Images of Ossian

Ossian 2 small

We recently had an opportunity to buy a rare copy in original wrappers of a portfolio of six lithographs and a leaf of descriptive text by the German artist Carl Harnisch (1800-1882). The illustrations are inspired by the poems of Ossian, the legendary Celtic bard. The work is entitled ‘Bildliche Darstellungen in Arabeskenform zu Ossians Gedichten’ (RB.el.30).

James MacPherson (1736-1796) first published his  ‘Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland‘ in 1770. This collection was followed in 1762 by Fingal and a year later by Temora. These Ossianic poems at first had an enthusiastic reception, though questions about their authenticity were soon asked. Nevertheless, they became enormously popular on the Contintent too, and were soon translated into other languages. Napoleon had a French copy in his library at Fountainbleu (Bdg.s.792), and the first German translation appeared in 1768 (NG.1168.g.21). It continued to be popular in the early 19th century.

Ossian 1 small

In his introduction Carl Harnisch states that, “the following leaves, a series of drawings in the arabesque form, arose out of reading ‘Ossian’. The intention of their creator, as can been seen from the chosen form of representation, has been to portray an overall view of the ancient Nordic bard’s individual sensibilities and poetry, rather than each drawing represent a particular passage in the poet’s work.”

The artist has done the lithographs in the arabesque form, which uses a decorative motif comprising surface decorations based on rhythmic linear patterns of scrolling and interlacing foliage and tendrils.

Find out more about MacPherson and the Ossian controversy in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessible through NLS Licensed Digital Collections).