By Christopher Lawrence
She calls it her ‘rural bit of Paradise’, but with a rolling series of Covid lockdowns in the Australian state of Victoria, conservation engineer Robin Hodgson has turned isolation into an opportunity. With self-sufficiency, the legacy of a childhood on the land and the great distance from her principal markets in the US & Europe already conquered by technology, Hodgson’s life is almost business as usual.
The roadside sign among the grapevine-shrouded hills of the Mornington Peninsula points to Meakin’s Rise, on which nestles a discreet cottage and an expansive workshop – opposite poles of the owner’s current existence. Midway through the state’s sixth lockdown, one of the tightest in the world, Hodgson is largely confined to the perimeters of her paddock fences. That still leaves plenty of space for tending to a huge vegetable garden, keeping mind and body together.
“As a single person living on my own, it’s been challenging”, she says. “But I look at the bigger picture and imagine how it was for others in inner city apartments. I have six acres on which to take exercise 24/7.”
Dubbed by Williamstown Arts Conservation Center’s associate paintings conservator, Maggie Barkovic, as “a famous saviour in the world of art conservation” for her world-renowned skills as a designer and fabricator, Hodgson’s country resilience comes from her childhood on a dairy farm, not so far from Meakin’s Rise, where she was one of seven children.
“Artistic we were not”, she says with a smile. “Practical, yes. Farming is essentially not terribly profitable on a family scale. We had to learn to make do a lot of the time, fixing our own equipment and maintaining things. If you didn't have a bit of machinery, it was unlikely you’d be able to afford to buy it, so you’d go out to the scrap pile to try and cobble something together. To this day, I still have neatly racked scraps of steel and little interesting components that I may have found in something – bits of equipment that could be repurposed into jigs, machine dies or specialist pieces of machinery for my manufacturing.”
This early passion for making things, combined with a diagnosis of dyslexia, took the teenager out of the Australian secondary school system early and into an apprenticeship as a cabinet maker. Hodgson set up her own workshop at home and worked informally with a local craftsman whose techniques harked back to a former age, fostering her profound appreciation for hand skills and problem solving in a fine-skilled trade.
“We can plane a board flat, make a square cut with a handsaw, carve dovetail joints by hand, hand-fit drawers—cabinetry skills that weren’t in general use by then. Wood turning, too. In a trade sense, I don’t know anyone who can do it to the level that I can, and as quickly.” This mastery of traditional methods and fascination for the bespoke marries well with the function and aesthetic of Hodgson’s current output. “I turn out the handles on my heated spatulas because no one else could do it at the same price.” Not just home crafted, but home-grown: the wood they are turned from is harvested from the wood lot on Robin’s property.
After four years making reproductions of eighteenth-century furniture, Hodgson moved to London in 1980 to study the real thing. “I had good hand skills by that time, and very quickly I realized that a lot of the furniture I wanted to research had been, let’s say, poorly restored, and therefore much of the actual information I wanted to find was no longer there. I could have undertaken a course in furniture restoration, but most places had in sight the training of restorers for the antique trade. That was never my interest. I knew what conservation was. I knew it was a term beginning to be applied to paintings, but in furniture forty years ago it was unheard of. My area at the time just happened to be furniture, but that soon broadened to include other wooden objects.”
Robin spent years in the V&A Museum library and then in France, researching original source material and forming a philosophy of conservation that would inform her subsequent work in other media. “I feel it's very important that conservators do what conservators are meant to be, and that is impartially preserve the history that we have,” she says. “If we restore it, we are rewriting history.”
Back in Australia from the late ‘80s, she became involved with the Australian Institute of Conservation and soon gained a reputation as a problem-solver, starting with a wall mural in a building marked for demolition. “It was the headquarters of the Waterside Workers Federation in Sydney, and it was making way for a parking lot. The wharfies (as we call them down here) wanted to take the mural away with them—but it was twelve meters long and two meters high, so I was asked by my colleague Andrew Thorn to make a saw that could cut the plaster off the brick wall and piers while keeping everything intact. It took me ten minutes to think something up that I then went away and made. The whole experience was so satisfying. I realized I wanted to pursue this line of work further.”
Word spread about Hodgson’s unique combination of expertise in furniture making, structural engineering, metals fabrication, electronics and bespoke design. A request from paper conservator Trish Stokes in Victoria resulted in the creation of a cold suction table, while the Queensland Art Gallery’s then conservation head John Hook inspired the hot suction table for structural treatments of paintings on canvas. The practitioner’s tool kit was enhanced by what has become Robin’s current signature product: the non-contact infrared heat tool, capable of locally heating a surface of 25mm diameter to a predetermined temperature to consolidate a fractured or flaking surface, enabling the sensitive non-contact treatment of artworks. In a recent (June 2021) edition of Artnet News, Brian Boucher describes the device as one of “…the snazziest tools and technologies conservators are exploiting.”
Interest from the US in Hodgson’s work necessitated frequent trips across the Pacific to demonstrate her creations at conferences and lecture on their application at universities such as Yale. Those who have encountered Robin in these forums won’t have forgotten her; she is always the most striking physical presence in the room. Equally beyond dispute is the quality of finish. Every product is personally and painstakingly manufactured by the designer herself in her country workshop—right down to those turned wood handles.
The pandemic has put a stop to Hodgson’s always enthusiastic trans-Pacific travels for the time being. “I was overseas on trips for around 3-4 months a year”, she admits, “supporting my clients, fostering new ones, backing up my products and, importantly, being seen. When I started to promote my products in the US people would say ‘oh, but you’re in Australia!’, the inference being that I wasn’t going to be around in case after-sales service was needed. I believe I’ve overcome this now by offering after-sales service second to none in this field, in person and via the RH Conservation Engineering website (www.rhconservationeng.com).”
For Robin, more time at home has meant more time for the business with the chance to consolidate operations, replenish stock levels and commission new pieces of CNC (computerized numerical control) equipment together with learning CAD (computer-aided design) to start to drive them. The former dairy farm kid with the scrap pile has been able to rebuild older machines from scratch, finding
that the repetition improves both productivity and quality. Above all, lockdown has bought time to think. “I’m seeing that so many conservation treatments have been on hold through lockdowns”, she says. “I know there’s so much catching up to be done. I’ve always strived to enable my profession to be more productive through the equipment I’ve developed and see this time as opportune to move forward with greater efficiency and with the appropriate technology.
“I love challenges. I love solving problems simply. It's a sense of service. In life, there's always a better way of doing something.”
Special thanks to the FAIC Oral History File housed at the Winterthur Museum, Library, and Archives (USA) in the preparation of this article.
Author Byline: Christopher Lawrence is a writer, broadcaster and arts administrator based in Tasmania, Australia. He works extensively with symphony orchestras, music education and festival presenters, and his books about classical music are available in Australia, the UK, US, Hungary and China.
(Read the article and see all the images in the October-November 2021 "News in Conservation" Issue 86, p. 24-28)