I have been researching the life and work of the Pinwill sisters since June 2009 when I first came across them at Morwenstow church, where they carved the altar and reredos. I began giving presentations based on my research in April 2012 and have done so regularly ever since. The information presented here represents years of research and hard work. So it is:
© Dr Helen Wilson
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The idea behind this catalogue is that it may enable people to find and better appreciate the woodcarving of the Pinwill sisters. Evidence for the majority of pieces is drawn from the Pinwill archive at Plymouth and West Devon Record Office (PWDRO). This consists of five albums and two sets of loose photographs of work carried out by the Pinwill company but it is by no means complete, is in no particular order, and rarely provides dates. Information gathered from the photographs has been supplemented through a wide range of other sources, outlined at the end of the Catalogue. I have endeavoured to visit most of the churches in order to verify that work still exists and to collect any further available information. The Catalogue is an on-going project and the website will be updated as and when new information comes to light. There is still plenty of research to do, particularly at Devon History Centre and Cornwall Record Office, and probably many more wonderful pieces of woodcarving to discover.
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The lives and work of the Pinwill sisters is the subject of a forthcoming book (watch this space for updates), so only a brief summary is given here.
The Pinwill sisters, Mary, Ethel and Violet, worked as professional woodcarvers in Ermington and then Plymouth from at least 1889. They were three of seven daughters of the Revd Edmund Pinwill and his wife Elizabeth, who encouraged their daughters to learn woodcarving from a team of craftsmen who came to Ermington to restore the church there in 1884. One of their first large commissions was the pulpit at Ermington, completed in 1889. The sisters then set up their own company, Rashleigh, Pinwill & Co., Ecclesiastical Carvers. While it was not unusual for women to learn to carve in the late Victorian period, it was quite extraordinary for women to set up in business as woodcarvers and the name of the company may well have been devised to give the impression that they were men. The establishment and success of the firm was due in no small part to the patronage of the architect Edmund H. Sedding. He was the nephew of the Arts & Crafts architect John Dando Sedding and had come to know the family well during the restoration of Ermington church. Commissions designed by Sedding ensured a high standard was established and a good reputation gained. Other architects soon recognised their skills and commissioned work from the sisters, including Frederick Bligh Bond and George H. Fellowes Prynne.
When Mary married in 1900, she left the business, which by that time had moved to Plymouth, initially to premises shared with Edmund H. Sedding in Buckland Terrace and then Athenaeum Street. After Ethel moved to Surrey sometime after 1907 to work as a woodcarver, Violet became the sole proprietor. She continued to work with Sedding, but after his death in 1921 R. F. Wheatly became the company architect, although Violet had by then established a reputation and increasingly won commissions in her own right. Violet employed other woodcarvers as well as joiners and established a large workshop in St Lawrence Yard. She travelled all over Devon and Cornwall, mostly by train and bicycle, to meet with vicars and churchwardens to talk about the work they required. Violet never advertised, owned a typewriter or a car, and did not employ a secretary. By the time she died on 1st January 1957, over 185 churches in Devon and Cornwall and several in other counties contained at least one item made by the firm.