Classics and Archaeology Virtual Museum

The Greek Vase Collection

Like the goddess Athena, the collection of classical antiquities at the University of Melbourne was born fully-armed and mature. It was created to honour the memory of John Hugh Sutton, of Trinity College, who was killed in a motorcycle crash soon after he had completed his second year of studies in Classics. As a memorial to their son, in 1926 Sutton's parents donated the sum of £500 for the establishment of a Classics museum. The terms stipulated that the funds - ten times the annual salary of a university tutor - were to be expended within three years on objects selected by the Professor of Classics. With the advice and very active assistance of C.T. Seltman, Queens' College, Cambridge, Professor C.A. Scutt rapidly assembled a superbly representative collection of 37 vases and artefacts, 100 coins and nearly 80 reproductions. The Sutton Bequest also provided for display cabinets, and by 1930 this 'instant' museum proudly filled a specially fitted out space on the first floor of the recently-completed Old Arts Building.

Study of the documentation has confirmed that the Sutton collection included 21 vases (MUV 1 - MUV 20, MUV 22). The band cup MUV 13 is known to have been bought at Sotheby's auction in March 1929, but the provenance of the others awaits further investigation.

Previous catalogues of the collection assigned an MUV number to each vase, in order of acquisition. More recently, the University has assigned an accession number based on the year of acquisition. Some accession numbers were revised in 1998 in the light of archival research.

From 1929 to 1970 very few items were acquired: a Campanian bell-krater (MUV 21) bought at the suggestion of Professor A.D. Trendall, who praised the collection in his 1951 survey of Attic vases in Australia and New Zealand; and a trefoil oinochoe (MUV 23) donated by Professor T.B.L. Webster in gratitude for the hospitality afforded by Professor H.A.K Hunt and colleagues during a sabbatical visit in 1961. A (supposed) grave group of five elegant vases (MUV 24 - MUV 28), believed to have come from the (so-called) Melbourne University Cyprus Expedition, have now been assigned to the University's extensive Cypriot collection. The Nolan amphora (MUV 00) is now on permanent loan from the estate of Rev. J.S. Drought, who was a student of Trinity College and the Classics Department in 1913-1916.

The other forty-nine vases in the collection stand as a monument to the work of Peter Connor. In 1969 he succeeded Mr J. Carter as curator and, with the energetic support of Professor G.W. Clarke, embarked on a systematic program of research, exhibitions and collection development. In the University of Melbourne Catalogue of Works of Art (1971) he recorded one new acquisition (MUV 29), purchased with money provided for works of art in the new John Medley Building, where the collection was on display until 1997. Over the next twenty-five years he won support from the Arts Faculty, which recognized that these purchases constituted important teaching and research equipment. Always a teacher, he observed that 'the vases offered the greatest scope for usefulness in class and for attracting students who were not especially involved with either the visual arts or the material culture of the ancient world.' His ten published studies of individual vases (and those of other scholars) and several exhibition catalogues demonstrate the exemplary research value of the collection and its appeal to a broader community.

Of the vases acquired during Connor's curatorship, seven were received as gifts: MUV 61 (Mrs J McNamara), MUV 67 (Mrs E.B. Culican, from the estate of archaeologist colleague William Culican), MUV 75 (Professor A.D. Trendall), MUV 78 (Associate Professor K.J. McKay, teacher and colleague), MUV 79 and MUV 80 (Peter Chaldjian, from the estate of his father), and MUV 81 (Dr Geoffrey Kaye).

The other new acquisitions were purchased, as opportunity arose and funds became available, according to a coherent plan of development. One goal was to augment the range of wares and shapes available in Melbourne for teaching purposes. From 1958 the University collection had been supplemented by loans from the National Gallery of Victoria, where South Italian pottery chosen by Professor A.D. Trendall is well represented, and by the large examples on loan to the University from Mr Graham Geddes, so only a few small and interesting pieces of this fabric were acquired. Several new cups bring out the enormous variety of shape. Within Attic black-figure, attention was given to the period before 530 BC. Some of the new acquisitions have no figured decoration beyond stylised plant forms. Emphasis was also given to archaeological concerns of pottery rather than drawing alone, and Attic, Boeotian, Corinthian and South Italian black-glazed pieces were added. Notable also are the Protocorinthian pieces and examples of other regional traditions, especially East Greek. In this way, the collection has gained in importance within the broader Victorian context.

In 1990 three vases were stolen (MUV 16, 40, 55). MUV 68 has been excluded from this catalogue after Professor A.D. Trendall's doubts about its authenticity.

Generations of students have been introduced to Greek vases through this collection. As befits a university, the academic side has always had its human dimension. After being lost in a Melbourne Airport freight shed for more than a year, MUV 62 was re-purchased from the insurers. Having in mind its twin horsemen decoration, and that it was acquired to honour the work in the Department of Professors Graeme Clarke and George Gellie, its painter was immediately dubbed the 'Tullamarine' painter and it has become known locally as the 'Gee-Gees' vase. Contrary to the proverb, familiarity with the collection has bred a great deal of affection. Further testimony to this is the most recent acquisition, the column krater MUV 82, donated to the University in memory of Peter Connor by the Classical Association of Victoria and friends.

top of page