The George Bain Collection
George Bain 1881 - 1968
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.
The George Bain Collection - a Recognised Collection of National Signifiance
Groam House Museum acquired the initial stunning collection of original Celtic artwork by George Bain through donations from the Bain family in 1998. Groam House Museum has expanded and developed this collection by seeking additional donations from the family and other individuals, and sought out and purchased one example of Bain’s only manufactured design item - a Celtic ‘Hunting Rug’. Owing to lack of funding and the ability to purchase at short notice the museum has missed several purchase opportunities.
The collection largely comprises works of art on paper, primarily his Celtic teaching aids and designs for commissions, but it also includes metal printing plates, etchings, lino blocks and prints from the blocks, textiles, embroidered tea cloths, a hand-knotted carpet, manufactured rugs, carved and decorated woodwork and sculptures, decorated ceramics, jewellery and leatherwork together with his supporting archive of printing proofs, correspondence and photographs. The Groam House Museum collection is unique - no other UK museum (national or regional) has invested in the work of George Bain.
Groam House Museum is developing the Bain collection with financial assistance from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Research is being carried out into what items of Bain’s are still in existence and are potentially available for purchase, allowing the museum to identify gaps in the collection, and also identify which areas of the current collection need to be developed. Research into what important items of Bain’s work exist and would benefit from collection, preservation and conservation is also under way. The Directors and curator are particularly interested in his work in carpet design, as this represents the only commercially-produced element of his design work. Their plans of working towards establishing a comprehensive and nationally-recognised collection which would represent and preserve the diverse range of Bain’s work succeeded in November 2013 when Museums Galleries Scotland formally recognised the collection as having National Significance. For more information about the award please click here.
Items in the collection which are in storage can be seen by appointment with the museum (click here for contact details).
Groam House Museum embarked on the ambitious George Bain exhibition project as part of Highland 2007, Scotland’s year of Highland cultural celebrations. The Highland 2007-sponsored 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.
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 touring exhibition was tailored to suit the context of each of the locations it visited. For example, the exhibition in Drumnadrochit reflected Bain’s contribution to life in the local community and his efforts during this time to establish a College of Celtic Cultures.
In addition to the touring exhibition, Groam House Museum organised a comprehensive programme of workshops and lectures, offering two workshops in each location to primary schools and an evening workshop for the general public. The general aim of these sessions was to pass on the basic principles of Celtic art as defined by George Bain’s original techniques and teachings. The workshops were led by Burgess and Fiona Hay, professional artists who, like Bain, have devoted a great deal of their careers to the study of authentic Celtic techniques.
The programme of exhibitions and activities was complemented by a lecture on the life and work of George Bain. The lecture was programmed to take place in each of the exhibition locations and was delivered by Susan Seright, then Curator of Groam House Museum. Susan played a key role in the acquisition of the Bain Collection. Through her research of Bain’s work and connections with his family, she became a principal expert in this field. Her booklet on the life of George Bain is available for purchase from the Museum Shop in Rosemarkie and online (please click here).
visited the following locations during 2007:
- Swanson Gallery, Thurso: 23 February – 24 March
- St. Fergus Gallery, Wick: 31 March – 21 April
- Iona Gallery, Kingussie: 28 April – 26 May
- Glenurquhart Community School: 26 June - 22 September
- Timespan Museum and Gallery, Helmsdale: 29 September - 27 October
The George Bain H2007 project was 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.