A Celtic Revival

When my sister and I were little, whenever we went to a museum or castle we were always most interested in the shop, where everything was so glittering and tempting compared to the fusty old objects we should have been looking at.

This girlish consumerism was somewhat looked down upon, but on one occasion I laid out my pocket money on a little pamphlet which, for many years, changed my life: ‘Elementary Knotwork Borders, the methods of construction’, by George Bain. I got it home and had a go — and was hooked.

The knots in my sketchbooks begin laboriously, and then I begin to master it…

There were seven other pamphlets, with more knots, spirals, animal patterns, lettering and key patterns (I never got the hang of these), but after I’d collected a few my aunt bought me the full book, ‘Celtic Art, the Methods of Construction’.

To a rather obsessive compulsive teenager it was hugely inspirational. If you know any obsessive compulsive teenagers, buy it for them for Christmas!

Soon all the covers of my school exercise books began to be knotted with interlace and animal patterns. Instead of being dragged around museums of which I was really only interested in the shops, I dragged my family (especially Mum) on quests around Angus and the Mearns to find celtic standing stones to sketch.

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I loved the elusive symbolism, the eternal lines which wove from pagan to Christian, the total anonymity of the people who created this curving geometry, but whom I felt akin to because they lived in my favourite part of Scotland and taught me their designs. Here’s a page of sketches from the Meigle Sculptured Stones museum:

I collected books with reproductions of the Lindesfarne Gospels and (my favourite of all) the Book of Kells. I delved into intricacy, seeing how much design I could fit into a postcard-sized image. I went short-sighted, but it was worth it. In sixth form I was commissioned to design two official school Christmas cards. My Celtic design was almost too intricate in places to print properly.

I regarded this as a tour de force and was very disappointed when it sold far less well to parents and pupils than my alternative card, a rose window, which took about a tenth of the time and far less technical ability to draw. But the experience was a good lesson in the importance of overall design as well as detail.

I have very few original pieces from the time when I was mastering Celtic Art because they were almost all made as gifts. I found one, though, alongside some bad photographs of its companions, labelled ‘thankyou cards’.

I’d dismissed it with ‘unsent’ scrawled in biro across the top. But my seventeen-year-old self’s glowing colours and rich carpet of interlaced creatures astonished my thirty-two-year-old self when I found it. I’m not sure I could do anything so good now. But I think 2011 is the year to pick up my Celtic pen again and see what I can do.

5 thoughts on “A Celtic Revival”

  1. Eleanor,
    Love your work. Also, very pleased that my great grandfather (George Bain) was such an influence on your work. If you ever get the chance, please visit The Groam House Museum in Rosemarkie where much of his work is exhibited. I will be visiting for the first time this August and am very much looking forward to it. My grandfather Iain Bain continued his work and he too published a couple of books on Celtic art.


    All the best and continue the good work.

    Ali Pringle

  2. Hi Ali, I'm really delighted to hear from you! I didn't know about the museum in Rosemarkie so thank you very much for pointing it out to me. I shall definitely have to make a pilgrimage sometime.

    I did buy a copy of Iain Bain's first book with great excitement as soon as I found it. But it was really aimed at people who were baffled by his father's method, which relied so much on judgement by eye etc, which was actually what I really like — all action and no planning/ measuring — it suits my impatient temperament! So I'm afraid I found Iain Bain's more structured, mathematical approach far too much like hard work, although I know a lot of people preferred it.

    As you'll have discovered if you followed the link to my shop, my resolve to revive my Celtic art failed almost completely — I haven't had a great deal of time for art at all. I have at least now renewed the one piece I did do (the listing had expired!) so there is one thing on there. But I'm really glad you've reminded me of it. I have an exhibition coming up next week in Edinburgh: I wonder if there's time to tie some knots before then…

    best wishes,

  3. Eleanor,

    Thought you may want to know that some of George Bains work is currently being exhibited at the National Gallery of Scotland. The exhibits will be on show until Feb '12. Check it out!

  4. Eleanor,

    Thanks for your reply. I have returned from my visit up North, which was essentially a George Bain pilgrimage. The main reason for going was to do a presentaion in Fortrose on GB's WWI service by request of the museum. I went with my wife and my parents who also showed me where he lived and worked and where his wife and his ashes are scattered, marked by a beautiful plaque he made for her. I said that much of his work is exhibited at the museum. This was not quite right as only a few items are on display as the museum is only small and space is limited. It is still well worth a visit though if you are ever up there. Even better though, the curator at the museum has been talking to the National Gallery of Scotland. It looks like some of his work will be exhibited for a while at the National, starting in the next few months I believe. The dates have not been published yet, but keep an eye out.

    Many Thanks,

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