27 August 2013

A fine classics and archaeology collection in Melbourne

According to the Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne’s Edwardian society was in the throes of economic expansion and social change. The press release showed that John Hugh Sutton, born in Edwardian 1906, entered Melbourne Church of England Grammar School in 1920 where he did well academically. Sutton’s early skills earned him the Foundation Scholarship in 1921, and another scholarship in 1922. He completed his years at the school by being appointed head prefect in 1922.

John Hugh Sutton then became a resident of Trinity College with the AM White Scholarship, and won University honours for Latin in 1923 and Greek in 1924.

Alas he died tragically at 19 in a mot­or cycle accident. In March 1925 the funeral for John Sutton was an important soc­ial event for the cultural elite of Mel­bourne's society. The mourners represented the intellectual apex of 1920s Victoria. Present was Sir Harrison Moore, Professor of Law at Mel­bourne University, who would soon edit Sutton’s complete works. Also there was RL Blackwood, Trinity College’s Sub-Warden and one of the pre-eminent classicists in Victoria.

Following his death, Sutton’s parents established at his old school the John Hugh Sutton Memorial Scholarship and prizes for compositions and verse in Latin, English and French. The Melburnian stated that John Sutton had "a most distinguished literary gift' and a collection of his works, including essays, stories and poems was edited by Sir Harrison Moore, Prof CA Scutt and RP Franklin, and published in 1925.

Convex pyxis with lid, Corinthian, c580 BCE, 11 x 13 x 13 cm.
University of Melbourne Classics Art Collection,
John Hugh Sutton Memorial Bequest, 1929 

Importantly Sutton’s parents also gave the University the significant sum of £500 to acquire classical objects for a collection in their son's memory. It was to be called The John Hugh Sutton Classical Museum, thus launching the University of Melbourne’s classics and archaeology collection.

The objects for the new museum were to be purchased through the University of Melbourne’s Classics Professor Cecil Scutt. A condition of the donation was that the money should be expended within three years. CT Seltman, a classical archaeologist of Queens' College Cambridge and a friend of Professor Scutt, assisted with the purchases. The first selection of Greek coins duly arrived in October 1928. They covered an area from Britain to Rhodes and Carthage to Lesbos. In late 1928 Professor Scutt sailed to England and Greece, and by November 1929 further shipments arrived: more Greek coins, some fine vases and other artefacts.

The representative collection has been built up progressively since 1970 for teaching and research purposes, and a new illustrated catalogue has been written and is about to be published. As a result, the collection now features an even wider variety of classical coins, vases, terracotta artefacts and bronzes, acquired via auction rooms antiquities dealers in Britain and the excavation sites of Greece.

Curator of the exhibition today, Dr Andrew Jamieson, says the John Hugh Sutton Collection is an immensely important teach­ing tool. “Actual objects from the period give a sense of reality and immediacy to what may seem a remote past, disconnected from modern life. This collection allows us to examine antiquities as a primary source, free from the interpretations of other commentators”.

The exhibition may not be the hugest collection of objects ever seen in one city, but it is as much an aid to the understanding of ancient literature and culture as it is an aid to archaeological research. And for me, a historian, there is one more element that is wonderful - historical and archival material related to the creation of the collection. These records tell the story of the time in which Sutton lived and the spirit with which the donation was made. This historical inter-war era coincided with a grand era of archaeological exploration (eg the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb) and the development of these areas as academic disciplines.

This collection of classical antiquities is on display at the Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne from April-October 2013. Readers who cannot get to the University might like to examine the Virtual Museum.

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