George Bain: A Highland Homecoming

October 2007

In 2007 Timespan was delighted to present the work of George Bain, the father of modern Celtic design, in a touring exhibition organised by Groam House Museum.

Groam House Museum acquired the stunning collection of original Celtic artwork by George Bain through donations from the Bain family in 1998. In 2007 Groam House Museum embarked on the ambitious George Bain exhibition project as part of Highland 2007, Scotland’s year of Highland cultural celebrations. The project presented a tremendous opportunity for the museum to showcase its unique collection to a much wider audience, and to cover a large geographic spread of the Highlands.

George Bain is still usually referred to as the father of modern Celtic design. Born in Scrabster (Caithness), his family moved to Edinburgh, where he trained as an artist. He served in Macedonia during the First World War and returned to take up the position of Principal Teacher of Art at Kirkcaldy High School, Fife, remaining in this post until his retirement in 1946.

Bain devoted much of his life to the study of the techniques used by the ancients to produce their intricate mathematical designs. These designs appear on the Pictish stones of eastern Scotland, the highly sophisticated metalwork and jewellery from Britain and Ireland, and the early illuminated manuscripts which include the Books of Durrow, Kells and Lindisfarne. He published the definitive book Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction in 1951, which did much to revive interest in the subject. He is also noted for his paintings of landscapes in Scotland, Greece and the Balkans.

In 1978, a retrospective exhibition of his work was held in Kirkcaldy. His collection is held by Groam House Museum in Rosemarkie which helped organise a further exhibition on his life and work at the Royal Museum (Edinburgh) in 2001.

Bain’s achievement in working out the techniques used by the ancient Celtic artists was significant in creating a renaissance of interest in this type of art-work. His role as a teacher of the framework within which this art-form could be further developed and constructed anew was of great importance. Today, with the current resurgence of interest in Celtic and Pictish Art, it is an excellent time for us to appreciate and remember the great work that this outstanding artist and scholar undertook.

In order to ensure the best access to Bain’s work, the museum created two exhibitions: a static exhibition within Groam House Museum in Rosemarkie, and a touring exhibition which visited five locations: Thurso, Wick, Helmsdale, Drumnadrochit and Kingussie. Both exhibitions were designed to feature fascinating insights into Bain’s work and the techniques he employed, including portraits, watercolours, etchings, and – importantly – his intricate Celtic designs. There were also examples of Bain’s `work in progress’, showing the various stages of design development.

The George Bain Highlands 2007 project has been made possible through the financial support of the following organisations: Highland 2007, The Highland Council, HIE Inverness and East Highland, the HIE network, Awards for All, Cromarty Arts Trust, the Caithness British Association for the Advancement of Science, and Walker Metalsmiths, USA.