Continuum of Celtic Interlace Continued (Part 3)
Copyright Stephen Walker October 2000
The first article in this series discussed the origins
of Celtic interlace as a fusion of Germanic animal interlace influences with
Middle Eastern manuscript traditions of knotwork.
The styles of “endless path” knot designs and complex animal
interlace became characteristic of Christian Celtic Insular design, not with the
introduction of Christianity to the Celtic lands, but beginning several
centuries later in the 7th century.
The second article discussed the international
aspects of early Celtic interlace art, as it was practiced in all the Insular
Celtic kingdoms as well as among the Anglo-Saxons.
The survival and revival of interlace designs, as self-conscious
references to the glories of the past were part of a continuous tradition up
until the 17th and 18th century Jacobite movement in
Scotland. The Celtic Revival,
beginning in mid-19th century Ireland then reaffirmed and reinvented
interlace as an emblem of Celtic identity.
The designers of the Celtic Revival of a century ago
frequently strayed from historically correct design grammar.
It is not at all unusual in this period to find corruptions of the
over-under alterations and sensibilities of continuum that are the very soul of
Celtic interlace. If Thomas
O’Shaughnessy, as discussed in the previous article in this series, was not
the only Celtic designer in Chicago in 1912, it is unlikely that his interlace
would have strayed so far from historical standards. Like many others of his generation, including designers in
Ireland and other Celtic lands, O’Shaughnessy imitated a superficial
impression of Celtic design without the benefit of understanding the
complexities of the original art from the past.
At that time the rediscovery of Celtic Art had not yet progressed to a
point where many knew the difference. Throughout
the 20th century much Celtic design that is incorrectly constructed
persists. Many authentically
constructed designs have been directly copied from the Book of Kells and other
sources, but there has also been an awakening of deeper understanding of the
conventions of Celtic design expressed in new and original artistic creations.
Celtic design in jewellery and the goldsmith’s craft
spawned some lasting trends in the revival of Celtic interlace.
Reproductions of brooches, like copies of the Tara Brooch manufactured by
firms such as Waterhouse were popular in the 19th century.
These, however, were fashionable appropriations of archaeological
discoveries rather than a continuation of a design tradition.
Towards the turn of the century craftsmen and designers began to
experiment with original Celtic designs adapted to contemporary fashion needs.
The Manx designer, Archibald Knox studied Celtic design and fused it with
the design sensibilities of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Knox designed an attractive range of jewellery and fashion accessories
that were manufactured by the London firm of Liberty and Company.
This was a very upscale and mainstream market sold at the company’s
emporium on Regent Street or by catalogue “from John O’Groats to Land’s
In contrast to the cosmopolitan product of Waterhouse
in Dublin and Liberty in London, a small enterprise on the Isle of Iona was to
bring Celtic jewellery back to it’s roots and ironically also to establish
Celtic design items as tourist souvenirs. The
age of rail and steamship was giving rise to increasing middle class tourism.
Recreational tourists as well as religious pilgrims were increasingly
making their way to Iona. Alexander Ritchie and his wife Euphemia established a
jewellery, metal craft and embroidery business called Iona Celtic Art.
Building on the designs of the ancient monuments on Iona, the Ritchies
developed a working knowledge of the language of Celtic design.
There is a slightly rustic look to their work, but for the most part it
was much more sophisticated than the naïve folk art that their remote island
setting conjured up for the viewer. During
the winters the Ritchies studied art in Glasgow and they quickly learned to
utilize modern mass production outsourcing to manufactures in Glasgow and
Birmingham. At the same time they
maintained hands-on craftsmanship for brass repousse (sp?) and embroidery on the
From 1899 to 1941 Iona Celtic Art had very little
competition in Celtic jewellery and during this time the audience and cultural
context evolved. In the 19th
century Celtic jewellery was a gentrified affectation.
The Ritchies’ work was more affordable and became both the treasured
heirlooms of Scottish families as well as souvenirs for the well traveled.
Both of these trends continue in Celtic design to the present day.
The antique look of Iona Celtic Art gives the impression that these types
of things had been around longer and more commonly than was actually the case.
Many have been disappointed to learn that the hallmarks on Gran’s
brooch are not nearly as old as assumed. Designs
that deliberately make a link with history, when successful, can create their
own myth of continuity with the past.
The Ritchies were sensitive to the dignity of the
heritage they drew upon. The ethics
and sensibilities of the Arts and Crafts Movement were certainly known to them,
but they really were in a league of their own.
The success of their enterprise led others to produce knock-offs for the
tourist trade as well as influencing the design of quality-crafted goods
generally sold through highland outfitters.
The Victorian thistle motifs of Scottish regalia have been gradually
shifting towards more Celtic designs throughout the 20th century.
After WWII several firms and individuals continued to
produce the Ritchie’s designs and started new trends in Celtic jewellery.
One trend of particular interest is the techniques of piercing out
interlace patterns so that the background is open space and the knotwork becomes
a lattice. This is now nearly a
universal practice in Celtic jewellery, but seems as if it must have always been
done. While it is possible that some earlier pierced work may have been done,
the transition to this approach began in the 1950’s.
A pioneer of this style, John Hart, working in Glasgow, created a large
number of original designs in this manner.
Hart’s designs are still in production by the firm Hebridean Jewellery
on South Uist, run by his son John Hart Jr.
The publication of George Bain’s textbook Celtic
Art; the Methods of Construction in 1951 presented the work of J. Romilly
Allen through the medium of a gifted artist, experienced teacher and
enthusiastic advocate. During his
career as an art teacher in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Bain pursued a passionate interest
in Celtic design. After his
retirement from teaching high school he published his landmark book and tried to
establish a school dedicated to Celtic art in the Highlands.
These were the days of the “Picasso craze” and Bain’s book had
little impact until it was re-released in 1971.
Then it became the bible for a new generation that was ready to learn his
methods and create a new renaissance of Celtic art and design.
The career stories of most living Celtic artists include exposure to
George Bain’s book as a watershed experience.
Celtic Art the Methods of Construction was intended as a secondary
education studio arts textbook to teach the fundamentals of Celtic design
through a series of charts and drawings, many that were taken from the Book of
Kells and other ancient sources. The
book also contains many of Bain’s original designs and photographs of projects
done by students. Unfortunately it
has been far more common for his book to be used as a clip art source book than
as a guide to mastering the idiom and to go on to achieve original designs.
Since the 1970’s a great deal of new Celtic art has
been appearing. The crafts movement
has resulted the reemergence of the artist/entrepreneur.
The availability of training and materials, the sales venues of craft
shows, an increasingly appreciative and well-informed audience, as well as new
technology have enabled numerous creative individuals to pursue artistic
careers. Widely distributed books,
cards and prints by such popular Celtic artists as Jim Fitzpatrick and Courtney
Davis have also served to bring Celtic design to a wider audience.
For most of the 20th century Celtic Art has
been seen as a “lost art” and those who practice it have done so in relative
isolation. In the past 20 years the
increase in the number of artists practicing Celtic design and rising popularity
of Celtic art has resulted in the publication of new books both about historical
subjects and technical instruction. Many
people have found George Bain’s instructions bewildering.
His approach relied on a certain amount of intuitive ability on the part
of the student. George’s son Iain
Bain published a book on knotwork that approaches construction in a more
engineered way. Aidan Meehan has
published a series of books on Celtic design since the 1980’s. His book Knotwork; The Secret Method of the Scribes
identifies the “triple-grid method” derived from carefully studying the
original sources. Other how-to
books have also appeared in print. Due
to the increasing number of artists competing in the marketplace, quality and
originality have been improving.
In the past decade the number of Celtic jewelers has
exploded. In 1990 it was still
common to hear people say how long and hard they had searched for an authentic
Celtic knotwork ring. Today there
is so much more to choose from that jewelers cannot afford to be lax in quality
or design. More practitioners of
the art not only means more art but also means that it is far more likely that
an artist or designer will be subject to the pressure of competitive rivalry.
Many now benefit from association or observation of a peer’s techniques
and ideas. We live in an age of
unprecedented communication and information.
Exposure to diversity of ideas and approaches is stimulating and
At the beginning of the 21st century Celtic
Art is certainly more popular and widely practiced than ever before. Interlace designs are the distinguishing characteristic that
“make” art Celtic for most viewers and many artists as well.
Historically interlace was only one of several characteristically Celtic
design elements and it can be plausibly argued that much of what has been
presented as “Celtic” fails to get it right in a number of ways.
Often we see interlace that is improperly constructed and frequently
designs that owe more to other ornamental traditions and masquerade as Celtic
based solely on interlace elements.
Trends in contemporary Celtic interlace design include
clip art and source book publications for the do-it-your-selfers, anonymous
designers working for giftware manufacture and creative individual artists and
craftsmen who both borrow ready made designs from the past and who create new
Celtic Art from their own imagination. The
recent popularity of Celtic Art has flooded the market with cheap mass-produced
goods that exploit the trend but also have encouraged a new generation of gifted
and accomplished artists that work in the genre of Celtic Art.
Interlace designs are not the only elements of Celtic
Art. The spiral and trumpet designs
have an older tradition and can more authentically be called “Celtic”.
For whatever reason, interlace designs became the hallmark of the Insular
tradition and have been more recognizably Irish, Gaelic or Celtic for the past
several hundred years. To most
non-scholars it is specifically interlace that makes Celtic Art distinctive.
From the 7th century interlace designs became a vibrant
international style that was part of the expanding world of Celtic Christianity
and scholarship. As invasions and
continental influences replaced Celtic Art as the dominant style, it became a
self-conscious link with the past by later medieval times.
Rediscovery by various individuals in the past 150 years have gathered
together the legacies of both the distant past and more recent ideals of
national identity, ethnic pride, romantic nostalgia and spiritual discovery.
The next article of this series will address the social context, meaning
and symbolism of Celtic interlace.
Sources In addition to the books mentioned in the text:
T. J. Edelstein, editor, Imagining an Irish Past,
The Celtic Revival 1840-1940 Smart Museum of Art, Chicago 1992
J. Lang “Survival and revival in Insular Art” The Insular Tradition Karkov, Farrell & Ryan
editors, State University of New York Press 1997
L & J Laing Art of the Celts Thames and
I. MacCormack The Celtic Art of Iona, New Iona
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Other articles by Stephen
Walker published in Dalriada Magazine