A discussion about the provenance of the Rose Mooney or Carolan harp which is owned by the National Museum of Ireland, prompted some thoughts about the decorative finial on the tops of the forepillars of the old Irish harps. I thought it might be interesting to line them all up to see if there were patterns or groups.
Karen Loomis discovered the presence of mercury in the red pigment on the Queen Mary harp, when she did X-ray fluorescence analysis in 2010. This pretty much confirms that the pigment is vermilion, a mercury sulphide compound.
Karen reported that only the pigment on the curved body of the fish on the forepillar indicated mercury; the pigment on the flat panels of the forepillar contained no mercury. A rendering of the CT-scan data printed in her Galpin Society Journal article (vol LXV, 2012, p.166) shows high-density spots in the crevaces between the interlace of the fish shoulders, and also around the fish eye.
As soon as Karen told me about this I thought of re-painting my replica. Continue reading Vermilion
I often hear the opinion that decoration on a new harp is a kind of decadent luxury, unnecessary, a bit of an affectation. And when decoration is applied to a replica harp, it is often somewhat simplified, or sketchy, or partial.
After I finished the Trinity College harp neck decoration sheet, I thought again about the issues surrounding this type of art, considering the sketchy and approximate versions of this scheme that we have seen up to now even on the best copies of the harp.
I am halfway through preparing a sheet, laying out the decorative scheme of the neck of the Trinity College harp.
I thought of doing this two years ago, when I did my scheme for the pillar, but I never got round to it until now.
I will eventually put both the halves together in one sheet, and publish it on Early Gaelic Harp Info, but for now you can get a sneak preview of the left side.
For a very long time I have been interested in the symbolism of the animals on the forepillar of the Queen Mary harp. In their book Tree of Strings – Crann nan Teud, Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird discuss these animals, suggesting that they may have religious symbolism: “We have examined the possibility of the designs having some family or clan significance but they do not seem to have any apparent links”
Two years ago to the week, I had my HHSI Student Downhill harp here in preparation for using it for a concert – my Carolan, Connellan and Lyons programme which I played outside in the Botanic Garden. While the harp was here I carved the lettering on the forepillar, and gilded the carved letters.
This week the harp is again at my house, as I am going to use it for my Lament for the Union concert next week. And so how could I resist continuing my very protracted programme of decorating the instrument?
As well as some subtle painted highlights, today I carved the lettering for the poem on the soundbox. I traced my photograph of Cormick O’Kelly’s original 18th century poem, but I changed the lettering to be relevant to me and to this particular instrument. I like the idea of changing the poem – like how a modern harpsichord maker puts a replica Ruckers or Blanchard rose in the soundboard of their replica harpsichord, but replaces the old master’s initials with their own.
I was originally planning to gild this lettering but now that it is finished, because the letters are significantly smaller than the gilded forepillar ones, and because there are so many more of them, I decided I liked them natural wood. The poem is quite hard to read with all the ligatures and the crowded capital letters with few word spaces. I think it gives a subtle lift to the whole instrument.
I love it when ancient things have inscriptions on them, it is a kind of literature, and it is also a kind of direct communiaction between the thing and ourselves, more direct than we usually get with archaeological objects where the comminication has to be inferred or reconstructed. I am very pleased to have captured a little of that atmosphere and ambience on my harp now, even though it is not actually an ancient harp or even an ancient text – nonetheless it is like the harp is speaking directly to us.
I was also struck by the final 2 words of the poem: “call me”, like the monster in The Forest.
Following on from the interlace on the caskets I posted yesterday, here is a whalebone gaming piece found in a cave on the isle of Rum. The Museum suggests it is 15th or early 16th century.
Again the style of the interlace carving is reminiscent of the pillar carving on the Trinity and Queen Mary harps – the interlace in low relief over and under against a recessed ground, tightly knotted, with parallel incised stripes emphasising the turn of the ribbons. Compare especially this panel on the Trinity harp forepillar:
The gaming pieces is a bit wobbly in its execution, but then so too is the interlace on the Trinity harp. However the thing about the gaming piece that really got me is the weird asymmetry. I have rotated my photo to show it with the axis of symmetry vertical, however it does not have a horizontal symmetry. The pattern of the top half is quite elegant and interesting, but if mirrored in the bottom half it would not give a single endless line. Perhaps the artist saw this and made one fewer edge loops, so crossing over two of the ribbons. However this also has the effect of creating two closed circles in the lower half. We see similar closed circles on the Trinity pillar. Look at how the end circles on the trinity pillar do not close but loop back on each other. This is similar to how the two circles in the upper half of the gaming piece are not closed.
I have to say that no matter how I turn and manipulate the gaming piece in my mind, it is not as elegant a composition as the panel on the Trinity harp pillar!
In the National Museum today I looked at the two whalebone caskets. They are about 15th century in date, from the West Highlands – similar caskets appear on the stone slabs such as the one from Keills, and it has been suggested that the caskets were used to store documents such as charters and land-grants.
I was interested to look at the interlace panels; they seem similar to the interlace on the Trinity College harp forepillar. There is also some similarity with the small sections of interlace on the Queen Mary harp forepillar.
I was in the NMS yesterday and amongst other things I looked at the shrine of the Guthrie bell. This is a medieval silver confection which encases an early medieval iron bell – no-one seems to know which early saint the bell belonged to, but the silver decoration was made and applied in the West Highlands in mid-late medieval times.
My photo shows a late 15th or early 16th century figure of a West Highland bishop, and beside him some embossed silver panels of decoration which are a good match of the forepillar vines on the Queen Mary harp. The inscription is upside down and says “Iohannes Alexan/dri me fieri fecit”. I am not sure who John mac Alex was, though these are common manes amongst the Lords of the Isles who are likely patrons for the remodelling of the shrine in the late 15th century.