Phoebe Anna Traquair

Phoebe Anna Traquair was a significant and important figure in British art. She contributed widely to the Arts and Crafts movement, and was one of the first women artists in Scotland to achieve professional recognition. Like many artists of the Arts and Crafts era she worked across diverse branches of the arts, producing embroideries, manuscript illumination, bookbinding, enamelwork, furniture decoration, easel painting and mural decoration, which led to international recognition.

Peter Induni, Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1852 - 1936. Artist 1927

Traquair was born in Dublin in 1852, the third daughter of physician Dr William Moss and his wife Teresa Richardson. Phoebe Anna Moss attended art and design classes at the Royal Dublin Society; as a student she was assigned the task of providing fossil fish illustrations for the young Scots palaeontologist, Ramsay Heatley Traquair, then keeper of the museum at the Royal Dublin Society.

Moss and Ramsay Traquair went on to marry in Dublin in 1873. The following year, Ramsay Traquair was appointed Keeper of Natural History at the Museum of Science and Art in Edinburgh (known today as the National Museum of Scotland) where they subsequently moved and remained for the rest of their lives. Phoebe Anna Traquair continued to provide detailed illustrations for her husband’s research papers until his retirement in 1906.

By the mid-1880s Traquair had formed friendships with numerous Edinburgh intellectuals including John Miller Gray, the first curator of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, with whom she shared an interest in Arts and Crafts and the Pre-Raphaelites. Also included in her circle of friends was the socio-biologist Patrick Geddes, a founder of the Edinburgh Social Union, who commissioned Traquair to complete the decoration of the mortuary chapel of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Lauriston Lane. Following the success of these murals she completed numerous public art commissions in Edinburgh, including those in St Mary’s Cathedral and Mansfield Place Church.

From 1890 onwards Traquair illuminated a series of texts, including poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, 1892-97 and The Psalms of David, 1884-1891. She also produced exquisite embroidered panels and drapes, including the four panel series, The Progress of a Soul, 1893-1902. In the 1900s Traquair took up enamelling, jewellery and commercial book illustration. In 1920, she was elected as an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy. Traquair died in Edinburgh on 4 August 1936, aged 84 and was buried alongside her husband in Colinton churchyard. She designed her own gravestone, which was carved by the British sculptor Pilkington Jackson.

Murals and Public Art

In the early 1880s in Edinburgh, the beginnings of Arts and Crafts practice lay in philanthropy as a means of bringing greater morality and deeper meaning into art and design. A programme of mural decoration was initiated in 1885 by the Edinburgh Social Union, whose founding members included architect William S. Black and socio-biologist Patrick Geddes, responding to William Morris’ call for an art that would transform the everyday lives of the working classes.

In 1884 the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh received a request from the Hospital Ladies’ Committee for a chapel space ‘where the bodies can be left reverently and lovingly for the parents before the burials.' [1] The small disused hospital coalhouse, measuring only twelve by eight feet, was found and in April 1885, Traquair was formally invited by the Social Union to paint the walls, marking her debut as a professional artist.

Phoebe Anna Traquair, An Angel Escorting an Angel towards Heaven; The Virgin and Child with Angels; The Holy Spirit Awakening the Spirit of the Deceased, Edinburgh 1886

Celtic, Byzantine, gothic and baroque elements were incorporated into the design, along with influences from the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The subject of the entire scheme was the redemption of mankind, and Traquair illustrated a series of Christian texts to comfort grieving parents. The principal text read, ‘For he that will save his life shall lose it and he that shall lose his life for my sake, the same shall find it. Amen’ (Mathew 16: 25). With this text was a scene in which Traquair said a ‘spirit lover sends an angel to comfort the lonely lover on the earth below by music.’ [2] On the south wall of the mortuary chapel, a border around the main panel contained lunettes decorated with tiny portraits of critics, writers and artists she admired including Ruskin, Rossetti and Paton.

In 1894, prior to the building’s demolition, the fragment, For So He Giveth His Beloved Sleep, was removed - this section was kept by Traquair until she died 40 years later. Following on the success of this work, Traquair was commissioned by the Social Union to decorate the Song School of the Cathedral Church of St Mary in Palmerston Place between 1888 and 1892, a choral practice room still in use today. She was also asked in 1892 to decorate the interior of the Catholic Apostolic Church in Mansfield Place, designed by Robert Rowand Anderson in 1872. Once completed in 1897, this massive church was almost instantly recognised as an outstanding work of modern decorative design by critics. In these murals Traquair demonstrated the influence of Italian Renaissance painters including Sandro Botticelli and Fra Angelico, exploring their rich colour and primitive style; the work is often still referred to as ‘Edinburgh’s Sistine Chapel’.[3]



Illuminated Manuscripts

Illuminated manuscripts held a particular attraction for Traquair. In her childhood she had regular access to the medieval Book of Kells, whose image and technique she much admired. As a young artist in Edinburgh, her interest in poetry and manuscript illumination was influenced further by her friendship with John Miller Gray, the first curator of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Seeking guidance on the art of illumination, Traquair initially wrote to the writer John Ruskin in late 1886; throughout 1887 he lent Traquair a number of French and Italian thirteenth and fourteenth century manuscripts to copy in exchange for a sight of her own work.

In the 1880s and 1890s she illuminated a series of major manuscripts. These included The Psalms of David, 1884-1891, in which Traquair illuminated the first thirty four psalms from the biblical book of David over a period of fifteen years. Earlier pages are more crudely drawn and written and feature iconographic details such as angels tending plants. However the majority of leaves date from 1887-9 and combine primary colours with gold, wide, intricately decorated borders and large historiated initials (the first initial in the manuscript which is enlarged and decorated), revealing her first-hand knowledge of French medieval manuscripts.

Phoebe Anna Traquair, The Psalms of David About 1884-1891

Traquair also illustrated each of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portugese between 1892 and 1897; Browning’s text was published in 1850 and was popular at this time, containing 44 sonnets that explored the growth of love. Like many manuscripts from this time Traquair’s Sonnets was much indebted to fourteenth century manuscripts, particularly from Italy, with the emphasis on delicate calligraphy and graphic border decoration. She said, ’…the illuminations of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are striking examples, the smallness of the work making it all the more necessary for the worker to limit himself to the vital points with a stern negation of non-essentials.’[4]

More modern influences included the manuscripts of Burne-Jones and William Morris, which would have been widely illustrated in contemporary London journals. Through working on these illustrated pages Traquair developed a confident style that was recognisable as her own, with a modern, romantic style and bold, striking use of colour. Other prominent texts she illustrated include Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam, 1890-1892 and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Blessed Damosel, 1897-1898.

Phoebe Anna Traquair, Two Pages, Illuminated, 'Sonnets from the Portuguese' by Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1894 - 1896

Arts and Crafts

The 1890s were a stylistic watershed for Traquair. She had mastered skills in illumination, mural decoration and embroidery, giving her the capacity to translate emotion and spiritual values into pictorial form. Traquair had become a regular contributor to national Arts and Crafts exhibitions, including The Last Romantics, 1889at London’s Barbican and the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900. Her studio crafts were regularly reviewed and her painted buildings written up in the press as showplaces to be visited. By this time Edinburgh had also been established as a centre for Arts and Crafts practice and Traquair was a regular contributor. From 1890 she worked in the Dean Studio in Belford Road, a disused church overlooking the Dean Valley.

Many of Traquair’s ideas at this time ran in parallel with William Morris, who similarly blurred distinctions between fine and decorative arts; both also shared a Christian affinity with nature as the prime example of God’s design. In Scotland she was seen as a contributor to the Celtic Revival along with the painter John Duncan, who both saw the relevance of historical prototypes to modern decorative art. Her embroidered panels are a fine example, combining historical, decorative embroidery techniques with modern Symbolist subject matter.

Phoebe Anna Traquair, The Progress of a Soul: The Entrance 1895
Phoebe Anna Traquair, The Progress of a Soul: The Stress 1897

In Traquair’s richly detailed embroidery, The Progress of a Soul, 1895-1902 she combines four panels: The Entrance, Despair, The Stress and The Victory. The series is loosely based on Denys L'Auxerrois from Imaginary Portraits by the English critic and writer Walter Pater, though not considered a direct illustration. Instead they explore a recurring theme in Traquair’s practice; the concept of a soul’s journey from birth through the trials of life to ultimate salvation or redemption. She described the series in the following excerpt;

Phoebe Anna Traquair, The Progress of a Soul: Despair 1899
Phoebe Anna Traquair, The Progress of a Soul: The Victory 1902

The panels were first exhibited at the 1903 Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in London where they were much admired by critics and public and in 1904 the series was sent to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition at St Louis. They later hung in the stairwell of Traquair’s home in Colinton for thirty years until her death in 1936, when they formed part of her bequest to the National Galleries of Scotland.

Late Work

In her later years Traquair continued to work successfully in the Arts and Crafts style, receiving ongoing commissions for public and private artworks. In the 1900s she took up enamelling and jewellery, while watercolour paintings for reproduction as commercial book illustrations replaced illumination. She also continued to produce easel paintings including her Self Portrait, 1909-11, which seems quite private and personal, but also hints at a nervous energy.

Phoebe Anna Traquair, Self-portrait, 1911

Between June 1910 and April 1911 Traquair  was trusted with the task of making enamelled stall plates for the Knights of the Thistle at Edinburgh’s Thistle Chapel, for which she explored the new medium of champlevé enamel, which she described as, ‘absolutely different from my usual ways of enamelling … after my first success I could not sleep with excitement.[5] She also designed the panels for a new altarpiece for the chapel of St Andrew in the Cathedral of St James in Chicago along with a series of altarpieces for Glasgow churches including a Last Judgement triptych for All Saints’ Church in Jordanhill in 1920. Twenty years after Traquair had been turned down by the Royal Scottish Academy she was elected an honorary member, a distinction of which she was extremely proud and had engraved onto her gravestone. 

In her later years, particularly after her husband’s death in 1912 she travelled widely, visiting India, Egypt, North Africa and the south of France, producing sketches and embroideries. By the mid-1920s her eyesight was beginning to fail and she carried out little work after 1925. On 4 August 1936, at the age of 84, she died in Edinburgh and was buried alongside her husband in Colinton Churchyard.

Sir James Caw, retired director of the National Galleries of Scotland described her in her obituary for The Times as, ‘a little woman and sparely built but overflowing with nervous energy (whose) … artistic activities were remarkable both in extent and quality.[6]. By the mid-1930s the modernist aesthetic had taken over and her work fell from public view; much of her legacy remained neglected and unseen until the early 1990s. Since this time, museums and galleries have been avidly collecting her work and re-establishing a reputation which was so high during her lifetime.

Discover more

This interactive story from Google Arts & Culture presents Traquair's relevance in the Arts & Crafts movement and modern decorative art.

The Progress of the Soul

This interactive Google Arts & Culture story invites to you get up close with Phoebe Anna Traquair's incredible series of tapestries.