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Myrtle, John Hepburn (1911–1998)

by Jackie Menzies

from Australian

John Hepburn Myrtle was a discerning connoisseur, an erudite and passionate collector, and one of the leading donors to the Art Gallery of NSW. His great passion, collecting ceramics, was linked to his professional life.

After training in engineering at City and Guild's College, London, Myrtle started his professional career as an engineering assistant with the Morgan Crucible Co Ltd, a technically oriented manufacturing company.

He moved to Australia with his family in 1942 on an urgent wartime project for Morgan, never anticipating he would spend the rest of his life here. He stayed with Morgan Crucible throughout his career, rising to become chairman and managing director of Morganite Australia Pty Ltd in 1951. He also became chairman of Morganite Carbon Kabushi Kaisha, based in Osaka, and director of the Morgan Crucible Co Ltd in London.

The frequent travelling necessitated by his job facilitated his collecting and honed his appreciation and encyclopaedic knowledge of the wide variety of Chinese ceramic types. He found many of the pieces in his collection by scouring antique shops and auction houses in England, and he would regale friends with intriguing tales of discovering a particularly rare example.

His visits to Japan resulted in the acquisition of Japanese and Chinese ceramics in Japanese taste. Like many Japanese connoisseurs, Myrtle was particularly keen on the "insect eaten" effect to be seen on the rim of some porcelains where the glaze had pulled away from the rim, exposing the body. The tactile and visual pleasure he derived from his porcelains was infectious, and he was always eager to share his appreciation so that others could enter the world of Chinese ceramics.

For centuries the beauty and perfection of Chinese imperial porcelains has aroused aesthetic and acquisitive instincts and classic wares have always inspired imitations. Myrtle was one of those rare experts who could confidently confirm or refute the authenticity of pieces that had others fooled.

His love of ceramics meant he was always available with his time and expertise to advise others and share his knowledge, although sometimes there were those who did not appreciate his assessment. Many a "Ming" piece was reassigned a late 19th-century date after Hepburn's knowledgeable appraisal.

Myrtle's contribution to the appreciation of ceramics in Australia was immeasurable. Over the years he donated more than 70 fine examples of Chinese porcelain from his collection to the Art Gallery of NSW, where they are on permanent display for the enjoyment of everyone.

Myrtle often spoke of his long and pleasant association with the Art Gallery of NSW which began when he became an honorary adviser for the Carrick Webster bequest of British pewter (pewter was another of his great passions) and the Sydney Cooper collection of Chinese art, the gallery's first major gift of Chinese art, bestowed in 1962.

Subsequently, he was a trustee of the gallery for 14 years from 1963 to 1976, bringing it the benefit of both his business acumen and his Asian art expertise. During those years he astutely purchased many fine pieces of Chinese porcelain for the gallery's collection. His outstanding contribution to the gallery was acknowledged in 1992 when he was appointed an inaugural life governor.

He was there at the inception of the Ceramic Society of Australia in 1949, helping it to organise an exhibition of Chinese pottery and porcelain in Sydney in 1951 and was later honoured as a patron. Myrtle recalled that one of his happiest memories in the early 1960s was the formation by four old friends of a small society calling itself the Kao Ling Hui and devoted to the study and debate of Chinese porcelain.

The group organised the exhibition Chinese Ceramics at the Art Gallery of NSW in 1965: the first exhibition of Chinese ceramics staged by a public museum in Australia.

Myrtle organised two other exhibitions at the Art Gallery of NSW: Chinese Porcelain of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1977) and Late Chinese Imperial Porcelain (1980). These shows were important for documenting Australian holdings of Chinese porcelain and guiding private collectors in the development of their own. The latter exhibition was of special interest as, at the time, it was the only exhibition of late Qing dynasty wares to have been mounted anywhere. The fully illustrated catalogue of later pieces and their marks — the only reference on the subject for many years — was a landmark publication that has become a collectors's item.

As chairman of the advisory committee of the Australia Council on the visit of the Chinese archaeological exhibition to Australia, he was instrumental in bringing The Chinese Exhibition to Australia in 1976.

It was a major blockbuster which had one of the highest attendance figures of any visiting exhibition to Australia, due both to the excitement of the new archeological discoveries then being made (including a 2000-year-old jade burial suit) and the extensive marketing campaign by sponsor Mobil, which used an image of one of the magnificent bronze flying horses in the show at its petrol stations.

Myrtle's collection on show at the Art Gallery of NSW is a testament to the discriminating taste and knowledge of an erudite and generous man whose legacy will continue to enrich the lives of everyone. He was an active and enthusiastic member of the Australian Club for more than 35 years, and was awarded a CBE in the 1978 New Year's honours list.

He died after a debilitating illness. He is survived by his wife, Betty, daughter Katherine, son John and three grandchildren.

Original publication

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Citation details

Jackie Menzies, 'Myrtle, John Hepburn (1911–1998)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/myrtle-john-hepburn-31590/text39054, accessed 29 September 2021.

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