Caroline Villers

Technical art historian at the Courtauld
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Caroline Villers was one of the leading exponents of a branch of art history that is wide-ranging in its scope but highly specialised in its methods. It is the discipline that has come to be known as "technical art history", in which scientific investigation is used to clarify some of the great questions that art historians ask about the making of works of art - who? when? why? and, above all, how?

Caroline Chwoles Villers, art historian and conservator: born London 12 July 1948; Lecturer, Department of Conservation and Technology, Courtauld Institute 1980-98, Senior Lecturer 1998-99, Director 1999-2004; married Robert McNab (two sons, one daughter); died London 24 December 2004.

Caroline Villers was one of the leading exponents of a branch of art history that is wide-ranging in its scope but highly specialised in its methods. It is the discipline that has come to be known as "technical art history", in which scientific investigation is used to clarify some of the great questions that art historians ask about the making of works of art - who? when? why? and, above all, how?

In her role as Lecturer and, latterly, Director of the Department of Conservation and Technology at the Courtauld Institute in London - where she spent almost her entire working life - she was ideally placed to participate in and lead key research in this field.

Villers's ancestry was complex. Her parents were an exotic mix of Eastern European Jewish, Colombian and English and it all resulted in her striking, mysterious beauty and sharply intelligent mind. Born in 1948, she went to a convent school in Suffolk and to Somerville College, Oxford, where she read Modern History. She then went to the Courtauld Institute to take a master's degree in Art History (1972) and, after working briefly at the London Museum as an assistant curator of prints and drawings, returned to the Courtauld in 1974 to study the conservation of easel paintings.

Her teacher, Professor Stephen Rees-Jones, had established his world-famous technology department in a warren of tiny rooms behind the institute's then home in Portman Square - and visitors to the department, knowing its towering international reputation, were always surprised at its dark, cramped quarters. But Villers's generation of conservators would never forget it - nor the sense of excitement as they witnessed the development of fundamental conservation techniques, and a whole new approach to art history in the making.

Villers remained in the technology department of the Courtauld for the rest of her life. After completing her diploma in 1976, she became, successively, Technical Assistant, Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and, in 1999, Director of the department. Over that period, she consolidated her reputation as one of the most original thinkers in her chosen field.

As she herself expressed it, she patrolled the borders between the two cultures - between art and science - and, from her unique vantage point in the most influential of all art-historical institutions, she ensured that the dialogue between the two territories was conducted on terms of strict equality. Her many published papers range from pure technology (the physical properties of fabrics used for lining canvas paintings, for example) through technical art history (the working methods of the 15th-century painter Robert Campin, or the techniques of the French Impressionists) to the changing philosophies of 21st-century conservation.

As well as an impressive list of publications, Villers was also a brilliant editor. At different times, she edited both of the principal journals of conservation published in the UK ( Studies in Conservation and The Conservator), produced numerous collections of conference proceedings, and - a labour of love and friendship - compiled the complete published work of Gerry Hedley, her friend and colleague at the Courtauld Institute who died tragically in 1990 aged only 41.

But, although publishing her own or other people's research was of huge importance to her, for Caroline Villers it was only part of the contribution she made to the profession. First and foremost, she was an inspirational teacher, conveying her constant enthusiasm coupled with scrupulous scholarship to the large numbers of students fortunate enough to be taught by her.

Secondly, she was an extraordinary ambassador - active on national and international committees, organising research programmes, symposia and conferences - including the fascinating "Trade in Painters' Materials", forthcoming at the Courtauld Institute in February. For the past three years she had been vice-chair of the International Council of Museums Conservation Committee and was actively planning its triennial conference in The Hague in September 2005.

Villers was a remarkable person, not only for her endlessly creative contributions to academic studies, but for the love and affection she inspired in all those she met. At any gathering she would be at the centre of a crowd of friends, captivated by her radiant intelligence, her warm humour and that infectious chuckle we all knew so well. At the centre of everything for her was her evident devotion to her family - her husband, the writer and film-maker Robert McNab, and their children Maro, Alexander and Sophia - of all of whom she was luminously proud.

She transparently enjoyed every aspect of her life, whether reviewing a book or student paper, debating with colleagues, looking at the paintings she loved, walking in Scotland or holidaying in Greece. Her diagnosis with a brain tumour last summer stunned everybody who knew her. The sense of unfinished business seems especially poignant for someone whose life and work were so clearly in full flower.

David Bomford



Comments