When Jane Foley began her career as an antiques curator, she was commissioned to beautify the walls of Buckingham Palace.
She later recounted the story of a day when she had climbed a ladder, “looked down, and there was a nice old woman with a purse looking at me.”
It was Queen Elizabeth.
Her Majesty asked, “Do you clean the gilding?”
“Halfway up a ladder,” Ms. Foley told her family, “I attempted a curtsy and said, ‘Yes ma’am, I am.’ “
Ms Foley, 71, who lived in Evanston and Wales, died of pancreatic cancer on October 10 at her home near the Welsh town of Builth Wells.
She was a renowned curator who was called upon to preserve the relics and art from around the world, including some of Chicago’s most beloved museum artifacts.
Among them: the German WWII submarine U-505 at the Museum of Science and Industry. Captured by American forces in 1944, it is the only German submarine on American soil.
Her memories of being chimney sweeps in her native England have inspired her work on this, according to chief curator Kathleen McCarthy. Mrs Foley modified the sweeping tools to clean the command turret – the mini-tower in the middle of the submarine, a space so narrow it could contain just a ladder, a periscope tube, the top hatch and a seat of the size of a bicycle saddle.
“She has always found ingenious ways” to solve problems, said McCarthy.
Ms Foley was working on the submarine after working hours at the museum with her fellow curator Inez Litas, who was his wife and business partner.
“At night it was very worrying to work there,” Litas said. “We think, ‘German soldiers marched here.’ ”
Ms Foley also spent months cleaning and restoring Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle, the miniature palace of the Museum of Science and Industry. It carefully swept away decades of dust that had settled on its 1,500 tiny objects and 19 rooms.
“Jane treated each piece individually – mother-of-pearl, terracotta, gold, platinum, silver, diamond-encrusted furniture and lighting,” said Margaret Schlesinger, former museum curator.
“She approached every project with the skills of a scientist, an investigator, a problem solver, a detective – with MacGyver added,” Schlesinger said.
At Wheaton College, she helped restore the Perry Mastodon, carefully removing layers of old shellac from the bones of the fossil found in a garden in Glen Ellyn in the 1960s, according to Anna Weiss-Pfau of Third Coast Conservation, who worked on the project.
Ms Foley was called in to assist the Field Museum when they had to tear down a woolen rug due to a moth infestation that could have threatened historic textiles and taxidermized animals, said JP Brown, acting head of the conservation.
Everything was fine until people realized that a section of carpet remained under the 2,600-year-old Egyptian sarcophagus of Pefthaukhonsu, a five-foot-by-nine-foot black granite crypt that weighed over three tons. .
Ms. Foley studied a structural crack in the sarcophagus and worked with Methods & Materials, an assembly and installation company, to find a way to lift it.
“It was scary,” Brown said.
But it worked.
“She was not afraid of anything,” said his wife.
Chicago History Museum curator Holly Lundberg described Ms. Foley’s attitude as follows: “We can do it!
“She wasn’t afraid to get dirty, to sink under things,” said Roger Machin, director of Methods & Materials.
A month before her death, Ms Foley completed a plan advising the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University on how to preserve its statues and sculpture garden.
“In Chicago, everyone knew Jane,” said Kristina Bottomley, deputy director of collections and exhibition management at the Evanston Museum.
Ms Foley’s remarkable career was especially remarkable since she only began in her forties. A single mother, she had held jobs in England as the head of a nanny agency and an art gallery. But she was not happy, according to her daughter Clare Foley Gilliland. The gallery struggled. Their house has been taken over.
“She could have hit the ground then and never got up,” her daughter said, “but she changed her life.”
At 43, Ms Foley enrolled at the City & Guilds of London Art School to study curatorial.
“We were extremely proud of her,” her daughter said.
“It took a lot of bravery,” said his sister Fiona Croft.
“As soon as she had a career that she enjoyed, she was happy,” her daughter said.
Before graduating from college, “She had never been beyond Europe,” said Foley Gilliland.
Then, as her reputation grew, she was called to travel the world for her work. In Kuwait, she cataloged antiques for the United Nations. In England, she worked on the restoration of the stage and decorations of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. She also preserved weapons and armor at the Tower of London and gilding and painting at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
In Chicago, she worked on sculptures at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 19th-century Japanese panels at the Art Institute, and Lorado Taft’s “Recording Angel” statue at the University of Chicago.
At the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, she helped maintain a German boxcar like those used to transport millions of Jews to death camps during World War II.
She also worked on a rare urn and other artifacts at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park.
His wife said the Field Museum hired Ms Foley to teach curatorial skills to Iraqi museum officials.
“Jane was very aware and upset when sculptures, famous archaeological sites, etc. in the Middle East were destroyed by Isis,” she said.
Ms. Foley was so strong about it that in 2019, despite an aversion to the stage, she appeared in a performance piece about the destruction of antiques – titled “Atlas Unlimited (Acts V-VI)” – at the Logan Gallery Center at the University of Chicago.
His interest in preservation started early. Growing up near Warblington Castle in Hampshire, England, young Jane once found a few damaged bronze lanterns on her family’s property.
“She renovated them beautifully, using all the right materials,” her sister said.
Twenty years ago, Ms Foley was curator of stones, murals and mosaics at the British Museum when she loaned objects to the Field Museum for a Cleopatra exhibition in 2001. She accompanied the treasures to the Field.
It was there that she met Litas, his future wife.
They have also worked together in their companies Litas Liparini Restoration Studio in Evanston and Foley Conservation in Wales.
Besides his wife, daughter and sister, Ms Foley is survived by her brothers Patrick and Martin, her step-siblings Sarah, Clare, Mandy and Joanna, her stepchildren Christine and Alex and her granddaughters Evie and Leia.
A funeral service is scheduled for Tuesday at 12:30 p.m. at St Thomas’ Church in Becket, Hampshire.
From her grave, “You can see the house where she grew up, and you can see the window of her first bedroom,” her sister said.
She requested that her service feature the music of DeBussy’s Claire de Lune, Middle Eastern inspired “Facing East” by Thievery Corporation and “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” by Moby.
Ms Foley has always cared about the planet, her daughter said, so she will be buried in an environmentally friendly bamboo coffin. Inside is an ancient ivory-covered prayer book that her grandparents gave her and that she has beautifully preserved.