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Issue 1 - Charles Rennie Mackintosh: A design for life

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 1
March 2002

 

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Charles Rennie Mackintosh: A design for life

Arguably Glasgow's most celebrated designer and architect, Mackintosh was respected around the World yet, for a time, seemed a forgotten man in his native Scotland. Gavin Smith rediscovers one of Scotland's favourite sons

For the great and the good of Scottish tourism it must be a relief to have found something tasteful and distinctive, apart from whisky, to sell as ‘Scottish’ instead of ‘Nessies’ wearing Tartan and Gretna Green souvenirs. Much of the merchandise related to Mackintosh is as classy as the man’s own work – well, almost. Though some of the less well-executed merchandise is dismissed by true aficionados as ‘Mockintosh’.

So just who was Mackintosh and what is so special about his style of design that it is a byword for respectable Scottish souvenirs?

The Glaswegian policeman’s son was an architect, designer and artist, credited with pioneering the Modern Movement in Scotland. A crucial part of Mackintosh’s approach was the concept of ‘total design’, and his attention to detail was exhaustive, with every aspect of a project from foundations to curtain fabric claiming his attention.

Mackintosh’s architectural philosophy involved radically updating the Scottish Baronial style, favouring elegantly rectilinear designs, free from what he called ‘antiquarian detail’. He was a collector of Japanese architectural books and prints, and in much of his work traditional Scottish design meets art nouveau, harnessing the simplicity of Japanese form in the process.

According to Kevin Matthews of GreatBuildings.com, “Mackintosh created buildings notable for the elegance and clarity of their spatial concepts, the skilful exploitation of natural and artificial lighting, and skilful detailing.”

Pamela Robertson, Senior Curator of the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, has published extensively on Mackintosh and his circle. She says: “What he has is a distinct vision. In most cases, you could look at a late 19th century chair and be confused about who designed it. That’s not the case with Mackintosh. His architectural style had a distinctive edge. The sophistication of his artistic imagination is notable. He combined powerful architectural forms and soft, seductive decoration in a very distinctive way.”

Charles Rennie Mackintosh was born in the Townhead district of the city on 7th June 1868, one of 11 children. At the age of 16 he began an apprenticeship with John Hutchinson, and started evening classes at Glasgow School of Art. Five years later he was taken on by Glasgow architects Honeyman and Keppie as an architectural assistant, and formalised his attendance at the School of Art.

While studying at Glasgow School of Art, Mackintosh met his future wife, Margaret Macdonald. She was to make significant contributions to a number of his major commissions as a highly accomplished artist and designer in her own right, working in metal, fabrics, watercolours and oils.

Also studying at the School of Art were Margaret’s sister, Frances, and Herbert McNair. ‘The four’, as they became known, exhibited furnishings, posters and designs in Glasgow, London, Turin and Vienna. All four shared a fondness for distinctive imagery, and they were nicknamed ‘the Spook School’ by their critics, who disliked the obvious European art nouveau influences in their work. They were major contributors to what became known as ‘the Glasgow Style’.

Through his career Mackintosh’s work tended to receive greater appreciation overseas than in Britain, with Austria and Germany particularly receptive to his originality. In 1900 his work was exhibited in Vienna to general acclaim, and he was commissioned to design the city’s Wamdorfer Music Salon. In 1902 a Mackintosh Room featured at the Turin International Exhibition, and he also exhibited in Berlin and Moscow.

Mackintosh’s career received its first major domestic boost when he won a competition to design the new Glasgow School of Art in 1896, and on the building’s completion in 1909 it was immediately lauded as a stylistically innovative structure. It remains one of Mackintosh’s greatest works, and continues to fulfil its original role.

In 1902 Mackintosh received another significant commission when he was asked to design The Hill House in Helensburgh for publisher Walter Blackie. Today, The Hill House is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland, and a visit is a must for anyone who wishes to see Mackintosh’s ‘private’ work at its best.

One of the projects Mackintosh is most readily associated with is The Willow Tea Rooms in Sauchiehall Street, designed for Kate Cranston, daughter of a Glasgow tea merchant. Cranston was one of Mackintosh’s principal patrons over 20 years of collaboration, with work carried out on all four of her tea rooms between 1897 and 1917.

The Sauchiehall Street Willow Tea Rooms are located above a jeweller’s shop, and a typically modernistic Mackintosh facade still catches the eye in contrast to the more traditional buildings around it. Inside, the Room de Luxe attracted great attention on account of its silver furniture and leaded mirror friezes.

In 1904 Mackintosh became a partner in Honeyman and Keppie, but he became more disillusioned with a lack of recognition and a shortage of private commissions in Scotland, not helped by his ‘total design’ approach, which inevitably limited the number of personal projects he was entrusted with. A perfectionist who did not entertain compromise, he was not always the easiest of men to work with.

In 1901 Mackintosh had entered a competition to design a new Anglican cathedral for Liverpool, and had he been successful, he would almost certainly have achieved the attention and respect he desired. To his intense frustration, his design was narrowly beaten. In 1913 he left Honeyman and Keppie, moving with Margaret to Walberswick on the Suffolk coast. Depressed and finding solace in drink, an embittered Mackintosh never returned to his native city.

The couple settled in London in 1914, and two years later – in one of his final design commissions – Mackintosh produced striking interiors for renowned engineering model-maker and traveller WJ Bassett-Lowke at 78 Derngate in Northampton. The house is now in the hands of a trust, which is in the process of restoration.

By 1923, Mackintosh had abandoned architectural practice entirely, and he and Margaret moved to Port Vendres in the South of France, where he devoted himself to watercolour landscape painting. He returned to London in 1927 to undergo treatment for cancer of the tongue, and died there on 10th December 1928.

It sometimes seems Mackintosh faded into comparative obscurity in his own lifetime, and has only returned to prominence during the last few years, but according to Pamela Robertson that is not the case. “Mackintosh never disappeared as far as his peer group was concerned. There was always a high regard for his achievements within the world of architecture and design – he was always recognised as a major creative figure.

“The public revival of interest came from various sources, including the first scholarly exhibition of his work, which was staged in Edinburgh in 1968 to mark the centenary of his birth, and through the 1970s, you could say that Mackintosh succeeded through the sale-rooms, as it were. A Mackintosh chair sold in 1975 for around £9,000 – a world record then for 20th century furniture. This was another indicator of the status of his work, and it helped Glasgow as a city to recognise the value of the Mackintosh material it had in various collections.

“Also, from the early 1970s, an Italian company had been selling high-quality reproductions of his furniture, advertised in glossy magazines and other places. Therefore, although there were only ever two of them, and they were always in The Hill House, the Hill House ladder-back chairs became recognised worldwide.

“Then Glasgow saw culture as something to replace its old heavy industries, and wanted to become a place people visited rather than just passed through. Mackintosh was the outstanding creative figure in architecture and design in Glasgow during the late 19th century, and an obvious figurehead and symbol of the revival of the city.”

In total, a dozen key Mackintosh sites have been identified in and around Glasgow. Pamela Robertson says: “You have to come to Glasgow to see Mackintosh’s architecture. Visitors get all sides of Mackintosh, from the big, public buildings to the smaller-scale Willow Tea Rooms, and even the recreation of his private house, where he lived from 1906 to 1914, in the Hunterian Art Gallery. “The Hunterian opened in 1980, with its Mackintosh collection, then the Willow Tea Rooms were restored and reopened, and the National Trust for Scotland took over The Hill House, so more and more Mackintosh-related work became accessible to the public during the 1980s.”

The Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society was founded in 1973, and according to its Information Officer, Trish Ingram, has 1,500 members in 29 countries. The society boasts an extensive library and a retail area selling carefully-vetted Mackintosh souvenirs in its Queens Cross Church base, in Glasgow’s Garscube Road. Queen’s Cross is the only Mackintosh-designed church actually to be built.

Trish Ingram says: “There was a Mackintosh exhibition in Glasgow in 1996, which really kick-started the interest in the man and his work with the public, and it then went to the States. On the last day it was open in Glasgow there was a huge queue of people wanting to see it stretching along Sauchiehall Street.”

In the USA, The Smithsonian Magazine described Mackintosh as “a Scottish national obsession”, which is a slight exaggeration. But then again, somebody is buying all those engraved hip-flasks, earrings and key-holders …