CLASSICIST, MUSICIAN, linguist, educationist and arts administrator, Mike Hughes was a creative all-rounder in the arts, both responding to and helping shape our understanding of ancient and modern history, and contemporary visual culture.
Born in Liverpool to an Irish family - his father was a docker - Hughes visited Ireland regularly, becoming fascinated by its culture and history. He was the first in his family to attend university and arrived at Liverpool University to further his Irish studies by choosing to read Gaelic. To his disappointment he discovered that he was the only student and the course was cancelled, though he did go on to become proficient in the language. Forced to choose other subjects, he opted for Latin and Ancient History, concerns he continued to follow throughout his life.
Following a period teaching Latin to the boys at Scarborough College, he was appointed research officer at St Matthias College of Education in Bristol in 1973, to work on the Bristol Cambridge Classics Project. Radical and enlightened, the scheme had the aim of relating Latin to modern life and breaking down the elitism usually associated with the subject.
Returning to original texts such as the inscriptions on tombstones, Hughes made new translations in popular English that brought them vividly into the modern world. Aimed at children in comprehensive rather than public or grammar school, the books and study packs succeeded in catching the imagination of often reluctant pupils. Topics examined included various aspects of ancient life, whether the preparation of cloth through spinning and weaving, which involved practical work in the classroom as well as translation, to the thrills and spills of the mythology of ancient Rome. This material continues in use today.
Three years of unemployment followed. With his wife, Catherine, and a young family to support, Hughes was ingenious and inventive in eking out a living. To practise his musical skills he became a busker, playing ancient music on his violin in the subways of Bristol. He set up a highly successful music group, "The Court Pied Poudre", that specialised in Baroque and medieval music. Thirdly, and closest to his heart as a committed family man, he formed a Family Circus, which successfully performed at such functions as children's parties, fairs and old people's homes.
An invitation to do some teaching at what was then Bristol Polytechnic (now the University of the West of England) took him to the graphics department. Here he became involved with the ceramics course, fascinated by its intrinsic creative nature and the relationship of ceramic objects to material and social culture. Recalling his study of objects carried out as part of his study of Latin cultures, he recognised an affinity in the way they were part of society and sought to explore the similarities.
Although the Bristol BA course, like others around the country, was mainly practical, Hughes, a non-maker, had little trouble in responding to and stimulating the students. He was so adept at coming to grips with the subject that he was appointed …