This intriguing piece came with a collection of other small items in a finely decorated box. All were donated by the family of George Bain. It is a small wooden block, onto which has been screwed an engraved metal plate.
The cut corner, jagged lower edge and damaged decorative swirl suggest to me that it was once larger. Perhaps it was originally part of a printing block for one of Bain’s commercially produced Celtic greetings cards.
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.
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
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
This design is not well executed. It’s even difficult to tell if it’s meant to be a spiral or knotwork as the strands are so had to read. But the technique is similar to the wooden wall hanging. Perhaps both objects were engraved by pupils at Kirkcaldy High School, where Bain taught.
The design is lightly engraved and coloured black. Around it are sets of three punched dots forming triangles. The triple dots pattern is repeated around the lower sides of the box.
These three closely connected sections of wood each have different knotwork designs engraved into them. They give the appearance of being more complex as the eye moves down. The textured effect is created by punching dots into the spaces between the strands.
The panel was displayed by Claire Bain, George’s daughter, in her home. But it isn’t known who created it. Intriguingly, the knotwork designs have not been taken directly from Celtic Art, Methods of Construction. Adaptations have been made, but the engraving isn’t as perfect as any of Bain’s drawings.