Gross travesties of Pictish art

After I finished the Trinity College harp neck decoration sheet, I thought again about the issues surrounding this type of art, considering the sketchy and approximate versions of this scheme that we have seen up to now even on the best copies of the harp.

George Bain’s book Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction, was published by the progressive Glasgow publisher William Maclellan in about 1945, around the time that Maclellan was also publishing Somhairle Mac Ghill Eathains astonishing modernist collection of poetry, Dain Do Eimhir agus dain eile. Bain’s aim was to explain the structure of the artistic style, of the interlace, the “key patterns” i.e. meandering lines, and the spirals.
Bain plate NMy illustration here is plate N from Bain’s book, on page 74. Bain draws the design from the arm of the Aberlemno cross, and then also reprints two earlier attempts to draw it:

The above two examples show gross travesties of Pictish art in publications that have been the chief sources of information available to students and others in the libraries of the universities and art colleges of the civilised world, for the past fifty years.

Its notable that there are a lot more fully-decorated Queen Mary harp replicas, than Trinity College harp replicas. Of course this is because of the easy availability of R. B. Armstrong’s 1904 plates illustrating the Queen Mary harp’s decorative scheme in exhaustive detail. What is perhaps more shocking is that even the most respected contemporary harp-makers, when building a fully decorated Trinity College harp replica, should blunder as badly as Bain’s “travesties” when it comes to the decoration of the replica instruments. Perhaps I should not be too grumpy about it. Harp makers trying to replicate these instruments have a tough job – they have to try and replicate the work of master timber-wrights, sculpting huge blocks of wood hewn from the tree; they have to have the acoustic sensitivity of a master luthier to craft a responsive and subtle soundbox and pillar; they have to have the metalwork skills of a fine smith to make the subtly profiled and tapered tuning pins with intrictately decorated drives; the superlative jewelers’ crafting of the gem-settings with their silver mounts; the fine touch of a sculptor to handle the incredibly delicate incised and engraved lines on the decoration; a sensitive and bold colourist to apply the pigment… I suspect that the ancient instruments would usually have been done by a team of such artists, each at the top of their game. So to criticise our modern harpmakers for not also having the graphic design eye of a top draughsman like Bain, is perhaps asking too much.

Anyway, we can only improve; I remember saying very early on in my studies that every reproduction of a historical Gaelic harp will be obsolete as soon as it is finished, such is the rate of progress in understanding the originals. And indeed, the act of making a replica to the highest standards possible today, will throw up questions that inform the research of tomorrow. So, let us back to work on the study and recreation of these astonishing examples of medieval craftsmanship.

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