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.

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.

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)

Knotty greetings

Bain was commissioned by the publisher William MacLennan of Glasgow to design various greetings cards. They all have messages in both Gaelic and English. This one is based on the Pictish design on a face of the Rossie Priory cross-slab. Bain keeps the central rider on the stone. But he omits the rest of the hunting scene, the pair of Pictiish symbols, the other figures and beasts. He needs the space for the mottos and exhortations.

His design for this greetings card exploits the existence of two ‘ends’ of a continuous knotwork line. This never-ending strand was a feature of Pictish design that fascinated Bain. HIs exploration of the Rossie Priory knotwork is detailed in his book Methods of Construction. He expresses surprise that he can find so few parallels for the design. In particular, Bain remarks that there seemed to be none in Irish illuminated manuscripts.

Bain seems to have been especially enamoured of this stone. There are another two illustrations that focus on it in his book.

Follow your Pathway

If you follow the pathway, as shown at the top of George Bain’s eye-catching card, you’ll discover a secret note. It’s a fascinating design, inspired by Michelangelo’s continuous pathway in Capitol Square, Rome.

The path Bain wants you to follow is a single white strand with red shaded, yellow dots. It’s held within a narrow circular border of key-pattern. Both this and the dots almost look 3-dimensional. They resemble embroidery stitches. In the spaces inbetween the interlaced strand, are flat knotwork motifs. There are 48 in total and every one is different. It’s a glorious celebration of minimalist Celtic art.

The central design is a complete contrast. A yellow starburst bears the white Cross of St Andrew topped with the Royal Arms of Scotland. If you’ve found the message you’ll understand why. It emphasises the printed Gaelic and English words.

A hunting scene

We know when Bain designed this Christmas greetings card because he mentions Drumnadrochit. In 1946, on retiring from teaching, he moved to the village for a few years. It was his wife’s family home and he tried to establish a College of Celtic Cultures there. It seems that he engaged with local pupils at Inverness Academy to obtain Gaelic translations of his texts.

The knotwork entangles hunting imagery. The stag, boar, hunting dogs, horse and rider were favourite motifs of Bain. He used them in his design for a ‘hunting’ rug for Quayle and Tranter Ltd, carpet manufacturers in Kidderminster, Worcestershire. They’re also included in designs for items such as the final dinner menu for the International Pen Congress in Edinburgh in 1950.

Inside the card is his own explanation of the background to the design. It holds good today. ‘The huntsman and other symbols of the chase were favourites of the Celtic peoples, portraying not only the fearless qualities but also the questing spirit of enquiry and aspiration that lies at the roots of art and religion …‘

Thoughtful words

The sympathetic message on this card is quite different to Bain’s other greetings cards. This text, in Gaelic and English, could be relevant to someone starting a new chapter in their life. Or perhaps it was meant as consolation after a bereavement. It is one of twelve designs for cards in his collection.

The intricate pattern focuses on four men, drawn in a semi-realistic style. They entwine to form an equal-sided cross. Outlined in yellow and red, their main joints are shown as simple scrolls. The intersecting arms, legs and torsos are marked by cross-hatching, an unusual detail in insular art. Their long hair and beards form elaborate knotwork patterns. The strands meet in four pairs of double-coiled spirals.

Bain had found a similar motif of four male figures on one of the cross-shafts at Clonmacnoise in Ireland. It is included in his Methods of Construction, as is another of three men from the Book of Kells.

See: Bain’s Celtic Art, Methods of Construction page 115, Plates 13 & 14