FAIC Oral History Interview: Session 3

FAIC Oral History Interview: Session 3
Interviewer: Vicki Cassman
Conducted July 18th, 1985

Karen speaks about establishing the Textile Conservation Centre at Hampton Court Palace

Where did we get to yesterday?

Well, yesterday we got to when the committee was set up to get the palace.

No, the committee was set up to get charitable status for a National Institute for Textile Conservation.

That’s right, excuse me.

Yes, and the offers of space came from people who were interested in supporting the work. They were offers, we didn’t approach anybody at all, they were all of them offers. Except that we certainly let our wishes be known. So one day we had a phone call at Ealing. “How much space do you want?” Ten thousand square feet. There was an appreciable pause. And then the person said, “What would you say to three thousand?” I thought for fully half a second, and then I said, “Move in.” The implications were not lost, as you can see, since we’re now about to take possession of our third Grace and Favour Apartment – the ten thousand square feet, or very nearly, that we need is about to become a reality.

I didn’t realise that, that’s wonderful.

We are here for the purpose of teaching but until now, we have had to cope with very restricted space; particularly the office accommodation has been little. At first we had only one office, shared by about seven people, two typewriters and two telephones – not exactly restful you might say. It’s a bit better now, but it’s still not very good, for example, I’ve never had an office of my own, which I am pleased to say I shall have that in our third apartment. No, no I shan’t because when we move into apartment three, I shall have achieved what I set out to do, which means that I can retire and become a housewife. So you see, all the plans have worked out as we hoped they would before we sent out the memorandum – though then we did think they were just a shade ambitious.

Memorandum was…

The list that we sent to all our clients.

The list of how much you did, the hours.

Yes. 1970. I’ll show you a copy of that. In fact, I think I might be able to give you a copy. What next. Yes, we had, I had worked out everything before hand, but we did believe that our plans were only temporary proposals, to explain what we had in mind. It’s absolutely amazing how everything has come back to those original proposals so that, in fact, with the advent of a new director, we shall certainly have fulfilled all the expectations we had – as well as developed them a bit. I think that you already know that, from what I’ve said before. I’ve never wanted to have anything to do with day-to-day administration. I promised to put it together, and to make it work. And I have. I also said I’ll have nothing to do with the funding but unfortunately, I could not escape this aspect. I’ve had to be very concerned about funding all the time. Luckily, I’ve been able to raise between sixty and seventy thousand pounds every year. So we have covered all shortfalls including the cost of the training of the apprentices because, I think you know, they’re paid a salary during the training. That money of course has to be raised from somewhere.

Apartment 22 at Hampton Court Palace, where the TCC was housed

Actually, on that point, how did it get started in the beginning that you had two lines, one in the Courtauld and one in the apprenticeship system, because that is unusual it seems?

I think it is unusual and the reason for that is that… that was one thing that wasn’t planned originally. We had started the course with the Courtauld Institute in ’73. In the course of setting up the centre, we were offered help by the Crafts Advisory Committee which later turned into the Crafts Council. When we were offered the space at Cambridge, I put together a list of the equipment that we needed, and costed it to about seventy thousand pounds. We began to look for sponsors and we were overjoyed when the Crafts Advisory Committee offered to give us thirty thousand pounds for equipment. Unfortunately, when we had to move in here temporarily, they decided only to give us half of that.

Because it was temporary then?

Because it was temporary at first. They said they were going to give us the rest when we got into our permanent accommodation.

Have you contacted them lately?

Oh, gosh, have I just! But either they spent the money, or they changed their minds about how to spend it – that should have been a warning to us. Anyway, we have got a little bit more over the years. But one of the things that they didn’t want to do, they didn’t want to support a course in textile conservation that was run with the Courtauld Institute of Art. They claimed that if the Courtauld Institute wanted to run a course, they could pay for it. Which, unfortunately, of course, they couldn’t. The CAC then said that they could help with an apprenticeship scheme, which we had to accept1. The CAC made it a condition that apprentices should be paid proper salaries which was fine, expect that their contribution was very small, so even counting the hard work of the apprentices, throughout their training the Centre was severely out of pocket, and I had to spend too much time on raising the rest of the money for the training. Anyway, I did it and we trained people. Of course, not all of them could stay. But we have employed the majority. The aim was to get ten trained people in the tapestry room.

So about how many apprentices have gone through the centre?

About two a year since 1975 – of these, three people have left for various reasons. There’s Stephen at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, now chief restorer. And Annabel Wills, now at the Macclesfield Silk Museum, and Fiona who left to do private work. And then there were some who only did two years of the course.

So about twelve or fifteen have actually gone through?

Yes, they’re in the list.

I know the Courtauld started off as a shorter course, I’ve forgotten how long that started off as?

In 1973 funding was raised for two courses for two years each. But we felt that it was really too short, at least, it’s too short the way that it was arranged to fit in with the terms of an English University. I suppose we could contract it into two years if we changed the system a little and had five month terms, with a month in between each. This would of course reduce the cost by one whole year.

When was it changed to a three year course, the present three year course?

In 1977. Now that also is in the list. We had a year to change the course from two years to three, and then begin again.

So was it very much more practical then, training in the two year course?

No, because besides the History of Dress teaching, the Courtauld Institute provided some of the science teaching – you remember that I said I didn’t want to run a course that didn’t have a proper science background. Eventually the Leverhulme Trust offered to fund a scientist for three years and after that they funded a second programme for a further three years, so we had six years of funding to employ a scientist from Leverhulme Trust. Before we had to pay this salary ourselves.

So when did Anthony Smith, that’s the first scientist that was employed here, when did he start?

I think you’d better look it up in the records, because I can’t remember the year. I suppose it must be ’77.

More important then, would be why did you feel that you needed somebody full time here at the centre?

Oh, I was concerned because it was not the custom to have scientists working full time with textile conservators, but I thought that there were too many things left to chance everywhere and in any case, from the point of view of teaching, it would be absolutely essential to have a scientist to teach and run the science side of conservation.

Tony Smith, the first scientist employed by the TCC, at Hampton Court Palace

And where did you find this person, how did you go about looking?

When the Leverhulme Trust awarded us their grant, I spoke to the Keepers of Conservation at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum and the Burrell Collection – later I think we widened it to Cardiff University. Tony Smith had worked at the British Museum for three years on a research fellowship also from the Leverhulme Trust and his supervisors were greatly impressed with him, but civil service regulations at that time made it impossible to employ him there. And Tony came to visit, we all thought that he was absolutely marvellous and that he would be very good for the TCC. So then the question was where to begin, because we didn’t have any precedents to look at anywhere. Tony had a long background in chemistry to go with his Museum experience. So he knew what conservation was about. When he started here, he wanted to know what I expected him to do, and I said he should begin by familiarising himself with all the work going on at the Centre and talk with everyone, teachers, students, conservators about their needs so that he could form his own views about how to set about things. After about a week he came back and said that everybody wanted formal teaching of Chemistry and conservation science. I said of course, that would be just perfect, and then he began to put it together. I suppose it took him about two years of continued improvement before he felt satisfied. He relied to some degree on his earlier pathology background.

Because his background wasn’t textiles was it?

No, organic chemistry. I think that Tony did more for us then we could have expected. We were very very pleased and of course we are devastated to lose him. But one of the things about the Centre is that it’s all new and it is important to encourage the development of all its members, whichever direction it is. We’re very pleased to have Nick Eastaugh here now. Like Tony, he had to take some time to get into the job. It couldn’t be any other way. But of course, people do expect an awful lot from the second person in any job. Because we like to think that they can continue where the first person left off, but of course that’s impossible.

And Nick’s background is more conservation oriented, since he…

Yes, because of his background from Durham University and then the Courtauld Institute. He studied physics and chemistry at Durham, and paintings conservation at the Courtauld Institute.

Karen, holding her OBE, with Norman at Buckingham Palace after the Investiture ceremony

So, actually let’s change the subject a little bit now. Actually, quite a bit. I was just curious about your title O.B.E. What does it mean, and when did you get it and what were the circumstances?

It means an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. And I will give you all the books to read about it. It is given for merit, and I suppose it was because of the work that I had done in conservation. It was 1976. I’m very pleased, of course, and proud to be recognised. Obviously, it’s not just for me, it’s all the people who helped with the work. It’s for Greta and Norman and Danielle and everybody else who helped to get the TCC off the ground. It was quite amazing really, especially for my family in Denmark. Should I tell you terrible stories on this tape, too?

Karen’s gravestone, with her parents’ gravestone behind

Oh, sure. That’s what it’s for (laughs).

My family in Denmark are not very easily impressed. We’re all country people and don’t show our feelings much. I wrote and told them about it of course, and they were very pleased, and congratulated me, and then that was the end of that. Because as far as they were concerned, if I had done something that was worth doing, then obviously, I deserved the recognition. Then my brother-in-law, who is Australian, came back from sea – he captains super tankers. He’s a very royalist Australian. And he wasn’t at all satisfied with what he considered a lukewarm reception of this great honour that had been bestowed on me. And he did everything he could to make my family see how marvellous it was, especially for a foreigner. And they just sat there, because we’re all very good at that. Just sitting there and letting everything appear to wash over us and not showing any feelings about anything. But eventually he remembered the thing that really made their day. Namely that the Danish order of the Knight of Dannebrog can’t be used for anything, I mean, you can’t put it on your letterhead as you can the O.B.E., or anything like that, but your family can, however, have it on your gravestone when you die. It was when he said “you must get her home when she dies, she’ll be such an ornament to the churchyard,” that they capitulated (laughs).

Oh dear.

That did it. My sister Grethe right away rushed to the telephone to tell me (laughs). I thought that was really something.

Leave it to the Australians.

Yes! What else…

Another accomplishment that you have is your book that you’ve written, Caring for Textiles. Could you talk a little bit about what made you do it and what you wanted to include and why?

Yes, that book is written from a definite angle. And it came about because of all the years of working very closely with the National Trust and all the people looking after the houses. And also, other Historic Houses, naturally, and the people looking after textiles – dress and furnishings – in museum collections. They would ask advice and we would try to help with everything that they asked. And eventually we discovered that the advice that we were giving was practically the same in all cases. And we thought, it’s really an awful waste of time repeating it all the time, writing it slightly different forms all the time. So, Greta and I got together to write it all down. You know, such advice that we thought would be useful for the people who had suddenly found themselves having to care for a collection of textiles without being trained for it. And without being able to get any training for it. Because it wasn’t their main thing. So that’s how it began. Then a publisher came along and asked us to write a book for them. And we thought that was quite a good idea. And then Danielle did the drawings and we found photographs; they’re not all good, but it was the best we could do. We were a bit put out when it was suddenly not available any longer. That was because the publishers amalgamated with another firm and went out of existence. For a while we had to content ourselves with photocopies for the people who needed advice. Then we were asked if we would like to have it republished by another publisher, Batsford. We were very pleased.

And that was last year?

Something like that, perhaps two years ago. These things take time.

Oh, yes. What have you decided to change?

Well, Batsford called a meeting about this. And I said I’m not really desperately keen on the cover. “Oh, you can have another cover”. I’m not too desperately happy about the title either (laughs). And so we changed that to “The Care and Preservation of Textiles”. And then I suppose we got a bit bolder seeing that everything was going so well. And we said, can we change one or two things. “Yes, and if you’d like to write some more, feel free”. So we wrote two more chapters. One about volunteers and the other about colour, which is a subject that I’m very keen on. I think we talked about that before when we discussed preventive conservation methods.

In private.

Did we?


Not on tape?

No (laughs).

Well, it’s all tied up with the length of time that I’ve been working with textiles and seeing how much damage can be done by conservation. And, it would really be much much better if one could use a lot more preventive conservation methods, and try to keep things safe in that way. Obviously, there will always be things that needs the hands-on touch like tapestries or little dresses worn by Egyptian dolls. And archaeological material, stuff like that. But preventive conservation including a sound environment and careful presentation is a lot more effective. By choosing the right colour background, you can make an object look an awful lot better than it really is. And by understanding a little bit about symbolism, you can probably also make people see things that are not actually there by using their minds to supply it. I put this together as a lecture for a lecture series I was giving for Sotheby’s, where they run several courses on historic material. Gave it their first. And then I suddenly had to give another lecture to museum people at a course arranged by the Area Museums Services, and chose to give it again there. I had been a little bit worried in case I had got too much material, too complicated. But the response was great. Some began to work on it right away and hopefully the interest will continue.

On the other subject, or the other chapter that you’ve added, the Volunteers, does that come out of work that you did for setting up Knole, for instance, and the workshop at Knole?

In a sort of way. I shall outline the events that led to it. In 1969, the National Trust decided to ask me to survey the textiles at Knole Park for the purpose of describing condition and conservation needs. No one had ever done a survey of textiles from the point of view of conservation in any house before, so there were no precedents. I did try to find out what the National Trust wanted described. But it was really all too floating. So, I thought, the only thing to do is to go to Knole Park and walk through the house according to the guidebook and look at all the textiles that are in each room. And it took two years to do. Interspersed with this there was the operation I told you about yesterday and recovering from it. I still remember walking around covered with a horse blanket in the middle of winter with snow outside, taking notes with gloves on.

It’s cold.

It’s the coldest house I know (laughs). Oh, that was hard. But John Nevinson, who I told you about before, helped, and Elizabeth Geddes. They gave historic advice on the embroideries. And Greta, of course, did all the paperwork for the whole of the two years. We included advice on some emergency measures we could do to the bed.

This is the King’s bed?

The King’s bed, yes. I recognised that it would be a very very big job, and that it might not be possible to get anything done at that time. I knew that the bed had cost forty thousand pounds when it was new and that it might be the only one of its kind that had survived. Gold and silver fabrics of that date were usually melted down when they went out of fashion.

Do you remember the year [the bed was made]?

Nineteen, I mean 1680, round about 1680, between ‘80 and ‘85. Something like that. It must be in the Knole report. The thing was, that while I was working at the Royal School of Needlework those curtains had come in for repair to the lining. And I was fascinated by the lining. I did most of the work as directed by Miss Racey – covered them with a sort of fishnet stitch that was just simply holding things in place, but not really very pretty. When I saw the curtains again and compared them with the other textiles at Knole I realised that they are probably the only textile in the house – apart from tapestries and rugs – that could be made to look anything like they had originally. I felt that something ought to be done. And I put forward this proposal for an emergency treatment. However, nothing was done then, not until 1973, or thereabouts. That year the National Trust asked if we would do the work described in the report. I went down to look and discovered that we couldn’t do the emergency treatment anymore, it was too late for that.

There was that much more deterioration?

Yes. And then I thought, now, one thing about this bed, is that the repeat of the weave is only about fifty centimetres. Not very much. And that probably it was the only thing that I’d ever seen in a National Trust house that could be done by volunteers. Because anybody good with their hands could be taught to do a small repeat like that2.

So it involved, let’s see if I remember right, it’s laid and couched metal work isn’t it?

Yes. Well originally it was woven.

Was it?


Oh, how fabulous.

Yes, woven. A lampas weave, which means that it’s got about three different weaves in it.

That’s right, okay, yes.

It was dirty, it was in need of cleaning, all sorts of things like that, but I could see the possibilities. Something else I could see very clearly was that we certainly couldn’t undertake it at Ealing because of space. But more particularly because it would be a very long, boring job. I couldn’t see any trained conservators wanting to stick it. I did think that a large number of volunteers, who really wanted to keep the heritage safe, would be able to stand the boredom and the repetitiousness of the work. So I put that idea to the National Trust and they jumped at it with both feet. Which I suppose I should be pleased about. The only thing was that it did lead to an awful lot more that probably wasn’t so good. But, at the time, I thought that if we could find some arrangement whereby it could be very clearly seen what could be volunteer work and what had to be done by professionals, it probably would be quite a good idea. Something else is that none of it should be done without the presence of a properly trained conservator. Unfortunately at that time we didn’t have any properly trained conservators. Anyway, it was started. And now Annabel Wylie has very nearly finished it and I think it’s absolutely marvellous.

And Annabel is a Centre-trained conservator?


And she picked up the project…

About half way. Well, no, I don’t know how much work had been done. I think one curtain was finished of the four curtains, and some of the stools, but the work on the bedspread and the valences and the bed sheet was still to come.

And before that time, who took over the supervision?

I’m glad that the work was started and I’m glad that it has continued and I’m very pleased that Annabel has got it3.

Well, since you talked a little bit about untrained… well, let’s put it this way, people who weren’t trained at the time. This is a sort of general question, which I would be curious to know your feelings on. And that is, what do you think about untrained practitioners who may be in positions as conservators and could be also damaging historic textiles?

That is really a very very difficult question. Obviously, it would be best that all were trained conservators. Equally obvious, it’s a new profession and there are many people working who haven’t got training and many of those have learnt on the job and are doing extremely good work. There may be some who are presently in the positions, who have caused damage, but hopefully they will have learnt from their mistakes. It’s a very difficult question to answer because it’s like any other profession – you have to begin somewhere.

I’m not quite sure of the background for setting up the one year course at the Centre. Was that just to help this sort of situation, for people who were in positions, who had responsibility?

Yes, it was. And amazingly, the demand for the course came to an end at the same time as the decision to stop it.

That decision, what was that based on?

The difficulty that for economic reasons we’ve never had as much staff here as we’d like. And one of the things about all of this is that to teach, we need a number of people with different skills, but according to University rules, the ratio of students to teachers is seven to one, which is too high for any course in conservation. We just simply could not accept such a situation, for a post graduate course in textile conservation. Consequently, our teaching costs too much. It may seem that the fees that people have to pay here are high. In actual fact, students have never paid the full cost.

For running the…

For running the Teaching Department. And certainly in the beginning it was even worse because at that time we were trying to work within the fees that were normally paid by British students, which were then lower than the ones paid by foreign students. So, that was extremely difficult. Now of course people who had already got a long training in practical work would for the most part be quite pleased just to have the theory. But there were people who desperately felt the need for practical work as well. And I think you can imagine how difficult it was to fit both practical and theoretical work into the first year and do equal justice to both the Courtauld Institute diploma students and to the people on the one year course. And it sort of got worse rather than better. And we had to decide that we would be better able to provide for interns, who might wish to study special subjects – for which we can usually supply the objects, if not all the facilities for research. We spread the theory over two years in the beginning of the diploma course then, as you know, we realised that it’d really be much better for people to concentrate on the theory during the first year in order to put it together with practical work during the second year. Practice, as you know, makes perfect. Another aspect is that practical work really does demand concentrated time in order to achieve both the necessary skill and the necessary speed. Conservation is particularly labour-intensive work. And though we have begun to take it for granted that people should pay the proper rate for conservation, it’s still very difficult to ask people to pay for the enormous lengths of time that we could spend on cosmetic work, that is gratifying but mostly unnecessary.

So, you’re now talking about the clients that the Centre now charges?

No, I’m talking about time to give the students guidance on achieving the necessary speed. You know, to try to make it clear that besides the skills, we do need to be able to work at some speed.

This is sort of going back a bit, but when you started off, then there at the Palace, about how many staff did you have and how has that grown to the present?

Well, when we began there was myself, Greta, Danielle, and Mary Clare Miller. Stephen started very soon after. He’d done the course in tapestry weaving at West Dean College, which was set up because of the interest generated by setting up this Centre4.

And Stephen’s last name?

Stephen Cousens. And then we had help from many friends who came to give special lectures and help with all sorts of things. Eventually we were joined by Heather Campbell, our neighbour from Ealing who become our secretary.

There were about how many students at that time? Do you remember?

The second course with the Courtauld Institute was done at the Palace, and there was an overlap of people who had done the course in Ealing, among them Rosemary Smith, Alison Fraser, and Bridget Harper. Dinah Eastop was doing the course in Manchester before she came to the Centre. She’d started with us in Ealing while she was still at school. Marion Lamb was on the second course, together with Margaret Roberts, Dilys Blum and Caroline Rendell.

So that’s Marion Lamb and Dinah Eastop?

Yeah. They both stayed on. Some of the others on the first courses stayed on for a bit too, like Caroline Rendell who’s now employed at the Aberford Conservation Centre. Rosemary Smith now at Winchester Conservation Centre and Alison Fraser who works in Scotland. Our very first student was Margaret McCord, now at the British Museum.

So, the staff and the students were very few in those days as compared to now?

Yes. Well, we had four students on each course of two years.

And now it’s up to…?

Or at least we try to have four students begin each year. We don’t always succeed. So, now we’ve got more students, we’ve also got more staff. It took time because we had to train everybody ourselves. There wasn’t any other way of doing it.

And many of the graduates, have they stayed on?

Yes. For a while. And then, being offered very nice jobs, they go. We can’t keep everybody. I’d like that, but we can’t (laughs). And of course, in between that, the apprenticeship scheme was going on, too. And there was something else that I wanted to say. Never mind.

Okay. This is another one of these big general questions, but do you feel ideal training is obtained at post-graduate training centres and how do you feel about internships in, let’s say, a student going to a trained conservator and learning through practical work?

And having the theory separate?

In most cases that would be individual.

Yes. I’m not very sure about anything. We’ve had very good people from all sorts of programmes. One of the things about it is that I feel that our programme has become too regimented. Which means not enough time to develop individual aspects. In the beginning, you see, people had quite a lot more freedom to follow their own interest and develop them in the way that they wanted. And I really think that we have to try to get the teaching back to that. Because, if you haven’t got time to develop the things that interest you particularly, I think you get bored.

[Recording interrupted]

Well, to go back to what we were just saying. I think that when it comes to post-graduate courses, it’s absolutely essential to have as little regimentation as possible. I think it’s impossible to put in all that you need to know about conservation in a three year course though, and that therefore the first year will have to be somewhat regimented, in order to lay a good foundation, so that during the second year, and of course, in particular the third year, people can work independently on the objects. Under supervision during the second year, but preferably with very little supervision in the third year. Obviously, anybody who wants help should have that, and that help should be available the instant of wanting it during the second and third year. But it is the only way I feel that people can go as far as each individual person is capable of after the course. That was how it began and I think that that’s how it should be.

Well. Then jumping a little further then, to another big question. What part of the current treatment methods that are used at the Textile Conservation Centre would you say could use the most help from scientists, or modification?

The cleaning is a big question. I think that all the forms of preventative conservation should be investigated carefully. Because more and more come to light about materials and their interaction with each other. That’s a serious matter. Including for objects in cases as well as what the cases are made of, there are many aspects in this that needs looking into. I think we’re lucky here at Hampton Court Palace to have nice thick walls that keep an even general humidity. This is truly important for the safekeeping of things. And then, I think I told you yesterday, or was it the day before, about how I started working with chemicals at the Victoria and Albert Museum, including consolidants, and different kinds of adhesives. In Ealing, I continued with this when Mowilith was developed in Holland for the purpose of sticking textiles. I think that I was given a sample in 1964 and I was absolutely fascinated by what you could do with it. And I think we’ve still got some of the tests of the early days. Now one of the things that was probably lucky from the point of view of our setup, is that we worked so much for houses where objects were displayed in the open. Which meant that we were among the first people to get an intimation of what actually happens to the stuff that had been stuck, which is not very nice. And it is because of that that I am quite convinced that we should do as much as we can to promote stitching techniques and supporting techniques that doesn’t involve glue. Because we have to face the fact that any time we stick anything, it probably is the last time it can be conserved. Because you can’t totally remove any adhesive. All materials have a tendency to migrate into each other.

And when you did go to see these items that had been previously stuck, what did you find that you disliked about them?

Well there was one tapestry that had been glued. Of course, it’s never necessary to stick tapestries, but this one had been glued. And where there were open spaces on the tapestry, so that the glue was exposed to the air, there were big lumps of dust on them. I suppose the static electricity had attracted dust when air was stirred by the feet of the visitors5.

So the tackiness of the…

Yes, it stays tacky, because, I don’t think that you can really stick textiles with anything that does dry, because if you do, then the flexibility gets reduced. So tackiness may cause problems. And then the action between the old and the new also causes distortions that are disagreeable to look at. But the worst part of it was having to undo stitching repairs and discovering that you couldn’t. Remember how we had to use acetone to remove the glue that has got into a tapestry. You’ve read about that have you?


Because the sticky was driven into the tapestry by the action of getting the net off. So we had to use acetone to get it and that was very dangerous.

So you were mechanically removing it to begin with?

Yes, after loosening it with methylated spirit.

But it wasn’t possible?

No. Of course, adhesives change. Accelerated ageing tests are all very well, but you can’t always know the effect of everything that may happen to a textile. Nevertheless, there are times when it is the only thing that you can do, but there are amazingly few areas in which the traditional techniques are not the best to use with traditional textiles. I don’t regret having done all the work with adhesives, because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have a right to say these things.

This is going to change the subject again, I’m sorry, but I was wondering about your first professional conference that you attended and how you feel about the conferences in general, because you do seem to go to quite a few, and so it seems like it’s important issue.

Well, the most important part of any conference, is meeting other members of the conference and discussing things with them over meals and at the marvellous visits that are arranged at any conference for seeing the art of the different countries, and their museums and how it all works. And papers of course are useful, especially if you have the preprints, so you don’t have to listen to all the lectures (laughs). That’s not fair to say, of course, you know that. Because obviously, most people prepare all sorts of other things for their lectures, including slides and you need that. But it is the contact with other people that’s important. My first conservation conference was in Barcelona in 1961. The ICOM – International Council of Museums – meeting, and Louisa Bellinger was there, Johan Lodewijks – who was at the meeting last week in Hungary – was there as well. I think it was his first conference. Professor Forbes from Leyden. Garry Thompson, scientific advisor at the National Gallery, Norman Brommelle, and a fantastic man from Yugoslavia, whose name was Vunyak. Mr. Vunyak. I think he was there to give the point of view of the Yugoslavian conservators and he did that extremely well. Oh yes, and Harold Plenderleith, who started the International Conservation Centre in Rome, and Tony Werner who’s working in Hawaii now, late of the British Museum. It was very very nice to be with them all and hear their views on the special visits. It is very nice to think about how much all of them have added to getting the Centre set up, because they’ve all been behind it in some way or another. Many of them still come to see what we’re doing, and help with lectures and things. At this conference, everybody was together. There weren’t so many people as now. So we only needed two coaches to be taken from place to place.

And did you know everyone?

Yes, you got to know practically everyone.

Not like conferences now, where half the people are new faces, do you find that?

Well, you do get to know people now, too. When you’ve seen people there a couple of times you remember them. It’s easy to make friends with people who have the same interest as you have yourself. And at conferences that’s built in. I do very much enjoy meeting all the new people who have entered the profession. In Hungary it was wonderful meeting so many people doing exciting research and know that what we all started is in good hands. There were some marvellous trips in Barcelona. I remember one, we went through the mountains to a monastery I think. There was an exhibition of photographs of stonework. And the coach went along those mountains, and when you looked out of the window you couldn’t see any road. Yes, that was a bit scary. I was sitting with Professor Forbes, that was great. He kept my mind off the road by telling funny stories about wartime London and the Albert Memorial.

Well, I think maybe we should stop.

Editor’s note

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.


  1. Tapestry conservation is quite different from any other form of textile conservation, because of their design being part of the fabric, and could therefore be made into a separate course with a strong visual content.
  2. The reason for the deterioration was that the silk warp had disappeared a long time before and earlier repairs could no longer sustain the weight of the gold and silver wefts.
  3. Before then it was supervised by the V&A. Sheila Landi took over for me when the TCC was set up. She eventually relinquished this work when the National Trust decided to set up their own textile conservation services. Sheila is owed a great deal of generosity in taking over, when I needed all my time for setting up the TCC.
  4. Students included Julia Woodward Dippald from Baltimore and Nicky Smith from Guatemala, Edward Maeder and other students on the History of Dress course.
  5. There is also the problems of storage and display for curators, when they discover that they cannot treat conserved objects in the same way as the rest of the collection. Glued areas may stick to each other and squashing will certainly leave permanent creases.

© FAIC Oral History File housed at the Winterthur Museum, Library, and Archives