By Rebecca Rushfield
I have long been interested in how the field of conservation is presented to the public. While English language newspapers and general interest magazines will sometimes write about a conservation treatment that was recently completed or a catastrophe that conservators will have to deal with, most people gather their understanding of what conservation is and what conservators do from novels—particularly mystery novels. I have therefore read (or tried to read) many English language novels featuring conservators or restorers.
Many are ludicrous as they feature a young conservator who has just finished a short course of study and who now has the job of restoring the most valuable of Old Master paintings belonging to a very wealthy private collector. When there is a mystery set in a museum which portrays life in an institution as it really is—along with a robbery or a murder or two—or a story in which a conservator spends more time doing conservation-related work than fighting international terrorists, the author always turns out to be a conservator.
While I am not at all surprised when I hear that a conservator is also a visual artist, I was surprised to discover several mystery writing conservators despite the fact that conservation practice requires a great deal of writing. Intrigued by the dual vocations of these conservators, I decided to look into the world of conservators who are also literary authors, including some who use their conservation practice as a jumping off point and others who don’t.
Conservator-literary authors seem to be a phenomenon of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. However, there are earlier models. In 1865, Henry Merritt (1822-1877)1, who according to the National Portrait Gallery’s database of British picture restorers, 1600-1950 was recorded in the 1851 and 1861 censuses as a picture restorer, published Robert Dalby and his World of Troubles, a fictional autobiography which covers his life as a restorer under a pseudonym in 1865. Tom Mallin (1927-1977) earned his living as a London picture restorer working mainly on 17th- and 18th-century paintings while also producing his own art works. In 1962 he completed his first novel and by his death fifteen years later had written numerous novels, plays, and television scripts, many of which were published or performed.
Some conservators have been writers for much of their lives. Paintings conservator Joyce Hill Stoner first started re-writing plays in the sixth grade and wrote her first musical in the eighth grade (March 4, 2021 email). Paper conservator Lien Gyles loved to write stories when she was a child; she stopped in her teens but “kept them all swirling around in my head instead” (March 1, 2021 email). Lucy Branch, principal at Antique Bronze Ltd., has been writing stories since she was about fourteen years old. In an interview she noted, “I remember writing through my break-times at school and not being able to bear to stop” (Armstrong, 2015). Retired conservator of art on paper Christine Smith told me that, before she “entered the all-consuming life of graduate school and then a conservation career, I wrote literature and made collages” (February 20, 2021 email).
Story telling is not the first thing one might associate with conservation, but deciding which moment in an object’s life to preserve is akin to choosing which story it will tell. While critics of certain restoration projects have accused conservators of “fictionalizing the past” (Hauenstein, 2019), storytelling can be seen as part of the conservation process. “Every artifact in a museum’s collection has a story to tell… A key decision conservators make early on in any project is which moment in the object’s story they want to preserve” (Mohaupt, 2017). One of the questions Lucy Branch asks herself when restoring historic objects is “‘what is missing from this object? What can I not see?’ and ‘Why might evidence have been lost?’ It has made me very interested in what’s absent from history and why” (Armstrong, 2015).
Conservation work can be preparation for literary storytelling; this goes beyond conservators having to write many technical reports and grant proposals. Architectural conservator Amanda Stauffer has noted that, “Conservation requires you to have painstaking attention to detail. We document cracks no thicker than hairlines, a church ceiling might get painted a color based on microscopic analysis of a single paint chip the size of a splinter…” (Klepper,2018). Lucy Branch noted that “conservation is quite forensic. We’re looking for clues. So it’s a tiny step from conservation to a murder mystery” (Telephone conversation March 9, 2021). Retired objects conservator Miriam Clavir expressed the same sentiments to me in a March 22, 2021 call, saying that during her working life she saw many things that would fit into a mystery including scalpels and chemicals, the natural history museum bug rooms, and the analytical techniques that can be used to solve mysteries. Thinking about other conservator-literary authors, Joyce Hill Stoner noted that those conservators, “know a great deal about something fairly arcane and that is fascinating to others, and they are able to turn it into great story telling” (March 4, 2021 email).
Many conservator-literary authors set their stories within museums or conservation labs, frustrated by the presentation of conservators in fiction and wanting to inform the public about what really goes on. Retired Canadian Conservation Institute conservator Bob Barclay said, “Some of the stuff novelists write about museums is ridiculous. They should sit down with a curator and do some research” (Telephone conversation, March 4, 2021). Leslie Carlyle, recently retired from a position as professor of paintings conservation in Lisbon, said that she “had read many art crime novels and found they often got it wrong … so I thought whatever I did had to be at least better on that front” (March 5, 2021 email). Speaking of novels featuring conservators, Rosa Lowinger, principal of RLA Conservation said, “None of these books have ever been written by an actual conservator. By someone who has held a scalpel… One of the scenes that I already know I’m going to write [in a forthcoming novel about a conservator] is someone teaching someone how to roll a proper swab. It’s not easy. You gotta know how to do it. Your instinct is to take a big wad of cotton and start rolling, but no… you need to take wisps of the ends and slowly tease it into the shape you want” (FAIC Oral History interview, May 20, 2020). This level of accurate detail is found in conservation related novels written by conservators.
Students in the Hamilton Kerr Institute Summer 2020 Pandemic Lockdown Book Club were impressed by the “lovely incidental details [in Leslie Carlyle’s Masterpiece of Deception] which resonated strongly with everyday experience in the studio. At one point, the protagonist turned off the switch controlling the air exhaust unit that removed solvent vapours. ‘She felt immediate relief when the noise had subsided: she hadn’t been conscious of the constant hum until it stopped’” (March 5, 2021 email from L. Carlyle).
The need to share with the public what their work is really like has inspired many of the conservator-literary authors. It was in the 1970s that Kate Olivier, then a conservator of paintings in private practice in London, first had the idea for a television program (never produced) set in the conservation department of a university museum and featuring a female conservator in her early thirties, a retired conservator, an intern, and a museum director. There would be financial difficulties in the museum and cover-ups. “It was conceived as a soap opera that would teach people about museums” (Telephone conversation, March 4, 2021). Lucy Branch also wanted to make the public understand what was so special about her work, “opening a door to what conservators do without being dry.” She has said, “I love metals. I’ve always felt they were special… I wanted to explain to people why they were special and bring them into the very tactile experience of working with metal…” (Armstrong, 2015).
Conservators are not alone in using fiction to inform the public about their work. Scientists use fiction as a means of spreading knowledge about their work to the general public. “When there is a relationship [between research and literary fiction], literary fiction becomes a dissemination channel and opens an array of policy tools to increase transfer of knowledge and promote public understanding of science… A scientist that publishes a fiction book enters into new cultural circles of editors, other writers, readers, etc... Regardless of the book contents and of whether it transfers scientific knowledge, its author would have more chances to let the public know about his/her research” (Azagra-Caro et al., 2018). Scientist-literary authors as well as conservator-literary authors exhibit multipotentiality, “an educational and psychological term referring to the ability and preference of a person, particularly one of strong intellectual or artistic curiosity to excel in two or more different fields” (Elhanboushy, 2019). In speaking about his life, retired objects conservator Don Williams has said that “part of my success in this poly-dimensional disciplinary world was that I could synthesize information from completely unconnected sources” (Uhl, 2017).
Do conservator-literary authors think of their conservation and their writing as two equally important jobs? Or do they see writing as a respite from the pressures of their conservation “day jobs”—a term which implies that one’s passions lie elsewhere than in their everyday work (St. John Mandel, 2009). Joyce Hill Stoner “has basically done both [writing for the] theater and art conservation simultaneously” most of her working life (March 4, 2021 email). To her they are equal.
For many, writing or story development is a respite from the tediousness of conservation work. Don Williams remembers working in the silver objects conservation lab at the Winterthur Museum, polishing and lacquering their monumental collections. “To amuse ourselves, my coworker Helen and I made up stories—or more precisely, story outlines.” (March 4, 2021 email). Lucy Branch thinks about her stories when she is working on large, long term projects. For her, literary writing is an escape from the pressures of life. Her fiction is something that “takes her out of reality” (Telephone conversation, March 9, 2021). Lien Gyles expressed similar sentiments: “Writing is what keeps me sane; it de-stresses me, even if I only manage ten minutes a day” (Maver, 2018).
Writing can be an escape because it is different from the hands-on work some conservators perform all day. A British book conservator noted that because her job is mostly practical work, when she gets home she still has the energy to sit down and write. If she had a job that required her to be in front of a screen all day and do work-related writing, it “would bleed over too much into my creative writing and reduce the energy I have left for it in my spare time.” This conservator has asked not to be named. In an email she wrote, “While I don’t mind my conservator colleagues knowing that I write… I’d rather remain anonymous in an article for a wider audience.”
Joyce Hill Stoner has expressed this concern that a conservator who is also a literary writer might be seen as less than serious about one’s conservation work: “As you don’t want to know your dentist tap dances, you don’t want to know your painting conservator writes musicals. So you just live two separate lives” (Stoner, 2019). Perhaps as a means of keeping their lives separate, some conservators have written under pen names. Dr. Leslie Carlyle wrote as “Judy Lester”. Belgian-born Lien Gyles writes as “Lynn Maver,” a name she chose because she thought a more English name would fit better with the stories she writes (March 1, 2021 email). We know the real identities of Lester and Maver. Could there be other conservator-literary authors writing under pseudonyms whose conservation identities are not yet know? I would welcome information about them as well as information about conservator-literary authors who write in languages other than English.
Armstrong, Laura (2015). Interview with Lucy Branch, author of “A Rarer Gift Than Gold”, Colorimetry. Study of Literary Color, March 6, 2015. http://burgandyice.blogspot.com/2015/03/interview-with-lucy-branch-author-of.html
Azagra-Caro, J.M., Fernández-Mesa, A., Robinson-Garcia, N. (2018). Getting out of the closet': Scientific authorship of literary fiction and knowledge transfer. Journal of Technology Transfer, pp.2-3. https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1802/1802.05012.pdf doi:10.1007/s10961-018-9672-6
Elhanboushy, Ahmed (2019). Multipotentiality is a strength. Medium.com, February 22, 2019. https://firstname.lastname@example.org/multipotentiality-is-a-strength-8e9c976dd62f
Hauenstein, Hanno (2019). Does Art Restoration Risk Erasing the Past? How Conservation efforts end up fictionalizing history, Frieze, August 30, 2019. https://www.frieze.com/article/does-art-restoration-risk-erasing-past
Klepper, Jennifer (2018). Not Just a Novelist. Amanda Stauffer Architectural Conservator. Jennifer Klepper Blog, August 27, 2018. https://www.jenniferklepper.com/post/2018/08/27/not-just-a-novelist-amanda-stauffer-architectural-conservator
Maver, Lynn (2018). Ask The Author. Goodreads. https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/17138137.Lynn_Maver
Mohaupt, Hillary. (2017). Conserving the Stories they Tell. How Conservators at the 9/11 Memorial Museum care for the artifacts of trauma. Distillations, September 8, 2017, https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/conserving-the-stories-they-tell
St. John Mandel , Emily (2009). Working the Double Shift. The Millions, October 6, 2009. https://themillions.com/2009/10/working-the-double-shift.html
Stoner, Joyce Hill (2019). Oral history interview conducted by Amanda Tewes in 2019 for The Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley under the auspices of the J. Paul Getty Trust
Uhl, Kara (2017). Meet the Author: Don Williams. Lost Art Press Blog, February 17, 2017. https://blog.lostartpress.com/2017/02/17/meet-the-author-don-williams
Rebecca Anne Rushfield, a New York City-based consultant in conservation, received her master’s degree in art history and diploma in conservation from the NYU Institute of Fine Arts. Her special interests include the history of conservation, the transfer of conservation knowledge by both formal and informal means, and the public perception of conservation and conservators.
(Read the full article and click on the BONUS CONTENT link in the August-September 2021 "News in Conservation" Issue 85, p. 16-21)