Karen Finch obituary

Other lives: Master weaver and conservator

Karen Finch, who has died aged 96, was a master weaver before becoming a conservator and, in 1975, founded the Textile Conservation Centre for professional conservation training and research. Housed initially at Hampton Court palace, the centre moved to Winchester in 1997 to Britain’s first purpose-designed conservation facility. When this was closed in 2009, a successor body was created, the Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History at the University of Glasgow.

Karen Finch helped to professionalise textile conservation
Karen Finch helped to professionalise textile conservation Photograph: None

Under her leadership, the TCC was a magical place, filled with the quiet hum of intense activity, where professional and trainee conservators worked together on national treasures. Students, always an international lot, went on to work and teach in museums, archives, historic houses and conservation units around the world: those from my group alone in Amsterdam, Athens, Edinburgh, Manchester, New York and Toronto.

Karen retired as the centre’s principal in 1986, but continued to speak at international conferences, to translate papers, correspond with museum colleagues, participate in learned societies and mentor mid-career colleagues. She maintained this pace into her 80s.

Born on a farm in Rødding, Denmark, daughter of Soren Møller and Ellen Sinding, Karen grew up in a communal way of life. She went to art school in Copenhagen, where she joined the circle of the designer Kaare Klint, absorbing the principles that made Danish modern style. The wartime occupation of Denmark, with all its restrictions, made the art school intensely committed to freedom. Never would Karen tolerate the lesser treatment of any person.

Karen met an English soldier, Norman Finch, who had arrived with the allied liberation forces, and after they married in 1946, the couple moved to London. There Karen found work restoring textiles at the Royal School of Needlework, and later at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where she experimented to develop new techniques of textile cleaning.

Unhappy with the division of manual workers from curatorial staff, she left in 1959 to set up her own workroom. There she brought together ethics, scientific methods, historical understanding and craft knowledge. With her growing reputation, important commissions flowed in, along with young people eager to learn textile conservation skills. Her education goals led to a collaboration with the Courtauld Institute for a postgraduate diploma in textile conservation from 1973, where she was able to fully professionalise textile conservation in line with other disciplines. In 1976, Karen was appointed OBE.

Norman died in 1996. Karen is survived by her daughter, Katrina, two grandsons, Joshua and Jacob, and her siblings, Steen, Greta, Ruth and Inge.

Philip Sykas

The GuardianTramp

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