Object in Focus: The Newton Hall Athena
This statue of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and of war, has recently been allocated to the Fitzwilliam Museum by HM Government, as a gift to the nation in lieu of inheritance tax.
The statue takes its name from Newton Hall, near Cambridge, its home from 1920 until about five years ago.
Athena wears a helmet of Corinthian type: in her missing right hand she would have carried a spear. Just visible above the top of her cloak is her aegis, a goatskin breastplate fringed with snakes with the head of the Gorgon Medusa fixed in the centre -useful for a warrior goddess as it would turn her enemies to stone. This is a Roman version of an original Greek statue made around 350 BC. The original Greek figure would probably have stood in a temple or sanctuary, where it would have been an offering made to the goddess by a wealthy individual or a city. This copy is likely to date to the 2nd century AD and to have enjoyed a decorative function in the house of a wealthy and educated Roman. For him it would have served as a status symbol, marking him out to friends and guests as a man of taste and scholarship.
The statue was discovered in an antiquarian shop in the south of France by Sir Charles Walston in the early years of the 20th century, and from 1920 until very recently it has lived in the library at Newton Hall near Cambridge. Before Walston discovered the figure it appears to have been in a French collection, probably formed in Italy in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
The goddess of Wisdom seems an entirely appropriate figure for a University Museum, but in addition her ‘modern’ owner’s connection both with Cambridge and with the Fitzwilliam is extremely strong. Charles Walston was born Waldstein in New York in 1856 but changed his name because of anti-German sentiment in 1918. He was educated first at Columbia University and then at Heidelberg. His connection with Cambridge began in 1880 when he came here as a lecturer in Classical Art and Archaeology. This was the moment when a decision had been taken formally to introduce these subjects into the Cambridge Classical tripos, and it was Charles Walston who really put them on the map. He went on to become a Reader and then for six years (1883-9) he was also Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum. He left to become Director of the American School of Archaeology at Athens in which capacity he organised and published several excavations, most famously that of the sanctuary of Hera at Argos.