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.

Logo of spirals

George Bain took various sorts of commissions after he retired in 1946. Amongst them are a number of logos. This one, for a small hospital near Perth, is based on his fascination with three-in-one spirals (triskeles). Bain explains how to draw two- and three-coil spirals in his book ‘Methods of Construction’. His favourite spiral groups seem to have been those on the Pictish Aberlemno Churchyard cross and in the Book of Durrow.

The hospital opened in 1939, to serve evacuees and wounded German prisoners of war. It stayed open after the 2nd World War and served the local community until it closed in 1992. We don’t know whether this logo was ever used. But the ‘original design by George Bain, Kilmore Drumnadrochit, Inverness-shire 13th June 1950’ reflects Bain’s commitment to Scots Gaelic. We’ve translated seòladh gu slàinte as ‘a route to health’.

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

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)

A mystery logo

We haven’t yet found any organisation called the HFGI Association. Or should it be the IHFG Assocation? We just don’t know the order they should be written in. However, as with all of Bain’s commercial work, it is a very accomplished design for a logo.

Knotty greetings

Bain was commissioned by the publisher William MacLennan of Glasgow to design various greetings cards. They all have messages in both Gaelic and English. This one is based on the Pictish design on a face of the Rossie Priory cross-slab. Bain keeps the central rider on the stone. But he omits the rest of the hunting scene, the pair of Pictiish symbols, the other figures and beasts. He needs the space for the mottos and exhortations.

His design for this greetings card exploits the existence of two ‘ends’ of a continuous knotwork line. This never-ending strand was a feature of Pictish design that fascinated Bain. HIs exploration of the Rossie Priory knotwork is detailed in his book Methods of Construction. He expresses surprise that he can find so few parallels for the design. In particular, Bain remarks that there seemed to be none in Irish illuminated manuscripts.

Bain seems to have been especially enamoured of this stone. There are another two illustrations that focus on it in his book.

Thoughtful words

The sympathetic message on this card is quite different to Bain’s other greetings cards. This text, in Gaelic and English, could be relevant to someone starting a new chapter in their life. Or perhaps it was meant as consolation after a bereavement. It is one of twelve designs for cards in his collection.

The intricate pattern focuses on four men, drawn in a semi-realistic style. They entwine to form an equal-sided cross. Outlined in yellow and red, their main joints are shown as simple scrolls. The intersecting arms, legs and torsos are marked by cross-hatching, an unusual detail in insular art. Their long hair and beards form elaborate knotwork patterns. The strands meet in four pairs of double-coiled spirals.

Bain had found a similar motif of four male figures on one of the cross-shafts at Clonmacnoise in Ireland. It is included in his Methods of Construction, as is another of three men from the Book of Kells.

See: Bain’s Celtic Art, Methods of Construction page 115, Plates 13 & 14

A hunting scene

We know when Bain designed this Christmas greetings card because he mentions Drumnadrochit. In 1946, on retiring from teaching, he moved to the village for a few years. It was his wife’s family home and he tried to establish a College of Celtic Cultures there. It seems that he engaged with local pupils at Inverness Academy to obtain Gaelic translations of his texts.

The knotwork entangles hunting imagery. The stag, boar, hunting dogs, horse and rider were favourite motifs of Bain. He used them in his design for a ‘hunting’ rug for Quayle and Tranter Ltd, carpet manufacturers in Kidderminster, Worcestershire. They’re also included in designs for items such as the final dinner menu for the International Pen Congress in Edinburgh in 1950.

Inside the card is his own explanation of the background to the design. It holds good today. ‘The huntsman and other symbols of the chase were favourites of the Celtic peoples, portraying not only the fearless qualities but also the questing spirit of enquiry and aspiration that lies at the roots of art and religion …‘

Happy New Year

This unusual New Year’s card is one of a series of greetings cards. George Bain probably produced them while living by Loch Ness. The greeting, in Gaelic and English, cleverly refers to the golden door at its centre. The gold spirals are reminiscent of those in early medieval illuminated manuscripts and on Pictish stone cross-slabs. 

The ornate archway around the door is guarded by two pairs of birds. They are one of Bain’s favourite designs. Looking closely, you can see that he hasn’t just done a mirror image. He’s made their long necks interlace into a different pattern on each side. The design is particularly pleasing as the round plaque above the doorway is held in place by the feet of these four birds.

George Bain signed this work in both English and Gaelic, as he did on some of his other cards.

Lucky horseshoe

George Bain enjoyed creating new card designs that were then printed by W LacLennan Ltd of Glasgow. They are all based on Celtic art from across Britain and Ireland, including Pictish motifs. The messages are usually bilingual, in both Gaelic and English.

During his studies of Celtic art Bain drew various Pictish horses. The Inverurie incised Pictish stone was clearly the model for this design. He found here that he could create a roundel with three horses. A lively, continuous line of golden knotwork interweaves with three of the legs of each horse. But their straight forelegs are linked centrally.

The colourful, surrounding horseshoe is filled with interlaced birds and snakes. They are inspired by zoomorphic manuscript art such as found in the Book of Kells.

A Manx cross

In this design Bain uses a Celtic cross from the Isle of Man but alters its decorative details. The result is an entertaining and engaging puzzle. He draws our attention to the sculptor’s use of a single, continuous line and encourages us to follow it.

By breaking one edge ‘turn’ of the interlace at the base of the cross, he creates two ‘ends’ to the interlaced strand. If you carefully trace the line from point A, you’ll end up at point B. If Bain had not broken the strand it would of course be continuous, symbolic of Eternity in a religious context.

This Celtic cross is one of several at the church of St Adamnan in Lonan, on the Isle of Man. Beyond the island, it wasn’t a very well-known site and so it would be interesting to know how Bain became aware of it. The cross is the most ornate of the group. Bain amends its form and adds his own details, like the knotwork between the arms of the cross.

Overflowing chalice

You can almost see the wine in the chalice on this intricately decorated greetings card. It was designed by George Bain. The rich colours give it an almost 3D effect. The overflowing contents are shown as spirals, some of which extend into knotwork. The stippling gives the effect of floating in liquid.

The body of the cup is decorated with pairs of intertwined birds, symbols of friendship. Their wings are folded and their necks entwined, forming an elaborate interlacing. The words, in Scottish Gaelic and English, are reminiscent of those in the 23rd Psalm. It begins ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ and contains the line ‘Thou annointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over’. 

The card was used by Chirsty, George Bain’s elder daughter. She sent it to her husband Zbigniew Lomnicki.

Follow your Pathway

If you follow the pathway, as shown at the top of George Bain’s eye-catching card, you’ll discover a secret note. It’s a fascinating design, inspired by Michelangelo’s continuous pathway in Capitol Square, Rome.

The path Bain wants you to follow is a single white strand with red shaded, yellow dots. It’s held within a narrow circular border of key-pattern. Both this and the dots almost look 3-dimensional. They resemble embroidery stitches. In the spaces inbetween the interlaced strand, are flat knotwork motifs. There are 48 in total and every one is different. It’s a glorious celebration of minimalist Celtic art.

The central design is a complete contrast. A yellow starburst bears the white Cross of St Andrew topped with the Royal Arms of Scotland. If you’ve found the message you’ll understand why. It emphasises the printed Gaelic and English words.