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Myrtle, John Hepburn (1911–1998)

by John Myrtle

John Myrtle, late 1950s, sitting in front of a portrait of him painted by his wife, Betty, in the late 1930s

John Myrtle, late 1950s, sitting in front of a portrait of him painted by his wife, Betty, in the late 1930s

photo supplied by family

John Hepburn Myrtle (he preferred Hepburn as his given name) was born in England at “Netherley”, Pembroke Road, Sevenoaks, Kent, on 25 May 1911. His mother was Florence Adeline Myrtle (nee Marshallsay) (1871-1953) and his father, also John Hepburn Myrtle (1860-1952), was a shipping agent. There were three children in the family, with Hepburn being much younger than his two sisters. He attended St Lawrence College, Ramsgate from 1920 to 1929 and boarded at the College for all of his schooling. He entered the Senior School in 1925, served in the Officer Training Corps, leaving after the summer term of 1929.

After training in mechanical engineering at City & Guilds College, London, Hepburn Myrtle started his professional career as an engineering assistant with the Morgan Crucible Company in London, initially working at the company’s Battersea Wharf factory that housed a test foundry and the furnace construction shop. He was later promoted to assistant crucible factory manager at Battersea. He married Betty Rimington Jennings, a Canadian-born actress and artist at the Registry Office, Kensington in London on 25 February 1937. They were to have two children, Katharine, born in Yorkshire in 1940 and John in Sydney in 1944. Postwar in Australia Betty Myrtle was a pioneer puppeteer, initially with marionettes and later, glove puppets. The Myrtle Puppet Theatre featured in the early years of the Children’s Hour on ABC television.

In 1940 wartime Australia was threatened by a serious shortage of metal melting crucibles and the Morgan Crucible Company, incorporated in Australia in 1937, was requested to supply technical expertise from England to assist in the establishment of a crucible factory. Hepburn Myrtle travelled by sea under convoy, initially to North America, accompanied by his wife and their infant daughter. The plan had been to travel on by flying boat from San Francisco to Sydney but after the bombing of Pearl Harbour the remaining part of the trip to Sydney was a perilous journey by ship.

A factory and office with plant were installed at Alexandria in Sydney and crucible production commenced in 1942. Myrtle was appointed as a director and later managing director of the Australian company, which was re-named Morganite Australia in 1960. He was managing director from 1951 to 1970 and in 1965 he was also appointed as an executive director of the company’s group board in London.  At the same time he was chairman of Morganite Carbon Kabushi Kaisha based in Osaka, Japan. He retired from the company in 1972. During his career he served for a number of years as chairman of the Manufacturers’ Division of the Australian-British Trade Association. For this and for other industry initiatives he was awarded a CBE in the 1978 British New Year’s honours list.

The other side of Hepburn Myrtle was as a noteworthy collector and scholar in the fields of ceramics and pewter. He wrote in 1992:

I have always been acquisitive and possessive, progressing through marbles, fossils, stamps and horse pistols, until my interest centred on early English pewter ware; later it was to be diverted largely to Chinese porcelain and jade.

He also wrote that as a young engineer his interest in ceramics was enhanced by his employment with the Morgan Crucible Company, a firm that was closely associated with the manufacturing work of Royal Doulton. Hepburn Myrtle not only became a collector but he also developed a scholarly interest in Chinese ceramics. He joined the Oriental Ceramic Society in London and later was the Society’s representative in Australia. He was one of the earliest members of the Ceramic Society of Australia (later known as the Ceramic Collectors Society) that was founded in September 1949. He became Vice-President in 1951 and was a major contributor as well as drafting the catalogue for the Society’s 1951 exhibition of oriental porcelain. He was President of the Society from 1961 to 1963.

Utilising his professional knowledge and experience with ceramics, in the 1950’s and 1960's he worked with Ivan McMeekin and other pioneer artist potters in offering technical and other forms of support, endeavoring to place the art of the potter equal in status and opportunity with other arts in Australia. In 1975 he was a member of a delegation of Australian potters that travelled to China as official guests of the People's Republic of China.

His association with the Art Gallery of New South Wales would provide a major contribution to the development of a significant Australian collection of Asian art. During his lifetime he was a major donor with more than 100 objects given to the Gallery’s collection of Asian ceramics and he served on the Gallery’s Board of Trustees from 1963 to 1976. Building on this involvement, he was appointed to the board of the Australian Art Exhibitions Corporation and was a key player in the organisation of a major Chinese exhibition of archaeological finds from the People's Republic of China, held in three Australian cities in 1977. In 1992 he was appointed as one of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s inaugural Life Governors in recognition of his outstanding work in support of the Gallery; not only as a donor but also as an adviser, lecturer and organiser of exhibitions.

Hepburn Myrtle died in Sydney on 17 January 1998 at the age of 86; survived by his wife and children.

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Citation details

John Myrtle, 'Myrtle, John Hepburn (1911–1998)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/myrtle-john-hepburn-31590/text39062, accessed 24 May 2022.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012