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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

The Legacies of Charles Thomas Newton: Classical Sculpture, Collecting, Museums & Diplomacy

This is a *save the date* for a conference / study that my colleague in research and writing Lucia Patrizio Gunning and I have been working on for some time now. (N.B. For some time, read years). On Monday 12 June 2023 a group of learned people (including me) will be discussing the life, work and mixed legacies of the nineteenth-century curator, archaeologist and diplomat Charles Thomas Newton at University College London, with a visit to the Institute of Classical Studies Library, a look at material from the Hellenic Society and an overview of his work at the British Museum. Booking details to be confirmed but we are delighted to now have confirmed funding from the Institute of Classical Studies and UCL to be able to make this happen.

Pencil drawing of a man with a bushy beard, with his face looking down.
A rather fabulous sketch of Newton that was in his letters in The British Library.

Now, I have been slightly obsessed with Newton. It is fair to say I was derailed by Flinders Petrie for around 10 years (damn him!) but Newton and Petrie actually knew each other as Newton was involved in appointing Petrie to his first freelance post for the Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society) in 1882/3. I will put the 'academic paragraph' explaining who Newton was below but personally - and I speak for myself here, not Lucia - there is something I find fascinating about a man whose high-handed arrogance shocks me one minute but deep feeling of grief breaks my heart another.

I love his begging letters to William Gladstone - while Gladstone was Prime Minister - for a display case to put the Mycenaean pottery in. Gladstone did take some time out from Home Rule and all the other things going on in the mid 1870s to dictate a letter saying yes all right, here's a bit of cash, but leave me alone as I've got other things to do! The story of how Newton lent Bronze Age jewellery from the British Museum to one of the society ladies in a Greek Tragedy pastiche in the 1880s and then had to beg for it back is very amusing . . . And yet, and yet, the way he describes the Turks whose houses he takes apart to find the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos make for distressing reading and his attitude to periods that are not Greek or Roman of the classical period (6th BCE to 4th CE). caused a medievalist to call him 'some heathen hound' at the time. Then, there is, of course, his arresting Olympian Zeus appearance.

But this is the more academic pitch for why you should be interested in him:

Newton was a well-known figure of authority on archaeology and the Classical World in the mid to late Victorian period in Britain and beyond. He was connected with an

Dark bust of a man with wavy hair and a full beard wearing a waistcoat and jack.t
A bust of Newton by Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm, 1863. NPG

overwhelming number of public figures, whether in art (G. F. Watts, Mary Severn), criticism (John Ruskin), politics (William Gladstone) or museums (Antonio Panizzi and Henry Cole). Newton leaves an ambivalent legacy, the claims he made about the discovery of the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos were later found to be at best exaggerated, at worst untrue, and his writing (and actions) record mixed, and in some cases racist, attitudes to the peoples across the Ottoman Empire and modern Greece. Newton spent most of his life in the British Museum but networked across clubs, societies and institutions to develop new means of acquiring antiquities, including through military expeditions. He was also instrumental in employing and educating women in fledgling higher education and opportunities during the 1880s.

1 Comment

Jan 16, 2023

Love this! The man has fascinating and intriguing aspects and finally we are able to have a study day to learn more about him

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