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John Kay Clegg

11th January 1935 – 11th March 2015

Appreciation by
Claire Smith and Jo McDonald

John Kay Clegg

On 11 March, 2015, eminent rock art researcher John Kay Clegg, formerly of the University of Sydney, died peacefully and quietly at home in Sydney, Australia, in the company of his wife, Kate Sullivan. For eighty years he had enjoyed a life of passion, creativity and humour.

John's life was international from the start. He was conceived in Sri Lanka where his father (also John Kay Clegg) was a surveyor for the British Colonial Office. He was born in Nottingham, England on 11 January 1935. At the age of 5, when Britain was in the grip of war, his mother Marion, a geographer and Cambridge academic, sent John and his sister Quinelda to Canada to live with her sister Betty's family in Vancouver. The children returned to the United Kingdom when the war was over and John was 10. He became a weekday border at the prestigious Leys School in Cambridge, where he completed both his primary and secondary education. He took up a life-long passion for carving wood and stone soon after his return to England. At the time that John completed school, military service was still compulsory in the UK. John was advised that the most 'civilised' place to spend military service was in the Navy, and that in order to get into the Navy, he should not only apply for the Navy but state at his interview that he was keen to learn Russian. This he did, which resulted in him becoming fluent in Russian and spending two years in the back of a radio van in West Berlin listening to Russian broadcasts. Throughout his life, his language skills stood him in good stead.

John followed in both his parents' footsteps and read Geography at Magdelene College, Cambridge, where he was greatly influenced by Charles McBurney with whom he excavated at various sites. After completing a teaching certificate, John taught English at Bedford Modern School for a few years, challenging students with innovative classes on classics such as Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood, a work for which he had a lifelong passion.

In 1961 John Clegg emigrated to Australia to take up a tutoring position at the University of Queensland, followed by a tutorship at Sydney University, where he remained as an academic until his retirement. John Clegg was part of an enthusiastic first wave of English archaeologists who arrived in Australia during the 1960s — a generation that became characterized as 'Cambridge in the Bush'. Along with Andrée Rosenfeld, Mike Morwood and Iain Davidson, John Clegg and one of his first students, Leslie Maynard (then McMah) were responsible for a paradigm shift in rock art research in Australia. Their combined efforts underpinned a shift from an antiquarian focus on collecting and cataloguing the rock art as a relic of times past to a theoretically-informed and scientifically-oriented analysis of rock art as archaeological data. Among John's key publications is a respected field guide for rock engravings in the Sydney region (Stanbury and Clegg 1990) and a well-cited book on the aesthetics of rock art (Heyd and Clegg 2005).

During the 1960s John was enrolled at East Sydney Technical College, now the National Arts School, where he developed his own drawing and sculpture skills. These skills were instrumental in his ability to quickly see and understand the charcoal drawings of Aboriginal artists of the Sydney Basin. John's artistic practice gave him insight into his academic study of Aboriginal art, and vice-versa. He was able to see and appreciate Aboriginal rock art as both art and artefact, valuing its beauty as well as its potential for engendering new understandings of the past. John's interests in fine art, aesthetics and the cognitive processes that contribute to the creation of a work of art meant that he analyzed rock art differently to predecessors: R.H. Mathews, the ethnologist; WD Campbell, the surveyor; and Fred McCarthy, the museum curator.

The first academic to teach rock art at an Australian university, John Clegg supervised the first Honours thesis in rock art studies (McMah 1965). In concert with Andrée Rosenfeld at the Australian National University and Mike Morwood and Iain Davidson at the University of New England, Clegg introduced the first rock art units in Bachelor degrees at Australian universities, establishing rock art studies as an academic pursuit (Ross 2014). John Clegg's research addressed a central question in rock art research: how do we know what a motif is meant to depict? Clegg's scholarly work is perhaps best known for his insistence that it is pointless to seek the meaning for motifs since it is impossible to securely ascertain either the subject or motivation of the artists (see Clegg 1981, 1987). Clegg developed, and other scholars adopted, the typographic convention of an exclamation mark before their own categorizations of motifs to emphasize their view that the names allocated to motifs may not convey the same meaning as was intended by the artists (e.g. !fish, !kangaroo).

Throughout his tenure at Sydney University John inspired and trained a new generation of rock art scholars on how to look at and how to think about Aboriginal rock art. He taught that different ways of looking will result in different ways of seeing (e.g. Clegg 1991). There are few students of John's who don't remember his classes with fondness. That frisson of excitement: what would John do today?! Would he spend the entire lecture crouched eagle-like on the front bench, or in some meditative yogic pose? Would he enter through the window? Would he have shoes on? Would he have his recycled car tire sandals on?! And more important than the mode of delivery or his attire—what areas of our brains would he stimulate with new ideas? ...with outlandish suggestions which once unpacked often became an acute, if left-field, observation that sent students into new directions of thought and intellectual challenge.

John Clegg was a lateral thinker whose creativity, curiosity and enthusiasm brought new insights into rock art studies—well ahead of their time. When he began studying rock art it was an undervalued subject area within archaeology. John was a pioneer and became a crusader who developed a wide international following among academic and non-academic students of rock art. His legacy can be seen in the influence he had on his students and fellow archaeologists and also on academics across diverse fields of interest. The depth and range of his influence can be seen in the works of Lesley McMah/Maynard, who produced her own seminal work on Australian rock art (Maynard 1977, 1979) and Jo McDonald (2008), Rio Tinto Professor and Director of the Centre for Rock Art Research and Management at University of Western Australia as well as Robert (ben) Gunn (2011) and Natalie Franklin (2004), both of whom have worked extensively on rock art across Australia.

John was innovative, imaginative and at times happily mischievous. While teaching at Sydney University he completed an MA(Hons) degree in Anthropology and Prehistory, and was awarded the University Medal for his thesis—a very rare award for a Master's degree. His Master's thesis (Clegg 1978) had the title MAthesis Words and MAthesis Pictures. John's inventive mind loved the pun of Mathesis: "the science or practice of establishing a systematic order of things" (Oxford Dictionaries 2015) MA (Master of Arts) thesis, and 'my' thesis. The ongoing confusion that this still causes is part of his intellectual legacy.

John remained as an academic at the University of Sydney until his retirement in 2001. He held the positions of lecturer and senior lecturer and was awarded a Long Service Medal in 1994. His enthusiasm and scholarship inspired a generation of Australian rock art researchers in an evolving—and still exciting—field. Australian archaeology benefitted from John's genius because he was a genuinely individual thinker, with sharp and acute observation. He was an intellectually formidable scholar in whom eccentricity, intellect and humour were intertwined.

John Clegg is survived by his wife, Kate Sullivan, and by his sons, Jack and Harry. He will be remembered as a (long life) partner, a loving and adventurous father, a fine scholar and an inspiring and generous teacher.