Knotwork extraordinary

It’s only when you look closely at the engraved designs that their forms come to life. The tan-painted lino border is decorated with 16 single strands of interlace. Twelve of them are copies of each other. But the flow of each corner strand is different – they’re so accomplished. The pattern is brought to life by painting it yellow. This is emphasised by the original colour of the lino, which defines the edges of the strands.

The central, dark brown, knotwork panel is not a design that appears in Bain’s Methods of Construction. Its complexity reflects Bain’s mastery of Pictish knotwork and his wish to create new forms.

Refined triskeles

This circular spiral design is one that is used a lot by George Bain and his students. A disc of seven three-in-one spirals (triskeles) is on the Pictish cross-slab by the church in Aberlemno. Bain used it as his source for the ways of drawing spiral designs in Methods of Construction. Today the sculptured stone is covered in winter to protect it from rain, snow and frost. But between April and October it’s open for view.

A more complex form of this triskele design is used on a page of the early medieval illuminated gospels known as the Book of Durrow. Both this and the cross-slab are fantastic examples of artwork of the later 600s or early 700s AD.

George Bain may have created this linocut as a former for the spiral embossed footstool in the collection. Or, as there are two small holes at opposite sides, perhaps it was a piece for display.

See Book of Durrow IE TCD MS 57 (digital collections MS57_014_HI.jpeg) Trinity College Dublin

Beard-pullers linocut

One of the fascinating things about zoomorphic designs is trying to work out which individual parts of the body have been interlaced. Here there are two pairs of men facing each other. Viewed from the top down, their forelocks are interlinked, then their beards, and then their arms and legs. Bain has adapted the design from a similar illustration in the St Matthew’s monogram page in the Book of Kells. The motif was used repeatedly by him and his students.

Bain first became interested in the engraving qualities of linoleum in 1907, when he had a temporary teaching post in Kirkcaldy. Several of his students had older family members in the lino trade, a major employer in the town. They brought in thick pieces for him to experiment with. He found it easier to cut than wood and its lack of grain meant that the ink printed more evenly from its smooth surface. By 1911 Bain was encouraging his pupils to use it.

An article in the journal ‘Printing’ describes his work in great detail. A number of internationally famous artists have subsequently used the process, including Pablo Picasso and M C Escher.

See: The Book of Kells, TCD MS58 folio 34r, Trinity College Dublin (detail centre right)
and  Bain’s article My  New Process of Lino Engraving published in the journal Printing  June 1934