Pictish key pattern

At first glance this appears to be a leather book cover. It has clearly been folded, but there is a problem – there is no means of holding it in place over a book. Perhaps the fold reflects the way the piece was stored rather than its use.

This item is one of many that came to the museum in a wooden box, sent by the Bain family in 2011. But we aren’t sure if the leather was embossed by George Bain or Iain, his son. He started studying Celtic art after he retired in the late 1970s. The form of the key pattern is very similar to that on his greetings cards. Iain was an engineer, not an artist or illustrator, so the designs he produced are quite schematic. Somehow they lack the fluidity of his father’s work.

George Bain studied the key patterns on the Rosemarkie stones and used drawings of them in his study of Celtic key patterns. Presumably he used illustrated reference books as his source. However, it is possible that he visited Rosemarkie church to see them, while the family was visiting his wife’s home near Inverness. Today, all of the sculptured slabs can be seen at Groam House Museum.

See Bain’s Celtic Art, Methods of Construction page 76, Plate 3 and
Iain Bain’s Celtic Key Patterns publ 1993

Knotwork in copper

The embossed knotwork on this very thin sheet of copper is set within two concentric circles. Looking at other items in the collection we think we know what it relates to. George Bain made a leather handbag for his wife, Jessie, in 1937. One side has this knotwork design embossed into it, the other side has a key pattern.

Copper is a soft metal and wouldn’t usually be used as a former for embossing. Nevertheless, this is the right size and has the same design as that on Jessie’s handbag. Perhaps it was used for transferring the pattern? Maybe the four small holes at the side were used to hold the former and leather in position. If so, the leather must have been quite damp for a successful transfer.

Alternatively this copper sheet is a completely separate piece, crafted in its own right. The pattern is created from the back, a technique known as repoussé work. It is based on knotwork designs set in panels, such as those in gospel books like the Book of Durrow.

Knots & spirals handbag

This unique dark brown leather handbag was designed by George Bain. It was hand-made by one of his students or a member of his family. Both faces have embossed tan panels only 10cm in diameter. A gusset between the front and back is formed from a single piece of the leather. The bag has a zip fastening at the top and quite a delicate handle made from three narrow plaits.

 On the front of the bag is a round knotwork design. Bain took inspiration from a very similar pattern on one of the Pictish stones at St Vigeans in Perthshire. On the back is a circular spiral design similar to that on the Pictish Aberlemno Stone. It has six spirals circling round a seventh at the centre.

The handbag is handsewn with prominent over stitching. It’s lined with a black fabric which appears to be stuck to the leather side panels, leaving the gusset unlined.

Jessie’s handbag

This hand-tooled, leather handbag belonged to Jessie, George Bain’s wife. The two tags on its zip are embossed with interlace on one side and either JB or 1937 on the other. So it seems very likely that Bain made the bag for her. 

All of the faces of the handbag are embossed with differing Celtic designs. One of the circular sides has a complex key pattern which is based on Pictish originals. The other side has four linked interlaced Celtic knotwork circles on it. The gusset, which creates the width of the bag, is also embossed with interlace.

All of the separate pieces have been joined together by hand using thin strips of leather. They are stitched so that the seam looks like knotwork. Even the narrow plaited strap is decorated with two small discs that are embossed with knotwork. Such rich and varied decoration reflects Bain’s philosophy of adapting Celtic art for modern use.

Patterns in bright green

This leather handbag was designed by George Bain but possibly made by one of his students or a member of his family. Using bold, bright green paint on the inserted leather panels highlights the embossed designs. On one side is a complex of embossed spirals, a design that is repeated on another of his bags. On the other is a series of key patterns.

The spirals are in an interlinked group of seven, set in a circle. This design is a mirror image of that at the centre of the cross on the Pictish Aberlemno cross-slab which stands in the churchyard. There, the three strand spirals (triskeles) turn clockwise. However, on the handbag they move anti-clockwise. The design on the other side of the bag is from Bain’s reconstruction of the key-pattern on the Pictish Collieburn cross-slab.

Bain often uses specific details from both Pictish stones in his Methods of Construction. He clearly studied them in great detail, but probably did so from early-20th century book illustrations. Travelling to visit them was difficult in the 1920s and 1930s.

A circular handbag

There is no specific record of who made this handbag but it is very similar to one made for Jessie Bain. We think that bag was crafted by her husband, George. On one side of this handbag is a Pictish key pattern set inside a frame of concentric circles. On the other side is a complex knotwork design based on four interlinked circles. Both designs were also used on Jessie’s handbag.

The width of the handbag (the gusset) is handstitched to the circular front and back pieces using cross-stitch. It is another decorative feature, as is the strap. Although broken, we can see that it was made from a complex five-plaited leather strip. The handbag is closed with a metal, copper-coloured zip.

Knotwork cover

George Bain worked in all sorts of materials, including leather, lino and wood. This leather item is decorated with one of his designs. It is a hand-tooled notebook cover with embossed knotwork border and centrepiece. The simple central panel includes the initials C and B in lower case letters. Presumably Bain made it for one of his daughters, Chirsty or Claire.

The knotwork pattern is very similar to those in the Book of Kells and other early medieval gospel books. It uses one continuous line, symbolising Eternity.

Inside the leatherwork are two full-size pockets. Opening a notebook at its middle, its covers can be slid into the pockets. The two thongs that run vertically down the spine of the leatherwork fit down the centre pages of the book. They keep it in place.