I have been reading Iona Celtic Art by E. Mairi MacArthur, since I got hold of a copy thanks to Steve Walker of Walker Metalsmiths.
When I first took it out of its wrapper I just flicked through the pages.As a chaser and repousse worker myself I could fairly smell the pitch emanating from the pages as I looked at piece after piece of chased work produced by Alexander Ritchie and his workers.
The book is about the work of Alexander and Euphemia Ritchie.
Alec, as he was known, was a seaman who met with an accident and through no fault of his own was reduced to landlubber status.
However, Alec was no slouch and he secured for himself the job of custodian and guide to the antiquities of Iona.This being a summer job, he decided to attend the Glasgow School of Art, in the off season period, where he was to meet his future wife to be Euphemia Thomson.
They tied the knot pretty lively, and as well as marrying one another they decided to marry their two main interests, the antiquities of Iona and their arts and crafts activities.
In jig time they had their new enterprise off the ground. Euphemia, I gather from the book, was in charge of art and design.
Alec, who came from a long line of enterprising and resourceful people and was the hands on man, woodcarving, jewellery making, and chasing were his thing.
The range of goods they decorated with motifs from Iona was phenomenal.
The Ritchie’s were not only inspired by the early Celtic heritage of Iona, but allowed all the artefacts on the island to speak to them.
It’s a slim beautiful book, all my family have remarked on the quality of the photographs, both colour and black and white.
My son Ciaran liked the the pieces with the boats, especially the pendant on page nine and the pill box on plate 18-no. 18c. My favourites, were the alms dish on page 20 and the shield on plate 23-no. 23e.
On plate 10, two pieces took my fancy 10a a leather purse made by Mrs Ritchie and an embroidered piece no. 10b.
I also liked a lot the penannular brooch on page 28- 4d. There is also on page 33 a silver encased Molucca bean that Ritchie made for his wife, these beans known also as 'Mary Beans' are carried by the sea from the West Indies, and washed up on the West coast of Scotland. The work on page 27 photo 3a showing the floral work peculiar to the island, looks terrific to me.
There are as well as the photos seven pages of black and white drawings of Ritchie pieces drawn by Iain MacCormick, a man who walked in the footsteps of Alec Ritchie.
Some of The large Celtic pendants look like Celtic Ashbees, and E. Maria Mac Arthur makes the point that not all of the work is of the same quality, it would have been impossible for Ritchie to have made
all the the work himself, and it’s just a fact of life that some people do better work than others.
Iona is a place I have heard about forever without knowing much about it, if anything. I know a little bit more now.
I am pleased to learn it has a golf course. I was also struck by mention of famine in 1846 and the drift of tenant farmers off the land. Iona in that sense still has a lot in common with Ireland. I would also like to know more about the poetess Mary MacPherson the crofters champion, mentioned in the book.
All human life is in the book from the squabbles that Alec had with the local jeweller to his annoyance with people he considered were being unduly inspired by Iona Celtic art.
There is also a chapter on the legacy of the Ritchie’s, and the people they inspired and the employment that is still being created because of the Ritchie’s lead.
John Hart gets a mention, I say this because I know John, a quite gentleman, he once invited me over to sail around the Western Isles of Scotland, I'm sorry now I did not go.
The book is also a love story that ends with Alec and Euphemia dying within two days of each other and being buried on the same day.
I had never heard of the Ritchie’s until I met Steve Walker, who, it has to be said, gets a fair few mentions in this book.
Now, I feel after reading this book, that I have been formally introduced to the two of them.
The book can be purchased at the following links: