Graduate Diploma Conservation Studies, Specialising in Furniture and Related Objects 1981 - 1982

Julian Bickersteth

President of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works

What do you consider your biggest achievement to date?
Becoming President of IIC, the International Institute for conservation of historic and artistic works. I've always valued interaction with conservators worldwide as we are a relatively small professional sector, and to be able to make a difference in a small way as president to the sector is both challenging and satisfying. As President I'm asked to conferences and events all over the world, albeit somewhat curtailed by lack of travel in covid times, and I have relished the opportunity to dialogue with professional colleagues and see where IIC can provide support. Under my presidency two areas we've made significant advances in are diversifying the organisation and making it truly global, and leading the way in providing forums and tools for combating the impact of climate change on heritage.

Talk us through your career path since graduating.
Straight after West Dean I worked in London for a leading antique dealer for a couple of years applying the learnings of West Dean under the tutelage of a highly skilled restorer. I was then appointed as the first museum furniture conservator in Australia at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney. After three years there I saw an opening to establish a private conservation practice working with conservators in other disciplines and was lucky enough to find an investor prepared to support the venture. A further three years on I was able to buyout that investor. I have been CEO of International Conservation Services, or ICS as it is known, for the last 30 years, and we now have over 40 staff working across the disciplines of furniture, paintings, works on paper, textiles, sculpture, archaeology and outdoor heritage. Our major workshops are in Sydney and we also have workshops in Canberra, Melbourne and Perth. We have also broadened into museum consulting and project management of major conservation projects. However, the heart of our existence is the hands-on skills that we bring as conservators in all these disciplines, and we spend a lot of time honing and professionally developing those skills to ensure we remain on top of our game and the latest developments.

What projects are you currently working on?
I must admit there are no hands-on furniture projects that I'm directly involved with. However, in our workshops we currently have everything from contemporary wooden Chinese artworks, to 18th Century commodes, to fire damaged doors from Old Parliament House in Canberra. The latter resulted from a protest that got out of hand and caused enormous damage to these symbolic doors, seen as not only the entrance to parliament but also to democracy. Luckily the doors were made of a four layer laminate of jarrah, a West Australian timber, which has allowed us to peel off the fire charred outside layer and apply a new surface. Damage caused by human and natural disasters are front of mind at present due to major floods in Australia, which has resulted in furniture and artworks being immersed in water, and thick black mould quickly taking over.

Do you have any tips for recent graduates?
Never stop asking questions and looking for opportunities to learn more. Join every organisation that you think might be relevant even if only obliquely as not only is the direct learning the team provides vital, but contextual learning is also incredibly valuable. Seek to understand everything from the science of why items deteriorate to the stories behind them, and the policies that dictate decisions about their conservation.

How do you think studying at West Dean College prepared you for what you do now?
I always say to people considering a career in conservation that they will be in a much stronger position if they have a discipline under their belt to a high level of achievement before they move into broader management or consulting roles. It provides not only credibility but also confidence. West Dean set me up so well in both these areas. Our year had varying ages but we universally just wanted to learn as much as we could at West Dean and get out into the world and apply it.

What's your favourite memory from your time at the College?
It would be early morning walks in the West Dean parkland with Colin Piper. We shared a room for the year having both come from other careers and we were intent on getting into the world of furniture conservation as fast as we could.  To be able to discuss the previous days learnings and range far and wide on other issues before sitting down to breakfast and the day’s work in that incomparable setting was very special.

Did you receive any form of funding to study at West Dean?
Yes, I was granted a part scholarship by the college, as far as I can remember.

Did you have a different career before coming to West Dean? If so why did you change career paths?
I believe I got as much out of West Dean as I did because I came to it not to explore if this might be a career for me but convinced this was the career for me. To have reached that stage I had read theology at Oxford, got a job in a merchant bank in the City, worked in a outward bound school in rural Australia including teaching, contemplated becoming a harpsichord maker and a contemporary furniture maker and finally landed on furniture restoration. I have never regretted it for a moment.