Obituary: Anna Plowden

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The Independent Online
Anna Plowden was one of the foremost object conservators of her generation and made significant contributions to the techniques and practice of conservation. Her interest was not contained to her own business, but also extended into membership of the Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum and of various advisory bodies in the field of conservation.

She was born in 1938, the second of four children and the elder daughter of Edwin and Bridget Plowden (later Lord and Lady Plowden). She inherited from them her clarity of intelligence, her industriousness, her directness of manner, her undemonstrative but unswerving integrity, and her readiness to devote her energies with unstinting commitment to public service where she thought that there was a worthwhile contribution for her to make.

After school at New Hall, Chelmsford, she spent the academic year 1962-63 on the Diploma Course in Conservation at the Institute of Archaeology in London University, and was duly awarded her diploma. That led to a Fellowship awarded by the British School of Archaeol- ogy which made it possible for her to work on the conservation and restoration of the Nimrud Ivories in the Museum of Iraq.

In 1965, back in England, she started a one-woman freelance business in conservation, specialising in the conservation of archaeological bronzes. She was the first scientifically trained objects conservator to work in the private sector. During this time she undertook the cleaning of a set of Khmer bronze figures from Cambodia, now in the Rockefeller Museum; the removal of a wall-painting at Fort Jesus in Mombasa; the removal of wall-paintings and armorial shields from Lincoln's Inn's 16th- century gatehouse, which was being demolished, and their restoration and replacement; and the artificial salt-glazing of 5,000 bricks, in the replica building put up in its place.

As if this were not enough, she became a part-time lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology, where she taught practical conservation, and the moulding and casting of archaeological artefacts.

In 1968 she established her own company, Anna Plowden Limited, specialising in the conservation and restoration of archaeological and fine art objects. A year later she began to work in conjunction with Peter Smith (R&R) Limited, and expanded the work of the company to include the conservation and restoration of all metalwork, stonework and organic materials (for example wood and leather).

The business flourished and grew, and in 1985 they formed a joint company, Plowden and Smith Limited, of which she was the Managing Director.She was a director of Recollections Limited from 1986 to 1993, and chairman of Art Services Limited from 1994 to 1997. She was also the co-author of Looking After Antiques, published in 1987.

Her business went through a difficult time in the recession of the early 1990s - conservation tends to be one of the casualties of recession - but she weathered that, and had the satisfaction of presiding over its return to prosperity as the economy recovered.

Anna Plowden readily responded to the demands which her success brought upon her to involve herself in public work: for example, as a Fellow of the International Institute for Conservation; chairman from 1979 to 1983 of the Conservation Committee of the Crafts Council; a member from 1987 of the Conservation Advisory Committee of the Museums and Galleries Commission; a member from 1987 of the Council of the Textile Conservation Centre; Trustee of the Edward James Foundation from 1990, and of the St Andrew's Conservation Trust at Wells from 1987 to 1996; and from 1990 a member of the Council of the Royal Warrant Holders Association, of which she was to have become the President next year.

In 1990 the Prime Minister appointed her to be a member of the Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The V&A has a sizeable Conservation Department, extending over all the materials which feature in its collections, and it was to be expected that she would take a special and very knowledgeable interest in the work of that department. But her interest was by no means confined to conservation; she took a strong interest in, and found time to be a regular visitor to other departments as well and her observations were always extremely penetrating and to the point.

She was a very conscientious trustee: she was clearly delighted to be able to play a part in the V&A's affairs, and took a keen interest in its staff - curators, professional and technical staff and warders alike. One of her last visits to the museum, earlier this year, was to sit in on a training event for warders. She won the unqualified respect and affection of her colleagues on the board and of all the staff at the museum. In 1997 she was deservedly appointed CBE for her services to conservation.

Plowden was a quiet and private person, reserved and unassuming, with a detached and amused outlook on life, and on her fellow men and women. But, she knew her own worth, and when she contributed to a discussion, which she did sparingly, it was because she had something relevant and useful to add to it, which her colleagues knew they would benefit from hearing. She had a great capacity for friendship, and for loyalty to her friends and colleagues and to the institutions in which she worked.

Anna Plowden had great inner strength, and she sustained a long illness, which involved much painful and debilitating treatment, and periods of remission which were all too brief, with admirable courage and patience, with characteristic determination and, at the end, with resignation. She retained a youthful complexion and appearance, so much so that it was a surprise to know that she was nearly 60 when she died.

Robert Armstrong

Anna Bridget Plowden, conservator: born 18 June 1938; CBE 1997; died London 21 August 1997.