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13.09.2017

Following the thread of May Berkouwer's career in textile conservation

Over the summer, Susan Bradshaw, Icon's Head of Professional Development met with May Berkouwer ACR who spoke frankly about her 35-year career as a textile conservator, what inspired her to get into the sector and how she got to where she has, celebrating the 10-year anniversary of her studio in Sudbury. 

May trained in textile conservation (1980 – 1984) at the State School of Conservation & Restoration in Amsterdam. When graduating there were no jobs in Holland and on applying for work at the National Trust she was appointed to work at the Levy Textile Workroom in Buckinghamshire, which was a country-wide studio led by Jane Mathews. May was the assistant conservator (1984-88) and during this time she was able to develop a broad and hands-on perspective, learning a lot about textile furnishings historic interiors, large projects and working on site. Although working on-site meant plenty of travel, much of her role was to supervise around 30 volunteers (about 8 different people each day). The volunteers had good stitching skills and worked mainly on the large-scale support stitching jobs of bed hangings and curtains from a variety of National Trust houses, always under supervision of the textile conservators. May developed a great respect for volunteers but there was a limit to what she could achieve in this role and therefore looked for more opportunities to upskill.

One of May’s early goals was to work in South America. In 1988, she secured a short contract with UNESCO in Peru to work on the planning for a UNESCO-led textile conference and project, attending meetings, and working at the museums in Lima. This was followed by a period of travelling around Latin America picking up on the contacts made in those first few months, which in turn led to some involvement with storage projects, insect pest problems and a range of conferences and even including presenting (in Spanish) on conservation practice. In fact, as a testament to the value of long-term contacts one of her colleagues from this time, Emilia Cortes, who now works at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and who worked with May in Colombia, travelled to UK to attend the 10-year studio anniversary celebrations.

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May Berkouwer Textile Conservation team at 10th Anniversary Celebrations.
Left to Right: Claire Walker, Anna Peck, May Berkouwer and Maria Pardos.

In 1989 May returned to the UK as she wanted to develop her practical hands-on skills further, and in particular tapestry conservation work. She applied to work with Ksynia Marko ACR, who was leading a professional studio of textile conservators in London which May joined for three years. It was obviously an important stage in May’s career, who found working freelance for the first time amongst like-minded conservators a ‘great inspiration’ to her practice. She gained both the experience and enjoyment of working at a high level of conservation and business knowledge such as how to approach estimating for project work and learning how to undertake professional, ethical conservation in a ‘commercial’ set-up. May enjoyed working with pro-active, hands-on conservators that created a good working atmosphere with the opportunity to embrace new methods and practice together. She said that Ksynia was also, ‘a most terrific mentor not just for me but for many of us in textile conservation, and I still benefit from working with her’. May realizes now that she has always needed to work with people around her and particularly enjoys site-work when there is a solid bonding of respect amongst her fellow colleagues. This continues to be the basis for her working life today as she employs a small team of qualified conservators at Sudbury where they share the projects by ‘mulling over ideas, encouraging each to be being bold with new ideas and supporting each other which in turn gives you moral support’. 

May was keen to point out that networking between textile conservators is extremely important to her as she learns so much from others in the profession. A number one rule for May and her team is to always attend the annual Textile Forum of Icon’s Textile Group as it provides the best opportunity to network with new conservators and catch up with familiar faces, learn about new ideas and exchange advice. 

Looking back to how she moved forward and embarked on her freelance work she highlighted two projects that really supported her professional development: Calke Abbey (whilst a conservation assistant within the National Trust), and Brodsworth Hall (whilst working for Ksynia Marko, but then became the starting point of her free-lance work). Both gave her the opportunity to work on large onsite projects dealing with the contents of a whole country house in context, with surveys, transport, storage, insect pests, reinstallations, etc. and to build her skillset to encourage her to expand her business. She considers that working freelance onsite with no major outgoings was the most profitable way of working but in the long term a peripatetic lifestyle was not sustainable. May admits that in 1992 she had very little business sense and no business training, other than observing what others were doing, and she did not have the confidence to build-in the profit margins to help her expand. In her work, she always focused on doing the best conservation job she could; the finances followed. Once starting a family and to balance family life with her career, she decided to move out of London in 1996.

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Maria explaining the treatment of the Waterloo Banner on the table to the attendees of the Open Days.

Once based in Suffolk, May built on her long-standing contact with Annabel Wylie and travelled to her studio in Essex where May worked mainly on her own projects, paying for the use of Annabel’s space. She spoke highly of the availability to hire studio space with colleagues. In this way, she could enjoy professional company and keep her overheads to a minimum. It also benefited Annabel who was able to upgrade her studio from the rental fees. May sometimes worked on Wylie and Singer contracts too, which again supported her need to work alongside others. At the same time, she set up a small studio nearby to home, to minimise travel and childcare time, in a Council-supported small business centre for start-up companies, with a low rent and a month’s get-out clause to minimize any financial risks. 

Between 1997 and 2007 there were increasing business opportunities with ever larger projects being commissioned by tender at the National Trust and other institutions, and requiring larger, safer studios. The National Trust was professionalizing its commissioning systems by tender, and had a great deal of tapestry work to commission. May wanted to be able to take this work on starting with a commission of a group of three tapestries from a private collector. This meant she needed to find a studio that offered security and suitable work space to handle large tapestries. Having upgraded within the start-up business centre it was time to move on into a larger studio with longer term prospects. Setting up the new Sudbury studio was an exciting time for May. With the encouragement of an artist friend who offered her a different perspective and greater vision, she took on the largest studio at Stour Valley Business Centre which serves her well today, ten years on. May also trained the same friend in tapestry conservation work, who as well as having vital manual dexterity skills of a conservator brought another dimension to the work transferring the skills and knowledge of aesthetics, creativity, and painted surfaces. It also meant further career development for May as she stepped into the role of employer. Furthermore, May reflected on the fact that she had been the current landlord’s first tenant at the Sudbury site since 2007 and he has been an exceptionally supportive influence, showing the way in encouraging enterprise and learning a great deal from talking to him and watching his positive approach. 

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May and Anna working on one of two tapestries from the Spangled Bedroom at Knole, currently on the frame.

Whilst tapestry conservation was the aim of the new studio, in fact the 2008 financial crisis knocked any such work from the National Trust on the head. Instead they were lucky to be commissioned with the treatment of a set of wall coverings from Ham House, which developed into a fantastic project lasting four years, and included some textile detective research providing the opportunity for publication. 

I asked her what she considered were the essential ingredients to running a successful business. In her own words, she says: ‘I think I have actually always put the quality of the work at the very top of the agenda, and for conservation that includes the ethics of the job. Then there is being reliable, dealing fairly with the clients and delivering to expectation and timetable as much as possible. That does not necessarily make good business or profit, as I have discovered to my cost – literally. Added to that I have, especially since starting to employ others, put in place as many ‘systems’ and efficiencies of work in studio and office, as we can bear. There is also the need for self-discipline to maintain standards. She has learnt not to make decisions when she is tired and she gives herself time to mull things over before reaching a decision. She finds that by not working alone it is easier to keep things tidy, develop ideas, live up to each other’s standards and stay inspired – all of which are very important to her. 

In the current climate May feels that tendering adds a considerable burden to the life of all conservators. Tendering means that conservators are competing against each other for the same projects, trying to predict the time needed to do a job that will have to be allowed to develop in its own unique way, and often having to cut costs to secure the work – a fine balance between being a good conservator and a good business person. However, she considers that people in Great Britain love its textiles, and clients are more frequently recognizing the value of conservation and the professional standards and have more respect for the time a project may take. May gets a lot of satisfaction from getting involved in formal and informal gatherings, giving short presentations to explain the work that her studio has completed to those who have worked hard to fundraise for the conservation work required. Explaining her work is very gratifying, it generates energy that feeds back into the studio and she finds her involvement with raising the profile of conservation and meeting lots of different people a fun part of her work. 

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A sample of bizarre silk, designed by Leman and belonging to the Warner Textile Archive in Braintree. This object was mounted for the current exhibition on Silk at Gainsborough House in Sudbury.

Finally, I wanted to know if May was starting again, what advice would she give herself (and others) about a career in conservation as a private practitioner. She said ‘I would stick with my own advice to work with more experienced people first, and continue to keep in touch with colleagues forever. I would probably advise on a good business training, finance, with more focus and in advance, rather than learning on the job as a by-product of doing the job. I did some courses over time but it might have been better to do more in advance – but then I did not plan to run a business, I always just wanted to do the best conservation job possible and learn and explore a lot of other interesting stuff on the way’. 

It was a pleasure to interview May. She expressed so much passion and energy about her work. Future plans will be to continue to learn, from talking, watching and reviewing, as best as she can. The next phase is to ensure the studio carries on in a stable and sustainable way, and to encourage her colleagues through to Accreditation which she says ‘will be a proud moment to witness’. 

Lead Image: May Berkouwer's Studio
All Images, May Berkouwer ©

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