BACK in 1914, JD Fergusson (1874-1961) made designs for his lover’s Spring Ballet. Fergusson wrote at length about the idea, even suggesting music and choreography, although Margaret Morris had already chosen music from the work of Stravinsky. But rhythm and movement are vital to Fergusson’s work and they naturally imply music, as does his flowing design. It is a fluidity which, as we shall see, was thought of as a vital part of Celtic art.

JD Fergusson, costume design for Margaret Morris’s Spring Ballet, 1914

One might imagine a standing stone to be the ultimate in stasis. Immobile, scarcely even movable. But in many a legend, such stones are people and, if they do not move themselves, in many cases they record movement – the movements of the sun, the moon and the stars. Six weeks ago I wrote about a Jack Yeats coloured print of The New Ballad showing a ballad seller against a backdrop of mountains and beside a standing stone, a hero of independence and assertion in a wild landscape, proud, erect and striding forward. The image is full of motion. This week the standing stone and the person are in intimate union – and the person is female; the dancer Meg Morris to be precise, hence the painting’s punning title Megalithic.

JD Fergusson, Megalithic 1931

In this striking work of 1931, Fergusson adopted the same potent imagery as Jack Yeats. Fergusson’s lover, Margaret (Meg) Morris is placed, naked, beside a standing stone. Her breasts are strong and full, her mons pubis is emphatically without hair. Her right side is shaded, almost invaded by the shadow of the stone and its ogam inscriptions, of which more anon. She has been bathing and holds over her head a red and white bathing robe the belt of which, with its two securing rings, has been carefully draped over the phallic masculinity of the stone. After all, rhythm and movement are also embodied in love and the act of making love: as the title of the painting tells us, she and the stone are one. They are beyond history. But the significance of the standing stones continued well into Celtic culture and Gaelic legend and, as we saw last week, Morris and others such as Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde made use of it. So did the Pictish stone carvers whose work Fergusson described with joyous eloquence: “... the sculptor-painter is not Saxon, and rather or completely the opposite; he’s a pure highland Scotsman, definitely a Celt. He still has great sympathy with Celtic sculpture and on the Celtic crosses there are bosses, round shapes – half-spheres that express for him ‘Suns’, fullness, open eyes, women’s breasts, apples, peaches, health and overflow.”

There were plenty of precedents for this involvement with Celtic legend, society, history and art. Charles Rennie Mackintosh “was of course a Highlander” as Fergusson himself asserted, and (as Timothy Neat has pointed out) both Mackintosh and MacDonald made use of their personal clan symbolism. Fergusson came of Highland stock and stated: “I was born without a language – which perhaps was lucky for me. When I say it was lucky, I mean that I started with a Gaelic point of view, in a surrounding of English!” For him, his Celtic inheritance provoked him to review his own approach, involving an underlying philosophical sense of the interconnectedness of all things which he regarded as Celtic. Here he describes how he painted a portrait of Kathleen Dillon: “Looking at K[athleen Dillon] I soon saw that the hat was not merely a hat, but a continuation of the girl’s character, her mouth, her nostril, the curl of her hair – her whole character – (feeling of her) like Burns’s ‘love is like a red red rose’. So she like Burns again lighted up my jingle and I painted ‘Rose Rhythm’ – going from the very centre convolutions to her nostril, lips, eyebrows, brooch, buttons, background, cushions, right through. At last this was my statement of a thing thoroughly Celtic.”

This sense of Celtic pattern containing within it a strong awareness of formal ambiguity had a remarkable Scottish precedent. George Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel in their famous 1890 painting of The Druids – Bringing In The Mistletoe, made a dramatic use of form and design necessary to control such a powerful statement.

Henry and Hornel, The Druids – Bringing In The Mistletoe

We think of pattern as static, but that was never the case in Celtic art. We are subject to a dynamic environment and that is found throughout the formal structures incorporated into early Celtic design. As Carl Nordenfalk noted with respect to the Celtic art work of a thousand years ago in Iona’s most famous production, The Book of Kells: “More than any other style of decoration, with the possible exception of the fully fledged Moslem arabesque, Hiberno-Saxon art aims at kinetic effects.”

So in Henry and Hornel’s radical painting, the formal nature of which is often attributed to Japanese influence, we may also see a Celtic continuity, whether deliberate or instinctive. The same applies to their treatment of colour with special emphasis on the colour of the robes and with a use of gold. This was not fanciful Celtic Revival exaggeration, if we are to go by the descriptions of a thousand years ago: “In that fairy dwelling there is also a well which holds thrice fifty many-coloured cloaks, and in the corner of each many-coloured cloak is a gleaming brooch of gold.”

A many-coloured cloak in the form of a druidic robe finds mention in The Colloquy Of The Two Sages, which dates from between the Viking invasions and the ninth-century Sanas Cormaic – Cormac’s Glossary. The young druid Néde, who is studying in Scotland, hears a strange sound in the wave and casts a spell on it which reveals his father has died and the father’s druidic robe has been given to Ferchertne. We don’t know for sure what was “findruine” but almost certainly a brilliant silvery alloy, or possibly a tinned bronze. It was ranked next to silver in value and could be beaten fine enough for shoes to be made of it, so it could also work attached to fabric: “Three were the colours of the robe, to wit, a covering of bright birds’ feathers in the middle: a showery speckling of findruine on the lower half outside, and a golden colour on the upper half.”

The image of the many-coloured cloak has its biblical parallel with Joseph’s dream coat, but here is another early Gaelic description and the use of bird feathers and skins is again anything but biblical: “It is of skins of birds white and many coloured that the poet’s toga is made from the girdle downwards, and of mallards’ necks and crests from the girdle upwards to the neck.”

There are many descriptions of musical instruments and chessmen and even the bags in which they were carried as being elaborately and colourfully decorated, so we may accept Henry and Hornel at their face value. As for the people themselves, the expressions on the faces of the druids, their erect carriage, the steep perspective which brings them down from the woods accompanied by white oxen bearing the mistletoe; these elements are all fused together as perfectly as is the work of the two artists whose hands cannot be distinguished from the singularity of their purpose.

Fergusson was to refer to this Celtic love of colour years later in his Chapter Scotland And Colour in Modern Scottish Painting. When he painted Danu, Mother Of The Gods, in 1952, he painted a woman with a cloak and dress of many colours. But she is not standing at the portals of some great temple, and her dress is far from being classical or Egyptian. So who is she? She does not figure in Gaelic mythology either in Scotland or in Ireland. She is not even truly a name, for her name was extracted by scholars from another name Tuatha Dé Danaan, meaning the People of the Goddess Danu, or so it is thought. Did she give her name to the River Don and the River Danube? Does she mean flowing water? Is she really a goddess, or is she a queen? No matter. In Fergusson’s eyes she is magnificent, and she is magnificently dressed. Perhaps he had read Adomnán’s seventh-century story of Eithne’s dream. Eithne was the mother of Saint Columba and, during her pregnancy, had a vision of a robe “of extraordinary beauty, in which the most beautiful colours, as it were, of all the flowers seemed to be portrayed”. The robe recedes from her grasp and expands “until its width exceeded the plains, and in all its measurements was larger than the mountains and forests”.

JD Fergusson, Danu, Mother Of The Gods, 1952

It is just so that Danu stands in a mountainous landscape. Her up-raised forearms and hands allow the cloak to mirror the shapes of the mountain peaks behind her, and the pointed shapes of the trees which cling to the mountainsides. She is in the foreground, but she seems to be as tall as the mountains, whose rocks reveal many soft subtleties of colour. Her gesture and stance are those of peace and acceptance, the palms facing forward, one foot slightly in advance of the other, one thigh exposed from hip to toe, her smile kindly, though enigmatic. Behind the fork of her body is a blue loch, and the place of her vagina is a peacock blue-green, as though symbolising the relationship between earth and water as the source of fertility. As her dress falls from her hips, so its brilliant variety of colours breaks up into multitudinous fragments, like the flowers of the earth. She is, perhaps, wearing the cloak that Eithne so desired, except that Danu’s lineage is as old as the hills and long before Christianity.

In Fergusson, then, we are released from the necessity of establishing a lineage in accordance with biblical or Egyptian origins. The origin is the landscape and the goddess is our own.

One of the most overtly Celtic gestures in Fergusson’s work is his use of the “indigenous script of old Ireland” as he described ogam. In Megalithic the use of ogam seems to be purely symbolic – the same letter three times – and it is impossible to tell which one. But in his illustrations for Hugh MacDiarmid’s In Memoriam James Joyce he used the symbols for Joyce’s initials, substituting I for J and writing out both James Joyce and JD F in ogam. He placed a treble clef between James and Joyce in recognition of the huge role music played in Joyce’s work and also in MacDiarmid’s.

JD Fergusson, Frontispiece for MacDiarmid In Memoriam James Joyce, 1954

Fergusson’s Frontispiece for In Memoriam James Joyce may again represent the goddess Danu. She is largely made out of Celtic, pre-Celtic and musical symbolism. Her breasts and ovaries are spirals, her pubic hair is the letter R – its name in ogam being Ruis, meaning the elder tree from whose wood musical pipes are made. Her hips are nudged by shamrocks representing Ireland. Treble clefs (incorporating the spiral form) accompany her, and the letter I (J) – Iogh in Ogam – leads from her breast-bone to her navel. Iogh means the yew tree, which is one of the noble woods, and was also used by the Celts for making musical instruments. But though this imposing figure is made largely from symbolic elements, she is as physically alive as any of Fergusson’s nudes and she is there at the end of the poem as well as its beginning

Next week, Alan Riach will be delving into In Memoriam James Joyce. Music and mystery indeed, and a good deal else besides. Brave man! I can’t wait.