A Long Way From Greece and Rome: The John Hugh Sutton Collection

[Remarks from the opening of an exhibition from the John Hugh Sutton Collection at the Ian Potter Museum of the University of Melbourne]

John Hugh Sutton (1906 – 1925), 
The Fleur-de-Lys magazine, 1925. 

To live and work in a University involves many privileges - even if we are this week in the familiar territory of looking to decide which 2% of them we can dispense with... Not the least of these is the company of talented students, whose potential teachers and other staff have the opportunity to catalyse, but from whose energy and insight we gain as much as we give.

Occasionally however even such an apparently invincible community of raw talent and energy experiences tragedy, as ours did with the recent deaths of two students of the University in an accident on Swanston St. When John Hugh Sutton died after being thrown from his motorbike in the grounds of Trinity College in March 1925, the event certainly struck hard not only among his friends, but among teachers. 

It was not such a remarkable thing at the time for the most accomplished students to be reading Classics, as he was. Trinity, not uniquely among the Colleges I admit, had great strength in the area; my first predecessor Alexander Leeper who retired just before Sutton came up, had won the Berkeley Gold Medal for Classics at Trinity College Dublin three years before Oscar Wilde did the same; Leeper's translation of Juvenal's Satires is still available - for your Kindle, even!

Sutton had been widely regarded by those who taught him at Melbourne Grammar School and here as one of the brightest minds of his generation. There is even a small body of written work which gives some hints of that - peppered with classical allusions, but focussed on modern themes. In nuce at least Sutton was the embodiment of that classical scholar of the time, who read the works in the original languages but was ready to apply their insights in contemporary terms. My picture of the John Hugh Sutton we never knew was thus not a successor to Cecil Scutt, but an essayist, a rival to Vance Palmer or Donald Horne perhaps, someone who knew how to think about the present in the light of the past - a "graduate attribute" in which this or anyUniversity should delight.

The commemorative gift that laid the foundation of University's collection of antiquities which we delight to see tonight was itself a bridge between past and present, but also between continents and civilisations.

We are, after all, a long way from Greece and Rome. 

Ancient authors were more interested in the Antipodes you might expect, but did not imagine us or Australia's inhabitants of the time in very complimentary terms. Authors like Herodotus and Ctesias among the Greeks and Lucian and Seneca among the Latins drew images of the Antipodes and its inhabitants as inversions - sometimes literal, standing us on our heads as it were - or moral or ethical, as people whose views and habits were the reverse of those valued and practiced in the world of classical order.

Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt (Horace, Ep. 1.11) is closer to the truth; "those who race across the ocean change the sky, not their being". Few budding classicists in this part of the world have failed to wander through these references with some amusement or curiosity; but the Europeans who did arrive here may have been influenced, as colonists were in other parts of the southern hemisphere, by notions well embedded in schoolbooks from the renaissance that those who lived in these parts were not simply culturally other, but something worse. It is well for us to have acknowledged also this evening the traditional owners, whose own rich culture is now far better appreciated and studied.

Of these challenges there is much more to say; but for now the generosity of Sutton's family and of others, some with us tonight, has enabled many students to connect with the ancient world with an immediacy that has a unique quality because of its unlikely character. 
Convex pyxis with lid, Corinthian, c. 590–570 BCE, 11.1 x 13.2 x 13.2 cm. The University of Melbourne Art Collection, John Hugh Sutton Memorial Bequest, Classics Collection. 1929.0007.A&B 
The collection was a sort of MOOCS of the early 20th century; containing not only a number of very significant ancient artefacts, but casts of sculpture and electrotype copies of coins, it had a sort of "virtual" quality and sought to provide the antipodean classics student with a sense in image and form, not just in words, of one of the worlds which has spawned our own.

So this exhibition offers us a view of at least two things; that ancient world where Sutton had begun to learn to think about the modern and distant one where he lived; but also how those a century ago thought about those things. We need not be uncritical of either; but many of us I suspect believe that we have much more to learn, about western culture itself but also about beauty and truth and justice, from the study of these objects and those who made them. With thanks to the Potter Museum and all those whose work and generosity has made this possible, It gives me great pleasure to declare this exhibition open.

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