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.
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