The Courtauld is saddened to learn of the death on 6th June of Sharon Cather, retired Shelby White and Leon Levy Professor of Conservation Studies, and a long-term and much-valued member of the Courtauld faculty.
Trained in art history at Princeton, Sharon was a scholar at the American Academy in Rome and taught at Cambridge University before joining forces with Professor David Park to found the Courtauld’s Conservation of Wall Painting Department in 1985. There, as technical lead, Sharon pioneered ‘preventive conservation’, which moved the focus of research and practice away from risks of treatment towards the benefits of understanding and addressing causes of deterioration. As a result, the CWPD quickly became one of the world’s pre-eminent centres for conservation training and research.
Sharon’s ambitions – and indeed her life – were dedicated to improving world-wide standards of wall painting conservation, and this she did not only through teaching and research, but by seeking to embed best practice into the core infrastructure for cultural-heritage conservation and training. With her formidable intelligence and tireless dedication, she inspired a broad and diverse body of conservators, many in specialisms outside wall paintings.
Sharon encouraged her students to think broadly and to innovate, and many approaches and techniques the CWPD developed quickly became international standard practice in wall painting conservation. She was always the first to harness technological advances for practical ends, and as her citation for the 2017 Plowden Medal points out, her approach was holistic long before the word came into common usage. Interdisciplinary methodologies were applied by her not only to understand painting materials and techniques, and to diagnose and control deterioration, but also to examine the theory and practice of conservation. She was famously demanding, not least of her students, whom she taught to think analytically and critically. She expected them to adhere to the very highest standards ethically as well as professionally, and to seek always to better every aspect of their work; but this expectation was always tempered with endless support and encouragement. Alumni of the course are now to be found in prestigious positions throughout the world; Sharon was always delighted to see her students spread their wings, and continued to support them in their new roles.
During her 32 years at The Courtauld, Sharon with David, worked closely with other national and international conservation organisations including the Getty Conservation Institute, English Heritage, The National Trust, Florence’s Opificio de Pietre Dure in Florence, the Fachhochschule in Cologne, and the Dunhuang Academy in China. Sharon was directly responsible for major conservation projects in many countries, including the UK, Bhutan, China, Cyprus, Georgia, India, Jordan, Malta, and Spain, and helped develop other wall-painting teaching programmes in Israel, Malta, Qatar, Georgia and China.
A widely respected communicator of her vision for conservation, Sharon published prolifically and was always in demand to speak at international conferences. She served on many advisory committees, including the Council of the International Institute for Conservation (for the last four years of that time as Vice-President). She was Chair of the Technical Committee for both the 2010 IIC Istanbul Congress, and the 2012 Vienna Congress.
In recent years Sharon’s extraordinary heritage was recognised by a number of highly distinguished awards; including, in 2014, The People’s Republic of China Friendship Award (China’s highest accolade for foreign experts), and in 2017 the Plowden Medal for lifetime contributions to conservation. The citation for the latter noted ‘her commitment and leadership in research, innovation and education in wall painting conservation’ towards ‘a more holistic, methodical and scientific approach to conserving wall painting across the world – whether in an English cathedral or an Indian palace’.
Sharon’s impact on the conservation of historic buildings in general and wall paintings in particular is unparalleled, and her death leaves an enormous lacuna. The Courtauld Institute was a richer environment because of her contributions and she will be sorely missed by her many students and colleagues.
Paul Williamson, Hon Research Fellow at The Courtauld, has published an obituary of Sharon in SALON, the newsletter of the Society of Antiquaries.