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Issue 77 - Phoebe Anne Traquair

Scotland Magazine Issue 77
October 2014


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Phoebe Anne Traquair

Patricia Cleveland-Peck examines the life and work of a major talent in Scotland's artistic portfolio

The works of Phoebe Anne Traquair include some of the most vibrant and entrancing murals, paintings and embroideries to be seen in Europe. The claim that she was ‘Scotland’s first significant professional artist of the modern age’ is in fact justified even though she was an Irishwoman born in Dublin, because not only did she spend three quarters of her life in Scotland but the vast majority of her amazing body of work - her range is almost unique amongst artists - was created on Scottish soil. She is indeed one of the brightest stars in Victorian Scotland’s artistic firmament.

Phoebe Anna Traquair was born in 1852, one of seven children. Her father was a physician and she grew up in a comfortable middle-class family where she was particularly close to her elder brother William. Her artistic talent was recognised at an early stage and she went on to train in art with the Royal Dublin Society.

The course included copying from the antique; something for which she won an award – and finding a a husband, for it was this skill which provided an introduction to Scotsman Dr Ramsay Traquair, Professor of Zoology at the Royal College of Science, Dublin. They married when she was 21 and the following year, 1874, moved to Scotland when Ramsay was appointed to Edinburgh’s Museum of Science and Art. Three children were born to the couple and raising them occupied much of Phoebe’s time for the next few years but, as well as painting watercolours, she began working seriously at something she could combine with the duties of wife and mother - embroidery.

‘Art needlework’ was an important element of the Arts & Crafts Movement and the Pre-Raphaelite style immediately attracted Phoebe. She worked at developing not only stitches but also colour combinations which paid dividends for her future work. At the same time she was absorbing a great deal of literature and by 1887, maybe remembering The Book of Kells in Trinity College from her Dublin days, she began investigating the possibilities of illuminating manuscripts. This procedure, which she mastered, not only further honed her colour sense but also gave expression to her desire to give visual form to literary, and later, musical ideas. She was influenced by the illustrations of William Blake and also by the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who actually appears as a figure in her first public commission.

This commission (which brought her no payment, just the cost of the paint) was from the Edinburgh Social Union, whose aim was to bring art from the studio to the public. The rather sombre task was to paint murals on the walls of the mortuary chapel at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children. At this time, 1885, many children died in infancy and the ladies of the ESU committee wanted a suitable place where the bodies could ‘be left reverently and lovingly for the parents before burial.’ The building selected was in fact a small disused coal house, lit only from above but Phoebe completely transformed it into something glorious. Tellingly, a reviewer called it ‘a piece of illumination enlarged.’ Painted in gold and primary colours, the main panel showed the Virgin and Child surrounded by angels while flowers, inscriptions, more angels and figures covered the walls. The whole vividly symbolised redemption and the journey through life. When the hospital transferred to a new site, the mural were re-erected in the Traquair Room (which served the same purpose) but now their future is once more in the balance as this hospital is moving again and the site is due for disposal in 2017.

Phoebe had by this time found her place within the artistic circle of Edinburgh and her reputation was growing. In 1888, she received another public commission, (still unpaid) this time from the sub-Dean of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh who was also connected with the ESU. It was to decorate the Song School, a separate building where the choir practised (and still do.)

The theme chosen was Benedicte Omnia Opera, a canticle which celebrates Creation, and just after starting Phoebe paid her first visit to Italy where she was hugely impressed by the works of Fra Anglico, Botticelli and the early Tuscan painters; artists whose influence can be clearly seen in this work. Against backgrounds, some natural, depicting the Scottish Borders complete with flora, fauna and starry skies, and others showing Edinburgh castle and the cobbled streets, she painted not only Christ but massed images of real people – a sort of ‘Company of the Blessed’- as found in early Italian paintings. These figures included the clergy and choir of the Cathedral, artists and poets both living and dead and also the masons and craftsmen involved in building the Cathedral. Every face, even the singing angels, and there are many of them, is a portrait of a real person, friends and children she knew, and each has its unique expression. She even includes a self-portrait with the dates of start and completion of the project. Every surface is painted and the attention to detail is astonishing, in the panel The Winds of God for example, even the flowers are blown sideways. It is with great originality that Phoebe, using subjects, realistic and symbolic, Christian and secular, and depicting them in gold leaf and glorious colour, managed to reflect something of the Arts & Crafts style while at the same time giving them what was then considered a ‘modern’ treatment.

These Song School murals brought Phoebe further recognition and she received numerous commissions, including one for what is probably her pièce de résistance - the murals of the Catholic Apostolic Church, Edinburgh. This huge, cavernous building would have daunted a lesser artist but Phoebe saw it as the place in which she could explore her ideas of ‘making music visible’ and could not wait to tackle it - which she did in 1892. It would take her almost nine years to complete.

The church is now the Mansfield Traquair Centre and with the resulting murals recently restored and on view, it has been compared to the Sistine Chapel. Phoebe gave different areas in the church different treatments – where for example, candles were used on the altar, the ceiling has been heavily decorated with gold and silver leaf on gesso so that it would shimmer in the candlelight. Throughout the building scenes from the Old Testament, The Second Coming, The Creation, angels blowing trumpets, flowers, creatures and inscriptions all painted in glowing colours with gesso and gold leaf, create a vision of such power and loveliness that it is hard to imagine that this is the work of one tiny, slight woman.

For the first time Phoebe was given scaffolding, the chancel arch is 22 metres high- but even so the physical effort must have been enormous. That however, was not her chief worry. “I go to my church, mount my scaffolding and sit and groan for light…” she wrote to a correspondent. Her technique, perfected from the Song School, was to work out a broad scheme in advance and then to sketch the detail swiftly as she went along. She diluted her oil paints with turpentine and beeswax so that when they were applied to the base they were almost translucent, she kept the surfaces rough to add vibrancy and she finished each section with beeswax which she rubbed to a shine by hand.

During the time the Apostolic Church murals took to complete, Phoebe undertook several other works. One, which in some eyes rivals the murals as her master work, is a series of 4 embroideries. The Progress of the Soul which she created between 1893 and 1901 and which was shown at the World Fair in St Louis in America. Taking Water Pater’s story Deny l’Auxerrois, in which sorrow develops into delight and death to eternal life, she attempted to create an exquisite and flowing series, effectively stitching music into the fabric.

By the end of her life, Phoebe was a first-rate muralist, illuminator, embroiderer, easel painter, jeweller, and enameller. She had also successfully raised three children while at the same time letting nothing stand in the way of fulfilling her artistic aspirations.

“She was so sane, such a lover of simplicity and the things which give real lasting pleasure,” commented a contemporary, while the poet W. B. Yeats wrote of her work “Far more beautiful than I had foreseen – one can only judge of it when one sees it in a great mass for only then does one get any idea of her extraordinary abundance of imagination and enthusiasm. She has but one story, the drama of the soul… She herself is delightful, a saint and a singing bird…”

As often happens some years after death her work fell into obscurity but now her star is in the ascendant once again and her works are very collectable. Some, including The Progress of the Soul and the lovely triptych Motherhood are on show at the National Gallery, Edinburgh while her murals at the Song School and Mansfield Traquair Centre have been well restored and are available to the public at certain times.

St Mary’s Cathedral
Palmeston Place, Edinburgh
Tel: +44 (0) 1312 256 293
The Song School is still in use by the choristers but it opens to the public on request.

Phoebe Traquair Song School Murals Tours
Tours on request
11am – 11:45am & 12 Midday – 12:45pm • Free
Tours meet at the Cathedral entrance

Mansfield Traquair Centre
Mansfield Place, Edinburgh
The building is usually open on the second Sunday of each month, with a three week
period of extended opening during the
Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Open days for the current year are given on the website at

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