From ‘Lady Woodcarvers’ to Professionals: the remarkable Pinwill sisters.
An illustrated talk by Dr. Helen Wilson on Thursday, 7th April, 2022 at 7pm in The Devon Rural Archive.
The emergence of Mary, Ethel and Violet Pinwill as professional woodcarvers in the late nineteenth century was shaped by several factors, most importantly, the support and encouragement of their family, and the patronage of architect Edmund H. Sedding. Wider influences that allowed their work to flourish included the relative freedom given to women within the Arts & Crafts Movement and the drive to restore ancient churches guided by Anglo-Catholic sensibilities.
Over more than six decades, the Pinwill workshop produced ecclesiastical carvings in both wood and stone for over 180 churches across Devon and Cornwall and further afield. The company persisted through two world wars and the Great Depression, as well as overcoming the need to adapt to changing architectural styles from Gothic Revival through to Modern. When first Mary and then Ethel left the company, Violet ran the business single-handedly, employing nearly 30 carvers and joiners at the height of its success. After the death in 1921 of Edmund H. Sedding as a guiding hand in design work, Violet increasingly produced innovative and sensitive designs herself, particularly for bench ends at St Martin-by-Looe in Cornwall and Sheepstor in Devon.
The story continued into the 1940s and 1950s, when the company was severely affected by a steep decline in the demand for ornate church furniture. Yet Violet persevered with what work became available right through until she died in 1957. The three Pinwill sisters were true innovators in becoming professionals in an occupation entirely dominated by men and creating between them one of the most successful woodcarving companies in the West Country.
After a career in academia, Dr. Helen Wilson developed an enthusiasm for church history and architecture in Devon and Cornwall. She has worked on several projects, primarily researching the work of the Pinwill sisters, ecclesiastical woodcarvers, over the last ten years, culminating in the publication of a book last year. Helen sits on the Executive Committee of the Devonshire Association and acts as Chair of its Buildings Section.
Picture above: part of the rood screen at St Petrock’s Church in Lydford carved by the Pinwill sisters.
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