Careers in Focus

Careers in Focus: Sophie Theobald Clark, Paintings Conservator


Sophie Theobald Clarke analysing William Robinson paint samples at the Australian Synchrotron in Clayton, Victoria

Sophie Theobald Clark graduated from UQ in 2011 with First Class Honours in Art History, after completing a Bachelor of Arts (Art History, Literature and History), also at UQ. A chance meeting with a conservation expert while interning at UQ Art Museum led to an intensive learning experience, a Masters in Cultural Materials Conservation, work experience at NGV International and QAGOMA, and ultimately, a career in the field. We caught up with Sophie to find out more about her experiences, the work she does on a daily basis, and her advice for students looking to get into the conservation field.

Q: You graduated from UQ with First Class Honours in Art History. How did you become interested in conservation, and can you tell us about the training you’ve undertaken to move into a career in the field?
A: My main interest has always been the visual arts. I spent years devising overseas trips to see, in person, everything I’d previously only seen in books and on television, until it dawned on me that I could pursue a career working with artworks. I began by studying Art History and took advantage of practical opportunities in the UQ Art History department and also at UQ Art Museum. During my Honours year at UQ, I was interning with Kath Kerswell at UQ Art Museum, and she introduced me to conservator John Hook. He was incredibly generous with his time and advice and I worked alongside John and framer Paul Curson for three months, learning to treat paintings and frames. This experience clarified my decision to pursue conservation. I went on to do a Masters in Cultural Materials Conservation (majoring in Paintings Conservation) at the University of Melbourne, and graduated in 2013. During this time, I undertook a lot of work experience, which consolidated my theoretical knowledge. Post-study, I’ve taken on private conservation work in Brisbane and have been involved in a collaborative two-year conservation research project between QAGOMA and QUT on the materials and techniques of artist William Robinson.

Q: As a paintings conservator, what tasks might you be involved with on any given day?
A: Often it’s a combination of condition reporting on incoming and outgoing loans, doing treatments like consolidating flaking paint, surface cleaning, repairing canvas damages and retouching paint losses, and if I get lucky, some analytical investigation as well.

Q: What skills and experience are critical for your job?
A: You have to be able to weigh up what’s required for a painting to be displayable within a set timeframe and formulate treatments tailored to each work. It’s also important to be aware of the latest research and to know your limits as you’re dealing with unique and important cultural items.

Q: Can you tell us about a project you’ve worked on that fascinated or challenged you in some way?
A: Most of what I’ve worked on so far has been a combination of both, because I’m quite new to the field and also because every painting you encounter has a unique set of problems or secrets to be revealed. However, one of the most exciting projects I’ve worked on was in May 2014 when I helped conserve a 19th-century fresco in a small church for the local community in south-west France with John Hook.

Q: What advice do you have for students seeking a career in conservation?
A: There is work in art conservation in Australia – often short-term and contract-based – but these positions are highly competitive due to the increasing number of conservation graduates and reducing institutional budgets. To get into the field it’s vital to undertake work experience during study, and be prepared to apply for jobs interstate and overseas.

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