The 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 End.” 

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 island. 

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 beneficial.

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 Hudson 1992

I. MacCormack The Celtic Art of Iona, New Iona Press 1994

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Other articles by Stephen Walker published in Dalriada Magazine

Celtic Interlace; An Overview Part 1 

Celtic Interlace; Continuum Part 2  
In Search of Meaning (part 4)
Celtic Art of Jeff Fitzpatrick
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