Memories of Chris Clarkson

“Haven’t you heard of the Stanley 99E?” With this question and its accompanying gesture (and tad naughty smile), Christopher Clarkson once plainly dismissed the arguably decent utility knife I was offering him to take a sample of leather from a full skin. This anecdote may give an idea of how, for Mr Clarkson, nothing but the best was good enough when it came to his professional practice and its means.

Christopher Clarkson, “the pre-eminent conservator of medieval manuscripts and early printed books” as Nicholas Pickwoad describes him in his obituary, passed away on 31 March. Here, a former student and a former colleague share their reflections on Chris’ attitude towards his life and craft, and how the former was devoted to the quest for excellence in the latter.  Salvador Alcántara Peláez, The Gathering

Chris examining an early printed book in 2011. Photo, Gordon Taylor LRPS.

Writing about Chris is a difficult task. I was one of his last interns at West Dean College before he moved back to Oxford in 1998, and working at the National Library of Florence connects me every day with him and his work.

Chris was an incredibly dedicated tutor, and the quality of his teaching will not be approached by that of anyone else in our small field. Every word he used was very well thought out, and every project done with him was always worth spending all the energy you had on it. Our time in the book conservation department at West Dean was incredibly demanding – the workshops were open from 7am to 10pm every day. Yet the work seemed effortless and easy. Chris had a habit of getting you tied to your bench by his interest in what you were doing, and his way of working was contagious. You had the feeling that his was the only way things should be done, yet Chris was showing you a method of working and not a recipe. Every question had an answer, but the path to that answer was never straight and smooth; it was a long one travelled step by step, with you taking your share of the lead. There were never quick answers to simple questions.

The level of  his commitment to his way of working was so high that he loathed cutting corners. Yet he did not need to tell you that your work was not good enough for his standards, he would just point out the defects and you would automatically feel the urge to do things again and again, trying to match what he was able to do with apparently no effort. His work ethic is self-evident in his articles, as well: his dedication to finding the most precise way to write and describe, honing his papers in a painstaking effort of continuous little changes, is something that I feel that has not received the attention it deserves. He was addicted to perfection in both his practical and his scholarly work.

Others have been writing, much better than I could have done, about what Chris achieved professionally. To that I would like to add that as a teacher he did not simply provide us with technical training. As he told us time and again, “ours was not a training but more a medieval apprenticeship” (and he never used medieval in a negative way), and our duty was not just learning but also changing our minds and trying to embrace a whole philosophy of working.

Yet even though Chris was so dedicated to his work and students, he was first and foremost an incredible human being. His eye for beauty and his attention to detail spread to many fields, and he could talk for an entire afternoon about the quality of some chisels or take you to see daffodils that were in bloom. Yes, the training I had with Chris was undoubtedly my hardest and most rewarding educational experience; but I did not only learn from him professionally, I also changed my approach to life, and I have no doubt that everyone who was trained by him feels the same way.

Now that Chris is no longer leading us, our task is to try to follow in his footsteps, humbly but firmly, trying to think of what he would have done if he were in our situation. It will not be easy. We all miss him very much, and there will never be a substitute for him, but his memory deserves that we try, just as hard as he taught us to work.  Alessandro Sidoti


Chris working on the Hereford Cathedral Mappa Mundi. Photo, Gordon Taylor LRPS.

I was introduced to Chris at West Dean in 1987, when he had started to teach and I had begun to design and build the college library. We quickly formed a friendship, Chris with his love of books and their conservation and me with my love of libraries. With Chris’ passing I would like to celebrate his life and for a moment remember what a remarkable man he was, all the more with his passing, now that he is no longer here to protect the heritage of our civilisation.

We were young in 1987 and full of enthusiasm, a quality that he never lost, right through to the end. His thirst for knowledge was kaleidoscopic. He would ask many questions of me about oak, tools and sharpening, gathering every contribution from every specialized field that could be of value to early book conservation. From the beginning I recognised a man dedicated to his craft. He was a scholar in the true sense of the word.

As our friendship grew, so did my respect for him and my recognition of his skills. Once, when I was staying with him and Oonagh, he showed me the leather bindings he had completed as a student. Along with the tools he himself had forged to work the leather, it was exquisite workmanship. It was worthy of someone at the end of their working life rather than the beginning, as if he had been born with these abilities. I could see in an instant the time, and dedication that were needed to produce such craftsmanship.

Many people will know Chris from his time at the book and paper conservation school in Spoleto, Italy. We both tutored there for many years, working a coordinated programme. For me it afforded the opportunity to work with many wonderful students in a stunning location, which, combined with my love of Italy, had a profound influence on me and my work. For Chris, having set the bar impossibly high whilst nurturing his students and encouraging them to dig deep to heighten their awareness, it spread his legacy throughout the world. His students took posts in many different countries, taking with them the skills they learnt during their time with him in Spoleto.

Chris treasured above all the education of others in developing practical skills that were no longer being tutored. His life spanned the transition from the ‘restoration’ of the past to the science-led conservation of today, and he had first-hand knowledge of materials that were available in his early days yet which had declined in availability and quality as small producers retired and no one took their place. This worried him greatly, and he would talk to me at length as to how this would impact the future. He had started conserving books well before the advent of computers and digital photography, and their use today has meant that practical skills are being neglected. He would often call me into his workshop to show me manuscripts that were in such poor condition that it was hard to think of how to begin, but because of his practical expertise he would. He would take on what looked impossible, and whilst retaining the original material he would conserve the manuscript.

He felt every emotion about the responsibility he faced in conservation, and I often saw him hold one arm around his waist, in a way to comfort himself, whilst placing the other hand on his head in despair. It felt to me that he had the whole burden and responsibility of the conservation profession on his shoulders. Yet he never wavered, he never gave up, and he took everything on.

As our final professional collaboration, we worked on the Mappa Mundi at the Chained Library at Hereford Cathedral. Together we redesigned the Mappa’s supports and re-installed the Mappa in its case, while Chris arranged for outer lighting. The final result is magnificent, and the fine detail of the Mappa is now easy to see, greatly enhancing the joy and experience of its visitors. Sadly, during this time Chris’ health was failing and I do not believe he was able to see the finished work. It was difficult to see him struggling to keep going, yet nothing would stop him – so strong was his will – and with great courage he continued to the end.

Chris was in the vanguard of book conservation. He was its guardian and gatekeeper. All of us who knew Chris will have felt the imprint within us left by his dedication, commitment and skill. It is with love and affection that I will look up to him for the many years of shared compassion, values, vision and altruism.  Bernard Allen


Alessandro Sidoti graduated in 1996 from the European School for Book Conservation in Spoleto, Italy, and then spent two years specializing in the restoration and conservation of rare books and manuscripts at West Dean College (West Sussex, England), working under the direct supervision of Christopher Clarkson. Since 1999 he has worked as a book conservator for the National Library of Florence and is an expert in emergency salvage techniques for library materials.

Bernard Allen has designed and built heritage libraries and display cases since 1972. He started teaching in 1988, with cabinet-making courses at West Dean. Working closely with Chris Clarkson he tutored students in the making and sharpening of knives and tools used in book conservation, pressure boxes and timber technology, and has taught in Italy, the Bodleian and Wellcome. He specialises in making book boards for conservation binding and board repairs. 

3 thoughts on “Memories of Chris Clarkson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.