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!

Latin Names in Yorkshire


York from the City Walls, August 1964

There are many stereotypes of Yorkshire, with varying degrees of truthfulness, but I suspect that people rarely, if ever, associate Yorkshire with Latin. As a child, growing up in Yorkshire, however, I learned that there is a definite Latin influence in the county, at least as far as place names are concerned.

My father photographed the above view of York long ago, but you can still take the same view today, and little has changed there, except for the traffic.

I realize that the conjunction of the concepts “Yorkshire” and “Latin” may conjure up visions of a red-faced George Whitebread (Harry Enfield’s Yorkshireman character) declaring something like, “Latin? Don’t talk to me about Latin. I’ve been to Benidorm!”, but that’s not what I’m thinking of here.

In fact, there are many placenames in Yorkshire that are directly or indirectly derived from Latin words. Some of the “indirect” derivations stem from the Old French or Anglo-Norman languages, which were themselves descendants of Latin.

Roman Legacy

On reflection, the occurrence of Latin names anywhere in England shouldn’t really be surprising, since Yorkshire and the rest of what’s now England were a part of the Roman Empire for several hundred years.

Typically, where the Romans developed an existing settlement, they would name it by Latinizing its existing local name. In what’s now England, those names are typically of Celtic origin, and in many cases the Celtic meanings of the names remain unknown.

The Roman names of many English settlements are known, but in general those names are no longer in use, having been replaced by new names created by later settlers. However, there are a few cases where the Latin name has survived in a more or less obvious form.

As an example that’s not in Yorkshire, the name Lincoln is probably closest to the Latin original, which was Lindum Colonia. All you need to do is to cross out a few letters!

Roman Column in York, which was originally part of the Basilica. It was found under York Minster, in the background

Roman Column in York, which was originally part of the Basilica. It was found under York Minster, in the background

The name of Yorkshire’s capital city, York, is of Latin origin, but less obviously so. The Latin name was Eboracum, which was probably derived from the Celtic Caer Ebruac. The Roman name was changed to the Old English Eorforwic, and then to Jorvik by the Vikings. The current name is just a modified version of Jorvik.

As a schoolchild in Yorkshire, it was drilled into me that a person from York is not referred to as a “Yorker”, or anything like that, but as an Eborian, because of the Latin name of the city.

Religious Influence

Following the Norman Conquest, England and parts of what is now France were unified under a single king, as the Angevin Empire. As a result, cultural influences from the continent began to drift into England. At that time, religious houses such as monasteries were the repositories of much learning and tradition. The language of the Western church was still Latin, so there was a natural tendency to apply Latin names to objects.

The language of the Norman court was Anglo-Norman, which was itself a derivation of vulgar Latin. French is one of several modern European languages that are derived from Latin, and are known collectively as Romance languages.

The Ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire, in 2008

The Ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire, in 2008

Usually, when a new monastery was founded, it would adopt the existing local name. However, sometimes monasteries were founded in previously-uninhabited places, so a new name had to be invented. This happened at Rievaulx, where the modern name is a corruption of the Latin Rye Vallis. The pronunciation of the name has also changed over the years; the current pronunciation is “Ree-voh”, but it seems that this was a change that occurred only after the majority of the population learned to read, and discovered how the word is spelled. Prior to that, the accepted pronunciation was apparently “Rivers”.

Latin prefixes and suffixes have also been applied to some placenames. The suffixes Magna and Parva are used in Yorkshire and in other counties. However, one Latin suffix that seems to appear only in Yorkshire applies to the neighboring villages of Low Hutton and High Hutton, which together are known as Huttons Ambo (and which was the name of their railway station). During my recent Spanish lessons, I learned that the Spanish for “both” is ambos, because of course Spanish is another of those Romance languages.

Another Old French name that appears in Yorkshire is that of the village of Grosmont. In this case, the village is named after a medieval priory that was founded at that site by a religious order based in what is now France. Scenes around Grosmont featured quite regularly in the ITV police drama Heartbeat, and the location of the fictitious town Ashfordly corresponded to that of Grosmont.

The Norman Influence: Radio Active

Writing this article reminded me of a sketch from the 1980s-vintage BBC radio comedy show Radio Active.

As part of the “God Alone Knows” show, DJ Martin Brown is interviewing church warden Clifford about the history of St. Littlebody’s Church:

Martin Brown: “This is not a new church, is it? Is it eighteenth century, Clifford?”

Clifford: “No it’s Norman in fact”

Martin Brown: “Oh I’m sorry. Erm, is it eighteenth century, Norman?”

Clifford: “The church is Norman”

Martin Brown: “Oh I’m sorry. So, Clifford, how did you come to call the church Norman?”

Clifford: “I didn’t call the church Norman”

Martin Brown: “Oh no, sorry. Silly me. It was probably called Norman hundreds of years ago, wasn’t it? Possibly by the Normans, who knows?”

You can hear this sketch in its full glory, along with the rest of the Radio Active episode “God Alone Knows”, at this site:

Digital Bayeux

ligatures_bayeux1I just completed some artwork to illustrate a forthcoming article for my professional blog, The article discusses the use of linguistic ligatures in English, which immediately put in me in mind of the impressive artwork of the Bayeux Tapestry.

The Bayeux Tapestry has once again been in the news recently, because the events that it depicts took place exactly 950 years ago, in 1066. I was first introduced to that remarkable work of art when I was six years old, in 1966, that being the 900th anniversary of the events.

My graphic is loosely based on the Bayeux style, but in a considerably simplified manner. Again inspired by details in the real tapestry, I took the opportunity to include in the border a representation of two cats fighting, just like our own Ignatz and Ginger Tom!

Having analyzed the design of the illustrations in the tapestry, I now have a much finer appreciation of the quality of the original work.

The typeface used for the copyright notice in my artwork is called “King Harold”, which was itself inspired by text that appears in the tapestry. The typeface can be downloaded free in TrueType format from: