Aulde Grumps The King

A loving tribute to Aulde Grumps who is a very feral cat who I have been feeding for over two years now.
Though he is a wild old boy he is still very regal and always washes after he has been fed, which was my main inspiration for this picture.
He now has two purpose-built cat nests in my shed and sometimes bestows me the great privilege of letting me stroke him, but not always.

if the label fits …

This small item is from a fascinating period of George Bain’s artistic output. He set up his College of Celtic Cultures in 1946. A year or so later, he was approached by the Kidderminster carpet firm of Quayle & Tranter to produce some Celtic designs for rugs and carpets. Bain agreed and he was taken on as a special adviser and consultant to the company. Quayle and Tranter gained the right to use the ‘guarantee of authenticity’ mark of the College for every Celtic rug design they produced. It’s the upper part of this label. 

The most successful and widely sold rug was the Hunting Rug. Eventually it was produced in two different colourways and sizes. This label, designed by Bain, comes from the back of one such rug. It perfectly reflects the very successful collaboration that he had with the company over a number of years.

Applied key patterns

It is fascinating to study the cover of this magazine, which was first published in 1948. Designed by George Bain, he presents the Saltire flag in a most unusual way. He emphasises the Scottish and Gaelic focus of the publication with two different key patterns. There is one for the blue background and another for the white cross. The diagonal setting of the key pattern is typical of Pictish design so it is a very apt choice.

Bain also wrote an article for this edition of Alba, Scotland’s Neglected Art Heritage. In it he sets out his dream of creating a college to teach ways of using Celtic and Pictish art in craftwork. He also writes about the importance of using mathematical and geometrical formulae to set out the designs. From his teaching experience he knew that young people and adults could learn this well. They produced Celtic designs using a wide range of materials and skills, such as embroidery and woodcarving.

Some of their creations are included in Bain’s Methods of Construction, which was printed three years after this magazine. His design for Alba’s cover is also in the book, encouraging others to use Celtic art in interesting modern contexts.

Health and vigour

After the 2nd World War George Bain collaborated with William MacLean Publishers Ltd of Glasgow. They printed his booklets on Celtic design, and then amalgamated them into Methods of Construction. They produced various greetings cards designed by Bain. MacLellan’s also commissioned illustrations from him for various magazines and other books that they produced.

The very richly coloured, bold image has a small circlular motif at its centre. Three strand spirals, known as triskeles, flow around it and the other circles of the design. Two of the arms of each strand in a spiral end in trumpet openings. The third splits to form a knotted closure. Around the central design is an outer ring of angular key pattern. It is very similar to that found in the Book of Durrow.

It isn’t just the greeting that is in Scottish Gaelic and English. Bain has signed it, as he often did, in both languages.

Overflowing chalice

You can almost see the wine in the chalice on this intricately decorated greetings card. It was designed by George Bain. The rich colours give it an almost 3D effect. The overflowing contents are shown as spirals, some of which extend into knotwork. The stippling gives the effect of floating in liquid.

The body of the cup is decorated with pairs of intertwined birds, symbols of friendship. Their wings are folded and their necks entwined, forming an elaborate interlacing. The words, in Scottish Gaelic and English, are reminiscent of those in the 23rd Psalm. It begins ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ and contains the line ‘Thou annointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over’. 

The card was used by Chirsty, George Bain’s elder daughter. She sent it to her husband Zbigniew Lomnicki.

New Year greetings card

George Bain was inspired for some of his greetings cards while studying the Book of Kells.  This image is adapted from a small part of the illuminated page of opening words of St John’s Gospel.  Bain is determined that those he sent the card to should realise the expertise of the manuscript’s scribe. His caption notes that the original width of the man and beast is only ‘1½ inches’ (38mm).

This vivid, multi-coloured design is of a seated man wearing elaborate robes and holding a goblet. He’s looking glumly at a sharp-toothed beast. Is it friend or foe? The bible has various stories of lions. This beast could be one of the ‘tame’ lions in Daniel’s den. Or maybe it’s the lion David killed while protecting his sheep. The beast’s long red tongue seems unnervingly close to the man’s face but it’s mouth isn’t open, so perhaps it’s kindly.

Unlike many of the designs Bain uses, this has no interlacing and only a few spirals.  Instead, many of the curving lines end in scrolls.  They represent the lion’s wild mane. Bain adds stipple to various parts of the design. It’s a technique used occasionally in illuminated manuscripts and early medieval sheet metalwork, as on the bowls from St Ninian’s Isle, Shetland.

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

Lucky horseshoe

George Bain enjoyed creating new card designs that were then printed by W LacLennan Ltd of Glasgow. They are all based on Celtic art from across Britain and Ireland, including Pictish motifs. The messages are usually bilingual, in both Gaelic and English.

During his studies of Celtic art Bain drew various Pictish horses. The Inverurie incised Pictish stone was clearly the model for this design. He found here that he could create a roundel with three horses. A lively, continuous line of golden knotwork interweaves with three of the legs of each horse. But their straight forelegs are linked centrally.

The colourful, surrounding horseshoe is filled with interlaced birds and snakes. They are inspired by zoomorphic manuscript art such as found in the Book of Kells.

The Tara brooch

The ‘Tara’ brooch is an iconic and exquisite piece of Celtic metalwork. It’s hardly surprising that Bain was drawn to it as a subject. There’s a large, more detailed black and white drawing of the brooch in the Collection. We think he was working from a photo in a book rather than from the original. He probably used that to create the coloured, adapted version on this card.

Very little of the enamel or coloured glass settings survive on the brooch. Bain therefore used his imagination to create an appealing, colourful interpretation of the design, based on what can still be seen. In so doing he created a beautiful piece of artwork in its own right.

The brooch was actually found on a beach at Bettystown near Dublin in 1850. It was falsely linked to Tara, seat of the High Kings of Ireland, by the jeweller who bought it. He did so to increase the popularity of the replicas he made.

Happy New Year

This unusual New Year’s card is one of a series of greetings cards. George Bain probably produced them while living by Loch Ness. The greeting, in Gaelic and English, cleverly refers to the golden door at its centre. The gold spirals are reminiscent of those in early medieval illuminated manuscripts and on Pictish stone cross-slabs. 

The ornate archway around the door is guarded by two pairs of birds. They are one of Bain’s favourite designs. Looking closely, you can see that he hasn’t just done a mirror image. He’s made their long necks interlace into a different pattern on each side. The design is particularly pleasing as the round plaque above the doorway is held in place by the feet of these four birds.

George Bain signed this work in both English and Gaelic, as he did on some of his other cards.

A Manx cross

In this design Bain uses a Celtic cross from the Isle of Man but alters its decorative details. The result is an entertaining and engaging puzzle. He draws our attention to the sculptor’s use of a single, continuous line and encourages us to follow it.

By breaking one edge ‘turn’ of the interlace at the base of the cross, he creates two ‘ends’ to the interlaced strand. If you carefully trace the line from point A, you’ll end up at point B. If Bain had not broken the strand it would of course be continuous, symbolic of Eternity in a religious context.

This Celtic cross is one of several at the church of St Adamnan in Lonan, on the Isle of Man. Beyond the island, it wasn’t a very well-known site and so it would be interesting to know how Bain became aware of it. The cross is the most ornate of the group. Bain amends its form and adds his own details, like the knotwork between the arms of the cross.