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Mary Greenacre obituary

Mary Greenacre in 2009. She was an expert on prehistoric pottery, 18th-century terracotta sculpture and Delftware Photograph: family

Mary Greenacre in 2009. She was an expert on prehistoric pottery, 18th-century terracotta sculpture and Delftware Photograph: family© Photograph: family

My friend Mary Greenacre, who has died aged 77, was an archaeological and museum conservator of distinction, possessing an innate empathy with fragile and precious objects.

Mary specialised in ceramics, and came to understand prehistoric pottery, 18th-century terracotta sculpture and Delftware. She became conservator at the South West Area Museum Service in Bristol in 1969, where she met Francis Greenacre, curator of fine art at the City Art Gallery. They married within six months and became the lively hosts of many gatherings. Her studio in the City Art Gallery became a place of work, friendship and laughter, with music and Test Match Special on the radio. However, she never forgave the Bristol professor who, standing by her workbench, stubbed out his cigarette on the Delftware apothecary’s slab that she had just conserved. 

Throughout her career Mary mentored young people, becoming a committee member, and later chair, of the United Kingdom Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, helping to advance its codes of ethics and training, while latterly she taught conservation ethics and techniques at City and Guilds Foundation in London (2011-17).

Born Mary Dyk in New Orleans, she was the youngest of the three children, and only daughter, of Marirose (nee Donahue) and Robert Dyk, the geophysicist managing director of Hamilton Brothers, the company that first brought North Sea oil ashore to Britain in 1975. His career took the family to one US city after another, before culminating in Brussels and London. Much of Mary’s high-school education took place in Los Angeles at Pacific Palisades high school, and her love of horses developed in Colorado.

Having studied anthropology and archaeology at the University of Brussels, and archaeological conservation at the Institute of Archaeology in London, Mary became an intern at the Museum of London. There, in 1965, she took part in preparing for burial in Westminster Abbey the rediscovered remains of Anne de Mowbray, the child bride of Richard, Duke of York, one of the Princes in the Tower. She recalled curling the neat ringlets of hair that remained on the skull of the eight-year-old, who had died in 1481. 

When her third child, Jemima, was born in 1983, Mary resigned from the Area Museum Service, but found time to become a council member of the St Monica Trust care homes, and Bristol Zoological Society, and a member of Bristol Cathedral’s fabric advisory committee.

She returned to full-time employment in 1993, as the regional conservator for the National Trust South West region. Within her new brief were the trust properties at Dyrham Park, Lytes Cary and Stourhead, as well as Tyntesfield, bought by the NT in 2002.

She became centrally involved with the preparation of this great house, advocating rapid opening once initial preventive conservation was complete. This raised public interest, with many visitors returning regularly to see its evolution. Tyntesfield might not have progressed with the sense of urgency and attention to detail required without Mary’s constant presence, persistence and purpose.

Mary is survived by Francis, their children, Ben, Edward and Jemima, six grandchildren and her brother Jim. 

Story by James Hamilton:The Guardian 

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