Birds on a bowl

Bain explored how early medieval artists used stylised birds, animals and humans in his book Methods of Construction. He copies them from illustrated manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels and Book of Kells. Examples are also shown from metalwork, like the Tara brooch.

The birds always have very long necks that are often interlaced with the tail feathers or neck of another. Their beaks may grasp neck, tail feather or foot of an adjacent bird. Or the head may turn back so that it can clutch its own body. This is what is painted here in a fairly simple red and blue design, with spots along necks and tail feathers.

Jessie Bain, George Bain’s wife, has painted the interlaced birds onto a plain glazed bowl, signing it JB on its base. She probably decorated it while they were living in Drumnadrochit. Having retired to the village, this is where Bain wanted to set up a College of Celtic Cultures. He hoped to encourage others to create their own designs on objects and revitalise Scottish artistic craftsmanship.

Jessie’s bowl of birds

The intricate design on this white bowl was drawn and painted by Jessie, George Bain’s wife. She has signed it underneath as JB 1952. We presume that DR stands for Drumnadrochit, by Loch Ness, where they lived for six years. But sometime that year they moved to Staffordshire, to live with one of their daughters, Chirsty.

The design features pairs of birds with necks and tail feathers intertwined, repeated three times. The two-stranded necks give a length that allows them to turn back, so their beaks can grasp their bodies. The taloned feet hang down, partially intertwined with their sinuous tail feathers. Altogether there is a rotational symmetry to the piece. The sloping sides and circular shape makes this quite a complex design to calculate, but it is beautifully executed.

The limited palette of colours helps to make the individual birds stand out clearly. One of each pair is mostly outlined in orange and cross-hatched in yellow. The other is lined in black with a bright green fill. But the tail feathers of each are in the opposing colours. This is quite a surprise and shows considerable thought.

Ancient Pathways

Ancient Pathways is a good choice of title for the design on this limited edition plate by Anne Bowyer of Nexus Design. The design is of two rounds of dense key pattern. Circling the plate, they resemble continuous paths. At the centre are four interlinked triple spirals (called triskeles). They are typical of those found throughout the Celtic world and beyond.

In early medieval art, key pattern is usually used to fill rectangular or square spaces. Bain gives no examples of circular forms, just a few adaptations to show that it is possible. Setting out the key pattern to fill a circular space can’t have been easy. It must have taken hours to create.

As stated on the back of the plate, Anne Bowyer developed her skills using George Bain’s work. Living in the same area of Northumberland as Iain, Bain’s son, she met him and his family. In fact, Iain’s book Celtic Key Patterns makes reference to Anne Bowyer’s help with inking his drawings.

As it was the first plate in the series, Anne Bowyer presumably gave it to Iain as a present. The Bain family gave it and two other Nexus plates to the museum for the George Bain Collection.

Images of Inspiration

This fabulous limited edition plate has a very complex design that seems to emphasise its deep blue background. It is covered in interlaced zoomorphic creatures. There are four pairs of facing birds apparently captured by four pairs of beak-headed beasts.

The design’s four identical sections are rotated about a central point. The front legs of each beast interlace with the neck of each bird. Even their tails grasp the birds’ feet. The rear legs of the beasts come together in a central design that gives the effect of a square and saltire cross.

Anne Bowyer, who designed this plate, used Bain’s book Method of Construction as a reference. It includes a section on zoomorphics. It gives useful guidance for drawing interlinked  birds, animals and men. Bain drew his examples from the Lindisfarne Gospels and Book of Kells.

Kells plate

This is a delightful limited edition plate created for Nexus Design. In her design Anne Bowyer has drawn on some of the symbolic artistry used in The Book of Kells. The use of just olive-green on white makes it much easier to pick out the various elements of the plate’s symmetrical design.

The four paired lions’ heads are adapted from the animals in the Book of Kells. The semi-circles between them are Anne’s own design. She sees them as crescents representing the four main compass bearings. She adds knotwork borders in sets of five, reflecting Irish belief in four directions being united by a central fifth way.

On the back of the plate Anne Bowyer writes a very helpful guide to the interpretation of the symbolism she uses. It also includes knotwork and key pattern. She refers to George Bain’s book, Methods of Construction, while developing her own style.

This plate, however, is unique. Anne and her husband Phil have added an 80th birthday wish to Iain, George Bain’s son. They knew each other, living and working fairly close together, in Northumberland. The plate was gifted to the museum by Chirsty Henderson, Iain’s daughter.

The Iona plate

This ‘Iona’ plate was given to the museum by the Bain family in 1996. It’s one of only a few decorative pieces in their gift that wasn’t devised by their grandfather. The design is by Christopher Bolton for the Spode factory in Stoke-on-Trent. It was then engraved by Frank Boothby so that it could be printed onto plates. The extra colours were hand-painted onto each one.

First produced in 1961, Spode were reaching out to a new collectors’ market. Over 5,000 were sold in the first 3 years. During the 1970s another six designs were created, all based on early medieval illuminated manuscripts, including the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels. They formed a series called ‘Celtic Presentation Plates’.

The four fish at the centre of the plate form the cross of salvation. The fish have the letters P A C E written in them, Latin for ‘peace’. All are Christian references. The four figures around the fish are the four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are represented as an angel, lion, ox and eagle. The paired ‘hippocamps’ between the saints are guardians of the faith. The interlaced knotwork designs around the rim of the plate feature beasts and birds. One continuous line joins them all, thought to be symbolic of eternity.