The Lister List

Celtic Knotwork

On 16th November Mary Stansbury wrote asking about the book "Celtic Knotwork" by Iain Bain and whether it contained any origami. for some reason Amazon Books had included it in their list of origami books.

There have been several replies, but I thought that perhaps a fuller reply might be helpful.

I cannot think why Amazon thought fit to include "Celtic Knotwork" in a list of books on origami. In the literal sense, they were very wrong. But on the other hand, in another sense, perhaps they were more right than perhaps they realised.

I have several times previously in Origami-L referred to the "Origami Mind", meaning the sort of person who is attracted to origami. It may be difficult for an origami enthusiast to understand, but only a small proportion of people - perhaps a small proportion - are attracted to origami. The same people are likely to be attracted to a number of other subjects. They include, among other things, puzzles, string figures, knotting, conjuring, tangrams, tessellations, recreational mathematics. The essence of them appears to be structure based on mathematics, but not entirely so: there is in all of them an element of unexpected surprise.

Celtic artwork is based on complex interwoven (or knotted) strands. It develops with the elaboration of maze patterns, and the introduction of highly stylised letters, animals and human beings. It appeared in sculptured stonework, particularly in Celtic crosses, in metalwork enamels and woodwork, but the highest development of the style is generally considered to be in the art of illuminated manuscripts of the Celtic Church in Ireland and Northern Britain and in particular, the Book of Kells, which belongs to Trinity College, Dublin and the Lindisfarne Gospels, a book belonging to the British Library.

The style of interlacement was not confined to the Celts. It s origins can be seen in the La Tene culture in Europe. It was employed by the Anglo-Saxons of England and by the Vikings of Scandinavia . It appears occasionally in the art of later years. Even Leonardo da Vinci drew some very intricate knot patterns based on the same principle.

As a style of art, knotwork was almost forgotten by the 19th century and considered as something primitive and of interest only to antiquarians. One of these was J. Romilly Allen, who gathered together examples of the interlaced style and published several books on the subject. His work was seminal in reviving interest in the subject However, it was still not understood how the original artists managed to draw their extraordinarily complex designs. The first artist to break through the maze was George Bain, a Scotsman, who became interested in Pictish designs. (The Picts are now considered to he been a branch of the Celts.) He worked out the underlying principles of the patterns and in 1951, he published his "Celtic Art, The Methods of Construction" which covers the whole range of Celtic pattern. His work led to a strong revival of interest in the ancient patterns among graphic artists, perhaps reacting against the lack of formalism in contemporary art. One of the artists who has taken a particular interest in the style is Courtney Davis who has created his own patterns and designs and published several books containing his designs. He has also been in great demand as an illustrator of books on Celtic subjects.

George Bain's methods still left too much to intuition for some people and his work was taken up by his son Iain Bain, who had a career as a civil engineer. As he approached retirement , he became fascinted by his father's work and devised new techniques for drawing the interlaced patterns, especially using underlying grid patterns. His book, "Celtic Knotwork" was published in 1986. He has also written a sequel, "Celtic Key Patterns" published in 1983. Others who have taken up the task of giving instruction on the secrets of drawing Celtic patterns are Aidan Meehan who has written a whole series of smaller books and Andy Sloss.

The technique of Celtic patterns is no longer a mystery and with the revival of this beautiful art form, it has taken its place among the great variety of forms of art that surround us. Modern artists are unlikely to achieve the sublimity of the Book of Kells or the Lindisfarne Gospels, but their work is showing great inspiration partly within the Celtic Revival.

It was George Bain's book that led to Mary Stansbury's original query. There is really nothing in that book which could be considered to be origami, but it would be possible to use some of the techniques to create kirigami figures by folding the paper and then cutting out the interlaced patterns through the several layers.

The nearest paper technique to that of Celtic Knotwork is perhaps, paper weaving. Not long ago there was an enquiry about them in this List about woven paper fishes and animals, a technique found not only in the West, but also in the East. A study of the books on Celtic Knotwork might well be the source of inspiration for an a wider and more intricate development of paper weaving. But whether or not paperfolders find inspiration in Celtic knotwork designs, this is certainly a subject that will appeal to all who possess the "Origami Mind".

David Lister.

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