An early version of Methods of Construction (7)

This fabulous drawing of spirals shows how a disc of spirals from the Book of Kells was created. Down the left side this is developed by celebrating the work of one of George Bain’s school pupils. Here there are two different disc designs linked in a single panel by interlaced knotwork. It is just as sophisticated as any in the illuminated manuscripts of 650AD to 800AD.

It is intriguing to wonder why Bain didn’t re-use the illustrations that he had painstakingly assembled in 1935. Perhaps he felt that there were better ways of teaching how to draw these designs. The change from portrait to landscape booklets meant that layouts had to change. Possibly this led to using different examples of early medieval objects.

An early version of Methods of Construction (6)

Celtic art designs were used when decorating various early medieval items.  George Bain studied photographs and drawings of examples from Britain and Ireland. He wanted to draw them accurately. These complex spirals are from various objects. The designs are in the Northumbrian Book of Durrow, Irish church silverware and Pictish sculpture.

At top left, Bain shows a portion of a border of spirals from underneath the base of the Ardagh Chalice. He uses this border in the chapter on spirals in Methods of Construction. But there he adapts the design from curving to linear. This allows him to compare it directly with panels from the Book of Kells.

Exact copies of the other examples drawn here are not used in his book. However, he does emphasise the importance of spirals in Pictish sculpture. He draws those at at Tarbat (Portmahomack), Aberlemno and Shandwick (Easter Ross).

TCD MS57 folio 3v Trinity College Dublin (digital link MS57_014)

An early version of Methods of Construction (5)

Drawing spirals can be surprisingly complex. In this drawing Bain explores how to create them in one, two, three, four or five-parts. He then elaborates on the basic design, joining spirals together by using what he calls his ‘C-method’. These two designs are not repeated in any of Bain’s publications. But he does include llustrations of the C-method in other ways, based on an example from the Book of Kells.

George Bain’s passion was to bring together methods for drawing Celtic interlaced art that anyone could use. He clearly hoped to publish his work, the illustrations in this series beiing dated 1935. But it wasn’t until 1945 that his first booklets appeared.  One of them focussed on spirals, but it didn’t use this illustration. Nor did his 1952 book Celtic Art, Methods of Construction.

An early version of Methods of Construction (1)

This appears to be the first knotwork page for a book that George Bain was preparing in 1935. But it isn’t the original artwork. Instead it seems to be a printing test from a camera-ready illustration. There are 17 items in this series in the collection at Groam House Museum. Presumably Bain prepared many more that are no longer in his archive. They were produced at least ten years before Bain’s eventual ideas were published in booklet form by William Maclellan of Glasgow.

The illustration explores methods for constructing Celtic knotwork and knotwork bands. If you compare this, and the others dated 1935, to those in the current version of Methods of Construction there is surprisingly little repetition. By 1945 Bain has also slightly changed his methods and terminology.

An early version of Methods of Construction (3)

Intriguingly this isn’t exactly the same as any of the illustrations in the Knotwork Panels section of Bain’s Celtic Art, Methods of Construction. It seems that this is for an earlier version, prepared in 1935 but not published. This and the others were drawn at least ten years before his work finally appeared as a series of seven booklets.

George Bain’s booklets were published by William Maclellan of Glasgow in 1945. They cover the same themes as those in the book, which was eventually printed in 1951. But the booklets were small and landscape in shape, so Bain had to prepare new illustrations for them. Nevertheless, in the 1935 and 1945 drawings of this sequence he used almost exactly the same opening words. He describes how Pictish designers created an interlacing band with a single strand.

Another illustration takes the drawing one step further. But intriguingly Bain draws completely different examples to those in the later publications. Nevertheless, both examples show how knotwork panels could be developed.

An early version of Methods of Construction (2)

By 1935 George Bain was preparing a book on methods of constructing Celtic art. Interestingly his methods changed slightly before a full version was published in 1951. However, these illustrations weren’t used in that book.

In these illustrations Bain emphasises the arching of the interlaced strand. He sets each across spaces in a grid of pre-drawn points. However, in the final book more stress is placed on the spacing of the grid itself. And so we seem to gain some insight into the development of his thinking.

When reviewing what this group shows it is clear that between 1935 and 1945 Bain subtly alters certain aspects of terminology as well as his methods. For example by 1945, when his series of booklets on methods were published, Bain is using the term ‘knotwork’ much more frequently than ‘interlacing’.

An early version of Methods of Construction (4)

Here George Bain draws out the fantastic knotwork panel on the shaft of the cross on one of the Aberlemno Pictish stones.  He uses it as an example of what he calls ‘free design on a slight geometrical basis’. He shows how the design was created in line-work to the right. The other illustration is from the Hilton of Cadboll Pictish cross-slab.  

This is one of 17 camera-ready drawings dated 1935 in the George Bain Collection. However, it seems very likely that Bain prepared others that are no longer in his archive. The surviving illustrations focus on knotwork borders and panels, and spirals. They are generally all much the same size. But this one is different – it hardly has any margins. We don’t know why.

This and the others in the series were prepared at least ten years before Bain’s work was published in booklet form by William Maclellan of Glasgow. Bain didn’t use his drawings of this Aberlemno knotwork panel in the 1945 or subsequent publications. But he did use the example from Hilton of Cadboll.