With the passing of Cathy Lillico-Thompson on 18 September 2023 we have lost an important player in the early development of the Australian conservation profession. Cathy, or Lillico as she was known to her many friends, was one of the initial wave of conservators who were inspired by the profession’s founding figures to explore a career in conservation.
The youngest of eight children, Catherine Annette Lillico-Thompson was born to Andrew and Valerie Lillico on 13 July 1952 on the family farm near Burnie in northern Tasmania. The Lillicos were of proud Scottish borders family stock and ran a mixed farm as well as her sisters teaching at the local primary school in Penguin. Cathy excelled at school and won a scholarship to the Tasmanian School of Art, where she completed a degree in art teaching. She then taught in Ulverstone, whilst also selling her art and even undertaking margarine sculpting at Wrest Point Casino. This, however, was purely a prelude to the career that was to come, allowing her to earn money to fund a European trip led by her inspiring art school teachers Leon Paroissien and Bernice Murphy, who were later to found the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Europe and its galleries transfixed her and in particular how these artworks were conserved, and she determined to return there to train as a conservator.
She was accepted at the Dominican University in Florence for which she had to learn Italian. Two years in Florence were followed by a Masters in Easel Painting Conservation at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London where she trained under the great mural expert Sir Robert Bruce Gardiner. Returning to Australia, Cathy was appointed Curator of Conservation at the Regional Galleries Association of NSW, a new position intended to tackle the substantial conservation challenges of the regional gallery collections. Whilst there she famously treated the Tom Roberts painting Mosman’s Bay belonging to the New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM) and discovered that 3 inches of canvas had been wrapped around the back of the stretcher, completely altering the composition of the painting.
Meanwhile, Cathy had been investigating improvements in art transport, the subject of her thesis at the Courtauld. Working with Neil Wilson at Grace Fine Art she designed the FABWELL crate to protect and buffer artworks and then the OZCLIP to make them safer to transport and hang. So when Neil, now at Corrigan’s art transport, proposed a joint venture between Corrigan’s and Campbell Conservation to create International Conservation Services (ICS), Cathy became head of paintings at the fledgling company. Her skills as both art conservator and inventor were soon put to use when she undertook the conservation of the Children’s Chapel at St James’ Church, King Street, Sydney. This beautiful mural was being badly damaged by salts in the crypt and Cathy devised a system to remove the mural and remount it on a new fiberglass shell set within the crypt. It was an audacious project that she executed perfectly, working with Arek Werstak and Anna Czarnota, and the treatment has stood the test of time well. She followed this with a number of major conservation projects at ICS including the Trades Hall banners, the Goatcher curtain at Kalgoorlie Town Hall, the carousel at Luna Park, St Kilda, and the uncovering of the ornate decorative scheme at the Swifts mansion in Darling Point.
In later life, Cathy turned her talents to the teaching of icon painting, a process that was deeply personal to her and partly led to her being ordained in the office of teacher in the Aaronic priesthood. With an infectious laugh and a wonderful twinkle in her eye, people were naturally drawn to Cathy and she advised and inspired many budding conservators despite ill health in her later years.
Cathy’s funeral was held in the Community of Christ Drummoyne, where she had been married 39 years previously, surrounded by her wide circle of family, friends and icon students. Cathy is survived by her husband Mark and daughter Claire.