Celtic Revivals and Reappropriations in Art and Books [2016]

For: The Celtic Revival: Authenticity and Cultural Identities,

British Museum, Sat 16- Sun 17 Jan 2016

Celtic Revivals and Reappropriations in Art and Books 1760 – 1955

Murdo Macdonald


I give context to the Celtic Revival art of Scotland around 1900 by situating it with respect to earlier and later work, both in Scotland and elsewhere. At the core of the paper will be attention to Mary Carmichael’s work for Carmina Gadelica (published in Edinburgh in 1900) and the cultural activism of her daughter, Ella. The start date of 1760 marks the publication of the first elements of James Macpherson’s Ossian. That work became a key driver of northern European traditional cultural revival. Little known explorations of Ossian by J M W Turner in London in 1802 and Luigi Zandomeneghi in Venice in 1817, will be noted. 1955 is taken as the end point because it marks the publication of J. D. Fergusson’s Celtic influenced illustrations for Hugh MacDiarmid’s In Memoriam James Joyce, which will be considered in relation to George Bain’s remarkable Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction issued in 1951 by the same publisher, William MacLellan. A key concern will be the interdependence of revivalism and modernism. ]

The publication of James Macpherson’s Ossian in the 1760s kick-started not only the Celtic Revival but also European Romanticism. However due to the complexities of British cultural politics the importance of Macpherson’s work, both in Scotland and in England has been underplayed, not least with respect to the visual arts. Images by high profile artists played a part in Ossian from the publication of Fingal in 1762, onwards. The title page image is the work of Samuel Wale, who was founder member of the Royal Academy in 1768, and became its first professor of perspective.
The publication of Fingal in 1762 had an immediate impact in Europe. The first Italian translation, was dated as early as 1763. It was made in Venice by the Paduan scholar Melchiorre Cesarotti. His Poesi di Ossian became one of the foundation texts of modern Italian literature, a point of which I became strongly aware when I was invited to study Ossian in Padua in 2013. From a visual point of view, Cesarotti was well served by the Venetian engraver Antonio Baratti, who converted Samuel Wale’s small title page image into a full-page frontispiece. Cesarotti’s translation created the context for an enduring Italian interest in Ossian. Of particular interest is a set of Ossian images published in Venice in 1817. It is by Luigi Zandomeneghi who was a student of the neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova. On the one hand Zandomeneghi’s work is a stylistic precursor to the Celtic revival of the 1890s. For example his treatment of Malvina, the lover of Ossian’s son, Oscar, has much in common with that of John Duncan treatment in 1895. On the other it is very much of its own time and place, showing the influence of Flaxman’s illustrations to Homer and Dante made in Rome a decade before. Mention of Flaxman leads me to note that as a student at the Royal Academy in about 1780 he had taken an interest in Ossian. He shared that interest with many in the visual arts community in London of the time.

In this context I particularly want to mention an early work by J M W Turner, whose contribution to Ossian is little known, primarily because the painting in question has been misidentified for about two hundred years. This is Turner ‘lost’ Ossian painting from 1802 ‘Ben Lomond Mountains, Scotland: The Traveller — Vide Ossian’s War of Caros.’ In collaboration with the Turner scholar Eric Shanes, I identified this work in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in 2013. Turner’s landscape approach has a wider context for it is part of a response to Ossian in terms of spirit of place, that includes the work of Thomas Cordiner, Joseph Aton Koch, Thomas Girtin and John Sell Cotman. I don’t have time to explore either the British interest in Ossian or the European dimensions further here, but the latter are alluded to in the exhibition not least through the presence of the Danish painter Nicolai Abildgaard’s remarkable Ossian Singing, which dates from about 1780. Some indication of present academic interest in such matters will be found in the forthcoming Ossian issue of the Journal of Eighteen century studies. I explore there some of the European issues at more length, not least with respect to Girodet oen of whose Ossian drawings from about 1795 is shown here.

The continental European response faded in the second half of the nineteenth century. However in Scotland bardic imagery continued as a part of the response to the works Walter Scott, James Hogg and Robert Burns. Consider the title page of The National Burns from 1879. The reference is specifically to Ossian, rather than to a generic bard. That date of 1879 takes us close to the period – the 1890s – that we often refer to as the Celtic Revival proper, at least in so far as art is concerned. What is meant in this sense by ‘Celtic Revival’ is the specific re-use of Celtic visual style from earlier periods. For example such use in an endpaper by John Duncan’s student Helen Hay. It dates from 1896 and was made for the centenary edition of Ossian published by Patrick Geddes and Colleagues.

That, of course, begs an interesting question. When was Celtic work of earlier centuries sufficiently well represented and published to be of use to artists for purposes of revival? To answer that in terms of Scotland one again finds oneself looking at material relating to Ossian, in particular the Report of the committee of the Highland Society of Scotland appointed to inquire into the nature and authenticity of the works of Ossian, which was published in1805. The frontispiece has a number of images of initial letters reproduced to a reasonable level of accuracy, and then hand coloured. This report is one of the foundation documents of the Celtic Revival in art. One of the letters was re-used by John Francis Campbell at the conclusion of his Popular Tales of the West Highlands, published in 1862. A further point of interest about that book is that – citing Owen Jones – Campbell used it to assert Celtic Art as an autonomous category. Some years before, in 1851, in his Archaelology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, Daniel Wilson had devoted a substantial passage to Celtic Art beginning with prehistoric work and extending into West Highland work of the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Wilson was a professionally trained artist as well as an academic and many of the images published in his book, for example the Hunterston Brooch, are from his drawings. However my primary interest here is the cover of the book – which may also be Wilson’s work – is an intriguing early example of Celtic Revival design in mass production. A decade after Wilson’s publication, John Francis Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands was published. Campbell was a competent artist also, so, as in the case of Wilson, the cover may have been his own design. This is a further example of early Celtic Revival design. It derives from a work of the West Highland School of sculpture, most likely dating from the fifteenth century. That particular stone is lost, so far as I know, but one can consoder one from Keil in Morvern to give an idea of Campbell’s source.

There is a second initial letter that appears in the frontispiece for the 1805 Report, to which I want to draw attention. It was reused in a work which is the pivot of my paper today, namely Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica / Ortha nan Gàidheal, published in 1900. This was the most important book of Gaelic scholarship of the period, and is at the same time a triumph of book production. It has a central place here because it is an outstanding example of reappropriating Celtic art for its cultural of origin, in this case the Scottish Gàidhealtach. The initial letters and other images in Carmina Gadelica are the work of Alexander Carmichael’s wife, Mary Frances MacBean. One can see another example of the direct relationships between Mary Carmichael’s designs and much earlier Celtic work in her use of initial letters from the tenth century Book of Deer, as we see here. Mary Carmichael took these designs, understood their principles of construction and made alterations to suit the purposes of her husband’s text. Also relevant to the wider decoration of Carmina Gadelica was the record of Pictish engravings published in volume two of John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland in 1867. It includes several pages of Pictish symbols a number of which correspond to the Pictish decorations which divide sections in Carmina Gadelica.

It is worth remembering here that in 1856 Owen Jones had introduced his visual definition of Celtic Ornament with a full page illustration of a Pictish work, namely a stone cross slab at Aberlemno some twenty miles north of Dundee. It’s not a bad image but the drawing is far from accurate. In his classic book Methods of Construction of Celtic Art published in 1951 George Bain shows how it should be done, and in the process castigates earlier efforts, including that of Jones, to do justice to the spiral heart of the cross.

One of the influences George Bain acknowledges is John Duncan whose Riders of the Sidhe painted in 1911 made a spectacular conclusion to the British Museum exhibition. Duncan was from Dundee and would have had easy access to the numerous Pictish works in the vicinity. As he developed as an artist he became part of Alexander Carmichael’s milieu in Edinburgh. This is clearest of all in his use of Carmichael’s daughter Ella as the model for his image Anima Celtica. There could be no more appropriate model than Ella for the soul of the Celt, for she was to follow her father’s footsteps as a Celtic scholar of great note. The image was published in Patrick Geddes’ magazine, The Evergreen in 1895. I have discussed its significance elsewhere but I would not have been aware of Ella Carmichael’s role were it not for the sharp eye of the Edinburgh University Celtic scholar Abigail Burnyeat. Here we see [image to come] Abigail herself in front of Duncan’s Riders of the Sidhe, the occasion being the ‘The Celtic Revival in Scotland’ exhibition in Edinburgh in 2014. Beside her is Donald William Stewart, who heads research into Alexander Carmichael at the University of Edinburgh. In that exhibition we endeavoured to bring together paintings by John Duncan with publications relevant to the circles of Alexander Carmichael and Patrick Geddes.

Although its not my focus in this paper there is, of course, a strong Irish connection here, to which I can at least draw attention via a portrait of Ella in her early thirties made in Dublin by John Butler Yeats. It was used as the frontispiece to volume three of Carmina Gadelica, which Ella edited. Elsewhere I have described Anima Celtica as ‘a visual manifesto of the Celtic revival in Scotland’. But it is important to see its wider context. Duncan’s focused Scottish Celticism is complemented in the same issue of the Evergreen by a work commissioned by Patrick Geddes from the French artist Paul Serusier. It is entitled Pastorale Bretonne, and it in turn complements translations from Breton literature published in the magazine. This outward looking Pan-Celtic dynamic unites Scottish, Irish, Cornish, Manx, Welsh and Breton material in the Evergreen. Such an international perspective is fundamental to any understanding of the Celtic Revival in Scotland. But it doesn’t stop at Brittany for it is part of a wider global network of cultural revivals, not least in India, where pan-Celticism links to a pan-Asian dynamic. Indeed in the late 1930 one finds a report of John Duncan making teaching images of the life of Buddha for the Ananda College in Sri Lanka. A significant figure in this Indian cultural revival was Patrick Geddes’ friend, the Irish-born, Bengal-based Hindu Revivalist Margaret Noble, better known as Sister Nivedita of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda. Like Geddes she was a strong advocate of cultural revival in the visual arts. Indeed John Duncan’s Anima Celtica shares a great deal with one of the key images of the Bengali revival, painted by Sister Nivedita’s friend, Abanindranath Tagore in 1905. That image is Bharat Mata, or Mother India. Again one sees a female personification of culture invoking the significance of the past as the foundation of the future. Another figure who must be noted here is the cultural activist and historian of Indian art Ananda Coomaraswamy. He was a friend of both Geddes and Nivedita, and had a strong interest in Celtic culture throughout his career. On Nivedita’s untimely death in 1911 Coomaraswamy took over the writing of her book, Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists. That publication was beautifully illustrated by Abanindranath Tagore and his students. If one needs a documented link between Duncan, Nivedita and Coomaraswamy, it comes in Patrick Geddes’ Masque of Ancient Learning, published in 1913, in which he refers to all three. That book also contains a detailed description of the Riders of the Sidhe, not as a painting but as part of a pageant.

When John Duncan painted Riders of the Sidhe in Edinburgh in 1911 he had just returned from Paris where he had been the guest of the Scottish colourist artist J D Fergusson. Fergusson was strongly influenced by Bergson’s ideas of rhythm and some of this seems to have rubbed off on Duncan, for Riders of the Sidhe is by far his most deliberately rhythmic painting. Indeed Fergusson’s Les Eus (begun in 1910) and Duncan’s Riders of Sidhe although superficially dissimilar, share a great deal in their high colour, their symbolist approach to landscape and their frieze-like compositions. In his book Modern Scottish Painting published in 1943, Fergusson claimed Celtic art as a foundation of his own painting, and his friendship with John Duncan supports that assertion. Taking this further in 1955, Fergusson made his own brand of Celtic-modernism explicit in his illustrations for Hugh MacDiarmid’s In Memoriam James Joyce. There he makes use of the old Celtic Ogham alphabet. The key point for me here is that both Modern Scottish Painting and In Memoriam James Joyce were published by William MacLellan of Glasgow, whose productions were characterised by both Celtic Revival and Modernist designs. Complementing Fergusson’s modernism, the MacLellan list includes work by the visual analyst of Celtic art, George Bain, whose work critiquing Owen Jones I have already mentioned. Bain published his visual thinking in booklets from 1943 onwards and these have set the scene for the numerous Celtic design books of the present.

Bain’s aesthetic achievement has stood the test of time. His publications are works of art in their own right. One person who was well aware of Bain’s work was Ananda Coomaraswamy, by then Keeper of Oriental Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and in the preface to his major book from 1951 Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction Bain makes a point of mourning Coomaraswamy’s passing, further underlining the Celtic-Indian linkage. In the 1950s Bain also contributed to the MacLellan-published journal, Scottish Art and Letters, which unites Celtic Revival and modernist work in its content. J D Fergusson was art editor and designed the covers. Thus as a publisher William MacLellan continued the complementarity of Celticism and Modernism that has its roots in the publications of Patrick Geddes and Colleagues in the 1890s. It is to that period that I return for my conclusion.

I have already mentioned Helen Hay’s endpaper for the Geddes and Colleagues 1896 edition of Ossian. Her title page for the same work is also of note. I wonder if J. D. Fergusson had a copy? He certainly had a copy of Ossian in the Tauchnitz edition, which he acquired in Nice in 1914. Helen Hay’s work is leading to the fluidity of design of her colleagues in the Mackintosh group in Glasgow, not least that of the book designer Talwin Morris, here represented by a book cover design from about 1906. Morris’ elegant reinterpretation of the Celtic Cross, in a way that unites reference to sun, moon and water, is for me a high point of Glasgow Style book design. It is worth bearing in mind that Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s first executed design was also a Celtic Cross. Mackintosh’s work is in the Necropolis of Glasgow and it dates from 1888. Unfortunately it was badly damaged by vandalism some years ago but it has now been partially restored. That damage must serve a reminder of just how important it is not to neglect such Celtic Revival crosses, which exist in graveyards throughout the world. We must recognise the significance of those grave markers. They include the brilliant terracotta work of Mary Watts at Compton in Surrey. At the other end of the Great Glen from Mary Watts’ childhood home near Inverness, is Kilmallie near Fort William. There one finds a Celtic Cross memorial to the Gaelic poet Mary MacKellar. It was carved by McGlashen of Edinburgh soon after the poet’s death in 1890, and is of particular interest here for in it we see Celtic art re-appropriated by its Gaelic speaking culture of origin, just as is the case in Carmina Gadelica.

Or, as we see here, [image to come] in the graveyard at Cille Choirill, near Roy Bridge in Lochaber. And with that message of Celtic visual culture dating back well over a millennium, being reintegrated with the wider Highland Gaelic linguistic culture of late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I conclude.