Birds on a bowl

Bain explored how early medieval artists used stylised birds, animals and humans in his book Methods of Construction. He copies them from illustrated manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels and Book of Kells. Examples are also shown from metalwork, like the Tara brooch.

The birds always have very long necks that are often interlaced with the tail feathers or neck of another. Their beaks may grasp neck, tail feather or foot of an adjacent bird. Or the head may turn back so that it can clutch its own body. This is what is painted here in a fairly simple red and blue design, with spots along necks and tail feathers.

Jessie Bain, George Bain’s wife, has painted the interlaced birds onto a plain glazed bowl, signing it JB on its base. She probably decorated it while they were living in Drumnadrochit. Having retired to the village, this is where Bain wanted to set up a College of Celtic Cultures. He hoped to encourage others to create their own designs on objects and revitalise Scottish artistic craftsmanship.

Jessie’s bowl of birds

The intricate design on this white bowl was drawn and painted by Jessie, George Bain’s wife. She has signed it underneath as JB 1952. We presume that DR stands for Drumnadrochit, by Loch Ness, where they lived for six years. But sometime that year they moved to Staffordshire, to live with one of their daughters, Chirsty.

The design features pairs of birds with necks and tail feathers intertwined, repeated three times. The two-stranded necks give a length that allows them to turn back, so their beaks can grasp their bodies. The taloned feet hang down, partially intertwined with their sinuous tail feathers. Altogether there is a rotational symmetry to the piece. The sloping sides and circular shape makes this quite a complex design to calculate, but it is beautifully executed.

The limited palette of colours helps to make the individual birds stand out clearly. One of each pair is mostly outlined in orange and cross-hatched in yellow. The other is lined in black with a bright green fill. But the tail feathers of each are in the opposing colours. This is quite a surprise and shows considerable thought.

Bowl of birds and ribbons

This brightly painted wooden bowl sits centre stage on a stand at a 1950s exhibition. It is surrounded by other Celtic design objects made by George Bain’s students. We don’t know exactly who designed or painted this bowl but it does show Bain’s philosophy of Celtic art in action.

A ring of brightly coloured birds march round the outer border of the bowl. The design is inspired by a detail on a page in the Lindisfarne Gospels. As with his other research, Bain drew out the birds from a modern illustration. He then worked out how to construct these birds with their interlacing of necks and tail feathers. He published this in his ‘Methods of Construction’.

On the inside of the bowl is an all-over open knotwork pattern. On a rich, deep blue background, the gold, blue and crimson colours repeat some of those of the birds. The two ribbons tie themselves into loose pretzel shapes around the rim. They then swirl and loop across themselves and each other to the centre of the bowl and back again. Bain shows how to create this design from first principles in the ‘Elementary Knotwork Borders’ section of his book.