Weekend Reading: Art for Art’s Sake

This week my world has closed in a bit. My little town (like much of the North of England) has been on local lockdown for the last week, and we have the dubious honour of being the town with the second-highest infection rate in the whole country. I love my town, but it’s fair to say that it’s not a pleasant time to be living here.

I did make one expedition this week, though – to the post office, to send off my finished bookplate design to the winning bidder in the Classics auction.

I’ve only ever designed bookplates for family and friends in the past – so it was fascinating to go through the process of finding out enough about a total stranger to design them something personal. The winning bidder was Andrew Lara, from California. Andrew is the sort of classicist who makes me wonder what I’ve been doing with my life! He studies Greek and Latin, enjoys reading the Bible in both languages, and reads Catullus for fun – but in his professional life he’s a critical care nurse, dealing with the very worst of our current situation. And he still finds time to serve as an elected official in his community, and stand for election to the city council. Oh – and he has a family too!

So it was a real pleasure to get to know Andrew – and I’m glad he’s pleased with his finished design!

From my perspective it’s been lovely to do something useful with my drawing for a change. These days I’m drawing a lot, while I’m on the phone or in meetings, fairly aimlessly. It relaxes me, and reminds me of the things I enjoyed before work and parenting. The strange thing, though, is that people on Twitter have been very kind and appreciative, and have been talking about my doodles as ‘art’.

The definition of ‘art’ is, I think, a tricky one. It’s cultural, of course – but it’s also personal. In my case, I’ve never thought of my drawings as ‘art’ – not out of some sense of humility, but because I was specifically told that they weren’t. When I was at school I used to illustrate things: stories, poetry, myths and the like. I chose to do A Level Art (against the objections of my teachers, who thought it was a waste of my knack for sailing through exams) because I loved the neatness and simplicity of drawing. However, after only a few weeks I was told that my teachers had withdrawn me from the A Level Art programme and entered me (and only me) for an A Level in Graphic Design. Drawing – I was told – was Not Art, and if I tried to pretend it was, I would fail the qualification.

I should perhaps mention that, while I may not be an artist, I’m definitely not a graphic designer either, A Level notwithstanding. I can’t draw a straight line to save my life (bookplates are created by means of drawing round a Loeb volume!), and I don’t know my way around any computer design software. I’m just a person with some paper and a pen.

So I’ve never really taken my drawing seriously – and I suppose I still don’t. But people have been so nice and supportive that I thought I might start sharing some of my drawings on here – for a little while, anyway. If I start losing followers, I promise I’ll take that as a signal to stop!

Here’s yesterday’s illustration, for example. It rained heavily here for most of the day, and the poor plants in the front gardens along the street were thoroughly squashed – and that made me think of Virgil. So I doodled this to accompany Virgil’s lines about the death of poor Euryalus, whose head sinks ‘ as poppies, with weary neck, bow the head, when weighted by a chance shower’. (Virgil is great to illustrate, in case you were wondering: he has so many similes and striking images. Tacitus, on the other hand, is a nightmare to illustrate: which was essentially the entire argument of my PhD thesis!)

Most of my drawings are a bit more cheerful! Maybe I’ll run some of my Catullus drawings past you next week… Here’s the one I’m working on today: I haven’t had much time (because I’ve been writing this!), but when I get round to finishing it, it will be a Horace illustration.

Just for fun – and prompted by Mary Beard’s recent discovery of her school poetry book – this week I dug out an illustrated poetry book that I made when I was 11: proof that illustrating poetry is not at all a new thing for me! I was amused to see that, even back then when I knew nothing whatsoever about Classics, I managed to include a bit of Horace!

I rather like the quotation I featured on the back cover, from Lord Macaulay: ‘Perhaps no person can be a poet, or even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind’. That struck me as apt when I was 11, and I can’t say that I disagree now. Under the circumstances, though, I think that ‘a certain unsoundness of mind’ is probably a positive attribute, and one I wouldn’t want to be without. So this weekend I wish you all just enough unsoundness of mind to have a pleasant week!

This week from around the classical internet


Sarcophagi in Saqqara – BBC

Tourist carves initials into Colosseum – The Independent

Cleaning mosaics – Witney Gazette

Roman stones for Chester – Chester Standard

Tourist falls into Forum of Augustus – Wanted in Rome

Comment and opinion

Dogs and their collars in ancient Greece – Ancient History Encyclopedia

What if there were no Athens? – UnHerd

Classics and grief – The Conversation

Inclusive Classics – CUCD Bulletin

I, Claudius – George R.R. Martin: Not A Blog

10 ways to upset a Roman emperor – History Hit

The Seasons Mosaic – Corinium Museum

The between-times – The Retiring Academic

Vercingetorix in Vietnam – Society for Classical Studies

Aphrodite and Athena – Blogging Ancient Epigram

Buy Titian masks [I want one!] – The National Gallery

From Classical Studies Memes For Hellenistic Teens

Podcasts, video and other media

Mice and frogs behaving badly – Ancient Rome Refocused

Q&A Live – Emperors of Rome

How to do Ancient Persia – The Iranian Studies Collective

Cambyses and Egypt – Persika

Introduction – Roamin’ The Empire

Race and Antiquity – The History of Ancient Greece

A Level resources – ACE Classics

9 thoughts on “Weekend Reading: Art for Art’s Sake

  1. They’re amazing pictures. So lovely. Have you thought about making a classical colouring book? – I’m sure it would be very popular – especially as a Christmas present!


  2. Your mind must be a hive of creation Cora Beth and it will be a pleasure to see more of your illustrations, the which always enrich a text.


  3. I think your drawings are beautiful and I particularly enjoy the fin de siècle, arts and crafts style. You ARE talented! Best regards, John O’Flaherty

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

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