The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Lily Mac Mahon
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
During my lunch break (at least pre-lockdown!), I occasionally pop over to the British Museum and I always make sure to go up to see the Fayum mummy portraits. They never fail to awaken my imagination, even though so little is known about the artists and their subjects, and it’s not certain if the portraits were painted during the sitter’s lifetime or after their death.
When did you first come across these portraits?
I used to visit the British Museum quite often as a child and I was drawn to one portrait in particular which shows a young woman adorned in fine jewellery. As I come from quite an artistic family, I was fascinated to see a method of figurative painting which exists from the ancient world. The Fayum portraits look strangely contemporary and it’s this quality which makes them very accessible to a modern viewer.
Can you tell me a bit about this portrait and its context?
This particular portrait is said to be from er-Rubayat (Egypt) and is dated to c.160-170 AD. It was painted in encaustic on limewood, with gold leaf used for the jewellery. The Fayum portraits are an interesting synthesis of the Egyptian and Greco-Romano cultures, where you have the painting attached to the face of the mummy coupled with the realism of classical art. A few years back, I read a great book by Susan Walker, Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits in Roman Egypt, which I highly recommend.
What is it about this portrait that appeals to you most?
Not only is this portrait a beautiful painting, especially given that it is the oldest extant form of portraiture, but it’s also an artefact which represents the combination of two very different artistic traditions coming together.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
For the last couple of years, I’ve been building up a collection of first edition books from around the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. Nothing gives me more pleasure than looking through the catalogues of antiquarian booksellers or visiting second-hand bookshops to find my latest addition! I also enjoy attempting to master French cuisine and exploring hidden corners of London.
Lily Mac Mahon read Classics BA at King’s College London. She is currently the Editorial Assistant of the Classical Studies and Archaeology list at Bloomsbury Publishing.
You can find her on Twitter @lilymacmahon1
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.