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Myrtle, John Hepburn (1911–1998)

by Jackie Menzies

This article was published online in 2022

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John Myrtle, c.1966

John Myrtle, c.1966

photo supplied by family

John Hepburn Myrtle (1911–1998), company executive and director, art collector, and philanthropist, was born on 25 May 1911 at Sevenoaks, Kent, England, youngest of three children of John Hepburn Myrtle, ship and insurance broker, and his wife Florence Adeline, née Marshallsay. Educated as a boarder at St Lawrence College, Ramsgate, Hepburn studied mathematics and mechanics from 1930 to 1933 at the City and Guilds College, Imperial College, London. Always a keen collector, he would later recall ‘progressing through marbles, fossils, stamps and horse pistols’ (Myrtle 1992, 10) before turning to British pewterware. On 25 February 1937 at the Register Office, Kensington, England, he married Betty Rimington Jennings, an artist and actress, who had been born in Canada. Betty would later become a pioneer puppeteer in Australia, working first with marionettes and later glove puppets, and the Myrtle Puppet Theatre would appear on the Australian Broadcasting Commission television program Children’s Hour.

Myrtle spent his whole professional life with Morgan Crucible Co. Ltd, initially as an assistant engineer in its London office, and then in Sydney, where he and his family moved in 1942 on a wartime project to establish a crucible factory. Appointed a director of Morganite Australia Pty Ltd—as the Australian entity was known from 1960—he rose to become managing director (1951–70) before retiring in 1972. He was also chairman of Morganite Carbon Kabushiki Kaisha, located in Osaka, Japan, and from 1965 an executive director of the parent company’s board in London. For some years chair of the Australian-British Trade Association’s manufacturers’ division, he was appointed CBE in 1978 for services to British commercial interests in Australia.

Sparked by an exhibition of Chinese art held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1935 and 1936, Myrtle developed an abiding interest in Chinese ceramics, which complemented his professional involvement in the technology of ceramics. He was a member of the Oriental Ceramic Society in London, later becoming its Australian representative. His ‘long and pleasant association with the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ (AGNSW) (Myrtle 1992, 11) began when he became an honorary adviser for the Carrick Webster bequest of British pewter and the Sydney Cooper collection of Chinese art, bestowed in 1962. From 1963 to 1976 he was a trustee of the gallery, bringing it the benefit of ‘both his business acumen and his Asian art expertise’ (Menzies 1998, 23). In that period he advised the gallery on acquisitions of Asian ceramics.

Travelling to London, Hong Kong, and Japan as part of his work, Myrtle relished the search for Chinese ceramics and to a lesser extent jade through the antique shops and markets of these cities. His expert knowledge, together with the pleasure collecting gave him, is conveyed in various pieces he wrote in journals and exhibition catalogues. Such was the respect for his knowledge of ceramics, he was among a delegation of Australian potters invited as official guests to China in 1975 and was on the board of the Art Exhibitions Corporation of Australia when it organised the blockbuster The Chinese Exhibition in 1977.

In 1951 Myrtle had helped the Ceramic Society of Australia to organise an exhibition of porcelain and pottery from China. He was its president from 1961 to 1963. His contribution to this society was later recognised by his appointment as a patron. In the early 1960s he and three friends—the collectors V. V. W. Fretwell and L. G. Harrison and the potter Ivan McMeekin—formed their own society, the Kao Ling Hui, for the purpose of studying Chinese porcelain. With this group, he organised the exhibition Chinese Ceramics in 1965 at the AGNSW. He organised another two exhibitions at the gallery: Chinese Porcelain of the Ming and Ch’ing Dynasties (1977) and Late Chinese Imperial Porcelain (1980). The latter, being an early exhibition of late Qing dynasty wares, made a significant contribution to the study of Chinese porcelain.

The AGNSW and its public benefited from the generosity and expertise of Myrtle, who donated 152 pieces of fine Chinese ceramics and jade to the gallery (80 of them posthumously). Survived by his wife and their daughter and son, he died on 17 January 1998 at Elizabeth Bay and was cremated. His legacy is a fine public collection that encapsulates his discerning knowledge and appreciation of the beauty of Chinese ceramics, as had been acknowledged in 1992 when he was made an inaugural life governor of the AGNSW.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Menzies, Jackie. ‘Astute Devotee of Ceramic Art.’ Australian, 3 February 1998, 19
  • Menzies, Jackie. ‘Obituary: John Hepburn Myrtle, CBE.’ TAASA Review 7, no.2 (June 1998): 23
  • Myrtle, J. H. ‘My Life as a Collector.’ TAASA Review 1, no. 2 (March 1992): 10–11
  • Myrtle, John. ‘Myrtle, John Hepburn (1911–1998).’ People Australia. 2018. Accessed 20 April 2022. https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/myrtle-john-hepburn-31590. Copy held on ADB file
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject

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Citation details

Jackie Menzies, 'Myrtle, John Hepburn (1911–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/myrtle-john-hepburn-31590/text39748, published online 2022, accessed online 29 January 2023.

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