The Artist

Phoebe Anna Traquair: 1852-1936

Born in County Dublin, Phoebe Anna Moss attended art and design classes at the Royal Dublin Society. On completion of her studies she was introduced to the palaeontologist Dr Ramsay Heatley Traquair, the Society’s natural historian, as a potential illustrator for his research papers. They married in 1873 and moved to Edinburgh the following spring on his appointment to the Museum of Science and Art in Edinburgh (today’s National Museum of Scotland) as Keeper of Natural History. She continued to provide detailed illustrations for her husband’s research papers until his retirement. They had three children: Ramsay became an architect and a university professor at McGill University, Harry an Edinburgh ophthalmic surgeon and Hilda, a keen embroiderer, who emigrated with her family to Canada.

Her early studio art consisted of watercolours and embroidery. Always fascinated by many different cultures, she was equally inspired by medieval and Renaissance art, Pre-Raphaelite painting and classical sculpture. Her embroideries were stitched at home but from 1890 she also had a professional studio in Edinburgh’s West End where she illuminated her manuscripts, tooled leather book-covers and, after 1900, produced art enamels, all of which are regarded as among the finest of the British Arts and Crafts movement.

Mural painting was also important to her, with no fewer than four different Edinburgh buildings decorated between the mid-1880s and the start of the twentieth century. In 1880 the Edinburgh Social Union commissioned her to transform a former coalhouse into a tiny chapel of rest at the first location of the Edinburgh Hospital for Sick Children in Lauriston Lane (now Quartermile). This was painted in an eclectic mix of styles with echoes of Byzantine, Medieval, Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite art. Like all her art it was a personal response to a text, in this case the Bible. A commission for the Song School of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral soon followed. Its completion in 1892 made her name in London. In the mid-1890s a new Children’s Hospital was built at Sciennes in Edinburgh where the new chapel incorporated some transferred sections of mural from the first chapel.

Her final and most ambitious Edinburgh mural cycle was for the Catholic Apostolic Church (now the Mansfield Traquair Centre). It was negotiated by her first patron, the Edinburgh Social Union. She painted its walls in a decorative Italianate style from 1893 to 1901, and for the first time she received a professional fee.

Traquair worked part-time on the decoration, working only when the light was good. She was set a programme for the two largest wall spaces – the Worship of Heaven for the great chancel arch and the Second Coming of Christ for the west wall.

She painted scenes from the Old and New Testaments on the south and north nave walls and illustrated the journey of the spirit (interpreted as the Parable of the Ten Virgins) in the chancel side aisles. These were interpreted in a variety of styles and techniques.

Every single surface is covered with images of all kinds, humans and angels, animals and birds and patterns above all. She broadly mapped out the larger spaces but, in her details, tended to work freehand. By this time she had been inspired by the art of Renaissance Italy.

One distinctive feature, apart from the range of colour palettes and brushwork across the building, is the use of gilding on relief mouldings (gesso) for haloes, harps, trumpets and decorative borders. Saturated colour is found in the large areas and more delicate tones in the quieter sections.

Two final commissions were for murals in St Peter’s Church in the Nottinghamshire village of Clayworth (1904-5) and for All Saints’ Church, Thorney Hill in the New Forest (1920-22), the latter being completed when she was aged seventy. Critics wrote of her ‘modern’ colour and extraordinary imagination. Her crafts were displayed in Scotland and London and also internationally – she showed at the World’s Fairs held in Chicago (1893), Paris (1900) and St Louis (1904). Although highly respected, she was turned down for professional membership of the Royal Scottish Academy and was only elected an honorary member in 1920.

Phoebe Anna Traquair died in Edinburgh at the age of 84. For half a century her art disappeared from sight but a retrospective exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery at the 1993 Edinburgh International Festival revived her reputation and led to today’s worldwide appreciation of her remarkable art.

The chancel ceiling is stencilled and painted, probably by Andrew Hutton. It is thought the narrow centre section was designed by Traquair.

The Catholic Apostolic Church

Phoebe Anna Traquair