If you think of richly painted churches, their walls covered in religious murals, you probably think of the Sistine Chapel in Rome or Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. You don’t expect to find a building, its four walls decorated with scenes of heavenly bliss and the life of Christ, in Scotland, in Edinburgh’s New Town, opposite the Cask and Barrel pub, down from the gay district and up the hill from Tesco’s. Most Scottish religious art was destroyed in the Reformation. But the former Catholic Apostolic Church, now the Mansfield Traquair Centre, in Edinburgh was painted at the end of the nineteenth century by an Irish artist, a woman, who began her career in art as a scientific illustrator, drawing her husband’s specimens of fossil fish.
Phoebe Anna Traquair (1852-1936) was born Phoebe Anna Moss in Kilternan, south of Dublin. She came from a secure middle-class background: her father was a physician. She studied art with the Royal Dublin Society in the 1860s, which mainly involved drawing from life and plaster casts. Her husband Dr Ramsay Heatley Traquair (1840-1912) was a Scot but Professor of Zoology at the Royal College of Science in Dublin, and they met because he was looking for an illustrator; they married in Dublin in 1873.
They moved to Scotland in 1874 when was appointed keeper of Natural History at the Museum of Science and Art in Edinburgh (now the Royal Museum in Chambers Street). Settling at 8 Dean Park Crescent in Comely Bank, she began a conventional domestic life including three children, but she continued to illustrate her husband’s work and to paint watercolour and embroider – acceptable crafts for a middle-class lady. Edinburgh artistic culture in general was limited to polite portraits and landscapes, although there was a strong interest in antiquarianism. However, she became involved in more progressive literary and artistic circles, chiefly through art critic John Miller Gray who later became the first curator of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Gray was a former clerk who educated himself in art and was influenced by the writer and critic Walter Pater, who celebrated Renaissance and Romantic art and the importance of sensation and feeling.
Traquair developed her artistic career with book illustrations for Gray and his circle including poet Garth Wilkinson. She wrote to John Ruskin and in return for the loan of his books, she sent him some original works, including a illustrated manuscript of her own text The Dream, and they discussed Whitman. She worked more widely doing book covers, and in 1885 was commissioned by philanthropic body the Edinburgh Social Union to paint mural decorations for a chapel at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh. Other commissions followed, including murals for the Episcopalian St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh painted from 1889 to 1901. These murals established her style, which included a combination of Florentine-influenced religious figures and faces of contemporary friends and influences: St Mary’s includes David Livingston, William Blake, Cardinal Newman, Tennyson and Holman Hunt, as well as ordinary choirboys and parishioners. She began to paint in oils on canvas, and produced significant embroidery including the four-panelled The Progress of A Soul (1893-1901).
Her earlier murals led to her commission at the instigation of the Social Union to decorate the Catholic Apostolic Church in East London Street, Edinburgh. In the late 1890s and 1900s she broadened her artistic range further, making jewellery and painting furniture, as well as illustrating books including Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese and Dante’s La Vita Nuova. She painted a self-portrait in oils in 1911. There was another mural commission for Manners Chapel, All Saints Church, Thorney Hill, Hampshire in 1920-22, when she was almost 70 years old.
The Catholic Apostolic Church in East London Street was designed by Robert Rowand Anderson (also architect of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and a former employee of that maestro of the Gothic revival, George Gilbert Scott) and built in 1873-76. Beginning painting in spring 1893, she finished at the end of 1901: her murals cover large parts of all four walls of the large church. As well as paint, she used gilded plaster for halos, brass instruments, border decoration, and other details.
The largest scene is the west wall with the Second Coming, while the the great chancel arch shows an apocalyptic scene, the worship of heaven by the perfected church. The other walls illustrate biblical themes, including the creation of trees, beasts and humans; and events of Holy Week including the Last Supper, Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, and Passion.
As an organisation the Catholic Apostolic Church (whose members were known as Irvingites) was founded in the early 1830s, following outbreaks of speaking in tongues in the west of Scotland and London. It anticipated the imminent Second Coming of Jesus. It was led by Apostles who were considered carriers of the word of God; only they could appoint other high-ranking church officials. The last Apostle died in 1901 and since Apostles could only be appointed by other Apostles, no more were appointed.
The church became vacant in 1958, and the building deteriorated badly. Following a campaign in the 1990s it was saved, and restoration work on the church and murals carried out from 2000-2005. The building is now used as a wedding venue as well as housing voluntary organisations and occasionally opening to the public.
The worship of the Catholic Apostolic Church involved priests in brightly-coloured vestments, incense, and much music (very different to presbyterian Scottish traditions). Traquair responds to this with incredibly sensuous art full of rich colours. She also emphasises noise and music through the many musical instruments of the angels.
The painting shows her influences, such as Fra Angelico in the angels, e.g. his Annunciation where the angel has richly-coloured wings and a halo similar to Traquair’s. But although her murals appear very traditional in form (harking back to Italian Renaissance art), her art does not dwell on the pain and suffering of much Christian art. Instead the focus is on beauty and the redemption offered in paradise, God’s covenant with humankind indicated by huge rainbows. This appears to be simple, uplifting work, rendered through a huge amount of detail and a love of ornamentation and decoration. Flowers and foliage abound, as do flowing dresses, brightly-coloured angel wings, and geometric borders.
But although Traquair’s work often appears simple, much of it draws on complex literary sources which can help to understand the ideas behind her work. Her ideas are most fully developed in her embroidery Progress of the Soul, which draws from Walter Pater, William Morris, and others. Its four panels are based on Pater’s story of Denys l’Auxerrois in Imaginary Portraits, a version of the Greek story of Dionysus, a beautiful young male torn apart by his people and resurrected, Christlike. In this work, Traquair links Denys to music and the harmony of nature. He is finally rescued by an angel with a kiss (in a way that now seems highly homoerotic). The resurrection of Denys reflects her theme of the dead rising, reuniting with their loved ones, a search for union or wholeness.
This ideas of progress through earthly beauty to spiritual achievement was one side of a contemporary debate: on one side those who believed that beauty could fulfill a higher purpose, opposing those who saw beauty as an end in itself. In the latter camp were Pater and his disciples in the aesthetic movement of the late 19th century: A C Swinburne, Aubrey Beardsley, and Oscar Wilde. Pater’s only novel was Marius the Epicurean, which compared the pleasure-seeking Greek philosophy with Christianity. Traquair’s close friend John Miller Gray wrote a generally favourable review of the book, but he was not altogether in agreement with Pater. Gray suggested epicureanism was only a stage and “if we would preserve our spiritual health we must press onwards, and breathe the more bracing atmosphere of sterner upland places”.
In rejecting religion, for Pater a chapel was nothing but a beautifully painted box. It would not get you to heaven; you would remain within its four painted walls. But even without this sensualist philosophy, decoration was a big theme at the time: Traquair’s work coincided with a new interest in interior design that ran through the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau, and finds an echo in some modern installation art (such as Steven Campbell’s Of Form and Fiction.) Ruskin and Morris thought that attention to beautiful places and to craftsmanlike production could produce a better class of person; Traquair herself painted furniture including cabinets and a piano.
Her religious works are all temples to art: to painting and music and sensual enjoyment, with all their images of musicians and poets and their rich vivid colours. The myths of Dionysius and Cupid and Psyche seemed to offer a way for sensuous love to lead to spiritual goals, uniting secular passion and the divine. Yet the paradox is that the more beautiful is the worldly, the less inclined we are to seek anything else. Although Traquair seems to be a great religious artist, it is nearer the truth to say she was a great sensualist.
Phoebe Anna Traquair, interior of Catholic Apostolic Church, East London Street, Edinburgh, 1893-1901, paint and gilt on plaster. (Photographs by the author).