Meet Selby Abbey's new artist in residence Serena Partridge - who specialises in textiles and miniatures

Textile artist Serena Partridge makes miniature works of art. She is now Artist in Residence at Selby Abbey. Lucy Oates reports. Pictures by James Hardisty, Tony Johnson and David Chalmers

Serena Partridge, a textile visual artist is now artist in residence at Selby Abbey making miniature creations
Serena Partridge, a textile visual artist is now artist in residence at Selby Abbey making miniature creations

A series of tiny, intricate embroideries inspired by almost 1000 years of history will appear in the nooks and crannies of Selby’s magnificent Grade 1-listed Abbey over the coming weeks and months.

The idea is to encourage visitors to slow down and consider the finer details that sometimes go unnoticed in a building of such vast proportions.

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The embroideries are the work of renowned Malton-based mixed media artist Serena Partridge, who is currently the Artist in Residence for Selby Stories, a cultural programme celebrating the town’s heritage.

Serena Partridge, a textile visual artist at Selby Abbey

Partridge has spent the last few months drawing inspiration from the Abbey’s rich history and the craftsmanship that went into building it, as well as the many fascinating stories that surround it and the generations of people who have worked, volunteered and worshipped in it. Her hand-stitched embroideries will be tucked away in places that visitors might not normally think to look at and have been inspired by the Abbey’s needlepoint and cross-stitch kneelers, which have been painstakingly embroidered by volunteers over a period of many years.

Billed as ‘no traditional art exhibition’, the idea is that the artworks will gradually appear in the Abbey as Serena’s work evolves, seemingly mirroring the countless changes that the building has undergone since its inception in 1069.

Surprisingly, needlepoint is a new technique for Partridge, who produced the delicate work under a magnifying lens, stitching single strand embroidery threads into fine pieces of silk gauze.

She more normally creates small-scale accessories and garments like gloves and stockings inspired by historical costume and storytelling. Her works are presented as museum acquisitions, encased with labels that blur boundaries between fact and fiction. She uses a wide range of materials and techniques, but primarily antique leather and silk, which she embroiders and fashions with meticulous hand stitching.

Serena's first design of a swan for her collection, which holds important meaning for the Abbey

Her work at Selby touches upon some of the events that have punctuated the Abbey’s long and fascinating past; over the centuries it has been damaged by fire, fallen into disrepair, been empty and almost derelict and was even used by Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers as they fought against King Charles 1 during the English Civil War.

The Abbey celebrated its 950th anniversary in 2019 and Partridge is thrilled to have been asked to create artwork for such an historic place of worship.

“It’s such a privilege to be invited to work with and exhibit in the majestic surroundings of Selby Abbey. I’m hugely inspired by the stories I’ve heard and the intricate details all over the building, even the seemingly insignificant holes in the walls, where the limestone has suffered natural damage or where something once hung.

“The residency is a brilliant opportunity for me to step outside of the traditional ‘white gallery space’ and work within an unusual and historical context, which is hugely exciting and a great honour.

Serena is excited to be working in the historic Selby Abbey

“As a maker of small-scale artworks, I’m trying not to be daunted by the enormous size and gravitas of Selby Abbey. Instead, I am very much looking forward to sharing and learning from the Selby community.

“These sessions will inform the artwork and hopefully bring a slightly different perspective and new experience to the Abbey’s many visitors.

“I’m particularly fascinated by the carvings of Thomas Strudwick, who helped restore the Abbey after a fire in 1906. If you look closely at his work on the pillars, you’ll see an array of charming animals nestled among foliage. Or, shine a light into one, and discover a hidden carving of the King’s head.

“I’m thinking of my tiny fabrications, installed in the holes and crevices of the Abbey, as if they are visible ‘mends’, similar to darning a well-loved jumper. It’s a nod to the ongoing restoration project and to how the building has been altered and restored over time, creating layer upon layer of unique history.”

Serena works from her studio in Malton when not at the abbey

Partridge, who grew up on a farm in North Devon and studied Design Crafts at Hereford College of Arts, will host a series of workshops and events at the Abbey in the year, when she will talk about the inspiration and stories behind her miniature creations.

“All manner of things inspire me, from everyday observations and conversations, social history, literature, community and place to more specifically historical textiles, ephemera and children’s drawings,” she explains.

Many of the skills that Partridge uses today are self-taught, picked up through a combination of observation and ‘trial and error’.

“I like to find my own way of mixing ideas, materials and techniques in the hope of creating something a bit quirky and unique.”

She describes the Design Crafts course that she studied during her time in Hereford as ‘unusual for its time because its approach was very business oriented. We weren’t so much taught specific art or craft skills but, instead, how to price our work, keep books, write a business plan, promote to galleries or build a practical studio space. Several of us exhibited with local and national galleries while at college, which helped with finances and towards a smoother transition from art college into the real world.”

The course certainly appears to have equipped Partridge with the skills for success as she has worked as an artist full-time since 2000, when she moved to Dumfries and Galloway to take up her first artist residency role in a vacant classroom at Gatehouse-of-Fleet Primary School.

Serena working on one of miniature creations at her studio in Malton

“It was a terrific opportunity to share skills and ideas with young pupils, while having the space to produce larger artworks for my first solo touring show, which was called ‘Cabinets of Curiosity’ and was in collaboration with The City Gallery in Leicester.”

This was followed by four further residencies in Scotland, including one with 16 primary schools on the Shetland Isles and another with the Notre Damn Learning Community in Glasgow.

In 2006, Partridge relocated to North Yorkshire after spotting a beautifully renovated old watchmaker’s shop that had become available to rent in Norton, just outside Malton.

“It was perfect for a home studio and I enjoyed eight years there, before moving to Scarborough to take up a studio space at Crescent Arts, beneath Scarborough Art Gallery. I felt in need of a change of direction and people to discuss ideas with on a daily basis.”

However, she returned to Malton in 2018, when, working with five artist friends, she established the Art Happens Here (AHH) Studio Collective, a Community Interest Company (CIC) based in the heart of the market town. With the support of Ryedale District Council, which owns and maintains the building, the collective provides affordable studio space for nine contemporary artists, as well as hosting residencies, student placements, educational projects, community workshops, artist development and meet-up events.

“Alongside creating art for exhibitions, facilitating workshops has been key to supporting myself. In the past it has often felt like two separate jobs, but in recent years I have enjoyed fusing these different sides of my practise.”

In recent years she has undertaken a number of residencies at a wide variety of venues across the UK and abroad, including The Royal Pump Room Museum in Harrogate, the Gawthorpe Textiles Collection in Lancashire and the Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, Canada.

Her work has recently been exhibited at the Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate, Crescent Arts in Scarborough and at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, and Serena is also the Art Activity Facilitator for the North York Moors National Park.

Selby Stories will run until the end of 2023 and is part of the Selby High Street Heritage Action Zone, a government-funded scheme

led by Historic England and aimed at

breathing new life into historic high streets..

Serena also makes miniature recreations of historic costumes and accessories like this pair of pink slippers