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Issue 48 - Charles Rennie Mackintosh

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 48
December 2009


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Charles Rennie Mackintosh

One of Glasgow's famous sons.

Born on 7th June 1868 in the Townhead district of Glasgow, Charles Rennie Macintosh was one of 11 children. He showed artistic talent from a young age, having spent a great deal of time sketching in the countryside, where the ‘fresh air’ was supposed to improve his health and fitness.

At the age of 16 he became apprenticed to architect John Hutchinson, and embarked on evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art. His talent was not overlooked, and he received various student prizes and awards, including the coveted Alexander Thomson Travelling Studentship in 1890.

In conjunction with his colleague and student friends Herbert MacNair and sisters Frances and Margaret Macdonald, Macintosh sought new directions in modern art and architecture, always looking for clean lines and elegant form.

They were known as the ‘Glasgow Four’, and collaborated on many decorative designs. Macintosh wanted to update the Scottish Baronial style, replacing antiquarian detailing with rectilinear and simplified designs which leaned towards art nouveau and were heavily influenced by Japanese art and architecture.

In 1889 Macintosh moved to the larger architectural practice, Honeyman and Keppie. His work included the cutting edge Glasgow Herald Building (1894) and the Martyr’s Public School (1895). In 1897 he began work on Queen’s Cross Church, the only church design of his that came to be built, and this is now the headquarters of the Charles Rennie Macintosh Society.

Only six years after receiving his studentship to travel abroad, Macintosh was commissioned to design the new building for his old school. His most substantial work, the Glasgow School of Art building remains as a testament to his creativity and artistic evolution. The building was completed in two phases due to financial constraints, so the West Wing (completed in 1909) demonstrates his more mature 20th century style compared to the East Wing, which adheres to his earlier Scottish Baronial influences (completed in 1899).

Macintosh married Margaret Macdonald in 1900, and their artistic partnership continued. Kate Cranston, the owner of several tearooms in the city, allowed Macintosh and his wife the ‘total design’ approach they preferred. Her Willow Tea Rooms on Sauchiehall Street (which are still open for business today) displayed all the flair and panache you would expect from a Macintosh exterior, as well as a suitably modern interior that pointed to Margaret’s influence, including dramatic high backed chairs, bespoke cutlery and leaded mirror friezes.

Despite these successes, Macintosh received far more public recognition for his work abroad than at home in Scotland.

There was great acclaim for his exhibitions in Turin and Moscow, among other places, and in 1900 he entered a competition in a German design journal, to design ‘AHouse for an Art Lover’. Although he didn’t win the competition, the Macintosh designs were applauded and influenced some of his later work, such as The Hill House in Helensburgh in 1904. The Hill House is now maintained by the National Trust for Scotland, and is a must-see attraction for any visitor wanting to follow and understand the ‘private’ work of Charles Rennie Macintosh as opposed to his great public monument created at the Glasgow School of Art.

Aperfectionist, often uncompromising in the amount of control he wished to retain over his projects, Macintosh became frustrated at the scarcity of commissions he received in Scotland. In 1913 he left Honeyman and Keppie, moving with Margaret to England.

His work was further interrupted by the First World War, and his architectural commissions continued to decline, though a fine example can still be seen at 78 Derngate in Northampton. For many years, Macintosh supplemented his income by designing textile patterns.

Having faded into obscurity in his own lifetime, Macintosh moved in 1923 to Port Vendres in the South of France. He spent his retirement painting watercolours, and only returned to London when his health deteriorated. He died on 10th December 1928, aged 60.

Macintosh’s great artistic vision was always recognised by his peers, but he did not really achieve great public acclaim in the UK until the second half of the 20th century. Now he is known by all to be the father of the Glasgow Style, imitated and revered throughout the world.