Medal Awarded to Caroline Villers, 2005

En route to The Hague for the first time to attend a meeting of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) I remembered a conversation about marriage with Robert Crumb and his wife Aline. I’d said my partnership and marriage to Caroline had survived nearly 40 years because of the slight distance we maintained from each other. “You’re not alone,” laughed Aline, looking at Robert.

Little did I realise, that in the little gap between Caroline and myself one day I would find thousands of people from seventy five nations; the Membership of ICOM’s Committee for Conservation and its Directory Board of which Caroline was, until her death in December 2004, the Vice-Chair. She had earned a place in their heart.

The Triennial opened to a packed house of nearly a thousand delegates. Looking down on them all was a vast photograph of Caroline, in whose memory the Conference began with a minute’s silence. Five days later her smiling face once again dominated the hall for the Final Session, when, on her behalf, I received the prestigious ICOM Medal awarded to her memory by the organisation.

Because of her mordant modesty the scale and impact of her contribution internationally to her profession never came home to us, her family. And I guess that most of her colleagues at Somerset House may not have realised Caroline was in effect running not one, but TWO major international organisations – her Department and ICOM’s Conservation arm (ICOM-CC). In collaboration with the Getty Conservation Institute she turned ICOM-CC into an increasingly powerful world force. As one delegate after another, approached me to share their gratitude for her kindness and guidance I could only wonder, how did she fit all this into her life?

I then staggered off with the two volumes of the Conference papers; a summary of world conservation practice across dozens of fields. These illustrated books are the size of telephone directories and weigh in at three and a half kilos. She edited these publications, now fittingly dedicated to her memory.

It remains for the Conference on materials organised jointly by the National Gallery, London and the Courtauld Institute in February this year to appear in book form for Caroline’s contribution to be complete. That volume, about the trade in artists’ materials in Europe up to 1700, was as ever with her, realised in happy collaboration. The subject was one I watched her develop over many years and I know the conference, which she did not live to see, was one of her proudest achievements. It will, in my view, be her enduring memorial as a Courtauld scholar.

Robert McNab