Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.01.38 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.01.38

John Boardman, Andrew Parkin, Sally Waite (ed.), On the Fascination of Objects: Greek and Etruscan Art in the Shefton Collection.   Oxford; Philadelphia:  Oxbow books, 2016.  Pp. xii, 179.  ISBN 9781785700064.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Amy C. Smith, University of Reading (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The papers presented in On the Fascination of Objects were originally delivered at a celebration in honour of the life and work of Brian Shefton at Newcastle in 20131 yet this volume is not a Festschrift per se because it celebrates not only this much loved and admired scholar of ancient art and archaeology but also the collection of antiquities at the Great North Museum, Newcastle. To mark Brian’s 90th birthday in 2010, the single room at the Great North Museum (in the refurbished Hancock Museum) in which these artifacts now reside was renamed the Shefton Gallery of Greek and Etruscan Archaeology, as evidenced in this volume by a charming photograph of Brian cheerfully lurking behind the curtain that veiled the permanent ‘Shefton Gallery’ sign. Before 2009, however, the collection comprised the Shefton Museum (earlier the Greek Museum), initiated in 1955 by Shefton in the Department of Classics at the University of Newcastle, on his appointment as lecturer in ancient history. Charles Bosanquet, then Newcastle’s Vice-Chancellor, instigated it with a grant of £25, which enabled Brian to purchase three Greek pots! This and more is explained by Andrew Parkin, Keeper of Archaeology at the Great North Museum and a co-editor of this volume, in the second half of the Introduction (ch. 1), while Antony Spawforth introduces the volume as well as the man and his work in the first half of that same chapter. John Prag’s reminiscence of Brian Shefton that stands as a Foreword might as well be another part of the introduction.2 The multifunctioning identity of this two- or three-part introduction, however, reflects the varied life and work of its honoree and the many reasons for the volume’s existence. As Parkin makes clear in the final line of the introduction, however, Brian himself had suggested a volume of papers based on the Shefton Collection that would bear the title of the book under review here. His friends and admirers have thus fulfilled his hope with an academically rigorous and beautifully presented volume that in its smallness, however, cannot do justice to his Brian’s expansive knowledge, influence, and generosity.

The Shefton Gallery contains a number of items from other collections, some from the Shefton family (two fragments of gold jewelry that Dyfri Williams contextualizes in ch. 11) and others from the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne (including half of the kalathos that is the subject of Waite’s article, ch. 4). The very first item noted, an Attic middle Geometric lidded pyxis (p. 9 cat. 1), moreover, belongs to the collection of the Tyne and Wear County Museum Service. Brian Sparkes uses the Shefton black Castulo stemless cup as an opportunity to discuss other examples of this vessel form with red-figure images (ch. 7). It is perhaps appropriate, given Brian Shefton’s own enthusiasm for Attic red-figure, that the bulk of the articles (8 of 13) consider Attic material, of which half focus exclusively on red-figure pieces. While a few chapters consider Etruscan bronzes—Parkin discusses mirrors (ch. 12) while Naso catalogues funnels (ch. 13)—short shrift is given to the greater variety of materials in the Shefton gallery. Single chapters cover a terracotta relief (ch. 10), gold (ch. 11), and gems (ch. 14). In the last, John Boardman presents the only Bronze Age material under discussion, namely three Minoan seals (pp. 276-77). There is no consideration of the stone sculpture, Etruscan and other non-Attic vases, terracotta and bronze figurines, and Late Antique items. The breadth of the Shefton Gallery is thus only briefly glimpsed in this volume, alas, in figure 1.4.

The chapters vary greatly in length and therefore in scope, depth, and thus potential. Some but not all include catalogues or lists. John Boardman provides an annotated gem catalogue (ch. 14) in the style of Beazley, while François Lissarrague in fact calls his annotated list ‘only a footnote’ in memory of ‘a master of footnotes’ (p. 80 n. 1). Some of the uninspired chapter titles contribute to a superficial and mistaken sense that this volume is a longwinded catalogue. Otherwise, Alessandro Naso’s contribution (ch. 13) is the ideal presentation, with brief mention of the Shefton’s Etruscan funnels (infundibula), a thorough introduction to this type of artifact, well-illustrated with photographs and drawings, as well as a diffusion map, and then a comprehensive catalogue. The placement of the catalogue up front, as with Moignard’s contribution on pyxides (ch. 2), might deter some readers. It is that much more unfortunate, therefore, that Moignard’s contribution comes first. As it is, the overall organization of the volume is unclear.

Few research questions are answered and even fewer asked. Sally Waite admirably answers many questions in her biography of an Attic red-figure kalathos (ch. 4), concerning attribution, form, function, iconography, excavation and collection history, and even its reception. Yet she writes from the beginning to ‘confirm the importance ascribed to it by Brian Shefton’ (p. 31) without, however, articulating the questions that she answers. The article is written in two parts, moreover, with a subsection confusingly entitled ‘conclusions’ halfway through. Judith Barringer asks ‘who is the youth atop the dolphin on the Shefton relief?’ (p. 122). Although she doesn’t quite answer that question, she convincingly places the artifact in a Lakonian-influenced South Italian cult context, cautiously suggesting it might derive from a frieze or revetment related to the cult of Phalanthos. Diana Rodriguez Pérez’ article on plemochoai (ch. 3) has perhaps the most wide-ranging research implications, because it addresses the big issues about ‘the relationship between “art” and “life”, the interaction between human beings and material culture, and … how to understand Greek imagery’ (p. 17). She reveals that the (idealised) images of plemochoai on Attic vases are geographically and temporally distinct from the excavated plemochoai (mainly from Macedonia and Boeotia), which brings into question whether this vessel belongs exclusively in the realm of women. Yet she cuts herself short ‘due to space restrictions’ (p. 25). Naso’s article adds to the contemporary reading of cultural contact between Etruscans and Greeks as a two-way street, insofar as ‘cultivated Greeks received and imitated objects from the “barbarian” Etruscans’ (p. 160). These four are the longest and most thorough chapters. Other highlights are Susan Matheson’s provocative suggestion that the individual in Persian dress on the Achilles Painter’s white- ground lekythos used as cover image might represent a family member honouring the deceased (p. 69) and Williams’ conclusion that gold tube and seed necklaces in the form of the Shefton fragments are native to Lydia and precede Achaemenid influence (p. 134).

A few authors (Waite, Gill, and Williams) frankly address looted material (from other collections) or otherwise unprovenienced material in the Shefton collection. This appropriately reflects Brian’s ‘utter openness and transparent honesty’, in the words of Dyfri Williams (p. 131), who later signals concern about ongoing looting in western Turkey (p. 138). David Gill rightly distinguishes provenience from pedigree (p. 98), which gives him an excuse for a useful digression into the dispersal of the Nostell Priory vases (p. 97). Together with Waite’s and Parkin’s contributions (chs. 4 and 12), due attention is given to collections histories that have been too long ignored by Classical archaeologists.

The production quality of this volume is excellent, with a pleasant and effective layout and ample photographic illustrations (more colour than b/w) and drawings. There are few typographic or punctuation errors and credit for this is clearly due to the editors, whose own contributions have the few errors I found: ‘von Haller’ rather than ‘Hallerstein’ on p. 45, ‘Smith 1961’ rather than ‘Smith 1916’ on p. 46, and ‘Osborne 2010’ rather than ‘Osborne 2001’ on p. 151. (This criticism is in line with the truism that an editor cannot edit him/herself, thus the critical need for professional copy editors, even in the case of multi-authored edited volumes). Parkin’s article on Etruscan mirrors (ch. 12) would have benefited from more photographs of comparanda. There is some internal repetition in Gill’s article (ch. 8). Some articles are too succinct and thus academic for a wider audience. In her discussion of the kernos shape (p. 112), for example, Athena Tsingarida fails to even mention the function of these vessels. Some back matter, such as a combined bibliography and index, might have made the material more accessible to the uninitiated, students whom Brian himself inspired with this collection. All readers would have benefited from some effort at internal cohesion. Lissarrague’s mention of a Thracian helmet on p. 80, for example, could have benefited from a cross-reference to Matheson’s discussion of these helmets on pp. 64-65.

Brian Shefton collected the objects displayed in the Shefton Gallery for their research and teaching potential, so each and every object in the collection encourages us to ask many questions. This might have been made clearer if contributors to this volume had followed Diana Rodriguez-Pérez’ example and actually articulated the questions large and small. It is clear, however, that Shefton’s collection has not nearly reached its potential and we can only hope that it will spawn many more lectures, articles and even books.

Authors and titles

Foreword: Memories of Brian Shefton, John Prag
1. Introduction, Antony Spawforth and Andrew Parkin
2. Little Boxes, Little Boxes, Elizabeth Moignard
3. Evocative Objects. The Attic Black-Glazed Plemochoai (Exaleiptra) between Archaeology and Vase-Painting, Diana Rodriguez Pérez
4. An Attic Red-Figure Kalathos in the Shefton Collection, Sally Waite
5. Farewells by the Achilles Painter, Susan B. Matheson
6. Note on an Askos in Newcastle, François Lissarrague
7. Some Early Attic Red-Figure Stemless Cups, Brian A. Sparkes
8. The Nostell Priory Bolsal, David W.J. Gill
9. Two Coral-Red Bowls in the Shefton Collection, Athena Tsingarida
10. The Shefton Dolphin Rider, Judith M. Barringer
11. Lydian Gold to Newcastle, Dyfri Williams
12. Three Etruscan Mirrors in the Shefton Collection, Andrew Parkin
13. Brian Benjamin Shefton and the Etruscan Bronze Funnels, Alessandro Naso
14. The Newcastle Gems, John Boardman


1.   Except that of Dyfri Williams, who explains that time constraints meant he had to provide a shorter piece (and chose to do it on another subject) than the lengthier discourse on Attic salt cellars that he presented at the 2013 gathering.
2.   Most other authors can’t resist putting in their reminiscences of Brian and his effusive personality, some in introductions, with others in footnotes.

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