?
Yes, and then the meeting was called. It took three years to get the charitable status, but no one could really understand what we were proposing. Nevertheless, we were offered space at a place called Whittlesford Mill near Cambridge. But that would have meant changing universities, I wasn’t very happy about that, because I was quite happy with the Courtauld Institute, but at the same time, it was the only space we were offered. Well, that’s not quite true, West Dean College offered too, but we didn’t think that that was the right place because they only have courses lasting one year. I wouldn’t contemplate that. The textile conservation course with the Courtauld Institute of Art began in 1973. It all took place in our house.
Did that come from the earlier meetings?
No, the offer came from the Courtauld Institute of Art itself.
So that was arranged by you and Greta, with the Courtauld?
Yes, and Stella Newton.
And he was…?
Stella, excuse me.
She had started the History of Dress Course, at the Courtauld Institute. I had met her in Delft in 1964. In 1968 she asked me to teach her students about techniques and about textile history. We really wanted to stay with the Courtauld Institute, but we could not refuse an offer of space. However, to move to Whittlesford we would need to raise about a quarter of a million pounds. It’s not as much now as it was then, but it was still enough not to want to do it from our house, with consequent publicity. So we began to whine an awful lot, including to the Lord Chamberlain about space, just temporary space. So we were offered space at Hampton Court Palace for two years.
Well, maybe this is a good point, and we can pick up tomorrow then.
Yes, I think it is.
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.
- They were eventually given to the RSN and should now be in their collections
- ArticleHow it all began: A life in textile conservation
- ArticleMemorandum on the establishment of a national centre & training school for textile conservation
- ArticleThe education of textile restorers
© FAIC Oral History File housed at the Winterthur Museum, Library, and Archives
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