The Wedding of the Robin and the Wren

An illustration based on the old Scots poem of the Robin and the Wren.
The pair are sitting safely on the sill of the church, whilst the predators the robin meets on his way make up the imagery on the stain glassed window. They are frozen in time and therefore unable to pursue the robin or his new bride.
The composition allowed me to re-use or adapt a number of previous works including the red kite, the foxes, the cats and the robin previously used as a Christmas card.
The original image was produced in watercolour with detail using coloured pencil.

Interlaced man and beasts

Bird, serpent, beast and man fill a small square on a page in the Book of Kells, created over 1200 years ago. Bain made this large detailed drawing so his students could see the skill of the original scribe. He even shows the original size of the drawing so that the amount of enlargement is clear. It looks as if it is about 20 times that in the manuscript. The monk who created this complex image did so without the use of a magnifying glass or artificial light. It was too dangerous to use candlelight in a scriptorium. 

The scribe used interlacing to connect the figure to the entwined creatures in the design. He also interlaced the man’s long golden hair, with a strand wrapping around his waist like a belt. But this isn’t just art. The beast makes the letter C, the man forms the letter I. They are part of the Latin words IN PRINCIPIO (‘in the beginning’), the opening words of St John’s Gospel. Grappling with the beast represents the Christian message that good will overcome evil.

Bain’s notes around the artwork show that he wanted his art students to understand its intricate craftsmanship. He encouraged them to think for themselves and share ideas as to the meanings of the images.

See: The Book of Kells, TCD MS58, folio 292r, Trinity College Dublin (detail centre left)

Decorated letters

A fascinating aspect of early medieval gospel books is the intricate design of some of the capital letters. The Book of Kells and Lindisfarne Gospels have numerous examples.

In this drawing George Bain has chosen two A’s and a B for study. He has created his own decorated F, based on elements from various capital letters in the Book of Kells. What really enhances the designs are the elaborate zoomorphic animals and intricate knotwork.

Two of the letters have the added instruction ‘Reverse for transfer’. Bain is highlighting their potential use as embroidery patterns.

Capital letters from Kells

George Bain had a particular interest in the capital letters that were used in the Book of Kells. He studied their design and included them in his book Celtic Art, Methods of Construction. Four of these capital letters are direct copies from photos in a book on the 8th century manuscript. The D and the O on the right of the page are adaptations of Kells capital letters.

What is interesting is the choice of complexity for the designs. Three are simply decorated with small knotwork patterns, such as the R. The other three are much more complex and also include interwoven zoomorphic creatures, like the T. We can see how Bain initially sketched the letters using a soft pencil. He then confidently inked over the straight and curved lines.

A magnified brooch

The Tara brooch is an amazing treasure of Irish early medieval art. It is 8.7cm in diameter with a pin over 25cm long. Made of silver, covered in gold, it is decorated on both sides. On this face the metalworker decorated the brooch with interlace and animal designs in incredibly fine, gold, filigree wire. There are also amber, enamel and glass settings.

It is not clear why George Bain drew this magnified interpretation of the Tara brooch. It may have been for use with students or to illustrate one of his lectures. Perhaps it was his research before creating the greetings card that features this piece. The accuracy suggests that he must have worked from a drawing or photograph of the brooch in a reference book.

As often in his teaching aids Bain provides a guide to the actual size of the original.  His marginal pencil annotations are also interesting as they illustrate his working methods. The detail of the beast’s head to to the left of the brooch is a particular example.

Four stags entwined

George Bain didn’t only produce what is still considered to be the ultimate guide to producing Celtic art. As well as wood and leather, he was also interested in textiles. As well as designing charts for knitting and embroidery, he also created designs for rugs. A range of complex rug patterns were sent to the manufacturers Messrs Quayle and Tranter of Kidderminster.

This detailed chart is of four stags. Their antlers interlace and form a tight knotwork pattern. The design was found amongst the vast archive of Bain’s work that was donated to the museum after his death. It is one of several that we think he may have submitted to the manufacturer.

Interlace saucer designs

These are two of George Bain’s exquisitely restrained interlace designs, created for painting onto white china dinner or tea sets. Both are made up of two strands interlacing into six motifs. One is formed of paired forms. The other has larger, slightly different single shapes.