Classics and Archaeology Virtual Museum

The Sutton Collection

by Leah Breninger

The genesis of the Melbourne University archaeological collection was in the early death of a promising Classics scholar. John Hugh Sutton was killed in a motorcycle accident early in 1925, at the age of nineteen. His grieving parents set up memorials to their gifted son. At his old school they established the John Hugh Sutton Memorial Scholarship and prizes for compositions and verse in Latin, English and French. (The Melburnian 1925, p. 169). They also gave 500 pounds to the University to establish the Classics museum.

This is some of the "ancient history" I discovered while researching the collection's origins. My project was to accession the collection into the University's register of art objects. Part of the process involved establishing the University's right of ownership to these objects. This involves locating records of the donation or purchase of the objects. These records should set out the definite terms of the acquisition, whether loan or gift or purchase. Whether a purchase or gift, the University should ensure that the source of the object actually has the right to dispose of it, "a donor or vendor can pass no better title than he or she possesses". (S. Simpson, Museums and Galleries: A practical legal guide, 1989, p.26.). If it emerges later that the object belonged to someone else, or was stolen, or illicitly excavated it won't help The University to claim it didn't know. It will return to its original owner. Properly worded acquisition forms, some provenance inquiries and good record keeping should prevent some of these problems. (Simpson, pp.25ff.).

I set out to find the acquisition information relating to the collection; how was it acquired, from whom and when? A great deal of the collection was acquired in the 1920s and 30s, so there was no one around whom I could approach for first hand information. University records of this age are kept in the bowels of Wilson Hall neatly filed in manilla folders under year and subject. These hold a great deal of the information required, though in those less litigious days the instinct to hoard all evidence about everything was less developed.

The information was here; the trouble came with interpreting it. "Happiness is finding an invoice', especially when it says that this object was bought on a certain date, from such and such a person at such and such a price. To connect this information with the collection, I would match up the invoice description with an object. A common problem was a result of the less than descriptive nature of these records,

An invoice would say the item purchased was...

"a Greek pot".

Wonderful! Which one! If I've learnt anything from this exercise it's the importance of good record keeping. The curators may have held all the pertinent information in their heads; but curators are mortal or they change jobs, then all that knowledge is lost. Despite this I managed to find some sort of pedigree for much of the collection, though a number remain orphans. Many of the early pieces were from a "Sutton Bequest".

John Hugh Sutton had enrolled in an Honours degree at Melbourne University concentrating on Latin and Greek. Consistent First Class Honours results and an acknowledged gift for writing indicated a promising career. A summer vacation motorcycle accident ended this. (Liber Melburniensis, 1965, p. 209).

In his speech night report the Headmaster of Melbourne Grammar said, "John Hugh Sutton impressed all who knew him by his extraordinary brilliance". (The Melburnian, 1925, p.154).

John Sutton also had "a most distinguished literary gift'. (The Melburnian, 1925, p.154). A collection of his works was edited by Sir Harrison Moore, C. A. Scutt and R. P. Franklin and published in 1925. In this collection of essays, stories and poems he exhibits an intellect both deep and lively, though steeped in the attitudes of his class and time.

Dr S. A. Ewing, who donated the Ewing Collection to Melbourne University, gave a bust of John Sutton by Webb Gilbert to Melbourne Grammar in 1925; it was at one point on loan to the National Gallery of Victoria. (Liber Melburnensis, 1965, p.209). A copy of this bust is in the Ewing collection now held at the the University of Melbourne Museum of Art.

Following John Sutton's death his father wrote to C. A. Scutt, Professor of Classics at Melbourne University, proposing a donation of 500 pounds, a considerable sum in 1925, for the setting up of a Classics museum, to be called "The John Hugh Sutton Classical Museum", with the money to go toward purchasing objects. (Scutt to Melbourne University Registrar, 7/12/25).

George Sutton requested that the museum be properly maintained and that the exhibits should be labelled to indicate their memorial nature. He also asked that his conditions be embodied in the regulations of the University. In 1926 the Council agreed to these stipulations and accepted the donation, less than a week later the payment was forwarded. (Council Minutes, Meeting no.4, 1926).

Another condition of the donation was that the money should be expended within three years. C. T. Seltman, a classical archaeologist of Queens' College, Cambridge, and a friend of Professor Scutt assisted with the purchases. The first selection, a number of coins, mainly Greek, were ordered from him and they duly arrived in October 1928. They covered an area from Britain to Rhodes and Carthage to Lesbos. In 1928 Professor Scutt sailed to England and Greece intending to add to these purchases. On New Years Day 1929 he wrote from the P and O ship S.S. Ballarat to wish everyone a Happy New Year and requested a release of funds to purchase objects "that can only be secured by ingenious action on the spot". (Scutt to Melbourne University Registrar 1/1/29).

By November 1929 further shipments were expected: more Greek coins, some vases and various artefacts. The coins were in the post and the other items were being shipped (letter 10/1/29). The acting head of the Department, William Kerry, wondered what he was going to do with this instant museum when it arrived. Gawler and Drummond, architects and designers who did a lot of work for The University, were commissioned to design and construct a "museum enclosure". This was to be made from blackwood and glass and was to live on the first floor of the Arts building. (Letter 20/3/29). This case was removed in 1971 from the Scutt Classroom to the Medley Building where it has since been a prominent feature of the Departmental Library.

The course of collecting did not always run smoothly. At one point the Council wanted to use some of the money to finance an earlier request of the department for plaster casts which the Details and Buildings committee had refused. Since the Suttons had requested that the use of the money should be decided by the head of the Classics department, Professor Scutt reacted to this interference in his domain with indignation: "The Council seems determined to make me and my department the victims of economies". (Scutt to Melbourne University Registrar, 13/1/26).

Despite these little hiccoughs the fund was fully expended by the end of 1929 and The University was in possession of a good coin collection, some fine vases, an 'enclosure', and some plaster casts, not to mention a terracotta dancing doll. The collection has been cared for since then by various members of the Department; its Curator since 1969 is Peter Connor who has done much to augment the catalogue. Since 1970 many Roman coins have been purchased to balance the number of Greek Coins and since that date too the original vase family has multiplied several times over.

The collection is not only an aid to research but an important teaching tool. Actual objects from the period studied give a sense of reality and immediacy to what may seem a remote past disconnected from modern life. It also allows the students to examine the antiquities as a primary souce, free from the interpretation of other commentators.


I would like to thank Annette Welkamp from the University of Melbourne Museum of Art, Peter Connor from the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies, Leanne Dyson from Central Registry, Cecily Close from the University of Melbourne Archives and Mr Sargood from Melbourne Grammar School.

Copies of all letters referred to are held in The University of Melbourne Museum of Art, Classical Studies Collection files.

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