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Issue 24 - House on the hill

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 24
January 2006


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House on the hill

Charles Douglas visits Hill Houser, Helensburgh, a house purpose-built for a lover of ‘the plain style'

IT sits on a hill enjoying views of the Firth of Clyde and the west coast town of Helensburgh, hence its name ‘The Hill House.’ The site is situated north west of Glasgow, and it was here that the prosperous publisher Walter Blackie purchased the plot in 1902 and commissioned the controversial 33-year old designer and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh to create him a family home.

It was a bold move. Mackintosh had already established his volatile reputation with his design for Glasgow’s School of Art, and he and Blackie had discovered that they held similar views.

They both disliked the pastiche Tudor, Gothic and Classical details which ignored the overall setting of a building and, in particular where Scotland is concerned, the unpredictable climate.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s dream was to create an entirely new style for the 20th Century. In line with the aspirations of some of his contemporaries in the Glasgow Style movement – notably his fellow Glasgow Art School graduates, the MacDonald sisters, and Herbert McNair - this would come to be seen as identifiably Scottish.

Ironically, while their work was generally eulogized throughout Europe, it often received a less than enthusiastic reaction nearer home. Happily, Mackintosh is today considered one of Glasgow’s greatest sons.

The Hill House, a simple harled building conceived to withstand Scotland’s rugged winter and wet summers, cost Walter Blackie £5,000, a large sum in 1902.

But if the building might appear austere on the outside, reflecting that Scottish protestant preoccupation with un-fussiness, the contrast of the interiors is totally and utterly engaging.

Members of the Blackie Family have confirmed that Mackintosh visited them regularly at their home in Dunblane in order to form an impression as to how they lived. The Hill House was therefore entirely modeled to accommodate their existing living pattern. This was a ‘package’ contract in the ultra-modern style of the age, the concept, the vision, entirely tailored to the family’s needs.

Furthermore, Mackinstosh’s equally talented wife, Margaret MacDonald, and her sister Frances, contributed fabric designs and such features as the unique gesso overmantel and the embroidery for the shaped headboard in the master bedroom to the project.

Throughout, the decorative schemes, the co-operative’s stenciled patterns and purple glass insets, are striking and, for the period, highly original. Astonishingly, there were those who, at the time they were completed, considered them vulgar. Posterity has wisely judged otherwise.

Throughout every space, practicality goes hand-in-hand with aesthetic appeal. Stepping inside, the expanding central hall enlarges inwards from the black wooden door in the western gable end.

The first view into the two-storey stairwell finds the fire place opposite, and the raised hall serves to draw in the visitor.

A library in dark paneled wood was originally intended to serve as an office where Mr Blackie could receive visitors without disturbing the privacy of his family.

Again, the demands of the client’s working life are accommodated to run parallel with his domestic needs.

The Drawing Room, in the middle of the house, is divided into three zones – for listening to music, conversation around the mosaic-backed fireplace, and there is an extended bay window which looks out towards the Gare Loch.

Interior walls in this room are decorated with an elaborate pattern of roses supported by trellis work, forming a repetitive pattern around the room. Awide window seat, with heating beneath, is flanked with book and magazine racks.

In the white bedroom, windows and shutters are curved to follow the line of the outside wall. Wardrobes are fitted. A square dresser carries silver bowls and jugs for ablutions.

Key pieces of furniture originally designed for the house are everywhere to be seen.

These include Mackintosh’s celebrated ladderbacked chairs, his standard lamps, the bed from the principal bedroom, a stylized writing desk, clock, and the square drawing room table with its complex ‘cubic’ base.

Carpets too feature the house pattern of clean lines and tiny squares of purple, blue, pink and green. Today, an information room interprets the special relationship between client and patron, with a special exhibition in the upper east wing and gardens.

The Hill House was sold in 1953, and in 1972 was acquired by the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland on the understanding that its character be preserved for posterity along with the fixtures and fittings specifically designed for it.

In 1982, the property was acquired by the National Trust for Scotland, aided by a generous grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, which continues to be generous in its support.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh died in 1928. He never did achieve his dream of founding a continuing school of uniquely Scottish architectural style, but what he created at The Hill House remains a masterpiece and survives as a compelling memorial to his genius.

The Hill House,
Upper Colquhoun Street,
G64 9AJ.

Tel: +44 (0) 1436 673 900
Fax: +44 (0) 1436 674685


Open: 1st April to 31st
October, daily 13.30-17.30.
Groups should pre-book.

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