New exhibition showcases the work of the influential Barnstaple family

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A new exhibition coming to the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon in May will tell the little-known story of the Partridge family of Barnstaple, who were influential members of the Arts and Crafts movement.

The Museum’s ‘Partridge Fossil Collection’ explores the life and work of Ethel, Fred and Maud Partridge who were born and educated locally in the late 19th century and later became part of the Ditchling art community where their circle included Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, Eric Gill and many others.

Ethel was a highly skilled artisan who led the resurgence of hand dyeing and weaving in the UK, while Fred’s one-of-a-kind jewelery designs were sold in London’s famous Liberty and Co department store.

The exhibition brings together objects from the museum’s own Partridge Collection with loans from national and regional museums, including: examples of Ethel’s famous handmade textiles from the V&A and the Ditchling Museum; exquisite jewelry created by Fred from the V&A, the British Museum and the Fitzwilliam and Birmingham museums; and a copy of the first edition of a book on medieval Sinhalese art, including photographs and texts by Ethel, from the British Library. Many loans from the Crafts Study Center include a handwoven silk jacket made by Ethel with buttons from Fred.

The loans are supported by the Weston Loan Program with Art Fund. Created by the Garfield Weston Foundation and Art Fund, the Weston Loan Program is the first-ever UK-wide funding program enabling small museums and local authorities to borrow works of art and artefacts national collections.

Barnstaple and North Devon Museum Curator Alison Mills says: “The Partridge Collection is an important part of the geological collections that the museum inherited from the North Devon Athenaeum, but that was only 10 years ago. that we realized it was Ethel. Partridge’s collection, that she was an important traveller, scholar and designer, and that she was the first female Royal Designer for Industry. This remarkable Barnstaple woman has become the grand old lady of English dyeing and weaving. We hope her story inspires more local people to watch, learn, make and create.”

Sophia Weston, Trustee of the Garfield Weston Foundation, said: “We are delighted that the Weston Loans Scheme can support this celebration of the Partridge family and their influence on British arts and crafts. It’s wonderful to see works from a number of national collections on display for visitors to enjoy at Barnstaple.

‘The Partridge Fossil Collection’ tells the story of the children’s lives, from their early years in Barnstaple to their later positions as prominent members of the Arts and Crafts movement – a status they shared with other local figures, notably WR Lethaby and the Fishley family of potters.

Ethel married art historian, collector and polymath Ananda Coomaraswamy, having met him in North Devon while working as a geologist. The couple traveled to Sri Lanka and India where Ethel documented the traditional crafts and textiles she encountered. Ethel then began her own, mostly self-taught, experiments in weaving and dyeing – eventually training the people of the workshop she founded in Ditchling herself.

Fred became an Art Nouveau jeweler after graduating from Birmingham School of Art. He moved to Gloucestershire to work with CR Ashbee’s Guild and School of Handicrafts – an artist community where Ethel also studied while married to her second husband Philip Mairet.

The exhibition brings together a wide range of material, including photographs, letters and examples of Partridge’s varied work to tell the little-known story of this influential family who rubbed shoulders with some of the most talented craftsmen of their day.

The exhibition is accompanied by a spring and summer program of events which includes an exclusive three-day workshop with renowned weavers Jenny Wilkinson and Angie Parker, natural dye practitioner Sarah Burn and Radhi Parekh of Artisans Mumbai .

The Partridge Fossil Collection, from May 14 to October 29, 2022 at the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon. Admission is free and information on opening times can be found at barnstaplemuseum.org.uk

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