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North Devon in 100 Objects: 14. The Partridge Collection

Two rocks containing fossils.

An important part of our large geology collection is known as the “Partridge Collection”. In researching this we have come across the astonishing story of one of Barnstaple’s most remarkable women.

Ethel Mary Partridge was born in Barnstaple in 1872, the daughter of pharmacist James Partridge. She was educated locally, winning prizes at the School of Art and studying both Ruskin and Geology as part of the University Extension Scheme.  With a teaching certificate and licence from the Royal Academy of Music she seemed destined for a life as a piano teacher or governess.

It was geology which brought Ethel into contact with the young Sri Lankan Ananda Coomaraswamy.  She was already collecting the tiny fossil invertebrates of the Pilton and Marwood beds when Ananda visited North Devon as part of his studies at University College London.  They married in 1902, setting off for Sri Lanka where Ananda had been appointed to carry out a geological survey.  While there they explored the local craft traditions and Ethel was drawn into a deep exploration of textiles.

Both Ethel and Ananda became very significant, and their stories are far too interesting to cover here. Ananda has almost legendary status as the ground-breaking theorist who was largely responsible for introducing ancient Indian art to the West.  Ethel became the first female Royal Designer for Industry and at her studio in Ditchling, taught the most important hand weavers of the 20th century.

This specimen is Echinocaris sloliensis, the “figured specimen” published as a new species by Ethel in 1909.  In the paper she thanks both Ananda and her brother Fred, a talented jewellery maker – all three of them shared a love of North Devon’s geology.

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