Ancient Cyprus at Museums Sheffield

Last week I had a hugely enjoyable morning investigating the treasure trove that is the Museums Sheffield store. Lucy Creighton, Curatorial Assistant in Archaeology, kindly hosted my visit and let me look through the ancient Cypriot collection and associated records.

It’s a stunning collection, with the majority of objects collected by the Rev. J. DeBaere, R.C. Chaplain at Limassol on Cyprus; not a name I was previously familiar with. Nearly two hundred of his objects survive in the Sheffield store, including this beautiful White Painted oenochoe decorated with eyes and stylised birds.

White Painted oenochoe with birds © Museums Sheffield

White Painted oenochoe with birds
© Museums Sheffield

For me, the most exciting objects in the Sheffield collection are the 31 pieces previously belonging to T.B. Sandwith. These came to the museum in 1897, purchased from a Sheffield saleroom. Was this the shop from which John Holmes bought some of Sandwith’s collection in 1869?

The records helpfully list the purchase price for each object, giving some idea of the market value of Cypriot antiquities at the end of the 19th century. These range from one shilling for lamps and small circular dishes, to 13/6 for a 9″ tall vase. This helps to put the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society’s purchase from the 1875 Yorkshire Exhibition into context. They spent a total of £14.0.0 on Sandwith’s antiquities, but we don’t have a list of what they bought; given the Sheffield acquisition was almost 30 years later, there is certainly the potential for it to have been quite an extensive purchase. A Bichrome spouted jug with basket handle, very similar to one in the Leeds collection known to have belonged to Sandwith, was sold for the sum of five shillings.

Bichrome spouted jug © Museums Sheffield

Bichrome spouted jug
© Museums Sheffield

Bichrome spouted jug © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Bichrome spouted jug
© Leeds Museums and Galleries

One of my favourite pieces is this lamp showing a very small Cupid or a very large hare, apparently a common pairing.

Lamp showing Cupid and hare © Museums Sheffield

Lamp showing Cupid and hare
© Museums Sheffield

I also love the tail on this ‘eye’ jug; similar in shape to the Hollings/Cesnola pieces, but whereas their tails are neat and discreet, this is much more extravagant, looping boldly over the bands of decoration and finishing on the shoulder with a tassel.

Bichrome jug with tail © Museums Sheffield

Bichrome jug with tail
© Museums Sheffield

Bichrome jug with tail © Museums Sheffield

Bichrome jug with tail
© Museums Sheffield

Sheffield is fortunate to have this wonderful collection of Cypriot antiquities. It was great to have a look through these fascinating objects, which are not currently on display, and to come into contact with some more of T.B. Sandwith’s collection. There is more ancient Cypriot art in Yorkshire than you might think!

Cypriot cockerel… and another mystery collector

While doing some collection-fishing in the hopes of finding more artefacts belonging to John Holmes (on whom much more another time), I came across this fabulous model of a cockerel.

Cockerel figurine © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Cockerel figurine
© Leeds Museums and Galleries

It is beautifully detailed and very characterful. The incised decoration gives the effect of feathers and shows the different textures of wing, body, neck, and plumed, curving tail. The detail in the head is wonderful, down to the nostrils in the downcurved beak and slight wattle below the throat.  The design of the eye, a circle with a dot in the middle, gives it a staring, alert expression.

Head of cockerel figurine © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Head of cockerel figurine
© Leeds Museums and Galleries

Its neck seems slightly extended and bent forwards as though about to peck something on the ground; all in all, it’s remarkably expressive for such a small object (3 in tall).

Cockerel figurine © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Cockerel figurine
© Leeds Museums and Galleries

Its Cypriot credentials aren’t very clear; it’s not a typical Cypriot form, and looks to be quite late. It may possibly be Roman. It has a round, hollow base, which contains an intriguing clue to its provenance.

Monogram on base of cockerel figurine © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Monogram on base of cockerel figurine
© Leeds Museums and Galleries

As well as various pencil numbers (of which the significance is unclear), it includes a neat monogram in ink, ‘CB’. This doesn’t fit any of the Cypriot collectors or donors I’ve come across so far. Who was ‘CB’, and where did they come by this cockerel? Time for another trawl through the records!

‘A great object': famine relief through excavations in Cyprus?

As mentioned earlier, the Visitors’ Guide to the 1875 Yorkshire Exhibition states that, while Vice-Consul in Cyprus, T.B. Sandwith relieved the hardship of local inhabitants by paying for the products of their excavations.

“A famine had taken place in the island at that time, and Mr Sandwith, knowing that there were ancient graves in various parts of the island, set the people to excavate them… The sale of many of these articles relieved the starving people” (p.10).

On the face of it, this seems rather unlikely. However, I’ve come across further sources that add weight to the idea that Sandwith’s excavations were motivated, at least in part, by a desire to help local Cypriots. As noted in a previous post, the Cypriot oenochoe bought by Mr Joseph Hall came with the following provenance:

“The digging has been under the charge of Mr Sandwith our Vice Consul, brother to the late Dr Sandwith of Kars celebrity, and the pottery sent to England to be sold for the relief of the inhabitants, who were suffering from famine.”
(Letter to Mr Joseph Hall, © Leeds Museums and Galleries)

Perhaps this is no more than a repetition of the story circulating at the Yorkshire Exhibition. More weight can be given to information provided by Mr John Holmes (1815-1894), a notable Leeds collector who was acquainted with the Sandwith family. He provided a brief biographical note of Dr Humphrey Sandwith, T.B. Sandwith’s brother, for the 1889 volume of Old Yorkshire, a multi-volume compendiary of notable Yorkshire places, events and people. In this he says:

“I made his [i.e. Humphrey Sandwith's] personal acquaintance in 1873-4. It begun [sic] in the old pots, sent from Cyprus by his brother, T.B. Sandwith (then Consul), for sale, to relieve the Cyprians, who were dying of famine from a three years’ drought and locusts. I purchased from a shop window in Sheffield certain of the very curious pottery, of at least over 2,000 years old, became acquainted with and was visited by the Rev. Henry Sandwith, of Todwick, and was induced to visit Humphrey at the Old Manor House at Wimbledon, 1874 – presumably because I had, in 1871, sold so many vases, etc., at such prices as, among others, to enable the Consul to do much good, as I realized myself in Larnaca, 1873.” (Old Yorkshire series II volume 1 (1889), ed. W. Smith)

This account gives a tantalizing glimpse of the dispersal of the Sandwith collection in Yorkshire in the 1870s. What was the shop in Sheffield, and who else bought the Cypriot artefacts? Eight Cypriot pieces in the Leeds City Museum are from John Holmes’ collection, and it is at least possible that some of these were originally shipped to England by Sandwith.

There is further testimony from even closer to home. The Leeds City Museum archive includes a couple of hand-written letters from the Reverend Henry Sandwith, the third of the Sandwith brothers, who seems to have been involved in the sale of his brother’s collection. Dated only ‘Sep 10′, one letter to an unknown recipient begins as follows:

“Will you kindly let me know how many pieces of pottery remain unsold and the prices of each. I will then consult with Mr Holmes whether any reduction in the prices of them should be made. Personally I should feel strongly disposed to favour a considerable reduction if the purpose be as you suspect; but I have a great object in view; the relief of famine which must also guide my decision.”

Again, this raises intriguing questions about the ‘purpose’ alluded to; but it also confirms a relationship between Henry Sandwith and John Holmes, and explicitly links the sale of the Sandwith ceramics with famine relief.

The hardship caused by locusts and resultant famine in Cyprus in the later 19th century is not in doubt. The evidence above strongly suggests that T.B. Sandwith took steps to ensure that local Cypriots benefited from the appetite for antiquities in the West, and that at least some of the profits from sales of pottery went to those who excavated them.

The Yorkshire Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures, 1875

The early collections of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society are very much a reflection of their times, representative of Victorian interests which ranged widely over subjects which today would be considered separate, specialised academic disciplines. This eclectic approach can be seen in the Yorkshire Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures, held in 1875, to which some of the pieces still in the Leeds City Museum’s collection can be traced.

The Yorkshire Exhibition was a huge event running from May to September 1875, involving the whole city. It was undertaken in support of the Leeds Mechanics’ Institution, which taught every branch of science and art, as well as maintaining an extensive library. This Institution found itself burdened by debt as a result of building new premises in 1865:

Leeds Mechanics’ Institution, 1875

“one of the ornaments of Leeds… certainly the handsomest and best-appointed Mechanics’ Institution in the kingdom” (Yorkshire Exhibition Official Catalogue, p.25)

Since 2008 this building has been the home of the Leeds City Museum, so we are still benefiting from its purchase today.

Leeds City Museum, © Leeds Daily Photo

The Yorkshire Exhibition covered almost every conceivable aspect of art, science and manufacture. This picture from the Illustrated London News gives some idea of the scale:

The Duke of Edinburgh opening Yorkshire Exhibition, Illustrated London News

Of the Fine Art department, the Official Catalogue says:

“Where we find so much that is good, it would be invidious to single out examples. Suffice it that Her Majesty and the nobility and gentry of the land, and last, but not least, the wealthy manufacturers of Yorkshire, are all contributors.’

This department included quite extensive exhibits of antiquities, including a case of Cypriot material, mainly from Thomas Backhouse Sandwith and John Holmes, a major Leeds collector and antiquarian. Among Sandwith’s exhibits were this beautiful jug of Red Polished ware, and this vessel described in the Catalogue as a ‘Child’s Feeding-Bottle’. Interestingly, no description seems to match the triple juglet.

Jug of Red Polished ware, © Leeds Museums and Galleries

‘Child’s Feeding-Bottle’, © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Members of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society took the opportunity to secure some of Sandwith’s collection for their museum, ‘by a grant from the President’s Special Fund’ (Report of Council of LP&LS, 1876). It’s great to think that these Victorian benefactors had the breadth of vision to ensure that the Society’s collections were comprehensive and thoroughly representative of the arts as well as the sciences, which were in fact the primary focus of interest for many of the key members.

We are also lucky to have, via the Leeds University Library Special Collections, a selection of original Guide Books which really make the Exhibition come to life. The Official Catalogue is serious in tone, giving full weight to the dignity of the occasion and its Royal patronage. It gives a detailed account of every part of the Exhibition and every item on display, and it would certainly have taken more than a single visit to do it justice and give full attention to the densely printed information.

Yorkshire Exhibition Official Catalogue

The Yorkshire Exhibition Guide and Visitors’ Descriptive Handbook, published by the Daily Express, is an altogether jollier affair.

Yorkshire Exhibition Guide

Priced competitively at twopence and crammed with advertisements, it sets itself in opposition to the Official Catalogue by cheekily beginning its Preface as follows:

“In this busy age few people have either the time or the inclination to crawl inch by inch through an Exhibition with no aid but the lifeless pages of a Catalogue. With what avidity would the dazed sightseer, bewildered by the multifarious objects around him, place himself under the guidance of a well-informed friend who would conduct him through the several departments by the easiest route, and discourse agreeably upon the most interesting objects along the way. To supply the place of such a friend is the object of the present little work.”

The author has an interesting take on Sandwith’s motivation for assembling his Cypriot collection:

“They were exhumed from the old Phoenecian graves in 1871-2. A famine had taken place in the island at that time, and Mr Sandwith, knowing that there were ancient graves in various parts of the island, set the people to excavate them… The sale of many of these articles relieved the starving people, while Mr Sandwith was enabled to preserve the admirable collection we see here.” (p.10).

I’ll return to this subject another time; it seems sensible, however, to take information in the Handbook with a pinch of salt. The author appears to have prioritised a lively tone over conscientious fact-checking, as evidenced by this dry comment in Nature on his description of one of the scientific exhibits:

Nature, May 27th 1875

This called forth a pained response from the Exhibition’s organisers:

Nature, June 3rd 1875

Interesting to see these concerns over competence, authority and control of information, long before the internet age!