43: The Partridge Family

As well as creating new permanent displays about Barnstaple and North Devon in the 20th century in our new Social History gallery, we are working hard on our new temporary exhibitions programme.  One of the stories we are looking forward to telling is that of Ethel Mairet, who is nationally recognised today for her working in dyeing and weaving.  Her seminal book Vegetable Dyes was published in 1916.

I first found out about Ethel while reading up on C.R.Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft.  I had heard rumours about a Barnstaple Guild of Metalworkers, active around the turn of the last century, at the same time that Brannam and Shapland and Petter designers were creating some really remarkable pottery and furniture.  I had come across the name of Fred Partridge, a metal worker who spent some time with Ashbee in Chipping Campden, and I discovered that his sister Ethel also had connections to the Guild, and was even more interesting than Fred.



Ethel Mary Partridge was born in Barnstaple in 1872. Her parents were David (a pharmacist) and Mary Ann (born Hunt) Partridge. She was educated locally and in 1899 she qualified to teach piano at the Royal Academy of Music.  She then started working as a governess. She may not have expected to marry, but when she did, at the age of 28, it was to the remarkable Sri Lankan philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy.


I have been picking our elements of Ethel’s story after this. I realised that part of our Athenaeum Geology Collection is called “The Partridge Collection” and found that it was donated by Mrs Coomaraswamy.  I found that Ethel played a major role in the production of Coomaraswamy’s book on Mediaeval Sinhalese Art, and sadly that the bungalow they built together at Saunton had just been earmarked for demolition.

Next year we are planning an exhibition all about Ethel, an her brother Fred, which will illustrate once more Barnstaple’s role in the Arts and Crafts Movement as well as highlighting the work of Ethel as a pioneering female natural historian.  We are currently talking to museums around the country that hold examples of Ethel’s weaving an dyeing, as well as Fred (and his wife’s) jewellery.

This is exactly the kind of exhibition which would have been impossible before we built our new climate-controlled temporary exhibitions gallery. We are looking forward to telling you more about Ethel, and to future exhibitions.

You can see some of Ethel’s work right now at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft in Sussex.  Their exhibition Women’s Work runs until October 13th.


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