Friday, 28 August 2020

Phoebe Anna Traquair by Adèle Geras

This is a self -portrait of the Scottish artist,  Phoebe Anna Traquair.  Until about eighteen years ago, I had never heard of her and when I mention her name, very few people in England know who she is. Although she was born in Dublin in 1852, she's associated with Scotland and in particular with Edinburgh where she lived with her husband, Ramsay Traquair, a professor of palaeontology  She is an artist of the most astonishing variety and as well as her murals, she illustrated books, designed jewellery and created the most beautiful embroideries. She died in 1936.
Many years ago, I received a Christmas card, with a beautiful image of angels on it. I made a note of Traquair's name, and of the fact that the image was from the Song School of a Cathedral in Edinburgh. And I put it in the box where I keep all images I can't bear to throw away. Then, in 2009, I was a speaker at the Edinburgh Literary Festival.
 To cut a long story short, we found the Catholic Apostolic Church. It is now a wedding venue called the Mansfield Traquair Centre and I do urge anyone who can to make every effort to see it in real life. 

When we visited, the place was quite empty. Only the building itself was there to wonder at. The walls were covered with most beautiful murals, illustrating for the most part, the story of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. I fell in love with Traquair's images at that point and determined to find out what I could about the woman who painted them.


Flash forward many years. Much happened. We moved to Cambridge. My husband died. I decided to write a different sort of novel under a pseudonym: Hope Adams. My first novel under this name, Dangerous Women, comes out from Michael Joseph (and Berkeley in the USA)  in February next year, and that's about the Rajah Quilt. I have written about it on this blog.


What I do in the Hope Adams books is: I superimpose a fictional story, invented entirely by me, on to what's known about a real artist. In the case of Dangerous Women, it was Kezia Hayter, and when I began thinking about what I could do next, my thoughts immediately turned to  Phoebe Anna Traquair.

I bought a book by Elizabeth Cumming, called  Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1852-1936,  published by the National Galleries of Scotland and in 2019, I made a trip with Helen Craig to Edinburgh and met Elizabeth, who showed us round the Mansfield Traquair Centre and told us  much both about the artist and the way she went about the work. She has been enormously helpful to me throughout the process so far and I'm very grateful to her.  Traquair was a small woman and used a scaffold to reach the enormously high spaces.  The thought of her, in her overall, and with her red hair bound up in a cap, covering that vast space with beautiful images was fascinating and moving. 

In the 1880s and 1890s, mural decoration was an art form much admired by the Art and Crafts movement. Traquair was part of a thriving artistic community in Edinburgh and beyond. 

Between 1885 and 1901  she worked on the decoration of three Edinburgh Buildings: the Mortuary Chapel of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, (later moved to a new hospital and repainted), the Song School at St Mary's Cathedral and lastly, the Catholic Apostolic Church in Mansfield Place.


This is an image from the Song School and when I saw it,  I recognised the scarlet-winged angels from that long ago Christmas card. 



I am now in the process of  working out my fictional story with which the work and life of this marvellous, under- recognised artist will be entwined. The title is there already, I think, though nothing is ever fixed till it's fixed. Her Scarlet Wings is what the book is called at this stage....I'm looking forward to spending the next few months with these images in front of my eyes. 

2 comments:

Caroline K. Mackenzie said...

What beautiful images and what a fascinating woman she must have been. I had not previously heard of Phoebe Anna Traquair but am now intrigued and shall make a note to visit those venues on my next trip to Edinburgh.

Your book sounds wonderful - how lovely that it all began with that Christmas card. Enjoy the next few months with those images and I look forward to reading 'Her Scarlet Wings'!

Celia Rees said...

Came v late to this but how extremely interesting! Thank you for sharing your next book with us all. I love books about artists and find them fascinating - women artists especially so, will really look forward to reading it, Adele!