Capital letters from Kells

George Bain had a particular interest in the capital letters that were used in the Book of Kells. He studied their design and included them in his book Celtic Art, Methods of Construction. Four of these capital letters are direct copies from photos in a book on the 8th century manuscript. The D and the O on the right of the page are adaptations of Kells capital letters.

What is interesting is the choice of complexity for the designs. Three are simply decorated with small knotwork patterns, such as the R. The other three are much more complex and also include interwoven zoomorphic creatures, like the T. We can see how Bain initially sketched the letters using a soft pencil. He then confidently inked over the straight and curved lines.

A magnified brooch

The Tara brooch is an amazing treasure of Irish early medieval art. It is 8.7cm in diameter with a pin over 25cm long. Made of silver, covered in gold, it is decorated on both sides. On this face the metalworker decorated the brooch with interlace and animal designs in incredibly fine, gold, filigree wire. There are also amber, enamel and glass settings.

It is not clear why George Bain drew this magnified interpretation of the Tara brooch. It may have been for use with students or to illustrate one of his lectures. Perhaps it was his research before creating the greetings card that features this piece. The accuracy suggests that he must have worked from a drawing or photograph of the brooch in a reference book.

As often in his teaching aids Bain provides a guide to the actual size of the original.  His marginal pencil annotations are also interesting as they illustrate his working methods. The detail of the beast’s head to to the left of the brooch is a particular example.

Four stags entwined

George Bain didn’t only produce what is still considered to be the ultimate guide to producing Celtic art. As well as wood and leather, he was also interested in textiles. He developed charts for knitting and embroidery as well as creating designs for rugs. A range of complex rug patterns were sent to the manufacturers Messrs Quayle and Tranter of Kidderminster.

This detailed chart is of four stags. Their antlers interlace and form a tight knotwork pattern. The design was found amongst the vast archive of Bain’s work that was donated to the museum after his death. It is one of several that we think he may have submitted to the manufacturer.

Going round and round

A fascinating set of four similar interlace designs, each formed of two strands of different colours. We think they were created for painting onto white china dinner or tea sets.  They reflect George Bain’s fascination with how new designs might be made. At first glance the designs look quite simple but when one tries to analyse them their varied, complex, nature becomes evident.

Interlace saucer designs

These are two of George Bain’s exquisitely restrained interlace designs, created for painting onto white china dinner or tea sets. Both are made up of two strands interlacing into six motifs. One is formed of paired forms. The other has larger, slightly different single shapes.

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)

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.

Zoomorphic ornament

For this drawing Bain studied the first plate in his copy of Sir Edward Sullivan’s volume on the Book of Kells. He found tiny panels in one of the ‘Eusebian Canons‘ illuminated pages that especially interested and attracted him. Bain enlarged the designs to create these drawings. This meant he could figure out how the interlaced men, bird and beasts related to each other.

In one case he annotated the drawing to make clear which parts of the man and bird were interlaced.  He included these three designs in the Zoomorphics section of Methods of Construction. Bain used them again later, when he created one of his large, colourful posters that he used as teaching aids.

See: The Book of Kells MS58 TCD folio 5r Trinity College Dublin and E Sullivan 1920 The Book of Kells Plate 1

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.

Preparatory studies

Taking a look at George Bain’s Methods of Construction, it is clear this is a draft for one of its full pages of illustrations. The chapter on ‘Plant and Human Forms’ begins with a drawing that includes both of these studies. They are exquisite details from the Book of Kells, taken from the opening page of St Luke’s Gospel.

Bain seems to have really enjoyed enlarging the very small human figures on some of the pages of the Kells illuminations. He used Sir Edward Sullivan’s illustrated summary of the Book of Kells, first published in 1914, as his source. He always notes the real size of the details in the Book of Kells. It is amazing that here his larger drawing was only 7cm high in the original.

See Book of Kells TCD MS58 folio 188r Trinity College Dublin (detail bottom right) and Sullivan E 1914 Book of Kells

Writhing discs

George Bain drew each of these complex discs of interlaced beasts and birds from an illustrated summary of the Book of Kells. They are fabulous – six intertwined snakes, three hunting dogs, six beautiful birds and three writhing reptiles.

Bain used each of these roundels in his Methods of Construction chapter on ‘Zoomorphics’. He uses them to explain how to draw such complicated interlaced designs. Today’s craftspeople use these drawings to help them create their own masterpieces.

Sullivan, E 1914 The Book of Kells