Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 24, 2013

Love’s Obsession, by Judy Powell #BookReview

Love's ObsessionsLove’s Obsession, by Judy Powell, is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.  It’s up there with the work of Brenda Niall and of Jill Roe, who are in my opinion, the best Australian biographers of my time.

The remarkable thing about Powell’s accomplishment is that I had never heard of Jim and Eve Stewart, and knew almost nothing about the field they worked in.  But by the time I had finished the book I had become fond of the subjects, and was fascinated by the work they did.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Jim Stewart was an Australian archaeologist, working in the era when the archaeology of Australia was of little academic interest.  Like many others in Australia in the post-war period, Stewart’s family was culturally more British than Australian, and although he completed his secondary education at the prestigious King’s School in Sydney, he left Australia as an adolescent to prepare for university at the Leys School at Cambridge, as had his father and uncle before him.  He entered Trinity to study history and archaeology, and like many young men of his class, had opportunities to travel to interesting places en route as he travelled to and from Australia during university holidays.  His first trip to Baghdad, Damascus and Baalbek was the beginning of his lifelong interest in the antiquities of the ancient world.

On Stewart’s first archaeological ‘dig’ he was accompanied by Eleanor Neal, sister of one of his university chums.  They subsequently married, and had a son called Peter, but the marriage was not to last.  Before long Jim Stewart had the opportunity to join an excavation on Cyprus (then under British control) where he first met Eve Dray, also an archaeologist who shared his fascination with the archaeology of the island.  He was immediately attracted to her.

The war intervened, and Stewart became a POW in Germany.  He spent four frustrating years planning his grand project for excavating Cyprus, finally returning to Australia where the marriage fell apart, and he was eventually able to marry Eve.

These domestic details are of interest, but what makes this biography so fascinating is that this period in archaeology marks the transition from archaeology as a wealthy gentleman’s hobby to a professional academic pursuit.  For Jim Stewart, there was always a tension between his desire to collect, and his obligation to catalogue and publish for the university that funded him.  On the one hand, as the first person to teach archaeology at an Australian university, he was keen to engage the interest of others and by all accounts he was an inspirational figure, and on the other hand he was more interested in being out in the field than in sorting out and writing up his findings.  That  task fell to his loyal and devoted wife, Eve, during his lifetime and for long years after his premature death in 1962.  He was only 48 when he died.

Love’s Obsession is no hagiography.  Jim Stewart was brilliant, but he was a deeply flawed human being.  Like many with a single-minded obsession he was impatient with others, intolerant of what he perceived as bureaucratic pettiness, and imprudent when it came to seeking funding for his projects.  He promised far more than he could deliver, and he started more than he could finish.  And although Powell doesn’t say so directly, it looks as if he wasn’t as faithful to Eve as he should have been.

It was not until I reached the chapters following Jim Stewart’s death, that I began to realise the enormity of the task Eve Stewart undertook in sorting out the materials he brought back from Cyprus.  For almost half a century after his death, this amazing woman worked, alone and uncelebrated, and as an unpaid volunteer, sifting, cataloguing and analysing pottery, coins and other archaeological treasures, so that she became an expert in Cypriot antiquities in her own right.  It is humbling to look at the photograph of Eve Stewart in her old age, in a shabby old parka, and realise what a remarkable contribution this old lady had made to world knowledge in her field. She should have been awarded an Order of Australia at the very least.

The story of Eve’s solo endeavours is fascinating. As part of her research she conducted voluminous correspondence – all in the days before email and computers, and for much of her time without even a telephone.  Most of this correspondence was by hand, but as she aged and her eyesight failed, she used a typewriter, placing a sheet of carbon between two blank sheets of paper when typewriter ribbons were no longer available, hoping that the pressure of the keys would make a carbon impression that could be read on the sheet underneath.  She battled with ignorance and apathy, the worst of which resulted in the destruction of precious pots which had safely made their way across the world only to be shattered when a fool administrator engaged an ordinary firm of furniture removalists to transport them from the university to Eve’s home for study.

Love’s Obsession offers much to think about.  Powell acknowledges that contemporary archaeologists frown on methods of the past, and on the removal of artefacts in particular. At that time, artefacts that were dug up ‘belonged to’ the institution that was funding the excavation, and that once the permits to dig were acquired, there was no thought that the materials ought not be removed from their origins for study or exhibition elsewhere.  The cultural arrogance about Australia’s indigenous archaeology seems rather odd to us now, when there is so much interest in the world’s oldest living culture.

But all of us are prisoners of our own time, and the Stewarts had no conception that there was anything wrong with their methods.  Although Jim in particular never moved on from the concept of the British Empire and was peeved by Cypriot independence and its subsequent partition, they both loved Cyprus and its people and had enormous respect for its cultural heritage. They made it their life’s work to discover its ancient treasures and Eve’s legacy is a wealth of knowledge available to anyone who wants to learn about it.

It is saddening to read that the Stewart collection has been broken up and sold but I am hopeful of seeing some of it in a museum one day.  Judy Powell finishes her account with a tantalising glimpse of the Stewart legacy, and who knows, I might one day see evidence of their work too:

My first day in Nicosia during my first research trip to Cyprus was a Sunday and I strolled idly through the old city.  I arrived at the museum before it opened and sat in the shady foyer looking at the painted ceiling, the massive doors with multiple locks and the museum attendants eating ice creams as they waited to begin work.  The museum is an old-fashioned museum, crammed full of objects arranged chronologically.  There are some written panels with limited explanations but, although unimaginatively displayed, I was relieved that it wasn’t full of elaborate interpretation and interactive displays aimed at competing with the internet and taking up space and money that could be devoted to objects and research.  I immediately moved toward the Bronze Age displays, ignoring – as I generally do – the classical sculpture and overdrawn formal pots of the Classical period.  I love Bronze Age Cypriot pottery.  It is handmade and quirky, full of the individuality that made Jim’s corpus a futile attempt at imposing order.

Amongst the display of pots was a large but broken alabaster bowl in the centre of the cabinet.  As I looked closer I gasped with a sort of personal and exclusive delight.  On the inner rim was the pottery register number – and immediately I saw that it was in Eve’s handwriting. (p. 266)

This biography is a beautifully written, clear and coherent account of two fascinating people. It deserves to be widely read – and not just by people interested in antiquities!

Author: Judy Powell
Title: Love’s Obsession, The Lives and Archaeology of Jim and Eve Stewart
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2013
ISBN: 9781743052358
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Availability

Fishpond: Love’s Obsession: The Lives and Archaeology of Jim and Eve Stewart

Or direct from Wakefield Press.


Responses

  1. Thanks for remind I heard this mention on abc podcast a few weeks ago sounds like a real character

    Like

    • Oh, I missed that, it would have been great. I’ll hunt around and see if I can find it when I get home.
      Hey, it’s 1035pm on Xmas Eve as I write this, so you’ll be seeing my Humbook to you in 90 minutes time! I hope you like it!

      Like

  2. Thanks for the kind words Lisa. I do hope you get to see some Stewart material. In Melbourne the Ian potter museum has some, although I’m not sure what is on display. And Sydney university’s Nicholson museum has an exhibition of Cypriot material that includes Stewart material (and film footage from 1962). I think it closes soon. See http://sydney.edu.au/museums/exhibitions-events/aphrodite.shtml

    Like

    • Hello Judy, how lovely to meet you like this:) Thank you so much for writing a book which gave me so much pleasure, and taught me so much that I did not know:)
      I must tell you, my father came home from hospital yesterday, and I chatted with him about your book in the car as I drove him home. When I’d finished writing my review, I passed the book over to him … and he hasn’t stopped reading it since!
      Re the Ian Potter in Melbourne – I may well have already seen some of these pots, I think, without knowing their story. I’m a member of the University of Melbourne Alumni Association, and from time to time they hold special events like member-only exhibition visits, with a talk by an academic beforehand. We’ve been to a couple of antiquities exhibitions at the Ian Potter (I’m a Classics major, and The Spouse has a science and music background but (LOL after the influence of A Good Woman for twenty years) is a late convert to the Arts and is studying ancient history and philosophy at Monash.) I’ll find out when the Ian Potter is open during the holidays and check it out.
      But, how sad, that you don’t mention any at the Melbourne Museum. It doesn’t surprise me, the MM is more of a fun park than a museum, compared to what it used to be. It breaks my heart because I loved the old museum and must have visited it a hundred times or more.
      But re Sydney, what an irony. I have 90 minutes to kill in Sydney between flights on my way home tonight – but it’s Christmas Day and the Nicolson won’t be open!

      Like

  3. Great review, thanks.

    Like


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: