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.
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.