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Art is by so much the most exciting thing in the world.
—Philip Larkin, June 15, 1943

The whole point of drawing is choosing the right line.
—Philip Larkin, July 12, 1965

After the publication of The Whitsun Weddings in 1964, and the subsequent universal acclaim accorded to both the collection and its author, the release to the world of a new poem by Philip Larkin was considered to be an exciting literary event. This respect was well placed. Larkin’s struggle to produce the best poetry he possibly could is well documented in the workbooks, which provide a detailed record of the development of most of the poems. Moreover, poems seemingly finished in his workbooks would often be honed further as he set them down in typescript.

In contrast, the drawings and doodles that comprise this portfolio were (in the main) thrown off to entertain for a brief moment a particular individual, with complete disregard for any artistic merit they might contain. Illustrating letters and notes to friends or colleagues, decorating a gift yearbook for his mother, and scribbled in workbooks or on committee meeting papers, these drawings are a small sample of hundreds of such illustrations by Larkin.

Larkin’s poems often reveal a deep sympathy with animals and a loathing of how humans can ill-treat them. On his desk at work he kept a framed photograph of a caged gorilla named Guy, with whom — according to his secretary, Mackereth — he felt a kinship. The symbols of confinement shown here align Larkin’s own predicament, and the human condition generally, with that of all caged creatures.

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The bulk of the drawings, and the most detailed, are to be found in his letters to Jim Sutton, a school friend to whom he began writing when he was seventeen. Jim was an art student at the Slade School and although the letters cover literature, jazz, film, and theater, there is also a continuous dialogue about art and artists. The correspondence lasted for over twenty-five years, and Larkin’s letters are full of vivid and mobile drawings that chart his moods and activities. Throughout them Larkin refers to Jim as “The Artist” and himself as “The Writah.”

To date, comparatively few of Larkin’s drawings have been made available for publication. In selecting those to be included here, we have attempted to represent both the range of sources where drawings have been found and the variety of styles employed by Larkin in his drawing. There is no sense that he placed any importance or value on them, and yet they shed an interesting sidelight on this very private, many-faceted, multiply-gifted man. They continue to surprise and delight us: we hope they affect you similarly.
—JH & JO

Editors’ note: We are grateful to Betty Mackereth and Deborah Duffin for giving us access to material in their possession and for allowing us to use items from their personal collections in this portfolio. We would also like to thank Judy Burg and the staff of the Brynmor Jones Library; Judith Priestman, Curator of Modern Literary Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library; and Jeremy Crow of the Society of Authors on behalf of the Estate of Philip Larkin, whose assistance, patience, and expertise helped to make this portfolio possible. The drawings included in this portfolio are © 2008, The Estate of Philip Larkin. “Distressing sartorial affinities,” “The vision of Piers Plowman,” and “My dear, if that’s the Civil Service,” all appear courtesy of The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: shelfmarks MS.Engc.2358 folio 7, MS.Eng.c.3898 folio 32, and MS.Eng.c.3898 folio 37.

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This poem originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Poetry magazine


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