Looking back at IIC’s beginnings: An interview with Hero Lotti by Sagita Mirjam Sunara

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George Stout during WWII, pictured 4th from the left. Inscription on back of photo: “These characters, left to right are: Pfc Rowland (my driver), Capt. Hancock, Lt. Moore, old Pop, Cpt. Fontana (another driver). Picture made in Marburg, Germany, early this month, June 1945” (George Leslie Stout papers, 1897-1978. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)


Twenty years ago, Hero Lotti (née Boothroyd Brooks) undertook the demanding task of researching IIC’s beginnings. The results of her research were published in the booklet A Short History of IIC: Foundation and Development (LINK: https://archetype.co.uk/our-titles/a-short-history-of-iic/?id=275). To bring the fascinating story of the forming of IIC closer to its members and the readers of News in Conservation, we interviewed Hero for the IIC 70th Anniversary issue of the magazine.

SMS: How did your research come about?

HL: David Bomford, then Secretary-General, told me that IIC wanted to commission a history of the Institute in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of its foundation, and invited me to undertake it. I had finished my PhD into the history of practical developments in English easel-painting conservation the previous year, and David had been one of my examiners, so he was familiar with my research. Although my PhD thesis was exclusively concerned with practice, the sources I had used were rich in information about the broader history of conservation. I was very pleased to be asked, if a bit apprehensive because it was a rather different project from any I had done before and I wasn’t sure what would come of the research.

SMS: What sources did you use?

HL: Almost entirely archival sources. It’s the most exciting kind of research in my view, because of the unmediated contact with material from the past and the detective work involved in seeing how much information can be pieced together.  I spent a lot of time in the IIC office, which was then in Buckingham Street, going through the various files and folders. I also went to the USA for a week, to look at archival material in Boston at the Straus Center for Conservation and in Washington at the Freer Gallery of Art and at the Smithsonian Institution. Then I spent a few days in Brussels so I could consult the archives at the Institut Royal du Patrimoine Artistique. It meant I could trace exchanges in correspondence between individuals from centres in the three geographical areas involved in forming IIC (the UK, the USA, and Continental Europe), and sometimes find a document in one place that had been referred to in another, and it also gave me a sense of the different perspectives involved. I quite enjoyed the solitary nature of the work, but also appreciated the friendliness and hospitality of the people who helped me: Perry Smith of course, then Executive Secretary, in the IIC office, Francesca G. Bewer and Ron Spronk at the Straus Center who were very interesting for me to talk to because they were studying the history of conservation in the US, John Winter at the Freer, then President of IIC, and Liliane Masschelein-Kleiner in Brussels.

SMS: Do you remember how long it took you to research the topic and complete the writing?

HL: Not precisely. I think it was probably a couple of months in total to do the research and another month to draw the information together and write the account. I remember it as a concentrated period of quite intense research. I obviously had to organize the trips to the USA and Brussels before I knew how much relevant material I would find there, so I remember feeling apprehensive that there would be more than I could cover in the time available, and that I needed to be as efficient as possible. The fact that I had already seen the material in the IIC office helped me to distinguish what was important in the archives abroad.

SMS: IIC was the first professional society of art conservators. Who proposed its formation and when did this idea arise?

HL: The idea for some kind of international body concerned with conservation emerged as the Second World War drew to a close, and thoughts began to turn to the resumption of peacetime activities.  George Stout (Head of the Department for Conservation and Technical Research at the Fogg Art Museum, Boston, then on war duty as a ‘Monuments Officer’) wrote a letter on 23 April 1945, which seems not to have survived, in which he raised the idea, although we can’t be sure this was the first time it was mentioned. It is likely that the idea was Stout’s, and in any case he was fundamental to its realization. The letter’s recipient, F.I.G. Rawlins (Scientific Adviser at the National Gallery, London) referred to it in his reply of 10 May, in which he described the kind of professional body he considered necessary. Rawlins was also very determined and active in forming the future Institute. When IIC was incorporated five years later Stout was its first President, and Rawlins its General Secretary.

SMS: Who were the other key figures? How did this process go?

HL: Although London was later chosen as the headquarters of IIC because it represented a mid-point between the USA and Continental Europe and for financial reasons, many of those who were influential in the founding of IIC were, or had been, based at the Department for Conservation and Technical Research, which had been a centre for conservation since it had been established as the Department for Technical Studies in 1928, at the Fogg Art Museum. Stout, who had become Head of the Department in 1934, had worked in close collaboration with the chemist Rutherford J. Gettens since the Department opened. When the idea of an international body was raised in 1945, Rawlins referred in a second letter to Stout in August to a proposed meeting ‘to discuss the fundamentals of our subject’ in the USA, commenting that although it would be difficult for ‘we islanders’ to get permission to attend, ‘we must have yourself and Gettens at the head of the table’. After the War, Stout became Director of the Worcester Art Museum, Mass., in 1947, whereas Gettens remained at the Fogg. Richard D. Buck, a fine arts graduate, also worked at the Fogg Department and would play an important role in shaping the Institute, for example as one of the three members of the By-laws Committee.  Other significant figures for the founding of IIC and especially for the subsequent promotion of membership in the USA were Murray Pease at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Sheldon and Caroline Keck who worked in Brooklyn, all of whom had studied at the Fogg Department before moving to their positions in New York.  It was therefore appropriate that the first formal meeting to discuss the creation of the Institute took place at the Fogg, in November 1947. Among the seventeen people present was the Director of the Museum, Arthur Pope, who, together with Stout, had drafted a document concerning the aims and outline of the proposed organization in preparation for the meeting.

As well as Rawlins, W.G. Constable attended the meeting. He had moved from the UK to become Curator of Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1938, having previously been Assistant Director of the National Gallery, London, and then first Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art when it was founded in 1932. Rawlins must have had some kind of exchange with Constable about the proposal for an international professional body when it was raised by Stout in 1945, because in his reply to Stout in May he quotes Constable’s view that ‘it would be well to restrict any body charged with conservation (widely so called) to those from our two countries only at first, and further to those persons who have actually been engaged in work of the kind during the war.’ Another important figure for the founding of the Institute, although he was unable to travel to the US for the meeting at the Fogg because he was too busy at the British Museum Laboratory, where he was Deputy Keeper, was H.J. Plenderleith. Plenderleith was one of the members of the Honorary Scientific Advisory Committee at the National Gallery, London, which had been formed at Rawlins’ request in 1934 for consultation on scientific matters relating to the Gallery, and had co-authored Air Raid Precautions in Museums, Picture Galleries and Libraries (1939) with him. By ‘we islanders’ in his letter to Stout of August 1945, Rawlins was referring to himself and Plenderleith.

Although the idea for a professional body was at first an initiative of individuals from the USA and the UK, in 1947 Paul Coremans (Director of the Archives Centrales Iconographiques d’Art National et du Laboratoire Central des Musées de Belgique) was involved. Coremans had visited the USA ten years previously, where he met Stout and Gettens at the Fogg and Caroline and Sheldon Keck at the Brooklyn Museum. In January 1947 Coremans, Plenderleith and Rawlins were all in Holland for an inquiry held as part of the trial of H.A. van Meegeren: a painting apparently by Vermeer had been found in the possession of Hermann Goering at the end of the War and van Meegeren claimed not to have passed a Dutch masterpiece to the enemy but to the lesser offence of having forged the painting. A team of experts, which included Coremans, was set up to test van Meegeren’s claim, and Plenderleith and Rawlins were invited to assess its findings. It seems likely that Plenderleith and Rawlins discussed the proposal for the future Institute with Coremans while they were all involved in the inquiry. In a letter to Stout soon after he got back from the Continent, Plenderleith hoped that Coremans would be able to visit the US, as he, unlike Plenderleith and Rawlins, had opportunities to travel and made ‘an admirable liaison officer too’. Coremans acted to inform and involve Continental European countries in the proposed organization, sending a letter in March 1947 to diplomatic officials in Brussels of seventeen countries about the attempt ‘de trouver une base de collaboration scientifique sur le plan international’ and asking if laboratories in the countries concerned would be interested in participating. Coremans attended the Fogg meeting in November, and hosted a meeting in September 1948 at his office in Brussels at which the proposed Institute was discussed from the Continental European perspective. By the time of the Brussels meeting Arthur van Schendel, Curator of the Department of Paintings at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, had become involved.

SMS: These were people from different countries, even continents. How did they manage to establish and maintain professional relations in the years preceding the formation of IIC?

HL: Several of the key figures for the later foundation of the IIC had known each other for many years. In October 1930 an ‘International Conference for the Study of Scientific Methods for the Examination and Preservation of Works of Art’ was held in Rome, organized by the International Museums Office under the League of Nations, to enable the exchange of ideas and experience among experts in the developing field of the scientific study of works of art. Stout and Constable (then Assistant Director of the National Gallery, London) were both present. At the Conference a ‘Committee for the Restoration of Paintings and the Use of Varnish’ was set up, of which Constable was one of two Chairmen and before which Helmut Ruhemann later recalled Stout showing a sample of polyvinylacetate and predicting it would be the varnish of the future. One of the upshots of the Conference was the preparation of a manual on the conservation of paintings - eventually published as the Manuel de la Conservation et de la Restauration des Peintures in 1939, and translated as the Manual on the Conservation of Paintings in 1940 – the Editorial Committee of which first met in Paris in March 1933 and included Constable, Stout and Plenderleith, who had not been present at the Rome Conference.

The publication Technical Studies in the Field of the Fine Arts, 1932-1942, was also significant in forging professional contacts among several of those who would later work together in forming IIC. The journal was edited at the Department for Conservation and Technical Research at the Fogg. Stout was Managing Editor and Gettens was Assistant (later Associate) Editor. The journal had an international Advisory Committee, which included Constable throughout. Plenderleith contributed an article to the journal at Constable’s invitation, and was listed as a member of the Advisory Committee from the April 1935 edition. Rawlins joined the Committee from the July 1935 edition, the year after he had been appointed head of the newly created Physical Laboratory at the National Gallery, London, although he didn’t meet Stout and Gettens until he visited the Fogg Art Museum in February 1939.

Although the Second World War disrupted normal working life, it also stimulated contact between those in various countries with a shared interest in how to protect works of cultural heritage from the dangers of war. Stout corresponded with Plenderleith in 1942 having read Air Raid Precautions in Museums, Picture Galleries and Libraries, and wrote a letter to both Plenderleith and Rawlins in January of the following year in which he enclosed a statement on the protection of monuments in wartime. As a ‘Monuments Officer’ Stout travelled to France and Germany, and stopped off in London where he met Plenderleith in July 1945 before returning to the USA. A month previously Coremans had visited Britain, where he met Plenderleith and Rawlins for the first time, to discuss their investigations into the protection of works of art during the war.

Despite the difficulty of international travel, which both Rawlins in 1945 and Plenderleith in 1947 referred to as frustrating their desire to visit the USA and discuss the plans for the international body, two occasions in 1947 brought some of the key figures together. The trial of H.A. van Meegeren in Holland in January 1947 has already been mentioned in relation to Rawlins and Plenderleith discussing the plan with Coremans and involving him in it. The successful use of an international committee of experts to settle the controversy surrounding the Van Meegeren case was influential in the National Gallery’s decision to set up an international committee to undertake a confidential inquiry into the cleaning of National Gallery paintings, which had been the subject of controversy since the previous year. The Committee, which met in London in August 1947, comprised Dr J.R.H Weaver (President of Trinity College, Oxford) in the Chair, Stout, and Coremans. While they were in London Stout and Coremans discussed the proposed Institute with Rawlins and Plenderleith.

SMS: The events you mentioned are some of the most important milestones in the history of our profession! It’s obvious that a number of factors led to the formation of IIC, but if you had to single out one event, what would that be?

HL: I think the formation of IIC depended not so much on an event as on the sense that conservation needed to become more professional and more scientific, and on the awareness that this conviction was shared internationally. This awareness depended on the working relationships that had been established in the years preceding the foundation of IIC in 1950.

Those who formed IIC were motivated by dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in their own countries. We don’t have the letter of April 1945 in which Stout raised with Rawlins the possibility of forming an international body concerned with conservation, so we don’t know how he described the need he intended it to satisfy, although in his reply Rawlins agreed ‘that the main things are men and training’ and ‘that the dead wood of official nominees should be pruned out and the job taken on by a small corpus of people who were ready to act rather than pass lengthy resolutions’, so it is clear that these were concerns Stout had specified. At the end of the War the future of the Department of Conservation at the Fogg was uncertain: personnel had changed and it looked as though the technical study of art was not a priority for the University administration. Stout described this situation to Rawlins to explain the fact that Technical Studies was unlikely to be revived. In any case, Stout continued, the Fogg was not comparable to the National Gallery, London: ‘It is a private affair, and, at the best, I don’t see that it could go far in matters of international agreement or arrangement. And I am anxious to go along with John Gettens in saying that this whole undertaking ought now to get onto an international footing.

As far as the situation in London was concerned, when Stout raised the possibility of an international body concerned with conservation in 1945, in reply Rawlins gave his views about the needs such a body should address, summarising in the margin: ‘My feeling in a word is that the small body at the highest level should be entirely professional, scholarly and scientific, with no well-meaning amateurs or semi-amateurs on it. Is this too unkind?’. Wealthy amateurs held positions of authority in the London art world of the time, both as Trustees of the National Gallery and in the creation and early years of the Courtauld Institute of Art. Looking back in 1953 to the motivation behind his suggestion in 1934, soon after he was appointed Scientific Adviser at the National Gallery, that a Scientific Advisory Committee of eminent scientists should be formed at the Gallery, Rawlins wrote that its purpose should be to oversee the progress of scientific research at the Gallery ‘and also to act as a ‘go-between’ both with regard to the Board of Trustees and possibly vis-a-vis the public’. The disapproval of some of the trustees to the cleaning of National Gallery paintings during the war was fundamental to the 1946 Cleaning Controversy there. Hence Rawlins’s view that the proposed Institute should be ‘entirely professional, scholarly and scientific’ reflected what he felt was lacking and inhibiting progress at home.

Awareness of Continental European debate about the role of science in the study of art, which had emerged as early as the Rome Conference in 1930, may have informed Constable’s view when Stout raised the idea of the Institute in 1945 that it would be preferable to restrict involvement in the proposed organization to the UK and USA at first. Coremans, however, shared the scientific approach to the subject of the founders of IIC from the USA and UK, and acted to represent the aims of the intended Institute to various Continental European countries. As plans for the foundation of IIC progressed potential opposition from Continental European quarters was a sensitive issue. When ICOM held its first General Conference in Paris in July 1948 differences of opinion about the cleaning of paintings emerged – Cesare Brandi (Director of the Istituto Centrale, Rome) and René Huyghe (Head Curator of the Départment des Peintures, Musée du Louvre, Paris) advocating an opposite approach to that taken by the National Gallery, London – and an international Commission for Cleaning and Restoration of Paintings was set up (re-named ‘The ICOM Commission on the Care of Paintings’ at its first meeting later in the year). It seems that events at the Conference convinced Constable, who had attended, that the Institute should be incorporated as soon as possible. When, after the Brussels Preparatory Meeting in September, which considered the formation of IIC from the Continental European perspective, Coremans and Gettens paid a visit to Georges Salles (Directeur des Musées de France and Chairman of the Advisory Board of ICOM 1946-1948) in Paris, Salles expressed the view that restoration should be directed by curators and directors of galleries and not by scientific research personnel, and drew attention to the existence of the ICOM Commission to determine the main principles involved in the restoration of paintings. The first meeting of the ICOM Commission in December was anticipated with apprehension by those involved with the formation of IIC, but despite the expression of firm differences of opinion about the cleaning of paintings no opposition to the Institute seems to have been expressed. IIC had still not been incorporated by the time of the second meeting of the ICOM Commission in December 1949, which was again a source for concern, but again proved not to be an impediment.

So the key figures involved in forming IIC wanted to promote a professional and scientific approach that was under threat, albeit for different reasons in different countries. It was this shared interest more than any one event that I think was fundamental to the formation of IIC. Of course it was crucial that the protagonists already knew each other and had established their shared interests in the years preceding the formation of IIC. And perhaps the rupture caused by the War and the need to redefine the terms of working life after it in themselves favoured the achievement of such an initiative as IIC.

SMS: You mentioned the journal Technical Studies in the Field of the Fine Arts. Why was its discontinuation so important to our protagonists?

HL: One casualty of the War was Technical Studies in the Field of the Fine Arts which ceased publication in 1942. It had been dedicated since its first edition in 1932 to the study of the physical aspects of works of art, both in terms of their materials and techniques, and their treatment. As its title indicated, the journal presented the nature of this study as technical. It was concerned with the application of scientific approaches to the study of works of art. This is evident above all in the content of the articles, but also in the inclusion of Abstracts, edited by Gettens – a convention of scientific periodical literature. The journal also had an international Advisory Committee, on which, as I’ve already mentioned, several of the founders of IIC had served. Technical Studies thus represented and promoted a scientific approach to the study of art. It was a successful precedent for what the founders of IIC felt was needed after the War. IIC was intended to assert and promote conservation as a profession, the defining characteristic of which was its technical approach to works of cultural heritage.

We don’t know whether Stout mentioned publication as one of the activities he envisaged in 1945 for what would become IIC. In February 1946 Rawlins wrote to Gettens to ask about the possible resumption of Technical Studies: he said that some time previously Stout had told him that the prospects for reviving the journal were not very good, and if that were still the case he was wondering whether it would be possible to produce a journal on similar lines from London, as he, Ruhemann and Plenderleith had discussed the pressing need for the publication of work of common interest. Gettens confirmed that the situation at the Fogg was such that it was unlikely that Technical Studies could be revived, but that the Department of Conservation there would be interested in co-operating with plans to produce a similar journal, and agreed that there was ‘no time for dallying’. By the time a By-laws Committee (comprising Arthur Pope, Gettens and Buck) considered the various aspects involved in shaping the proposed Institute in November-December 1947, ‘it was thought that the main activity for the first few years would be that of publication, and ideas for possible publications were raised.’ Publication was discussed at length at the Brussels Preparatory Meeting the following September, and it was agreed that ‘the publications of the Institute should be given the general title Technical Studies in Art and Archaeology and adopt the general format of the former Technical Studies’. As well as a journal based on the model of Technical Studies it was felt that there was a need for a more informal publication. The IIC Newsletter – now News in Conservation – was edited by Sheldon and Caroline Keck at the Brooklyn Museum, and first appeared in May 1952, five months before the first number of IIC’s journal, Studies in Conservation, the successor to Technical Studies in the Field of the Fine Arts.

SMS: During your research you went through the founding members’ personal correspondence, and you studied their published writings on the early history of IIC. Is there a quote that you could share with our readers that you found to be especially memorable or inspiring?

HL: Perhaps this extract from the July 1952 Prospectus of Studies in Conservation best encapsulates the intentions for IIC of its founders:

Subject to certain highly relevant aesthetic considerations, the care and preservation of art treasures is essentially a technical and scientific problem. But in this field, as in others, no amount of instrumentation is of any value without, at all levels, a thoroughly competent staff; and in 1950 there was founded in London the International Institute for the Conservation of Museum Objects which aims at establishing the highest standards of technical proficiency among those who specialise in conservation, and at raising their professional status.

SMS: What should further research of IIC’s history focus on? Can you give any practical advice to prospective researchers?

HL: I’m sure there’s scope for research into many facets of IIC’s history, and I’m afraid I wouldn’t know what practical advice to give. The main focus of my interest in the history of IIC was its foundation. As I’ve tried to indicate in my previous answers, I think the formation of IIC depended on there having been a shared need among those involved to define conservation as a profession characterised by a scientific approach, but that the local situations in which that need was felt were distinct. My research in general is concerned with the history of conservation in England. So personally, I would be interested to learn more from other researchers about the situations that prevailed in other countries and stimulated involvement in IIC.

SMS: We have now revisited your work from twenty years ago. What are you currently working on?

HL: I’m writing a history of the care of paintings in the 19th and 20th centuries, concentrating on conservation in relation to art institutions in London.

SMS: Thank you very much for the interview, and I wish you a lot of success in writing the book.


(An excerpt of this interview, with more images, is featured in the December-January 2021 "News in Conservation" issue 81, p. 12-16, celebrating 70 years of IIC)

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Twenty years ago, Hero Lotti (née Boothroyd Brooks) undertook the demanding task of researching IIC’s beginnings. The results of her research were published in the booklet A Short History of IIC: Foundation and Development. To bring the fascinating story of the forming of IIC closer to its members and the readers of "News in Conservation", we interviewed Hero for the IIC 70th Anniversary issue of the magazine.
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