Bridging Conservation and Craftsmanship

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Top image: Sarah Staniforth CBE was awarded the Plowden Medal in 2015 for successfully harnessing science and new technology to make conservation more efficient and practical as well as more environmentally friendly. Image courtesy of the Royal Warrant Holders Association.  Bottom image: Caroline Bendix has restored books in both private and public collections, often in situ, for more than 30 years. Image courtesy of Caroline Bendix.

By Richard Peck

Richard Peck is the long-standing Secretary at the Royal Warrant Holders Association (RWHA), which sponsors and awards the Plowden Medal each year. The RWHA also supports the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, the crafts charity which supports talented craftspeople of all ages and backgrounds and so helps to sustain Britain’s cultural heritage. Here Richard explores the link between conservation and craftsmanship and why they are both so important.

Inaugurated 20 years ago, the Plowden Medal has become one of the most prestigious awards for conservation in the country. Sponsored by the Royal Warrant Holders Association, it commemorates the work of the leading conservator Anna Plowden CBE and is awarded annually to a person who has made a significant, long-term contribution to conservation, whether in a practical, theoretical or managerial way.

Since 1999 conservation has benefitted from the advance of technology and an increased willingness to share best practices. Without the skills needed to conserve important works of art, antiquities and other artefacts, our world would have lost an invaluable legacy. Not only would our understanding of history have been reduced, we would almost certainly have lost many of the skills that are needed to go on creating the buildings, furniture, art, musical instruments and many other things which contribute to our quality of life and which will form the cultural heritage of future generations. Conservation is, of course, about the future every bit as much as it is about the past.

The RWHA chose to support the Plowden Medal because its 760 or so member companies, which range from individual craftspeople to global multi-nationals, share a commitment to the highest standards of service, quality and excellence; this makes them particularly appreciative and knowledgeable about the role conservation plays in our lives.

The rich variety of crafts that exist in Britain is thanks to leading silversmiths, milliners, panel beaters, handweavers and stonemasons—to name a handful—continuing to pass on their intricate skills to the next generation of talented artisans. The RWHA is proud to sponsor the work done by the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST), which it started in 1990. QEST has helped more than 500 talented craftsmen and women, conservators and apprentices achieve excellence by providing scholarships, educational courses and one-to-one training with a master in their particular field. Without QEST’s work, the health and diversity of British craftsmanship would certainly have been seriously diminished.

QEST has also been particularly successful at supporting and encouraging talented artisans to find new ways to keep their craft sustainable and viable from a business perspective. The charity granted its first scholarship almost 30 years ago. Nearly 90% of all its scholars and apprentices are still practicing their craft, and many have passed on their skills to others along the way. Creating a close-knit network of craftsmen and women is just one of the ways that QEST helps them to keep their craft relevant in a rapidly changing world, and that is one of its greatest achievements.

Both encouraging excellence in craftsmanship and recognising the importance of conservation play an essential role in keeping our cultural heritage alive and well. Some of those who have recently been awarded the Plowden Medal help to illustrate the point.

Nancy Bell and Sarah Staniforth CBE are a unique example of two people being such strong contenders for the Plowden Medal in the same year that the judging panel decided it had no option but to make two awards in 2015.

Nancy Bell oversaw the conservation of many of Britain’s most important documents at the National Archives in Kew, ranging from a copy of the Magna Carta to Shakespeare’s will and letters attributed to Jack the Ripper. The breadth of documents and artefacts she oversaw at the National Archives represents a tremendous range of technical and managerial challenges, and she was awarded the 2015 Plowden Medal for developing a risk-based approach to environmental management of heritage collections. Drawing on her broad range of skills to champion an interdisciplinary approach, Nancy often had to decide which artefacts most deserved to be saved and which, sadly, did not.

In order to conserve our cultural heritage effectively it is vital that the ways in which we approach the care of artefacts and the buildings that house them are themselves sustainable. Sarah Staniforth, now president emeritus of IIC, did just that by creating a new and rigorous blueprint for how conservation should best be implemented. Her guidelines have been adopted not only in the UK but right across the developed world by major museums, other collections and historic buildings.

Ksynia Marko was awarded the Plowden Medal in 2016 for her lifelong work in both conserving textiles and training many of the conservators now working at the highest level for national museums and private collections. One of the largest projects which Ksynia and her team have been involved with has been the painstaking restoration of the Gideon Tapestries at Hardwick House, which consist of thirteen 16th-century panels, each nearly 6m (20ft) high.

The importance of conservation is not an easy message to convey to most people. So many people don’t stop to think about the ways in which the works of art in our museums and stately homes have helped to shape our national identity, how letters written by Queen Elizabeth I give an invaluable perspective on our history and how beautifully crafted everyday objects add to our quality of life.

Although the awarding of the Plowden Medal helps to make people think a little more about conservation, relatively few people outside the conservation community know about it. We are constantly trying to think of ways in which we might be able to change that and so help a wider audience to appreciate just how much conservation matters. For that to be achieved, we all need to work together, share ideas and help one another spread the word.

The RWHA is now receiving nominations for the Plowden Medal 2020, and I would urge anyone who knows of someone deserving to put them forward for consideration. The award is typically given to a person who has made an outstanding contribution to almost any aspect or area of conservation over a period of 20 years or more. A concise list of the nominee’s achievements, together with supporting statements from no more than two qualified conservators are the only other requirements for a nomination.

An independent and highly qualified judging panel ensures that the Plowden Medal is a great accolade. Caroline Bendix, the winner of the 2019 Plowden Medal for work in book conservation said:

Receiving the Plowden Medal has been an overwhelming honour and delight. Although I have received much support throughout my career, not least from Dr. Nicholas Pickwoad and the National Trust, as a freelance conservator one treads a slightly solitary path; to be honoured by the Royal Warrant Holders Association and by my professional peers is a wonderful acknowledgement of all that I have done over the years and I am immensely proud to be the 2019 recipient.

Information on nominations for the Plowden Medal can be found on the RWHA website: https://www.royalwarrant.org/content/your-association#plowden-medal

Completed forms should be sent before the end of February 2020 to: warrants@rwha.co.uk

(For the full article, see the December 2019 "News in Conservation" Issue 75)

AUTHOR BYLINE

As Secretary at the RWHA, Richard Peck is in charge of the day-to-day running of the organisation and he directly oversees the RWHA’s sponsorship and awarding of the Plowden Medal each year. He also facilitates the RWHA’s support for the crafts charity, QEST. Richard is also a former submarine commander and enjoys raising money for charity by embarking on long (and very chilly) swims.

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Inaugurated 20 years ago, the Plowden Medal has become one of the most prestigious awards for conservation in the country. Sponsored by the Royal Warrant Holders Association, it commemorates the work of the leading conservator Anna Plowden CBE and is awarded annually to a person who has made a significant, long-term contribution to conservation, whether in a practical, theoretical or managerial way.
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