Despite the world of the Picts being so far away in time, there was one man who reached back and ‘touched’ their minds with a language they shared… Art

(A ten minute read, 1300 words)

(Above: George Bain)

He looked, once again, at the beautiful rendering of belief and life and…. everything. Once more, he was swept away by a sense of identity with what he saw–what he felt. He knew he understood how they had created it… and he felt a connection to why they had created it.

He was determined to do it his way… and ‘his way’ was art. He picked up his stump of a pencil and let his fingers approach the circle he had drawn earlier on the graph paper. Across the internal horizon of the figure were seven dots. He hovered his pencil tip over the sixth, wondering how well he could render the curve needed. He’d had plenty of practice. He was, after all, a successful artist.

He was so wrapped up in this that his pipe rotated in his mouth – through lack of firmness of his jaw muscles. He smiled, as though sharing a joke with them…

“Not helpful,” he muttered, reflecting how much easier it was to speak with the pipe the right way up. “But I’m glad you’re here, all the same…”

(Above: gently and with precision, George Bain drew the first of his recreations of Pictish art.. The journey had begun)

(Above: George Bain worked entirely by hand, and was seldom without his pipe and his trusty ruler)

George Bain was born in Scrabster, Thurso’s port in Caithness, in 1881. Throughout his life – he travelled and worked in many places – he always stressed that he was a ‘Caithness man.’

Having journeyed up that beautiful coast on our way to Orkney – ironically via the ferry at Scrabster – I can understand why.

George Bain’s family moved to Edinburgh when he was nine. There, he studied at Edinburgh School of Applied Art, then Edinburgh College of Art. In 1902 he obtained a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London, where he supported himself by working as a freelance newspaper artist and a magazine illustrator.

After serving in the First World War as a Royal Engineer, he taught art at Kirkcaldy High School, and remained there as Principal Teacher of Art until he retired in 1946. As a watercolour artist, he is best known for his landscapes. He painted his native Scotland, Greece and the Balkans, and held successful international exhibitions in Paris and London.

If he was restless, it was because he had a deeper fascination which was harder to fulfil – penetrating the art of the Picts, which, at that time, was not well known and even less understood.

(Above: this reproduction of a small roundel, created by George Bain, was based on an original Insular piece only 1.5 inches across)

I have remarked before in this series of posts that when I saw a Pictish design up close for the first time, I felt just as I had when I first encountered Egyptian art. It’s an emotional experience and reminds you that there is a real power there. Art has has an ability – like symbols – to convey something deeper than the surface shape. In a sense it still ‘speaks’ – even after a thousand years. We may not comprehend it, but we can share it…

Beyond his watercolours, George Bain made it his life’s work to understand how the Picts had created their decorative art: to unravel its geometric principles and the actual techniques used to create their complex patterns. There was nothing primitive about the Picts’ designs, and by inference, their social and spiritual beliefs.

(Above: George Bains’ drawings of the evolution of the Pictish three-coil spiral)

The Picts’ work survives only in stone, but (as we have covered in previous posts) the monastic ‘Celtic’ world was closely connected across Scotland, Ireland (‘Insular’ art), Cornwall and Brittany, and there were many related examples of jewellery and illuminated manuscripts. The Celtic worlds comprised the Western fringes of the old world.

We were to see how influential that old world was when we reached Orkney…

George Bain unravelled the mathematical frameworks for constructing Celtic art. He ‘decoded’ and reproduced hundreds of examples. It enabled those who read his books to not only understand the art of their forebears, but also to have a go at creating examples of their own. In this he was unique, and it earned him a special place in Scotland’s history – and a place in the hearts of those artists and lay-folk who longed to understand the principles on which Pictish art – and Celtic art in general – was based.

(Above: an example of George Bain’s detailed work. This is the opening page of the Book of Kells’ section on St John’s Gospel, reproduced by the artist, with illustrative notes as to how it was created)

The act of producing authentic designs based upon an historical model requires a deeply focussed mind and a set of refined draughting skills. George Bain produced his classic work Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction in 1951. Initially, the work did not receive a lot of attention, but when it was re-issued in 1971 it caught the enthusiasm for Celtic revival prevalent among young people at that time, and the book has been in print ever since. Creative people of all walks of life were receptive to ‘having a go’ and Bain’s scholarly yet accessible methods became necessary reading to anyone who wanted experiential knowledge of a ‘drawn form’ that had fascinated the world for a century or more.

Our brief time in the company of this man’s works had not been wasted. We all wished that it could have been longer, but the Covid restrictions were in force and we understood the need to honour our departure time.

But we now had a feel, if not the details, of how expertly and geometrically the Picts had wrought their works. Knowing them through George Bain’s efforts, we each would have liked to pick up a pencil and play at Pictish art… exactly as he would have wished.

(Above: More of George Bain’s hand-drawn expositions of classic books)

By all accounts, he was not an easy man to get along with, but he was devoted to his teaching work. His mistrust of academics might have been the scarring of years of dismissal by those who felt that a ‘mere artist’ had little to add to the study of ancient history. How wrong they would have been!

George Bain died in 1968, age 87. He had and has a large following. His writings opened up the intricacies of an ancient civilisation to a wider public, encouraging exploration of, amongst others, The Book of Kells, Celtic Knotwork, the Pictish Stones, themselves, and the Book of Durrow. One of the main reasons for Bain’s success was his practical encouragement for fellow artists to use Celtic principles in their craftwork.

The lasting memory I took away from Groam House Museum, which houses the George Bain exhibit, was the memorial he designed for the grave of his wife, Jessie Mackintosh – the image above. Theirs was a deep love and they were inseparable. He was devastated when she died, tragically and prematurely, in 1957. In the memorial, he represented himself in Celtic style, and the entire work was created according to the principles he had learned in his Pictish studies.

To be continued…

Other posts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven (a), Part Seven (b),

This is Part Eight.

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

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