It is the unusual, out of the way things you might accidentally stumble across that make a visit to a famous city memorable. Edinburgh, like all great cities has it’s must see places, must go to events, its great houses and art galleries, its long turbulent history, royal and religious and of course the Castle, the Royal Mile, the Edinburgh tattoo and the finest International and Fringe festival in all the world.
We took a house, for the festival, in the Broughton district. It’s a little off the main city, to the east, close to Leith walk, but still full of those fine stone grey Edinburgh town houses. Across the road was a rather noble and superior looking grey stone church, incongruous and a little anonymous, sitting as it does on a busy roundabout. It turned out to be long de-consecrated. It had been a church of the Catholic Apostolic movement, zealous believers in the second coming, but it is now preserved as a Scottish heritage project know as the Traquair centre.*
It is a fine building, from a distinguished Scottish Architect,** but it is the interior that is most important and for which the building is now listed and protected, for it is adorned with over 500 square meters of the most beautiful religious murals.*** A touch of Italy in the Auld Reekie.
For me, one of the more exciting aspects of the murals, far too little known outside of Scotland, was that the artist was Irish.
I like to think I know a bit about Irish artists. I have a small collection of Irish works myself. But I know that I have much to learn and I must confess that I had never heard of this Irish artist, not a whisper of her name in Ireland. And she was a real revelation, for she is exceptionally well known in Scotland, exceptionally talented and in fact enjoys an international reputation.
She was Phoebe Anna Moss, born in Dublin in 1852, raised in County Wicklow, the daughter of a prominent Dublin Physician, she studied art and design at the Royal Dublin Society.
She was employed, in Dublin, by a Scottish paleontologist, Ramsey Traquair, then working at Dublin’s National History Museum, to illustrate his collection of fish fossils. They fell in love and married in Dublin, in 1873. A year later her husband was appointed Keeper of natural History at the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art and she left Dublin for ever. It was in Edinburgh that she made her name as a major, internationally recognised artist. One of her great admirers was W.B. Yeats who wrote of her, to Lady Gregory,
“Nearly all my time in Edinburgh I was absorbed in Mrs Traquair’s work and find it far more beautiful that 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 . . . I have come from her work overwhelmed, astonished, as I used to come long ago from Blake, and from him alone…”
She became a noted member of the Arts and Craft movement and the church murals, while clearly having an Italian influence in their concept, also display influences from among others Burne Jones, Rossetti and William Morris. I was particularly struck by the Morris like details she painted above the arched stone doorways.
By all accounts she was a feisty red headed Irish woman, but five foot tall and full of creative energy. It was she who simply approached the deacons of the church and told them she was going to paint their walls for them!
It took almost nine years, (between 1892 and 1901) to complete the work and for the Irish, the greatest interest will be her series of panels within the church narrating the parable of the wise and foolish virgins****
Here they are in all their glory, in one of the five virgin panels, being summoned by the Lord and clutching their famous oil lamps. Five of them, the wise virgins, carry containers of oil. The other five, the foolish virgins, have lamps but carry no oil.
The background landscape is unmistakably the hills of Wicklow, and who, in Ireland will fail to recognise the Sugar Loaf mountain
Henceforward, at least for me, these virgins, wise and foolish, will always be known as the wise and foolish Wicklow Virgins!
Let the trumpets sound:
* Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh EH3 6BB
** Robert Rowand Anderson (1834 – 1921) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Rowand_Anderson
*** Although the obvious Italian influence would suggest they are Frescoes it is more correct to describe them as murals. The Fresco technique involves applying pigment to a wet plaster surface whereas here, Mrs Ttarquaid has applied oil paint, diluted with turpentine, onto a hard dry surface prepared with lead white..
**** “Then the Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins, who took their lamps, and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. Those who were foolish, when they took their lamps, took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. Now while the bridegroom delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, “Behold! The bridegroom is coming! Come out to meet him!” Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise answered, saying, “What if there isn’t enough for us and you? You go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.” While they went away to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins also came, saying, “Lord, Lord, open to us.” But he answered, “Most certainly I tell you, I don’t know you.” Watch therefore, for you don’t know the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.” Matthew 25:1-13