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Plowden, Anna Bridgetlocked

  • Jonathan Ashley-Smith

Anna Bridget Plowden (1938–1997)

by unknown photographer, 1985 [detail]

photograph provided by Plowden & Smith Limited

Plowden, Anna Bridget (1938–1997), archaeological conservator and restorer, was born on 18 June 1938 at 99 Cromwell Road, Kensington, the second of four children of Edwin Noel Auguste Plowden, Baron Plowden (1907–2001), and Bridget Horatia Plowden (née Richmond), Lady Plowden (1910–2000). Edwin Plowden was chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority from 1954 until 1959, when he received a life peerage. Lady Plowden was chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority from 1975 to 1980. Anna's elder brother, William Julius Lowthian Plowden (1935–2010), was later a leading political scientist and policy advisor. Anna was educated at New Hall, Chelmsford, and in 1963 graduated with a diploma in conservation from the Institute of Archaeology at University College, London. She was awarded a fellowship by the British School of Archaeology that allowed her to work on the Nimrud ivories in the Museum of Iraq. On her return to England in 1965 she set up in business as a freelance conservator, specializing in archaeological bronzes. She taught practical conservation part-time at the Institute of Archaeology.

The company Anna Plowden Ltd was formed in 1968, and about that time Plowden began working in conjunction with Peter Smith (R and R) Ltd. The range of work with which this team could deal rapidly expanded and eventually included all types of decorative and fine art. Plowden and Smith were happy to take on projects of any size and secured some important international contracts. The company Plowden and Smith Ltd was formed in 1985. As well as a successful business relationship there was for a long time a close personal relationship between Plowden and Smith. The firm was granted two royal warrants, and after Plowden's death remained one of the largest and most successful businesses in the conservation private sector.

Anna Plowden was frequently billed as the first scientifically trained conservator of objects to work in the private sector, yet she was very insecure about her understanding of conservation science. She was frequently on the phone to colleagues in the London national museums to seek information and reassurance. This was how she believed the public and private sectors should collaborate; the institutions were good at theory and scientific testing and should willingly share expertise and advice with the private sector. The freelance conservator was, she asserted, more efficient and more practically skilled than the museum conservator but should be willing to pass on these skills freely and openly.

Between 1979 and 1983 Plowden chaired the conservation committee of the Crafts Council. She used this time to develop links with the national museums and to improve the status and professionalism of freelance conservators. When it seemed that the Crafts Council was trying to minimize its involvement in conservation she caused a dramatic stir by persuading the conservation committee to resign en masse. She was also one of three senior committee members of the United Kingdom Institute for Conservation who in 1984 resigned in disgust when the membership refused to allow an increase in subscriptions so that the process of professional accreditation could begin. Her campaigning ensured the establishment of the conservation unit at the Museums and Galleries Commission in 1987.

Although a brilliant social networker and often extremely forthright in her manner, Plowden was none the less very shy of formal presentation. She did not write for the professional journals or present papers at any of the major international conferences. She was extremely anxious about the accuracy and usability of the book Looking after Antiques, published in 1987, which she co-authored with Frances Halahan. She dreaded having to give an address as president of the Royal Warrant Holders' Association, an office she would have taken up in 1998. In 1990 she became a trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum. She was scrupulous about conflicts of interest that might have arisen between her business and the work of the museum's conservation department. She spoke rarely but always effectively at board meetings. She gained the respect and affection of the museum's staff by taking a close personal interest in the activities of employees from all levels and across all disciplines. She was appointed CBE in 1997. After a long illness involving painful and debilitating treatments she died from ovarian cancer on 21 August 1997 at the Lister Hospital, Westminster, London.


  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • The Independent (23 Aug 1997)
  • Daily Telegraph (28 Aug 1997)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • The Guardian (23 Aug 1997)


  • photograph, 1985, Plowden & Smith Ltd, London [see illus.]
  • photograph, repro. in The Guardian
  • photograph, repro. in Daily Telegraph