Charles Rennie Mackintosh  (1868 - 1928)There can be few artistic reputations which have see-sawed as dramatically as that of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) who today has cult status. Yet while many of his early projects were reported after 1897 in the British and foreign press, his masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art (1897-9 - 1907-9) was ignored. After its completion Mackintosh had no new clients in Glasgow. Leaving the city he and his wife moved as first to the coastal village of Walberswick in Suffolk, then to Chelsea, London, and from there in 1923 to the south-west of France where Mackintosh occupied his time in painting. Mackintosh was a fluent draughtsman. A prizewinner as a student, he continued throughout his life to fill sketchbooks almost as aides-memoires. He was an exceptional artist; and today reproductions if his flower studies are in every giftshop. In his self-imposed exile from Scotland Mackintosh’s compositions became more ambitious with his most striking being the watercolour landscapes produced in the south of France in response to the dramatically rugged and stridently colourful surroundings.

Margaret Macintosh (1865 - 1933)Mackintosh had married Margaret Macdonald (1865-1933) in 1901. In the previous year her younger sister Frances had married J Herbert McNair a draughtsman, like Mackintosh, in the long established and prestigious architectural practice of John Honeyman. The Four, as they were known, were close knit socially and artistically producing works which were hostilely criticised. In an exhibition in 1894 there was published comment about “the ghouldlike designs” of the Macdonalds who, like MacNair, has been able to set up their own studios. Mackintosh remained in his firm to become a partner in 1904 and a member of the RIBA two years later.

Mackintosh was not a commercial designer of furniture. Each piece was a response to a specific need whether for a paper project, such as the completion for the House for an Art Lover, with the perspectives being published in 1902, or for a client such as the publisher Walter Blackie at The Hill House, Helensburgh (1902-4). Mackintosh’s largest and most intact domestic commission probably came his way through the recommendation of Talwin Morris, the book designer who in 1893 had become art director for Blackie and Son, the Glasgow based publishing company. Although the Blackie family was conspicuous in the public life of the city, Walter Blackie wanted to bring up his children in the coastal town of Helensburgh with its easy rail connection to Glasgow.

Although the design of The Hill House can be related to contemporary design practice, the lack of overt historical references and the coating of harling give it an abstract appearance. For such a large structure it may be a surprise that there are only two public rooms with the upper floors being bedrooms and the east wing domestic offices and nurseries. Only the drawing-room and the master bedroom were finished as Mackintosh would have wished . In each the furniture was designed to conform to a room’s overall function and spatial disposition. A layout for the master bedroom, for example, shows the exact location of each piece.

Given the public nature of many of Mackintosh’s commissions much of Mackintosh’s furniture was utilitarian as in the tea rooms for Miss Cranston for whom he began to working 1896 with wall decorations for the Buchanan Street rooms. In the next year for the Argyle Street tea rooms he was designing oak furnishings, including the now famous domino tables, but it was not until the Willow Tea Room, begun in 1906, that he had total design control. On the ground floor with its interlocking spaces his tables and chairs in shape, height and texture all defined and sub-divided the interlocking zones. Above in the Room de Luxe silver chairs, with elongated backs, are reflected in the silvered mirror frieze. Perhaps Mackintosh’s most accomplished interior is the library of the Glasgow School of Art where he abandons more obvious romantic and symbolic decorations such as the roses spilling down the wall surfaces on The Hill House drawing room.

Symbolism was inherent in the work of The Four and had been commented upon by one writer in 1897. Yet with Mackintosh, because of his architectural training, it is less emotional and less obvious but operating at a subliminal level. Thus the entrance to the Glasgow School of Art, with its palisade of metal trees, its hanging lamp of hyacinth glass, is the approach to a sacred palce whose sanctuary is the library. In the largely unadorned library it is the oak posts, balcony and beams which compose the image of a grove, of a three-dimensional Tree of Knowledge, an image which is given further credence by the furnishings which in the scale and in their details are like a coppice beneath great trees.

Other rooms, such as the low lost music room at Hous’Hill for Miss Cranston (1903), have an almost ethereal poetry or as in The Hill House drawing-room the dreaminess of a romance. The School of Art library, being almost without decoration, is a creation of pure form of squares and rectangles interlocking and overlayering one another. Such is the geometry too in the adaptation and the installation of interiors in the small red brick terrace house at Derngate, Northampton (1916-7) for the industrial designer, W J Basset-Lowke. It was Mackintosh’s last significant commission.

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Special thanks to Dr. James Macaulay