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Leicester Special Collections

The Dryad Collection


Rag Doll, made of a variety of fabrics in India

Between 1907 and 1936, Harry Peach collected objects from Britain and Europe as well as British colonies in Africa, Australia, South Asia, the Pacific, and Malaysia. His dream was to found a new museum using the collection with an educational purpose, but this never happened and this material culture has been donated by his business, the Dryad craftwork association, to the New Walk Museum (now Leicester Museum and Art Gallery) in 1969. Since then, it has been kept mainly in the storage or as part of the ‘World gallery’.

The Dryad collection is extremely diverse in terms of provenance and manufacture, and reveals the different interests that might have lead Peach in collecting such ‘oddments’, as he likes to define his own objects in the correspondence with friends. In fact, among the shelves of the museums’ storage it is possible to find material culture from all over the world: painted eggs from Czechoslovakia, woolen works from Serbia and Russia, wooden puppets from Germany, basketworks from Malaysia, palm leaf fans from the Pacific Islands, rag dolls from India, coconuts and gourd from east Africa, textiles from Morocco just to mention some.


A length of wool fabric, from Russia


Decorative carved coconut shell, from Zanzibar

Browsing the Archives of the Special Collections of David Wilson Library, it seems that education was the glue that kept Peach’s curiosities together. From the correspondence with William Lethaby, the great promoter of the rational design in Britain, and Benjamin Fletcher, at that time director of Art Education at Birmingham School of Art, it emerges a desire to overturn the academic trend of the Schools of Art, by looking at other countries, manufacture, and techniques.

Peach was a middle-class man who had the opportunity to study any subject wherever he wanted. However, he decided not to receive an academic education, as he rejected the University mission based on ‘the theory’, in favour of an alternative approach based on a process of ‘learning by doing’.

I find it fascinating and pioneering that Peach, with a global perspective, gathered objects from all over the world to question the education British system, and improve it. From the archival research and the documents at the museums’ store, it appears that Peach acquired the collection in missionary exhibitions and international expositions, which had the political role to promote the idea of an ‘European imperial culture’. Now, my PhD research aims to illuminate the rationale behind this fascinating collection within the contemporary exhibitionary context, and what linkages with the global and imperial reality the Dryad collection can reveal.

Researched and written by Maria Chiara Scuderi