Charles Rennie Mackintosh, architect, designer and artist is celebrated around the world as one of the most creative figures of the early 20th century. He was born one of eleven children in the Townhead area of Glasgow, close to Glasgow’s St. Mungo’s Cathedral. From these beginnings, he has become one of the most celebrated architects of his generation.
Mackintosh took his inspiration from Scottish traditions and blended them with the flourish of Art Nouveau and the simplicity of Japanese forms. Much of his work has survived. It can be seen today alongside that of his close collaborators in the group known as “The Four” and the other artists and designers who collectively created “The Glasgow Style”. He was apprenticed as an architect and he became a draughtsman with Honeyman and Keppie, a new architectural practice, eventually becoming a partner in 1903. All along he attended evening classes in art at the Glasgow School of Art. It was at these classes that he first met Margaret MacDonald (whom he later married), her sister Frances MacDonald, and Herbert MacNair who was also a fellow apprentice with Mackintosh at Honeyman and Keppie. This group of artists, known as “The Four,” exhibited in Glasgow, London and Vienna, and these exhibitions helped establish Mackintosh’s reputation. The so-called “Glasgow” style was exhibited in Europe and influenced the Viennese Art Nouveau movement known as Sezessionstil (in English, The Secession) around 1900.
Mackintosh was greatly influenced by Japanese design and art (although he never visited the country) and the Glasgow he lived in was a very different city in 1900 from the one we see today, largely due to its importance as the world’s greatest shipbuilding centre. Located by the margins of the River Clyde, during the Industrial Revolution the city was one of the greatest production centres of heavy engineering and shipbuilding in the world. As the city grew and prospered, a faster response to the high demand for consumer goods and arts was necessary.
Industrialised, mass-produced items started to gain popularity. Along with the Industrial Revolution, Asian style and emerging modernist ideas also influenced Mackintosh’s designs. When the Japanese isolationist regime softened, shipyards building at the River Clyde were exposed to Japanese navy and training engineers; Glasgow’s link with the eastern country became particularly close. Japanese design became more accessible and gained great popularity. This style was admired by Mackintosh because of: its restraint and economy of means rather than ostentatious accumulation; its simple forms and natural materials rather than elaboration and artifice; the use of texture and light and shadow rather than pattern and ornament.
In the old western style furniture was seen as ornament that displayed the wealth of its owner and the value of the piece was established according to the length of time spent creating it. In the Japanese arts furniture and design focused on the quality of the space, which was meant to evoke a calming and organic feeling to the interior. Shipbuilding also had another consequence for Glasgow as there was a large workforce engaged in the “fitting out” trades, joinery, cabinet making, textiles, enamelling, glass work, pottery and metalworking providing both an outlet for artists and artisans to make the designs a reality.
Glasgow is forever associated with Mackintosh, it is where he studied architecture influenced by Glasgow’s own great neo-classicist Alexander “Greek” Thomson and indeed he won the Alexander Thomson scholarship which allowed him to tour Italy in 1891. He took his inspiration from the many like minded designers who tried to marry machine methods with nature in the “Glasgow School” but he was never a sterile modernist and his designs are full of naturalistic references and humanity. In and around Glasgow you find the corpus of his work, The Hill House at Helensborough, the Mackintosh House at 6 Florentine Terrace, Glasgow where he and his wife Margaret Macdonald lived from 1906 to 1914, the Willow Tea Rooms, Ruchill Church Hall, Queen’s Cross Church, Martyr’s Public School, The Lighthouse, The Daily Record Building, Scotland Street Public School.
The House for an Art Lover was completed in 1996 inspired by Mackintosh’s portfolio of drawings of 1901 which were submitted as a competition entry to a German design magazine and finally the impressive collection of artworks and artefacts in the Kelvingrove and Hunterian museum’s. I was excited at seeing Mackintosh’s work “in the flesh” after all these years and whilst I saw most of his work from the outside time dictated that I was to visit the School of Art, The Willow Tea Rooms and the collection at the Kelvingrove Museum.
The Art School was founded in 1845 as the Glasgow Government School of Design, one of the first Government Schools of Design. In 1853 it changed its name to The Glasgow School of Art. Initially it was located at 12 Ingram Street, but in 1869 it moved to the McLellan Galleries. In 1897 work started on a new building to house the school on Renfrew Street. The Glasgow School of Art is regarded as one of the foremost institutions for the study of art and design in the world.
In 1896 an architectural competition took place for the building of a new Glasgow School of Art on a site offered to the School’s directors. Working to a budget of just £14,000, the Glasgow firm of Honeyman and Keppie submitted a design from the hand of one of their junior draughtsmen, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Sympathetic to Mackintosh’s intentions and knowing him as a student, the design was praised by the Head of the School, Francis Newbery and after being independently assessed by the educational authorities in London, was finally accepted.
This was to be his masterwork. Significantly, the building was constructed in two distinct phases, 1897-99 and 1907-09, due to a lack of money. Stylistically, the substantial delay in completion offered Mackintosh the opportunity to amend and fully integrate his original design (of 1896) which owed much to Scotland’s earlier baronial tradition with a second half to the building that looked very much to the 20th century through its use of materials and technology. Most dramatic of all the interiors was the new Library (completed in 1909), which was a complex space of timber posts and beams. Its construction owed much to traditional Japanese domestic interiors but ultimately the building was an eclectic mix of styles and influences.
Today photos of the interior are restricted for it is still a working school of art but contains many valuable original Mackintosh works. The detailing of the exterior is interesting and as well as the unusual form the eye is drawn to the exterior metalwork. The high bright windows for the north lit studios are kept light inside by the use of wrought-iron brackets outside to support the frames. These are stylised plants and as your gaze moves from left to right along the façade you notice that they progressively open and then as you look towards the other end of the building progressively close. The same naturalistic homage is paid with the railings whose finials are like tulips closed at one end then blooming and closing again. The massive fenestration of the north façade is visually broken up by decorative wrought-iron brackets that brace the huge windows and can be used as window cleaning supports. The lively wrought-iron railings also give decoration to an otherwise reduced building with finials of stylised birds, bees and beetles that resemble Japanese Mon or family crests.
The School forms a simple E-shaped building with an austere and asymmetrical north façade with massive studio windows. A single central entrance leads to a staircase with two floors of studios to the right and left. The bright and airy Director’s Office with fitted cupboards and a fireplace is directly above the entrance. At the centre of the school, at the top of the stairwell top-lit with a glazed roof and timber trusses like a medieval barn, is an exhibition space called the Museum. You enter through the low main entrance with a “guardian” sculpture and into a Scottish baronial style hall but your path is lit upwards by the light cascading into the relatively dark space from the stairwell. Following the stairwell up Mackintosh plays an architectural “coup de theatre” as you emerge into a triple height roof lit gallery of the Museum with its huge honest timber trusses. Looking at these trusses you notice there is a roundel in the centre with what looks like a seedling and as your eye moves along the trusses this appears to grow and germinate for each of these trusses is slightly different creating movement and visual interest. There was little additional decoration to the building because of the limited budget.Unusually for the period there was only a small stone carving over the entrance and any decoration that Mackintosh managed to incorporate was functional as well as beautiful.
In the second phase of construction, the west elevation was radically altered with the addition of the library’s dramatic three-story windows. The interior of the library is no less surprising, with the central fall of light from the windows contrasting with the dark stained wooden gallery supported by split beams. Mackintosh designed the fittings and furnishings in dark stained wood decorated with splashes of red, green and white – a magical mix of academic sobriety and modern geometric intensity. This library was probably one of Mackintosh’s most exciting interiors in a building that both kick started his architectural career and later revealed his mature style.
What impresses though is both the humanity of the building and the clever use of the limited budget. Humanity in the window sitting areas on the top floor gallery, which provide natural niches for students to congregate in. The humanity in the fanlights to the studios featuring the Red Rose design which became the symbol of the “Glasgow School” but on either side were niches which Mackintosh had designed to hold a vase with a single stem rose so the students would be inspired by the real thing. The clever use of the budget is seen in the use of “Glasgow Marble” or polished concrete to you and me! And in the library the design with plain timber gives a real sense of enclosure and compartmentalisation in a relatively small space. It is still a stimulating building and still a building which earns its keep as a working College of Art.
Early in his career, in 1896, Mackintosh met Catherine Cranston (widely known as Kate Cranston or simply Miss Cranston), an entrepreneurial local business woman who was the daughter of a Glasgow tea merchant and a strong believer in temperance. The temperance movement was becoming increasingly popular in Glasgow at the turn of the century and Miss Cranston had conceived the idea of a series of “art tearooms”, venues where people could meet to relax and enjoy non-alcoholic refreshments in a variety of different “rooms” within the same building. This proved to be the start of a long working relationship between Miss Cranston and Mackintosh. Between 1896 and 1917 he designed and re-styled interiors in all four of her Glasgow tearooms, often in collaboration with his wife Margaret MacDonald.
The Willow tea rooms occupied a narrow site on Sauchiehall Street – old Scots for ‘alley of willows’, hence the use of willow for many of the decorative motifs used. Nothing escaped Mackintosh’s attention. He and Margaret designed everything from furniture and menus, to the waitresses’ uniforms. Within the four storey building, Mackintosh created a ladies’ tea room on the ground floor, with a general lunch room at the back and a tea gallery above it. On the first floor was a more exclusive ladies’ room with a men’s billiard and smoking room on the floor above. The most extravagant of the rooms was the Room de Luxe on the first floor.
Overlooking the street, it had white walls with a frieze of coloured glass, mirrored glass and decorative leading, a gesso panel by Margaret Macdonald, splendid double doors with further leaded glass decoration and silver painted high-backed chairs and sofas upholstered in rich purple. Now restored the ground floor is a jewellery shop but the gallery is an excellent tea room where the beverages, dainties and savouries are still served in the proper manner!
The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is an impressive world class museum containing, amongst many other exhibits, Salvador Dali’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross.” The Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Glasgow Style gallery is divided into six stories. It is the largest display in the city of the Glasgow Style’s wide range of media and techniques: stained glass, works on paper, textiles and embroidery, jewellery, repoussé metalwork, silver, enamelwork, glass, gesso, furniture and interiors. It is the most comprehensive collection of the “Glasgow School” and essential viewing to understand the richness and diversity of what was being produced by Mackintosh and his peers and to put his work in context.
Despite success in Europe and the support of clients such as Blackie and Cranston, Mackintosh’s work met with considerable indifference at home and his career soon declined. Few private clients were sufficiently sympathetic to want his ‘total design’ of house and interior. He entered the competition to design a cathedral for the City of Liverpool (1902) but although his design showed a Gothic quality as requested, his entry was rejected and his design for Scotland Street School (1906) in Glasgow was to be his last public commission.
By 1914 Mackintosh had despaired of ever receiving the level of recognition in Glasgow that he felt he deserved. He became increasingly obstinate and incapable of compromise and it is known that this exerted unnecessary pressures on his colleagues. In an attempt to resurrect his career, Mackintosh resigned from the practice and with his wife Margaret Macdonald moved to London. This was unfortunate timing, for with the onset of the First World War all building work was severely restricted. Adventurous plans for a suite of artists’ studios and a theatre were never built. It is possible that he intended to move to Vienna, where he was highly respected having forged friendships with Austrian architects such as Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, only for his plans to be thwarted by the outbreak of World War 1. Mackintosh moved to Walberswick in Suffolk in 1914, where he produced a series of botanical watercolours. While there he was arrested as a spy, possibly because he received post from central Europe, and he then moved to London.
Mackintosh’s career was a relatively short one, but of significant quality and impact. All his major commissions were between 1896 and 1906, where he designed private homes, commercial buildings, interior renovations, church, and furniture. In 1923 he moved to southern France where he spent the last five years of his life concentrating on painting before dying in London. Despite the disappointments of his later years, his early and mid-career work in Glasgow – much of which is still in use today – has sealed his reputation as one of the most important architects and designers of the turn of the 20th century. We can only speculate on what he would have achieved if he had worked as an architect for longer or indeed if he had actually visited Japan. He died on December 10, 1928 of throat cancer.
Combining a progressive modernity with the spirit of romanticism, Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) created many of the best loved and most influential buildings, furniture and decorative schemes of the early 20th century and in his home town of Glasgow his work is still cherished and preserved and still continues to inspire.