One of the most charming objects in the Canterbury College Collection is this group of eight cloth placemats. These placemats depict four comical scenes, all with ancient Classical themes, in a graphic cartoonish style– some with a modern twist. A personal favourite features three caryatids – architectural columns carved into the shape of women that hold up a structure. In this comical scene one of the caryatids sits cross-legged in the middle of the space daydreaming, as the other two glare at her while making up for her slack. Another scene features a dramatic Roman chariot ride where a draped-woman has her arms wrapped around a very serious Roman warrior, her head thrown back in glee – while he looks back in concern, the horse looks back in disapproval.
While these placemats are satirical and casual in their expression, they show sophistication in their design and ability to evoke a response. The flattened medium of the mats provides a stage like effect and encourages us to come up with our own scripts and the casual modern references sprinkled in – such as the phone – challenges us to reconsider how we view the ancient world. The illustrations incorporate Greek and Roman art motifs including meanders, drapery and references to iconic Classical architecture. The simple lines manage to create a strong sense of the drapery of a toga and the squiggles under the unimpressed caryatids feet set off their hips just like the real ones on the top of the Acropolis. A pose that is called the contrapposto pose.
One of the delights of objects like these is that they were not for display but were used and enjoyed by students and staff. They once belonged to Miss Marion Stevens, a UC icon, who used them when hosting dinner parties where they were surely a topic of conversation as each plate was lifted to reveal them. For those of you unfamiliar, Marion Stevens was an academic Reader at the University of Canterbury and a collector of Greek antiquities. She went on to become the founder of the James Logie Memorial Collection which is now housed in the city centre at the UC Teece Museum. A recent oral history on Marion revealed her to have a quirky character and a great sense of humour. She was known to travel around on her bicycle with a 2500-year-old vase stashed in the wicker basket on the front of the bike! These placemats, with their tongue-in-cheek illustrations gently mocking the Classical world, would have greatly appealed to Marion. Objects such as these give us a chance to connect to some of the famous personalities of the University beyond their academic achievements
We’re still on the lookout for the hidden gems that speak to the history and people of the University. If you think you might have something to add to the survey then we would love you to get in touch!
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