Explore Percy and Essie Newberry's important collection of textiles including Islamic embroideries and Indian block-printed fragments.
Over a period of about 30 years, the Egyptologist Percy E. Newberry (1869-1949) and his wife Essie (1878-1953) brought together a remarkable collection of textile fragments ranging in date from the 10th to the 19th century.
The Newberrys acquired these fragments in Egypt between 1890 and the early 1930s, at a time when historical textiles were being sold in Cairo and Alexandria. Interest in the history of textiles was growing in Europe, fuelled by the development of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Initially a student of botany and geology, Percy Newberry started archaeological work in Egypt in 1890. Over the course of his career, he held two academic positions in Egyptology, at the universities of Liverpool (1906-1919) and Cairo (1929-1932) respectively. A careful collector, Percy kept his textile fragments in large folio books, arranged by design and technique, and annotated in pencil with his own comments on date and provenance.
Percy’s second wife Essie Winifred (née Johnston) shared his keen interest in textiles, reflected by her involvement with the recently established Embroiderers’ Guild, where she served as Vice President (1922-1945) and Honorary Treasurer (1935-1938). She accompanied Percy on his expeditions and lived with him in Cairo from 1929 to 1932.
The Newberry collection
Totalling over 2000 pieces, the Newberry collection of textiles at the Ashmolean is unique in size and variety. It is formed by two main groups of material – more than 1200 cotton fragments from India and traded to Egypt, and just over 1000 Islamic embroideries from Egypt. The offer to leave this extensive body of material to the Ashmolean came as early as 1941, although the actual transfer could only take place after the end of the Second World War, in 1946. By then, The Griffith Institute in Oxford had already become the custodian of Newberry’s egyptological notes and correspondence, making the Ashmolean the appropriate home for their textile collection.
A small group of Coptic textiles was donated to the Museum as well, and is part of the Ashmolean’s antiquities collection. The Newberrys also collected embroideries from the Greek Islands, North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia – most of these are now in The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. A few pieces were also donated to the Embroiderers’ Guild.