Postcard from Scotland: The Embroideries of Phoebe Anna Traquair
In Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, on the south side of Princes Street, you’ll find a classically designed building that is home to the Scottish National Gallery. I’ve visited the gallery many times over the years to see some of my favorite embroideries, The Progress of a Soul by Phoebe Anna Traquair.
Born in Dublin and trained as an artist, Phoebe Anna Traquair, and her scientist husband, settled in Edinburgh, and her work can be found in many places around the city. She is associated with the Arts and Crafts movement and was adept at many disciplines including: painting, enameling, jewelry making, and embroidery.
Once inside the gallery, I walk through the beautiful red-painted halls and past glorious artworks as I head for the stairs and the lift (elevator) at the rear. En route, Monarch of the Glen, a superb painting of a stag, brings me to a halt, but then I head on—I’m a woman on a mission!
That was when my plans were derailed; the stairs were blocked, and there was a notice stating that some exhibition spaces were being redeveloped. Disaster! A chat to one of the gallery staff revealed that the four large panels that make up Progress of a Soul were being rested in storage; although, it’s possible to make an appointment to see them at the Collection Centre in Granton, a suburb of Edinburgh. However, that was no good to me on that day. So I headed for the National Museum of Scotland, which was about a twenty-minute walk away. I knew that they had a display of work by Phoebe Anna Traquair.
At The Museum of Scotland, a lift took me up to the 5th floor, and at the back of the Design for Living Hall, I found what I was looking for—the three large panels of The Red Cross Knight. Each closely stitched panel measures about 75½ inches [192 cm] x 32½ inches [83 cm] and the colors were lustrous even in the dim museum lighting.
In her book about the artist, author and art historian Elizabeth Cumming wrote about these panels and described how when the panels for Progress of a Soul left home to be exhibited as part of the British display at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, Traquair decided to fill the void they left. The resulting triptych, The Red Cross Knight, was inspired by Edmund Spenser’s epic poem, “The Faerie Queen.”
The central panel, which was stitched first and probably completed within a year, depicts St. George slaying the dragon with Una kneeling in prayer in the background. The left-hand panel, which shows St. George (the Red Cross Knight) and Una riding in a landscape, wasn’t completed for a few years. At that point, it seems that Traquair ran out of steam, and it was to be another 7 years before the third and final panel was stitched with the assistance of her daughter, Hilda. Una, St. George, and even the angels with trumpets in the final panel all have red hair. Traquair herself had red hair, and the red hair became almost a trademark of her work.
Although Traquair’s embroidery started out mundanely, she made domestic items such as tray cloths and tea cosies, her stitched panels, which were also designed for her own home, took the craft to a whole new level and were exhibited internationally. All of the panels are embroidered on linen in colored silks and gold thread using a range of traditional stitches, including stem and long and short stitch and couching.
Traquair’s wonderful Red Cross Knight embroideries and the enamels and jewelry displayed in the Museum of Scotland are the perfect starting point for a Phoebe Anna Traquair “tour” around Edinburgh. If you’re as captivated by her work as I am, make sure you visit the Mansfield Traquair Centre, where Traquair’s murals adorn the walls. There are also murals in the Song School at St Mary’s Cathedral in the west end of Edinburgh. Additionally, if you’re visiting the city, don’t forget that it is possible to make an appointment to see The Progress of a Soul in storage at the Gallery Collection Centre in Granton.
Kathy Troup, born in the north of England, has lived in Scotland for many years. She edited a U.K. published stitching magazine for seventeen years and continues to write about the subjects she loves.
Don’t miss a single post, read the entire “Postcard from Scotland” series!
Cummings, Elizabeth. Phoebe Anne Traquair: 1852–1936. Edinburgh, Scotland: National Galleries Of Scotland, 2006.
Mansfield Traquair Centre. www.mansfieldtraquair.org.uk.
National Museum of Scotland. www.nms.ac.uk.
Scottish National Gallery. www.nationalgalleries.org.
Featured Image: Atrium of the National Museum of Scotland, which is home to the Red Cross Knight embroidery by Phoebe Anna Traquair. Photo by Kathy Troup.