In 1824, a wealthy Englishwoman named Ann Partis bought land outside the Somerset city of Bath to create a utopian housing project for elder gentlewomen who had fallen on hard times. This place was called Partis College. It was not a school, but rather a place where people who had something in common would live together.
To be considered eligible, women had to be the daughters or widows of gentlemen or clergy, to be members of the Church of England, and to have their own maid (a mark of gentility). Hundreds of women applied to live in 30 tiny, exquisite Regency houses, arranged in a quadrangle around an expansive green lawn. Today, elder women still live in what is now Grade I listed ensemble. The bathrooms and kitchens have been modernized, and the maid is no longer required, but Partis College remains a unique experiment within the British almshouse tradition.
In 2014 I began to delve into the considerable archival holdings at the Bath Record Office, containing hundreds of letters from applicants, many dating back over a century. These letters are a fascinating glimpse into the lives of remarkably cosmopolitan women, many of whom traveled the world as missionaries or as part of colonial families.
In order to make connections between the College’s past and its continued mandate to house women over 50, I began a series of watercolours as gifts for the residents. These served as a form of introduction to myself and my interest in Partis College as a space for women, made by women.
As of this writing I am in discussion with the Board of Trustees about a possible public art project that may draw upon the current residents’ life stories. I plan to focus on the tiny, beautiful gardens that can be found to the rear of the quadrangle. These belong to the residents, who are free to transform them in any way they wish. In this way, the garden becomes a direct expression of the woman who lives in the attached house.