By Amara Thornton (Research Officer, Ure Museum)

The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology has just installed a new exhibition. The subject?  Archaeology books for children.  Specifically three books published by Allen Seaby, who taught Fine Art at University College Reading/University of Reading from 1899-1933.

Born in London in 1867, Allen Seaby came to Reading initially as a newly-qualified teacher. Five years later, in 1892, he began taking evening classes at the Reading School of Art. Passing his art examinations with flying colours, Seaby was appointed lecturer in the School of Art, which would be incorporated into University College Reading. He was made Professor of Art at University College Reading in 1910. The following year, Percy Ure was appointed Professor of Classics and Annie Hunt started her studies in classics at University College Reading.

Newspaper cutting books from the period in the University History Collection, held in Special Collections, offer further details of Seaby’s activities.  When Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s daughter (and a trained artist and sculptor) visited the exhibition of Reading Handicraft Guild in 1911, she saw prominently displayed a large group of Seaby’s colour prints made with Japanese-style woodblock, a technique that would make his name.

In this early stage of his Professorship, Seaby’s lecture series at University College Reading were highlighted in the newspapers. They lauded the wide range of his knowledge of art and its history.  As Professor of Art, Seaby was also Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Arts Club.  His art was displayed in the Art Club’s annual exhibitions along with work by his students (these exhibitions were open to local artists outside the University as well), spread over two rooms in the Department.

Seaby wrote for the Art Club’s own magazine, “a small publication of original articles and drawings”, and his work was also featured, for example, in the student magazine Tamesis: his lithograph of the ruins of Reading Abbey was reproduced as the frontispiece of the magazine’s autumn 1913 issue.

During the war, the College exhibitions continued, featuring (unsurprisingly) many more works by women students. Exhibition reviews in December 1914 noted that the ethos behind the display was “Art as Usual”, and that Seaby promoted the idea that art education and art work should continue despite the war, in preparation for a post-war future.

When Professors Percy Ure and Frank Stenton wrote a detailed proposal for the development of archaeology and history studies at University College Reading in 1917, Percy Ure highlighted potential for interdisciplinary collaboration with Art. This potential, he argued, had already been amply demonstrated: in 1916, a student in Seaby’s department named “Miss D. Bull” (first name unfortunately unknown at present) had produced sketches of finds and plans for the publication of the Classics Department’s excavations at Lowbury Hill.

It was in the late 1920s that Seaby’s interests turned more visibly towards archaeological subjects.  A significant exhibition of 30 years’ worth of his colour prints was arranged in 1928 in the Reading Museum and Art Gallery – so popular it was extended beyond its original closing date. Among the large number of prints of birds were archaeological sites – prints of Karnak, and the Parthenon, for example. One review noted Seaby’s “Parthenon” was “perhaps the most beautiful of all this group: how well Professor Seaby transfers to his paper the warm golden yellows of the stone, and the brilliant blue of the southern sky under which this famous pile rests!”

This interest in antiquity continued the following year, when Seaby gave an address on “Man’s Handiwork”, an overview of art in ancient and modern times, as part of a series of free public lectures at the Museum and Art Gallery. It was based on the series of books he was writing and illustrating, drawing on his research travels in Europe and the Middle East undertaken in 1924. Seaby’s “Art in the Life of Mankind” series, eventually four volumes published by Batsford, provided readers with an overview of ancient art in a variety of countries and periods.  It is in the volume on “Greek Art” (1931) that we find the first reference to a direct relationship between Allen Seaby and Annie Ure. In his Preface, Seaby credits Annie Ure for reading his manuscript for the book.

The year after he retired, the first of his archaeological children’s books was published. Omrig and Nerla (1934) was set in the transition between the Bronze and Iron ages in Britain.  While it is a fictional tale, it is based on archaeological and historical research and artefacts.  Stonehenge, as an ancient religious site, plays a significant role in Omrig and Nerla.   These books showcase Seaby’s links with museums and curators, in this case the British Museum.  The Museum’s Bronze Age “Mold Gold Cape” (known throughout the story as “the Golden Peytrel” – a now defunct interpretation of the artefact) is incorporated into the story.  Seaby’s illustration of the artefact can be found in the book’s final chapter, presenting readers with the history behind his fiction.

Seaby’s literary efforts were heralded in a newspaper series “Berkshire Literary Folk”, which profiled notable authors based in Berkshire.  The article hints, intriguingly, at a new archaeological manuscript Seaby was in the process of finishing. “The First Americans, or the Clever Family” was set during the period in which ancient peoples crossed the Bering strait to populate North America. It would, the article declared, concentrate on “primeval inventions”, including various tools and techniques of art.

The theme of craft continues in another unpublished Seaby manuscript – this one with direct relevance to the Ure Museum. “Leon of Messalia”, recently catalogued by Laura Carnelos as part of the Typography Department’s collection, has now been transcribed and edited by Benjamin Thrussell, University of Reading BA 2019.  The plot of this manuscript sees Leon, a young man from Massalia (Marseilles) travel to Athens, where he visits many craftsmen and even takes part in the Olympic Games.

“Allen Seaby’s Archaeology for Children”, a temporary display at the Ure Museum, will be showing until 21 February.

We are very grateful to the Gillmor family for the generous loan of so many wonderful Seaby sketches and drawings; to the University of Reading Department of Typography and Graphic Communication for the loan of drawings and manuscript drafts from the Seaby archive and Allen Seaby’s tools and woodblock; to University of Reading Special Collections and the Children’s Collection for loans of books and the issue of Tamesis currently on display; and to Martin Andrews for books.

References/Further Reading

Andrews, M. and Gillmor, R. 2014. Allen W. Seaby: Art and Nature. Reading: Two Rivers Press.

Berkshire Chronicle. 4 Feb 1911. Princess’s Visit. Handicraft Guild. Local Exhibits. [University History Collection Newspaper Cutting books 1909-1915]

The Chronicle. 20 Jan 1912. University College. [University History Collection Newspaper Cutting books 1909-1915]

The Chronicle. 18 Dec 1914. College Exhibition. The Fine Arts Department. [University History Collection Newspaper Cutting books 1909-1915]

Reading Observer. 19 Dec 1914. University College. Exhibition of Art Student Work. [University History Collection Newspaper Cutting books 1909-1915]

Reading Mercury. 19 Dec 1914. University College, Reading. Fine Arts Department. [University History Collection Newspaper Cutting books 1909-1915]

Reading Mercury. 25 Aug 1928. Professor Seaby’s Colour Prints. Exhibition at Reading Art Gallery. Charming Bird Studies. [University History Collection Newspaper Cutting books 1926-1932]

The Chronicle. 11 Jan 1929. Artist and Artisan. Professor Seaby’s Lecture. Skill of the Egyptians. [University History Collection Newspaper Cutting books 1926-1932]

Berkshire Literary Folk. No 33. Professor Allen W. Seaby. [University History Collection Newspaper Cutting books 1932-1946]