Recently I visited the amazing ancient Cypriot collections belonging to the World Museum, Liverpool, thanks to the Curator of Classical Antiquities, Dr Chrissy Partheni. At present there is no specific gallery for ancient Cypriot objects, but visitors are greeted in the entrance hall by a display case under the banner of ‘Hidden Treasures of Liverpool’. This features a fish-shaped vessel, a oenochoe decorated in Free Field style with a fantastical bird, and a particularly beautiful Black on Red oenochoe, alongside some historic photographs from the Kouklia excavations carried out in the 1950s by J.H. Iliffe, then director of the Liverpool City Museum, and the archaeologist T.B. Mitford from the University of St Andrews.
I also really liked this vitrine in the brilliant Weston Discovery Centre, where visitors can get hands-on with parts of the Museum’s collections.
It charts one jug’s journey from Cyprus to the museum, quietly challenging some of the prevailing narratives about colonial collecting, and hinting at the wealth of stories behind any museum collection.
Chrissy was kind enough to give me a tour of the stores, where I very much enjoyed seeing more of the wonderful and wide-ranging collections. I had a further purpose for my visit: my latest research into the destinations of Thomas Backhouse Sandwith‘s collection allowed me to join the dots and identify a few objects still in Liverpool which came from this source.
When Sandwith started sending ancient Cypriot objects to the UK in 1869, some were sold at Mrs Parkin’s Glass and China Saloon in Sheffield. I’ve also come across evidence that they were sold in Liverpool ‘at the shop of Mr Stonier, glass and earthenware dealer’, in the form of a newspaper article from the Liverpool Daily Post of 13 August 1870. This states that the objects were placed on sale by Henry Sandwith, T.B. Sandwith’s brother and ‘clergyman of the Church of England’, but the article bears every sign of having been written by John Holmes, who played a major role in disseminating Sandwith’s collection – not least the rather awkwardly shoehorned-in reference to Romans 9.21 (‘Hath not the potter power over the clay’). The article concludes:
“The Rev. Dr. Hume, Mr. J. A. Picton, and other antiquaries of the town… have made a selection of some of the rarest and most illustrative of the types, in the hope that the committee of the public museum will purchase them’.
This hope seems to have been fulfilled, as the 1870 Annual Report of the Free Public Library, Museum and Schools of the Borough of Liverpool records the purchase of ‘Ten specimens of Graeco-Phoenician Pottery and Glass found at Cyprus’. These turn out to have been accessioned at the Liverpool Museum under the name of Stonier, which makes sense as he was the immediate vendor, and this explains how the Sandwith connection was obscured.
We were able to see seven of these objects; a beautiful Bichrome amphora, oenochoe, and barrel jug; three pieces of glass, including a ‘candlestick’ vessel of the type which confused John Holmes; and a Red Polished spouted bowl. It’s easy to see why the ‘antiquaries’ selected these for the Museum, and they may give some idea of the rest of Sandwith’s collection put up for sale in Liverpool. I would guess that the Red Polished bowl falls into the category of ‘rarest’, and the others into ‘most illustrative’, but it’s difficult to be sure.
The Rev. Dr. Hume mentioned in the article is probably Abraham Hume (1814–1884) (on the right in the portrait below), joint founder of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire alongside Joseph Mayer, whose extensive collections formed the basis of the Liverpool Museum, and Henry C. Pidgeon. He was also secretary to the British Association at Liverpool in 1870, and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.
J.A. Picton was an architect and antiquarian who was instrumental in bringing a free public library to Liverpool. They were typical of the educated men, with a broad interest in the ancient past, who were in the first wave of encountering the ancient Cypriot objects that Sandwith caused to be imported. They certainly chose well on behalf of the Liverpool Museum.
Following up another piece of unfinished business, we also tried to track down the ‘large £5 vase’ purchased from Sandwith’s collection by G. Sinclair Robertson. The itinerary of this vase has become obscured over time, not least due to the damage incurred by the Liverpool Museum during WWII. While it’s not possible to be certain, this large amphora may perhaps be the one in question; it’s certainly similar in size to the large amphora that William Aldam purchased, also for £5, from Sandwith’s collection.
The Liverpool ancient Cypriot collection has a fascinating set of histories behind it, not least relating to the excavations at Kouklia. It was great to be able to link a small part of the collection to Sandwith’s activities in the 1860s-1870s, and find further evidence of how far his collection has travelled.