The Milwards: Bringing Asian culture to the heart of Norfolk
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
In the centre of Norwich, under the high roof of a Victorian roller skating rink, are huge sculpted figures which once guarded temples and wheeled wooden animals which rolled through Indian streets. There are towering intricately carved doors which led into courtyards where several village families lived and worked together; rugs woven in the dangerous mountain borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan; early 19th century prints by the first European to trek to the source of the Ganges; pretty printed tablecloths, bed linen and dresses, a camel saddle, coffee tables made from dark wood corn-milling machinery, huge cupboards, dainty jewellery, mirrors, boxes and bowls...
In every direction there are wonderful things beginning before you even get into the building, with ornate doorways set into the courtyard car park walls. Inside this is a curated space, part-shop, part-museum, packed with the stories of beautiful things created half a world away.
It also overflows with the story of Philip and Jeannie Millward, of Wramplingham, near Norwich, who founded Country and Eastern 40 years ago.
It began with a revolution. Philip and Jeannie were living in Iran where Philip was working for a big engineering and construction company, designing and building oil refineries, and Jeannie was working for the British Institute of Persian Studies, when the 1979 Islamic revolution meant they had to leave. Evacuated to a hotel in Amsterdam and waiting to be redeployed they were asked to go to Pakistan to survey some potential work – and use up all their holiday allowance.
“We did the survey and then travelled up through Pakistan visiting Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and the Khyber Pass ending up in the Swat Valley,” said Philip.
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Travelling by local buses to remote villages they were bowled over by the talent of the traditional craftspeople and furniture makers they came across. Jeannie had run an antiques shop in London and they knew that there would be a market in Britain for objects which were going out of fashion in Asia.
“We saw all this wonderful wood carvings and thought maybe this would be a better thing to do,” said Philip. And so they started buying furniture and furnishings – and shipping it back to Norfolk, where they had family links and a holiday cottage near Fakenham. Jeannie had begun her antiques business by buying from rural Norfolk and selling in London. Now they were buying from rural Pakistan and selling in Norfolk.
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They soon extended their travels, and collecting, across Asia into countries including India, Turkey, Indonesia, Burma, Bangladesh and Thailand.
The first Country and Eastern shop opened in Norwich in 1981. From the very beginning Philip and Jeannie decided to keep the best example of anything they bought to form the basis of a collection, realising the importance of the exceptional craftwork they were buying.
“When we started the middle classes of south Asia really didn't seem too interested in their cultural heritage,” said Philip. “Although this has now dramatically changed.”
Today the museum is an internationally important collection of south Asian craft, run by a trust and partly supported by the shop. Both are housed in the Old Skating Rink on Bethel Street.
For 15 years Philip and Jeannie also ran a branch of Country and Eastern in Kensington.
Of all the beautiful, intricate, lavish and lovely pieces in the Bethel Street shop and museum, a Himalayan cedar wood cupboard carved in Pakistan’s Swat valley more than a century ago, is their favourite object. It would have stored household items – and still smells of smoke from the cooking fire.
Philip and Jeannie are about to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this year. Until the pandemic struck they spent a couple of months of every year in Asia, meeting suppliers and finding stock for the shop and artefacts for the collection.
“We’ve missed it terribly and can’t wait to go back,” said Jeannie. “We have no desire to go and sit on a beach. It’s fun to see all the different suppliers every year.”
Their best-selling items are richly coloured and patterned oriental rugs. Many were woven on the mountainous borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan – but the area Philip and Jeannie once visited regularly is now too dangerous to travel to.
“We miss it. It’s a beautiful country,” said Philip.
As well as the friends they made as they travelled and traded, they have many loyal customers who have been buying from Country and Eastern for decades, first in and around Norfolk and now online too.
Textiles including duvet covers, tablecloths and clothes are also big sellers. Philip and Jeannie have always bought from small family-run workshops, seeking out traditional items and techniques, made sustainably in safe conditions for a fair price. “We have always been concerned about working conditions and whether they have the same sort of business ethos as we do,” said Philip.
They still buy from many of the families they first met four decades ago – now dealing with the children of the original craftspeople, who continue to use traditional skills such as woodblock printing, hand-loom weaving, embroidery, vegetable dyeing, painting and carving, which have been passed from generation to generation for centuries.
“We want to preserve traditional crafts. We want people to be able to continue making the traditional crafts,” said Jeannie.
Back in Norwich the museum and shop blend into a vibrant mix of exquisite art and intriguing stock, with even the items for sale beautifully curated and displayed.
Prices range from just £1 for a wooden printing block to £1,500 for a large rug.
In one corner of the shop is a curved brass container with a hook in its domed top. Philip explained they were designed to store valuables and were sometimes buried in earth floors or wells. On a nearby shelf is a collection of kavads, or portable story shrines. Part intricate toy, part teaching aid, part miniature theatre, they are used to re-tell traditional stories. “They are dying out. It’s getting quite difficult to get people to make these now,” said Philip.
Takings from the shop help fund the charitable South Asian Decorative Arts and Crafts Collection Trust, set up by Philip and Jeannie in 2010 to secure the future of their exceptional collection, begun by accident as they travelled in Pakistan, created over more than 40 years, and now acknowledged as one of the most important collections of its kind.
The Norfolk Museum Specialising in South Asian craft
- Country and Eastern is the museum shop for the South Asia Collection.
- The museum holds around 7,000 items ranging from a peacock throne made for a Burmese monk and the hollowed-out trunks of teak trees carved into boats once used on the Mekon River between Cambodia and Laos, to tiny 19th century miniature paintings and a modern example of the ancient art of tie-dying, created with an incredible 25,000 hand-tied knots.
- The collection is housed in a restored Grade II listed Victorian roller-skating rink which was later converted into a theatre and then Norwich's first Salvation Army citadel.
- Admission is free to the museum which is dedicated to recording, preserving and celebrating the traditional arts, crafts and cultures of countries including India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand and Indonesia.
- The South Asian Decorative Arts and Crafts Collection Trust funds and takes part in research projects especially in south Asia, working with local museums and universities.
- One seven-year project has resulted in a series of definitive books, plus catalogues and a website, on the traditional furniture of north west India - published by India's CEPT University Press.
- The trust also works with the Norwich University of the Arts and the University of East Anglia. Its graphics and communications assistant is former student Tricia Mercer-David who chanced upon Country and Eastern as she was sketching in the city and was delighted and intrigued to discover the collection. She is of Asian heritage and is now helping traditional south Asian crafts reach a new generation through social media.
- Country and Eastern and the South Asia Collection, Bethel Street, Norwich is open Monday to Saturday 9.30am-5pm. countryandeastern.thesouthasiacollection.co.uk