Greek Vase Paintings: A Selection of Examples is one of three books in the Glasgow School of Art Library written by Jane Ellen Harrison, a ground-breaking woman in the history of academia who also occupies an important place in classical scholarship. She was born in 1850, and in 1874 went to Newnham College, Cambridge, to read Classics. Afterwards she studied archaeology at the British Museum in London, and would make a number of visits to museums in other countries. She was also a noted lecturer, and it was said that as many as 1600 people attended a lecture she gave on Athenian tombstones during a visit to Glasgow. Harrison helped to found the modern study of Ancient Greek culture, and would become the first woman in England to be a professional full time academic. She also went on to receive honorary doctorates from the University of Aberdeen and the University of Durham.
During her studies, Harrison became a member of the Cambridge Ritualists, an organisation which was focused on the study of rites, and who believed that myth and ritual were closely connected and inter-developed, an argument which was controversial at the time. One of Harrison’s own theories was that the authors of ancient Greek literature, such as Homer in The Odyssey, took inspiration from the same mythological sources as Greek artists who painted vases, like the ones illustrated in this volume.
The collaboration between Harrison and the writer Dugald Sutherland MacColl, who co-wrote this book, has an interesting backstory. Intitially they did not get on, after MacColl wrote a critical letter to Harrison disparaging some of her work, which hurt her. However, they eventually managed to settle their differences, and became friends and supporters of each other’s work. MacColl would later ask Harrison to marry him, but she declined his proposal.
This copy of Greek Vase Paintings is held in Special Collections and is also distinguished by its beautiful cover, featuring a rendition of some important symbols from Greek culture and mythology. The design is in the style of Art Nouveau, as befitting the 1894 publication date, but it also alludes to the subject of the book through a careful choice of motifs. Two dolphins feature prominently, one on either side of the central image; in Greek mythology, these creatures were the servants of the sea god, Poseidon. They feature in a number of notable myths, and would later be designated as the national animal of Greece. The dolphins also echo the ones which appear in the designs found on ancient Greek vases which are reproduced inside the book.