Many thanks to Dr. Wilson, author of a forthcoming book on the Pinwill sisters, for sharing her scholarship and images with readers of the Victorian Web — we are grateful to Elaine Ellis of Arts and Crafts Tours for bringing Dr Wilson's work to our attention. Please note that both text and images remain Dr Wilson's copyright, and should not be reproduced in any form without her written permission. — George P. Landow

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he Pinwill sisters, Mary, Ethel and Violet, worked as professional woodcarvers from about 1889, first in Ermington and then Plymouth, Devon. 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 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, using Mary’s middle name. While it was not unusual for women to learn to carve in the late Victorian period, it was quite extraordinary for them 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 emergence of the Pinwill sisters as woodcarvers in the late nineteenth century was shaped by several factors, most importantly the support and encouragement of their family, but also the patronage of architect Edmund H. Sedding, nephew of the Arts & Crafts proponent John Dando Sedding. Commissions designed by Edmund 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. Important wider influences that encouraged their work to flourish were 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 company produced ecclesiastical carvings in both wood and stone for nearly 200 churches across Devon and Cornwall and further afield. After Mary left in 1900 and Ethel in about 1908, Violet Pinwill continued to run the business single-handedly until she died in 1957. As well as new commissions, their work encompassed the restoration of fine and ancient chancel screens, including those at Buckland-in-the-Moor and Manaton in Devon, and Madron and St Buryan in Cornwall.

The Pinwill sisters moved seamlessly from ‘lady woodcarvers’ to professionals, and in the process created some of the most beautiful and artistic woodcarving in Devon and Cornwall. They declined to be part of the almost invisible band of women artists who worked in churches without recompense. Instead, the Pinwill sisters aspired to be recognised alongside men as professionals and were rewarded with a remarkable reputation that places them among the finest in the land.

When Mary married in 1900, she left the business, which by that time had moved to Plymouth to premises shared with Edmund H. Sedding, initially in Buckland Terrace, Millbay Road, and then Athenaeum Street, near The Hoe. 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 Reginald 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, Plymouth. 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. — Helen Wilson



Wilson, Helen. The Remarkable Pinwill Sisters – From ‘Lady Woodcarvers’ to Professionals. Plymouth, Devon: Willow Productions, 2021 [Review].

Last modified 28 December 2020