Select Page

Dr. Sally Waite (University of Newcastle) and Andrew Parkin (Keeper of Archaeology, Great North Museum) share news of an upcoming exhibition supported by one the Institute of Classical Studies’ small grants for public engagement.

Reimagining Ancient Greece, a new temporary exhibition at Belsay Hall in Northumberland, opens on the 24th September 2018. The exhibition is a collaboration between Newcastle University and the Great North Museum, working in partnership with Belsay School and English Heritage, and is the result of a Community Curriculum Project looking at the legacy of ancient Greece.

Earlier this year we spent six weeks working with Belsay School in Northumberland to develop a curriculum on ancient Greece for year 3 and 4 pupils (7–9 years old). This curriculum was centred around local resources, in particular the Shefton Collection of Greek Archaeology at the Great North Museum in Newcastle and Belsay Hall, an important Greek Revival building and a close neighbour of the school. As part of this new curriculum the children produced artworks that were directly inspired by objects from the Shefton Collection. They also sought inspiration from buildings influenced by ancient Greek architecture, in particular Belsay Hall. A central element of a community curriculum is some kind of end product with a public audience, therefore, as a final stage in this project we wanted to celebrate the children’s work with an exhibition. English Heritage kindly offered us space in Belsay Hall where the children and their parents will be able to see their work in a building that is itself a direct response to ancient Greece and which is right on their doorstep.

Sir Charles Monck (1779-1867) inherited the Belsay estate at the age of 16 in 1795. He was educated at Rugby School where his interest in the Classics and ancient Greek in particular flourished. In 1804 he married his cousin Louisa Cooke and they embarked on an extended honeymoon travelling through Europe to Greece. The newlyweds spent 6 months in Athens during 1805, where their son, Charles Atticus, was born and Monck passed his time visiting and recording ancient sites. Monck’s passion for the ancient Greek world was the key inspiration for his design of Belsay Hall. Building began on Belsay Hall in 1807, shortly after Monck’s return from Greece, and was completed in 1817. Belsay Hall and its interiors were closely modelled on the buildings and decorative details Monck had encountered in Athens. Unusually for the time, Monck does not appear to have been especially interested in collecting Greek antiquities.  His diaries indicate that he collected only a few pieces.  Unfortunately, nothing is known about the display of Monck’s collection in the Hall.

Monck’s energies were focused on the buildings and scenery rather than the objects of ancient Greece. In contrast, Professor Brian B. Shefton’s (1919-2012) life was distinguished by his fascination with the objects of ancient Greece and this is reflected in the collection he created. Shefton was born Bruno Benjamin Scheftelowitz in August 1919 in Cologne, Germany. In 1933 the Scheftelowitz family fled to Britain to escape Nazi oppression.  The family settled in Oxford where Bruno went on to read Classics at Oriel College. His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1940 he was briefly interned, alongside many other refugees from Europe, on the Isle of Man. Following his release, he enlisted in the British army and anglicised his name to Brian Benjamin Shefton. After the war he completed his degree. He then spent several years in Greece, working at the British School in Athens, before returning to England to embark on an academic career. Brian Shefton spent most of his academic career at Newcastle University, becoming Professor of Greek Art and Archaeology in 1979. The collection began with an initial grant of £25, in 1955, with which Shefton purchased three ancient Greek pots to be used for teaching and research. During the next 50 years Shefton built up a collection of almost 1,000 Greek and Etruscan objects, now on display in the Shefton Gallery. A number of these objects will be displayed in Belsay Hall as part of the exhibition.

A key object on display in the exhibition is a Nike statuette identified as a copy of the Nike held by Zeus as part of the famous gold and ivory cult statue from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. It was this statuette that the children used as inspiration for their watercolour paintings. The Shefton Nike is from the island of Corfu, where it was probably discovered during excavations of a temple at Kardaki in the 1820s. The statuette was once owned by the Victorian art critic John Ruskin who acquired it in 1871. A photograph shows it on display on a sideboard in his house, Brantwood, in the Lake District.

In designing the exhibition, we wanted to highlight the curriculum areas we covered and make a strong connection between the children’s artworks and the objects that inspired them. In our workshops at school as well as sessions at Newcastle University and the Great North Museum we explored five ancient Greek themes: the Olympics, coinage, architecture, history and heroes. Each of these topics is developed in the exhibition, which illustrates how the children used artefacts to learn about ancient Greece and inform their creative work.  The children have used a range of techniques including watercolour painting, mixed media collage, clay modelling and detailed drawing to reimagine ancient Greece.

The exhibition also includes work by Mina Heydari-Waite, a British-Iranian artist working in Scotland. For this series of works she has taken Belsay as her starting point, focusing on neo-classical decorative motifs. The work presents a mixed media installation that references Grecian ideals of beauty alongside 19th century ideas of luxury. The work alludes to the faded aesthetic of classical antiquity made prominent in the empty interiors of Belsay Hall.

Mina helped to design and deliver two of the art workshops at Belsay school. In the first the children created watercolours of Nike whilst in the second they made collages of their design for a Greek-style house. Humidity levels within the Hall make it problematical to display works on paper so the children’s work has been scanned. The Nikai will appear as window vinyls, which we have been testing out in the Great North Museum. The collages in which the children created their own Greek style houses will appear as a frieze above the mantlepiece. Graham Taylor, a potter and experimental archaeologist based in Northumberland, also worked with the children to produce a magnificent clay statue of the god Pan which will feature in the exhibition.

Preparations for the exhibition are well underway. Three wall panels and eight in-case panels are in the process of being printed. A couple of weeks ago the photographer Simon Miles set up a makeshift studio in the Shefton Gallery to take photographs for the exhibition panels

The photograph of a bronze strigil (right), made around 500 BC, will feature in the exhibition.

Last week we were transporting exhibition cases to Belsay from Housesteads Roman Fort and Newcastle University. The remaining cases, freshly repainted, will have to be manoeuvred down a narrow staircase and into the Hall. Objects are packed and ready to be transferred from the Great North Museum to Belsay Hall. This is the first time in the collection’s history that a group of objects have been on loan.  The exhibition will run until 24th February 2019.

by Sally Waite and Andrew Parkin