Five years I’ve lived here, and this is my first visit to the Mansfield Traquair Centre. The former Catholic Apostolic Church closed its doors to a dwindling congregation when the last priest died in 1958. After that, the building had other short-lived reinventions, but its decrepitude had begun. A slow decay of fading and peeling, of water ingress and dirt staining, of gradual neglect and inexorable decline had begun, so that what it contained (contained, is that the right word?) became half-forgotten and began to rot, mould, and tetter on the edge of unsalvageable.
The treasure within this place, though, cannot be ‘contained’ by being wrapped, stored, placed in a cabinet. The former church is not home to fittings that can be unscrewed and boxed, there is no framed art that can be taken down, wrapped in blankets, stored in a dry cellar. Its treasure is as fixed as an ancient standing stone, treasure that has not moved from its home here in Edinburgh’s Mansfield Place since it came into being almost 130 years ago. The Mansfield Traquair Centre is home to murals, spectacular murals painted onto wall after wall after wall, painted onto ceiling, archway, and gable, vast murals that have become a living organ, murals that are the skin of the chancel and nave.
These divine murals – literally and figuratively – were painted by one Mrs. Phoebe Anna Traquair, who began her artistic labour in 1893, and continued to complete her commission into the new century, eventually standing back to admire her finished work in 1901. If she saw it as her legacy, then it was one that so nearly lost, it was only saved and miraculously restored twenty years ago.
I’m in love the moment I enter. I don’t know where to look. I am Oliver Twist at a banquet table. There are pastoral scenes with hills and thickets, streams and valleys, cloud studded blue skies. There are angels with lyres, trumpets, and staffs. There are eagles, oxen, sheep, and goats. Bible scenes shimmer with colour, making me think of a Mediterranean fruit stall in summer – she has used shades of peach, cherry, orange, apricot, olive green, shades that emanate warmth and goodness. Her colours are soft and inviting. If I were tall enough to reach up and touch them, I believe they would feel like velour to my fingertips. They glow, they illuminate. They illuminate in the way that decorations and embellishments illustrate a story – in this case, bible stories old and new – but they also illuminate because light emanates from them in a mystical, magical way. The angels’ trumpets have been made with string and plaster adhered to the wall then painted gold; they pop from the scene and add dimension. Rainbows gleam and glow like the real thing, as if projected there by the sun streaming through the stained-glass window.
A small lady with dancing eyes asks me if I would like a tour. ‘Yes please.’ She carries a weighty folder, works through it systematically, deviates often with anecdotes and insights. She speaks of ‘Mrs. Traquair’ as though Mrs. Traquair has just slipped out for a cup of tea, as though she knows Mrs. Traquair, albeit tangentially, as though theirs is a respectful acquaintance. Only occasional does she slip into the familiar ‘Phoebe’, for which (it seems to me) she drops her voice in case, perhaps, Phoebe might be lingering down by the archway of the south chapel and overhear this act of over-familiarity. Mostly, she reverts to the formal title. I like it. It reminds me of growing up in Ireland in the 1970s and 80s when older ladies addressed each other by title and surname; when neighbours were spoken to in courteous civility, not in first name terms but as Mrs. Wilkinson, Mrs. Hulme, Mrs. Doherty. If it’s Mrs. Traquair for the tour guide, then it’s Mrs. Traquair for me.
Sections with vine leaves, ivy, grapes, and plums are Mrs. Traquair’s nod to William Morris, who died the year she began the commission, and echoes of the Book of Kells – which she would have known well from her youth in Dublin – appear in Celtic knots and filigree swirls. Did I mention she was Irish? Until she was 21 years old, Mrs. Traquair was one Miss Moss of Dublin. Ireland (the guide points this out) has been slipped into the murals as a backdrop to some bible scenes. ‘There we have the Wicklow hills, and over here – look – these are the Eildon Hills, by Melrose in the Scottish Borders. She loved the Borders.’
Our guide speaks of her with tender affection, as a deity, almost, perhaps because Phoebe had painted herself into one of the murals. Should you ever visit, you’ll find her on the west wall – the internal gable as you come into the main church, with a stained glass rose window set high towards the ceiling – part of the Pentecostal scene. Wearing a pink robe, she has painted herself with her back to us, her face in profile, framed by a crop of red hair. A dove hovers over the table at which the disciples (she is one) are seated, and tongues of fire, like little lightning strikes, have been painted streaming from the dove into the crown of each disciple’s head.
‘She was a tiny lady,’ our guide tells us, ‘not five feet tall, and she had three red-headed children.’ Either it is a non sequitur, or the guide is amazed at a petite lady bearing children. I’m pondering this when she says, ‘Look up there.’
Above us, in the chancel arch, is a choir of red-headed angels, scores of them kneeling in adoration. Like all children, they are in various states of attention, from fully focused on prayerfulness to benign distraction. Other trumpeting angels (with those gilded trumpets) look older and better behaved (teenage angels, maybe), they also have red hair. She had replicated her children!
Often, it is the smallest detail that brings someone to life, when you can suddenly see and her them. ‘She embroidered, she enamelled, she painted large and small commissions.’ The guide was coming towards the end of her file of notes. She closed the book and spoke off-script. ‘But Mrs. Traquair ran a household too. One story, which has made it through the years, is that of her climbing down from her scaffolding at the end of a day’s painting and telling one of the church officials, “I’m off home to turn a collar and cuffs.”’
That was the moment I knew Mrs. Traquiar.