Sketching the Great Comedian

The Great Comedian, 1986

The Great Comedian, 1986

Back in the days when I used public transport to get to work, I found myself with a substantial amount of “down time”, spent waiting for transport or traveling on transport. I wanted to do something useful with that time, so, one summer, I decided to try to teach myself Classical Greek.

I had learned French (which was mandatory) and German (optional) at high school, but Greek wasn’t even offered at my school. I was inspired to try to learn the language by having read some of the surviving works of classical authors (in English). Unfortunately, many people seem to assume that all those works are heavy tomes of philosophy, or else harrowing tragedies, because that is frequently the false impression given in pop culture. In fact the range of surviving work is much greater.

They Really Are Old Jokes

I was most impressed by the surviving comedies of Aristophanes, who wrote his plays at around the time of the fall of Athens. Naturally, the theme of many of his plays involves the Peloponnesian War, and possible ways to bring it to an honorable end. Nonetheless, many aspects of his plays seem astonishingly modern, and even include the first recorded instances of what would now elicit groans as “old jokes”.

Isn’t it a Whimsical Francis?

Living in Britain in those days, the plays of Aristophanes naturally reminded me of the recent bawdy television comedy series, Up Pompeii, starring Frankie Howerd.

The basic premise of Up Pompeii, that of a cheeky Roman slave who managed the intrigues of his masters, had been inspired by an earlier stage play (which was later made into a movie), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. That play in its turn was derived from the Roman plays of Plautus.

My knowledge of Classical Greek never quite rose to the level of being able to read Aristophanes in the original, but it did inspire me to draw a sketch that was intended for eventual reworking as a painting. The sketch was titled “The Great Comedian”, and was supposed to depict an author whose appearance was inspired by (but deliberately not the same as) Frankie Howerd. I’m also aware that my drawing does not accurately depict an Ancient Greek man, since, for example, all adult males wore beards. A man who did not have a beard would have been thought of as very effeminate.

Learning Sketches

When trying to draw someone with a particular appearance, I find it helpful to do some initial sketches to “get a feel” for the anatomical structure of the person. This is a motor skill, and as such is an intuitive process, which I cannot explain in process terms, any more than you can explain the steps to learning how to catch a ball.

For “The Great Comedian”, I drew some sketches of Frankie Howerd. The drawing below shows him performing in the stage version of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”.

Frankie Howerd in a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Frankie Howerd in a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

On Show at the IEE

The pencil sketch of the Great Comedian, and his female partner, was as far as my project ever got. Nonetheless, my drawings were exhibited at an Art Show at a very unusual location: the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), Savoy Place, London, in 1986. I was a member of the IEE at the time, but, having viewed the exhibits at the show, I was left with the feeling that they expected that the exhibits would be created by the spouses of their engineers. The notion that an engineer might himself be capable of producing competent artwork seemed never to have been considered a possibility.

Legacy of Greek

A hundred years ago or more, most British schoolboys were forced to learn Latin and Ancient Greek. (Most British girls at that time simply didn’t get any education beyond the age of twelve!) The “classics”, as they were called, were later pushed aside for subjects that were considered more modern and with more practical applications.

Personally, I felt that, even though I never became fluent in Classical Greek, learning it was a worthwhile endeavor. I learned the Greek alphabet, and came to appreciate not only the complexities of that ancient language, but also the amount that it has contributed to modern Western culture.

No Religion Please

I mentioned in a previous post that I’d had a “bellyful” of religious fairy tales from a Church of England school during my childhood, so the fact that the New Testament is written in a demotic form of Greek called koine was not a motivation for me to learn the language. Nonetheless, my knowledge of the language came in unexpectedly handy later on, when a Christian proselytizer falsely tried to claim that something in the Bible had been “mistranslated”. To his dismay, I was able to bring out a copy of the book in the original Greek, and demonstrate to him that he was either ignorant or lying!

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