Back amongst the Celts

The combination of a showery bank holiday and an exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland gave me a chance to revisit my first old artistic love, the art of the Celts.

There was knotwork of course, and the point was made that this is really characteristic of Anglo-Saxons rather than Celts, something I discovered in Jarrow and Hexham.

Knotwork
Small Anglo-saxon knotwork cross medallion, c.750 AD. The top left and (badly-drawn) bottom right are different balanced, single-line designs: the top right is three lines. Different craftsman, same craftsman after a dram, or a deep meaningful point?

But what I really enjoyed was the oldest stuff. One thing I discovered was that those naif figures which populate the Book of Kells and the like are not intrinsic to celtic art, it’s just that the Irish monks were useless at portraiture. This penny-sized face, one of dozens circling around a horse harness, is a perfectly good portrait of a pretty Czech girl, hammered from bronze when Nehemiah was busy rebuilding Jerusalem.

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There were also better examples than I’ve seen before of designs which evoke animals without feeling the need to copy them literally. This ‘deep’ art was a big theme of the exhibition, and contrasted with the literal naturalism of the Mediterranean.

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The depth of the designs was full of fun with fractals: the London bird above had a similar tiny bird flying inside its wing; and there was a spectacular torque from Germany with two bulls’ heads, each head wearing a little torque. Did the little torques have little bulls’ heads each wearing tiny torques?  The large glass cases and low light levels didn’t let us find out.

But I think my favourite bit of design on this occasion was this French pot, clearly influenced by Greek pottery but overrun by a bonkers celtic herd of nested, rotated, spiralled, extended deer:

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The top of the design is at the bottom of the page: I ran out of paper. These illustrations altogether demonstrate that I haven’t done a sketch for years. 

One of the disappointing things about this Edinburgh exhibition, as so often, was the lack of content compared with a London one. I had taken my paintbox in the hope of getting out some colour, but there was hardly any enamelwork, and the two monastic manuscripts were unfortunately placed horizontally in vertical display cases so that it was impossible to see the designs in any detail. I did find this bronze bit, however, with what I thought was just the right pleasing celticy combination of trumpet, spiral, boss and enamel.

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I liked the final section on celtic revival, and I was very glad to see the great decipherer of knotwork George Bain mentioned: I have spent hours and hours amongst the pages of his book (although I’m horrified to see his Wikipedia page features an incorrect knot!). However, I’d forgotten, if I knew, that the man who invented Edinburgh Living Landscape 100 years before it was invented, Patrick Geddes, was also a great celtic revivalist. Goodoh.