On the trot

In these sketches Bain is comparing how Pictish horses and riders are carved on several different Pictish stones. He chose ones from Meigle, Migvie and Edderton, reflecting that Pictish culture once stretched from Perthsire to Ross-shire and beyond. He also slips in a stag with similarly arranged legs to those of the horses. It is on an incised cross-slab from Scoonie in Fife. Quite what the fish from the Book of Kells is doing here is a mystery!

This group is of particular interest. Later, Bain drew the riders and horses more carefully, so that it could be used as an illustration in Methods of Construction. In the book he removes the stag and the fish, adds a sixth horse from the Edderton cross-slab. He also includes three small extracts from the Book of Kells.

The ‘attitude’ of ridden horses on Pictish sculpture looks rather exaggerated. But we know from studies that the sculptors captured very accurately the relative movement of all four legs when horses are trotting.

A lesson in pencil

This is the only pencil draft in the George Bain Collection that relates to his publications of Celtic Art, Methods of Construction. It’s fascinating to see how he prepared his drawing before inking in a final version. We can see the layout lines for his texts, panels and each stage of the design.

It is based on a detail in an illuminated page in the Book of Durrow, created between 650AD and 675AD. We don’t think that Bain ever saw the manuscript. He used reference books for his studies of this, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells. The few photographs in the source Celtic Illuminative Art, printed in 1908, were soft and sepia-coloured. But they did include details from certain pages of the original gospel books.

Bain was almost obsessed with the importance of such a panel being created from a single strand, symbolising eternity. His text across the bottom mentions that there is a similar panel on the Pictish Collieburn stone. Perhaps a drawing of that stone was intended for the lower half of this illustration.

TCD MS57 folio 85v Trinity College Dublin (digital link MS57_178)

Knitted interlace borders

It is not well known that George Bain also translated his Celtic charts into knitting patterns. A photo in the back of his ‘Methods of Construction’ book shows some of his knitwear. This particular chart shows how he is working out  the rows. He notes which are Plain and Purl stitches, with the number of stitches to be worked in each colour. But confusingly the white stitches are shown as dark squares and the green stitches as light ones.

The notes are for the upper of the two borders. The pattern repeat starts 11 squares in  from the right hand edge of the chart. It ends 34 stitches later, at the vertical line on the left. The page has been roughly torn out of a notebook and there are no annotations for the lower chart. Perhaps Bain wasn’t pleased with the results.

Knitting key patterns

Many of George Bain’s charted designs could be used as inspiration for knitting patterns. But so far we have only found a few examples of how he himself wrote out knitting instructions. On this chart he has added written instructions for the 20 stitch repeat panel.  Although we know that he sent other patterns to people, this looks more like a rough copy where he is working out the pattern line-by line.

It’s worth noting that designs charted onto square graph paper will only be true when knitted in a fine yarn. For thicker yarn the stitches are wider than they are high, which would distort the pattern.

Birds in insular art

Here, Bain collects examples of birds from across early medieval insular art onto poor quality, thin paper. They are taken from manuscripts, incised or sculpted stone slabs and metalwork. All are from Scotland, Ireland or Northumbria. His notes show he’s working out comparisons across art forms and countries. This approach became key to his presentation of Celtic art.

HIs notes open a window on his studies. A looping arrow, with the command ‘compare’, links birds from the Book of Kells and a Pictish sculpted stone from Meigle in Perthshire. A remark on the left side compares a panel in the Psalter of St John with ones in the Gospels of MacDurnan. Bain’s wonder at the intricacy of insular art is literally underlined in his annotation bottom right. With his drawing of a detail from the Tara brooch he records ‘much enlarged’.

George Bain’s research eventually resulted in his book Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction. It was published by William Macllellan, the Glasgow publisher, in 1951. The book brings together his successful series of six booklets on the different Celtic art styles, first printed in 1944.