Event Review: Christopher Clarkson (1938-2017): A Conservator’s Path -- Tributes and Celebrations

User menu

Christopher Clarkson examining a manuscript. Image Copyright Jane Eagan / Winchester Cathedral

By Jane Eagan, FIIC

On Monday March 5, 2018, the bibliothèque de l’Arsenal in Paris held an event to celebrate Christopher Clarkson’s contribution to book conservation. The Arsenal Library, in the Bastille neighbourhood of Paris, was founded in 1756, and has been a department of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) since 1934. Its history and library collections, which have a particular strength in the area of book collecting, are conserved on location by a team of five bookbinders and book conservators.

To honour Clarkson, the conservation team put together a one-day practical workshop and public evening lecture, the first public event at the library to focus on a conservation theme. Marlène Smilauer, Head of Conservation at the Arsenal Library, sought out Nadine Dumain, a private bookbinder and book conservator at the Moulin du Verger, to assist her as co-organiser and to lead the practical workshop during the day.

Chris had taught a practical workshop on limp paper binding at the Moulin du Verger from 2007-2013, working closely with Nadine and Jacques Bréjoux, with whom he was exploring making a strong cover paper inspired by historic Italian examples. The idea for the paper binding workshops stemmed from a meeting between Chris and Jacques engineered by Stuart Welch, founder of Conservation by Design, who thought this might be the start of a fruitful collaboration, despite having doubts as to how the two main players would get on! During these workshops at the paper mill, Chris met Marlène, and a two-week workshop in ‘Gothic binding’ for 15 book conservators of the BnF and National Archives followed in Paris. Through one thing and another, Chris’ influence had taken hold in France.

The day at the Arsenal Library this past March started with the practical workshop given by Nadine to a group of 21 invited institutional and private conservators, students, teachers, and bookbinders, including designer binder Sün Evrard. Nadine gave an overview followed by demonstrations of sewing, endbanding, and covering in limp paper, recalling Chris’ techniques, tips and compromises. A selection of limp paper bindings from the Arsenal Library was examined by the group, joined by several librarians. Nadine was tireless in demonstrating, answering questions, and guiding the group in the practical exercises. There was a great deal of discussion particularly of thorny questions such as whether a ‘conservation binding’ truly existed. Marlène and her team, Fabrice Belliot, Caroline Bertrand, Magali Dufour, and Marie-Thérèse Timal, were capable and gracious hosts, and the institutional driving force behind the event, which had been sponsored in part by Conservation by Design. Andrew Honey (Book Conservator, Research and Teaching, Bodleian Libraries) and I had brought models, photographs, and videos of work we had done with Chris, and were able to discuss his working methods and concerns with the workshop attendees.

Following the practical workshop, the evening public lecture took place as part of a series of public talks held at the Arsenal on Mondays (‘Les rendez-vous des metiers du livre’), with an exhibition of selected limp paper bindings from the Arsenal. Andrew Honey, Stuart Welch, and I had been invited and asked to speak about Chris. It was heart-warming to see the interest in Chris’ work, or at least respectful attention to what was perhaps a totally new area for many of the public present. Stuart reminisced about his long friendship with Chris, weaving his talk with anecdotes about their working relationship and collaboration on many conservation projects. He was obviously very moved, saying he always thought of Chris as a ‘designer and problem solver’ and also a friend who was very much missed. Andrew focussed his talk on the continuation of the Winchester Bible project, Chris’ last major conservation project, taken over by the Bodleian Libraries conservation section and led by him. It was clear that Chris’ concerns for structure, materials, and function continue at Bodley.

I then discussed the work I carried out with Chris on the rebinding of an Anglo-Saxon manuscript for St John’s College, University of Oxford, a skills and knowledge exchange opportunity supported by the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust (www.nmct.co.uk/case-studies/st-johns-college-oxford). This experience was invaluable and increased my understanding of Chris’ striving for function, structure, and simplicity. Nadine completed the evening talks with observations on Chris’ work and life, showing a short video of Chris speaking at the paper mill, and additional examples of historic limp paper bindings for the benefit of the audience. Conservation by Design’s New Product Development Manager, Laurent Martin, donned his interpreter’s hat, giving faultless translations of the English talks.

Chris was a brilliant and generous educator who loved teaching. In addition to teaching techniques and procedures, he encouraged an appreciation of inquiry, evaluation and experimentation, an interest in materials, and a sensitivity to three-dimensional mechanical design. His approach to conservation work and teaching can perhaps be best summarised by his desire to achieve ‘an understanding and mastery over a wide range of materials and techniques, striving always for simplicity.’

Nadine and I, along with others, continue to work on a translation into French of Chris’ seminal 1982 work Limp Vellum Binding. For me, the workshop and public lectures were an interesting introduction to the French conservation world. It was lovely to find that we have much in common and much to share with each other.


Jane Eagan is the Head of Preservation and Conservation of the Oxford Conservation Consortium, a charitable organization providing collection care work within the historic library/archive collections of 17 colleges of the University of Oxford. Jane was the editor of The Paper Conservator from 2002-07, and a member of the editorial board for The Journal of the Institute of Conservation from 2008-16.
Since 2016, she has guided the activities of the Chantry Library, a resource centre for practicing conservators and readers with an interest in conservation www.chantrylibrary.org. She is an elected Fellow of the International Institute for Conservation (IIC).