By Frances Lennard
Dr Karen Finch, OBE who died aged 96 on 15 April 2018, was a pioneer in the field of textile conservation.
Karen trained as a master weaver in her native Denmark and came to the UK after marrying Norman Finch, a British soldier she had met during the Second World War. In London she worked at both the Royal School of Needlework and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). She started work in the V&A’s Artwork Room in 1954, and pioneered the development of techniques for the conservation treatment of historic textiles as opposed to repair or restoration. In 1959 she set up her own practice at her home and continued to develop her methods, working with students who came from all around the world to learn her techniques and to work with her.
In 1975 Karen founded the Textile Conservation Centre (TCC), in Grace and Favour apartments at Hampton Court Palace. There she established the three-year postgraduate diploma in textile conservation validated by the Courtauld Institute of Art, a huge step forward in the training of textile conservators and a qualification held by many of us still working in the field. From its inception the TCC included a conservation services section where trained conservators worked alongside the students and teaching staff to the great benefit of all, and she set up an apprenticeship scheme for specialist training in tapestry and upholstery conservation. Karen was Principal until her retirement in 1986 and her huge achievements were recognised by the award of an OBE.
The TCC moved to a new building on the Winchester campus of the University of Southampton in 1999 and at that time Karen’s achievements as its founder were acknowledged by the award of an honorary doctorate from the University of Southampton. Following the closure of the TCC by the University in 2009, the textile conservation programme was incorporated into the new Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History, established at the University of Glasgow in 2010.
Karen’s legacy is tremendous; she made a huge contribution to the establishment of the field of textile conservation in the UK and worldwide. Well over 100 students completed the postgraduate diploma offered by the TCC at Hampton Court, and very many more studied on the subsequent MA programme offered by the University of Southampton and now the MPhil in Glasgow. Students of the programmes have come from around 40 different countries and now hold positions in museums and private practice in countries all over the world. Karen’s legacy was visible in the large number of textile conservators gathered at the Icon Textile Group forum this past May - almost 130 people - of whom exactly half were past, present or future students of the Hampton Court, Winchester and Glasgow programmes. But her legacy goes beyond graduate numbers – Karen was a significant part of the pioneering generation of textile conservators who created a new way of looking at textiles as culturally significant documents which needed to be preserved for the future, and she based her work and training in an ethical code of conservation. She believed strongly that conservation should be based in a good understanding of science and there was a scientist on the TCC staff from the beginning.
Teaching was always a key motivator for Karen and, even after retirement, she maintained her passion for textiles and their conservation and kept in touch with her wide network of friends, colleagues and former students around the world.
She retained her interest in developments at the TCC and later the programme in Glasgow. Her influence is still felt - we still use the Karen Finch Reference Collection every day - and although the programme has developed over the decades, elements are still recognisable from the early days, including the open exam and our annual open day. In 2015 we celebrated 40 years of textile conservation education and Karen presented the inaugural Karen Finch Prize, a prize which is now offered each year by the Textile Conservation Foundation to an outstanding student.
Clare Meredith, Chairman of the Textile Conservation Foundation, our supporting trust, summed up Karen’s achievements: “Karen was a true pioneer and her vision, over 40 years ago, was to establish the first recognised training course in textile conservation. It’s hard now to imagine our heritage sector without textile conservators, but that professional community is Karen Finch’s exceptional legacy.”
This article was originally written for the August 2018 issue of Icon News which can be found here: https://icon.org.uk/what-is-conservation/publications
Professor of Textile Conservation
University of Glasgow