Dr. Christopher Clarkson on Conservation Education

I could write a number of posts just introducing Christopher Clarkson. This is the very,very short version. He graduated from the Royal College of Art, London, then worked for S. M. Cockerell, and Roger Powell. In 1966 he was sent to Florence after the flood & taught in Italy and England till 1971. In 1972 Clarkson moved to the Library of Congress, concentrating in Special Collections. In 1977 Clarkson moved to The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore to set up a book conservation studio, he also helped Dr. Lilian Randall, adding many of the parchment & binding descriptions  to her great manuscript catalogue. He returned to England in 1979 as the first Conservation Officer at The Bodleian Library Oxford. Concerned about training, in 1987 Clarkson moved to West Dean College, where he ran an internship programme & worked on many medieval manuscripts. Most recently Clarkson has reported on the early 5th century Ms. Syriac 30 & the ‘New Finds’ of Codex Sinaiticus for the Monastery of St. Catherine’s. Currently he is conservation consultant to Hereford Cathedral Chained Library & Mappa Mundi, The Bodleian Library & to The Wordsworth Trust.

Quite likely, he has done more to create awareness of traditional materials, research the context of older structures, and impart sensitivity to treatments than any other book conservator.  And he generously shares this knowledge through teaching and in publications. Many of his articles form the foundations of the field. In July, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from The University of Arts London. Chris describes that he “was given two minutes for a speech in which he wanted to try to heighten the profile of conservation within the University also to stress why an art school system is probably still right for the  subject.”

Like most of his writing, the speech below is quite dense and warrants reflection.



“It is a great pleasure to be back amongst art school people. I started at Camberwell School of Art in the 1950’s when I was thirteen, when it was still very much academic & Arts & Crafts based. The observational, painting techniques & graphic printing skills I learnt there have been essential in my later career as a conservator.

Conservation is a subject that bridges many disciplines – history, chemistry, engineering, material science etc. Possibly because of this, specific educational committees have said, “this is not ours” & passed it on to other committees. Above everything, it is a discipline which requires a high level of visual & craft skills plus ‘historical awareness’, my phrase, meant to express a deeper knowledge, sympathy & thus respect for the integrity of a period artefact. The danger in poor restoration/conservation training is ‘facsimile’ – the misconception that past cultures & their artefacts can be recreated – they cannot.

What I have tried to develop and teach are the principles of conservation as applied to period book structures, the diversity and the unexpected is what I am trying to preserve. This means teaching a wide and ever growing variety of techniques, utilizing a wide variety of materials and treatments out of which imaginative and historically sensitive young people can begin to find the answers to the problems that damaged books will present.

I am very interested in the choices conservators make in their treatments and how these decisions may influence our interpretation of an object. Thus observational skills are central to any conservation programme, I mean traditional drawing skills – to train the eye is to train the mind.

Conservation belongs in the Humanities, which are suffering badly in the present educational climate. I do hope the University can continue to support, & if possible broaden its commitment to its conservation course. It is a resource intensive discipline, expensive in time, training & quality materials, tools & equipment; a high percentage of bench-work is essential.

There has never been a greater need for well-trained conservators who not only know the techniques but also the cultural significance of what they will be working on. The support that the University gives to such courses is of enormous value.

I would like to congratulate all the students receiving their degrees today & wish you a bright & interesting future.

To the University I thank you for the honour you bestow on me.”

-Christopher Clarkson, 16 July 2012

One Reply to “Dr. Christopher Clarkson on Conservation Education”

  1. Jeff, thanks so much for posting this. I wondered what he would say at the event. I am glad he gave a shout out for the humanities, though I really wonder if the historical awareness he represents can be taught in any real formal way.

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