Single strand interlace

Bain draws this mosaic from St Albans to show a very simple interlace border from Roman Britain. His drawing to the left shows how to ensure the border has only a single, continuous, interlaced strand. This is the method also used by the Picts.

The diagram shows the spacing used in the mosaic in his outer diagram. This is perfect as it only uses one strand. He contrasts it with what happens if all sides are spaced at 14 units. His inner drawing shows that it results in four strands.

Bain speculates that the Romano-British mosaic designer was interested in a secure enclosure for the lion. The Picts had very different reasons for using the single strand design. They applied it on Christian monuments and in Christian manuscripts to symbolise eternity. 

Collieburn’s key pattern

Bain studied this Pictish sculptured slab so that he could take up the challenge of creating part of its missing sections. We don’t know if he visited the private museum at Dunrobin Castle to study this part of the cross-slab. If he didn’t, he may have used the main reference book by Allen and Anderson as his source.

Perhaps he was drawn to this large sculpture because of the size and depth of the carving. The key pattern and knotwork discs are so three-dimensional. But he clearly didn’t see a need to make an exact copy of the surviving design. The incised dividing line along each interlaced strand is missing.

Bain loved to create his own patterns based on Pictish geometric forms but he hasn’t done this here. He hasn’t attempted to suggest what the rest of the carving could be. He could have got some ideas from the complex panels on the Rosemarkie cross-slab.

Allen JR & Anderson J 1903 The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland page 51-2

Knotwork from Durrow

George Bain was fascinated by the various geometric designs used in the early medieval Book of Durrow. He couldn’t refer to the original, so he copied the images that were published in 1908 in Celtic Illuminative Art.  Here Bain draws out the complex knotwork elements from the ‘carpet’ page that precedes the Gospel of St Luke. His fine use of watercolour aids the reading of what should be a continuous strand.

Bain was clearly immersed in the sophistication of the overall design. But he finds that the detail isn’t perfect. He discovers that there is no continuity. The knotwork is formed of three different strands when it should be just one. He then analysed them to find out where the design had gone wrong. 

He identifies two places in the small connecting element at the centre right of the design where mistakes have been made.  Then he works out how to correct the error, restoring a single, continuous strand. Bain was clearly focussed on perfection.

See FSH Robinson 1908 Celtic Illuminative Art

Lots of interlacing

Bain has drawn six different interlace designs of varying complexity on this poster. He is illustrating a few of the ways that single strands can be laid out. He then complicates matters by adding extra lines of interlace.

The note refers to how Bain thought interlace was drawn, as shown on a poster that we’ve named Single Strand Interlace. There, he uses the interlace on a mosaic from Verulamium (St Albans) as his source. He notes that if the number of loops along each edge of a square or rectangle are the same, then single strand interlace is not possible. But Bain then complicates things by drawing the red single strand interlace pattern that contradicts this.

George Bain’s published work on knotwork borders includes interlace designs from a wide range of sources. They’re not just from Roman Britain. They appear in the illuminated pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels, Book of Kells and other early medieval manuscripts. They are also found as ancient embroidered designs from Africa, Persia and Turkey.

Spirals trumpeting

This design is from a page in the Book of Durrow, created around 650-670AD. The manuscript is a superb, early medieval illuminated book of gospels, possibly made in Northumbria. Its opening carpet page has a border of interlaced knotwork. This bounds a central panel that focuses on three pairs of discs of spirals.

Each pair is different, with two, three, four or seven three-stranded spirals joining together. Here, Bain has interpreted one of the seven spiral discs. Each strand meets that of another strand as an open, trumpet-like, form. Long, thin lenses fill the intervening spaces. 

It is a highly refined, exquisite design that Bain explores in his book Methods of Construction. There, he compares it to the seven spiral disc on the Pictish Aberlemno cross-slab.

Circular delights

This study is of seven circular, decorative elements from three of the superb Pictish cross-slabs from the Tarbat peninsula in Easter Ross. They are from the stones of Hilton of Cadboll, Shandwick and Nigg. Bain shows almost nothing in terms of construction methods for the designs, but he does make comments.

The largest interlace design, from the Hilton of Cadboll Stone, is of three interwoven lines. This is an unusual departure. Normally a single, continuous line is used, representing infinity, or everlasting life. Bain therefore comments that the complex use of three lines may reference the Holy Trinity.

He also notices, from detailed observation of the Nigg stone, that one of its elements contained an interlacing problem or mistake. The alternating ‘over and under rule’ could not be satisfied.  His explanation “probably due to odd number” is not easy to interpret.

Key pattern diagonals

This is one of many large posters that George Bain drew to show the complexities of specific Celtic art designs. We think they were used to illustrate his lectures on Celtic art and contemporary craftwork.

He chose to use ballpoint pens on the posters, for both the outlines and colouring-in. But ballpoint pens weren’t on general sale until after the 2nd World War. So the posters are from his time as a promoter of Celtic art rather than when he was a school teacher.

Here he shows how to construct a panel of key pattern from the Book of Durrow. At the top is a drawing of the basic unit for the overall pattern. Below, from right to left, Bain shows how the basic lines can be developed. The final black key pattern is in two vertical panels on one of the Book’s gospel pages. The originals are only 4cm long. However, Bain’s poster drawing is about 14 times that length.

A key patterned arm

Bain regularly used this design from the Aberlemno cross-slab. It is a great example of using key pattern to fill a shaped space. He focuses on it in his introduction to the key pattern section in his book Celtic Art, Methods of Construction. He also uses it to show how inaccurate other published drawings of the design had been. Clearly he had quite a ‘bee in his bonnet’ about these errors.

In the annotation of the drawing he gives his notation for describing the design numerically.  This is not easy to understand, especially when the underlying grid system for laying out the design is not shown.  Nowhere in his book does Bain ever clearly explain the notation.

Comparative keys

This large drawing is one of over 50 posters created by George Bain, after he retired from Kirkcaldy High School. All were drawn using ballpoint pens, which didn’t become affordable until after the 2nd World War. Here he favours dark blue and black, but other posters are multi-coloured with red, green and bright blue too.

We don’t know why Bain chose to illustrate these particular key patterns. Perhaps he wanted to show that the design was popular across Wales as well as Scotland. Here, there are examples from early medieval sculptured stones and illustrated manuscripts. But they are all different in style. For example, the Nigg key pattern on the cross face is much more formal than the later carving on the east side of the cross at Nevern.

Knotworking a cross

George Bain created numerous posters to illustrate the methods of construction of knotwork and other geometric designs. Using certain reference books, he drew enlarged details from photographs of illuminated gospel books. Or he increased the size of certain drawings of Pictish cross-slabs that appear in The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland. Here Bain focusses on one of the crosses on the Ulbster stone.

This study shows how to draw the equal armed cross. Bain uses pencil, ruler and compasses to lay out the knotworked five crosses within the single cross. He shows the first stages by going over the light pencil lines with ballpoint pen. There’s fine black for the saltire crosses and red for the central lines of the knotwork design.

Then Bain shows how to complete the pattern in the other squares. Either side of the central line he uses thicker black lines to make the wide strand. He then rubs out the pencilled central line and shades in the background. He adds inner lines to the strand to enhance the design.

J R Allen & J Anderson 1903 The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland page 34

Seven swirling spirals

In this beautifully clear drawing George Bain has recorded one of the simplest but most exquisite uses of spiral decoration. It is at the centre of the front of the Pictish sculptured stone in Aberlemno churchyard. The balance and consistency of the seven interlinked triple spirals make something almost hypnotic. They draw the eye to the central roundel of the Christian cross.

It is not clear why Bain decided to make this drawing.  It could have been for the pure pleasure of capturing such a superbly simple but effective design. A clue might also be that he used the design to illustrate one method of joining spirals in Methods of Construction.  The Aberlemno spirals also feature in Bain’s 1936 article for the Gaelic Society of Inverness. There, he allows himself a little tirade about earlier, inaccurate, published interpretations of the design.

Ulbster in blue

George Bain seems to have been fascinated by the continuous knotwork design in this small cross on the Ulbster stone. He drew it in various forms. Here his note shows that he wanted people to be able to follow the knotwork easily. He achieves this aim by drawing the design as a narrow blue strand. This makes it very clear that the knotwork is created from a never-ending line.

On many of his posters Bain emphasises the importance of the single continuous line. It was a vital feature of Pictish interlace design, representing eternity in the early Christian context.