OVERVIEW

CHARLES RENNIE & MARGARET
MACDONALD MACKINTOSH

JAMES HERBERT & FRANCES
MACDONALD MACNAIR

LINKS




CHARLES RENNIE & MARGARET MACDONALD MACKINTOSH


   1868 - 1928                                1865 - 1933

From the earliest days of their professional and romantic partnership, Charles and Margaret were as closely in synch as they were joyously in love.  These companion pieces painted for one of Katherine Cranston's Glasgow tearooms in 1900, the year of their marriage, convey this with more eloquence than words.


The Wassail; Charles Rennie Mackintosh; cartoon for Gesso Panels, Ingram Street Tearooms;
Pencil and watercolor on tracing paper.

The May Queen; Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh; cartoon for Gesso Panels, Ingram Street Tearooms; Pencil and watercolor on tracing paper.
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Twenty-seven years later, during the last full year of his life, Charles wrote to Margaret this summation of their joint work:  You must remember that in all my architectural efforts you have been half if not three-quarters of them. He had repeatedly expressed the opinion that, while he possessed talent, his wife had genius.  Moreover, according to my research, she was the party sufficiently skilled in detailed planning to keep complex projects on track.  (You can see that in her face, can't you?)

The intensity of their shared vision and comprehensiveness of their collaboration were perhaps most tellingly witnessed by a six-year-old girl, who in advanced age told MacKintosh biographer Alistair Moffat: 

They couldn't have an ordinary key.  The door had a special plate and to open that interesting door of the new School of Art there had to be a proper key and that key had to be laid on a cushion, and they couldn't have just bought a Victorian cushion for a MacKintosh key.  So Margaret made a cushion for the formal opening of the school - a small, oblong, pale, pearly silk cushion with a silver fringe. I remember the key quite clearly now, shining pale in this grey afternoon ...


The 'new' Glascow School of Art (now called the MacKintosh Building)

In the view of experts, Modernism was born here.  It happened on a miserly budget ... just £14,000 to start off ... and at a lugubrious pace.  Since further funds had to be raised, more than a dozen years passed between initial design in 1896 and completion of phased construction.  During this period almost every notable MacKintosh structure took form, but the GSA was his masterpiece.  The east wing opened in 1899, including the director's office, a boardroom and a skylit museum; the two-story library, redesigned with Margaret's input,  was built in 1906; and the dramatically windowed west wing went up between 1907 and 1909.  At the outset, Charles was barely out of school:  a lowly draftsman assigned the dreary jobs such as this was expected to be.  In 1904, still long before the project ended, he was made a partner.



Entrants vying for this contract were asked for a 'plain' building and Charles did focus on utility.  Industrial bay windows flood studios with the white northern light artists need and their steel brackets supply easy footing for glass cleaners, who have only to position a board.  On the higher-tech side, this is the world's first structure with air conditioning integrated into its blueprint.  

He was never a Functionalist, however.  As a self- declared Modernist and Craftsman, he found inherent beauty not in functionality but in surprising yet elegant forms and materials. 

Helpfully, one of the judges was on his precise wavelength:  his friend and former mentor, Francis Newbery.  When only 30 years old and fresh from London's cosmopolitan art scene in 1884, Newbery was named headmaster of the GSA.  He assumed the post soon after young Charles began taking classes, and remained in it  for more than 20 years ... during which he brought The Four together and encouraged them to master a range of creative techniques, exhibit widely and take an interest in the burgeoning Arts & Crafts movement throughout Europe.  Without Newbery, it's safe to say the Glasgow Style would never have developed and no doubt he took pride, as well as delight, in the group's accomplishments.

Some critics reviled the new GSA building as prison-like, but Newberry grasped better than anyone how well the block-long 'E' design suited the site,  how the austere small-paned walls at east and west evoked Scottish baronial towers and how the contrast of the spectacular north wall with vast windows fronting a busy street represented the genesis of something never seen before.  Moreover, he must have been charmed by the many and varied ornamental elements, such as Margaret's masterful The Heart of the Rose.

Charles believed in decorating construction ... not constructing decoration ... but was passionate about both aspects.  For the GSA's exterior, he designed metalwork alive with stylized bees, ladybugs, scarab beetles, leaves and flowers, and also modeled the plaque over the main entrance with his own hands.

Organic motifs are repeated indoors on furniture, stained glass, textiles and other accents.   While the interior space is free of heavy Victorian frippery, it's a jeweled work of art.


The Heart of the Rose by Margaret Macdonald MacKintosh


Detail from Frittilaria-Walberswick
1914 Watercolor, C. R. MacKintosh

Addressing GSA students in 1902, Charles stated:  Art is the flower.  Life is the green leaf ... How beautiful life is often, but think of the stupendous possibilities of the flower. 

Botanical references came to him fluently, based on frequent country rambles in boyhood.  A frail child, he was advised to take plenty of exercise in open air.  Often he took along a sketchbook and gained knowledge of botany by drawing the specimens he saw ... a pursuit he enjoyed also in maturity, often while spending summer holidays in Suffolk with Newbery at Walberswick.

From an early age, Charles knew himself destined for architecture and he paused on his walks to draw local buildings, as well as plants.  He must have reveled in the tranquility of these excursions, being the youngest of 11 children housed by their police officer father in a third-floor tenement apartment until Charles was 10 years old and promotion to superintendent rank enabled the senior MacKintosh to take up residence in the quiet suburb of Dennistoun.

Margaret, as a girl, enjoyed rural pursuits on a grander scale.  Born at Newcastle-under-Lyme (which sounds like an inauspicious beginning), she was settled nonetheless in one of Staffordshire's greatest country houses by the age of 12.  In 1876 her Glasgow-born father left engineering to serve as estate agent for the Heathcotes, a wealthy family with extensive properties including 18th century Chesterton Hall, where the Macdonalds moved.  Her mother was from Staffordshire.

Allegedly sited atop an ancient Celtic stone circle, Chesterton Hall was steeped in legends which no doubt fired her imagination.  Both Margaret's early art and Frances' show keen interest in symbolism, mythology and fairy subjects.  

Detractors attributed these works to the Celtic Spook School ... a genre exemplified by the poster at right and painting at left.  Dating from her 29th birthday on Fireworks Night of 1894, November 5  depicts her as a morosely contemplative figure half-buried, upon whom sparks fall like tears from shriveled female spirits.  She had no notion how soon her luck (and art) would change.


Margaret 
Etching by J. M. Aiken


Poster by Margaret with Frances, her sister, and Herbert MacNair c. 1895 




Margaret MacDonald MacKintosh
Mixed Media Miniature & Plaque of Metal martellée,
c. 1900

Heady times ensued almost from the moment of their marriage.  While exhibiting with the Secessionists in Vienna, they acquired friends among the luminaries of Eastern Europe and her miniatures incorporating substances like sandstone and pearl were revelatory to Klimt.  A significant commission was also gained there: the Wandorfer Music Salon. destroyed in World War I. (The surviving panel from her Seven Princesses series hangs in the Vienna Arts and Crafts Museum opposite works by Klimt that reflect her influence.)

More international shows followed in Berlin, Moscow and elsewhere.  Their 1902 display in Turin was so highly acclaimed it won an Italian knighthood for their mentor, Francis Newbery, who personally selected the featured works and placed Charles in charge of decorating the showrooms.


The Rose Boudoir, 1902 Turin International Exhibition


Meanwhile, at home, their increasingly trusting patron Katherine Cranston (aka Mrs. Cochrane) gave Charles authority over her third tea room complex from its exterior down to the towels, spoons and uniforms.  He'd supplied murals for the first of her 'art tearooms,' located on Buchanan Street.  Later, with Margaret, he decorated and furnished the second facility on Ingram Street.
  "Tea" being a meal in the British Isles, these were really restaurants, offering far more than a cuppa'.  No alcohol was served, so respectable matrons could meet in a setting of refinement ... all the more so, because the  new Willow Tea Rooms on Sauchiehall (Scottish for Willow Alley) included a gorgeous Room Deluxe behind stained glass doors.  Margaret's O Ye, All Ye Who Walk in Willowood was created for that space.

Happily, we can still visit these tearooms.  Under the ownership of restaurateur Ann Mulhern, The Willow has been recreated in its original location and, next door to Kate's Buchanan Street site, two famous rooms from her Ingram Street venue have also been rebuilt.    Another from Ingram Street, the Ladies' Luncheon Room, was actually dismantled and rebuilt at the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum, Kelvingore.  


The Chinese Room


The Room de Luxe

For the tea heiress Kate, they also remodeled an 18th century home in suburban Glasgow. 

Furnishings crafted for Hous'hill are museum treasures now, this 1904 washstand at the Met being a superb example.  Charles fashioned it of oak, lead, ceramic tile, colored glass and mirror. 



Entrance to The Room Deluxe


O Ye, All Ye that Walk in Willowood, 1902
Margaret Macdonald MacKintosh

Other significant clients were businessmen William Davidson and Walter Blackie, who commissioned large residences:  Windyhill in Kilmacolm and The Hill House in Helensburgh, overlooking the River Clyde. 

Considered MacKintosh's finest domestic creation, The Hill House ... completed in 1904 for the Blackie family ...  is timeless in its elegance.  It was conceived and crafted as a whole including even the surrounding gardens, where trees were clipped to his design, and is now a museum administered by The National Trust.

Also in museum care is Charles and Margaret's own home from 1906 until 1914.   Painstakingly reconstructed, its hall, dining room, studio-drawing room and main bedroom can be seen within the Hunterian Museum of the University of Glasgow, which acquired the house and original furnishings in 1946.  The structure had to be demolished in 1963, being threatened by subsidence and located next to land slated for redevelopment.  All salvageable fittings were removed and incorporated into the replica, completed in 1981. 

The present sequence of rooms reflects that of 78 Southpark Avenue (originally 6 Florentine Terrace) and virtually the same views and natural lighting effects could be duplicated, because the house stood less than 350 feet away.  

Besides furniture original to the house, the rooms contain bric à brac, carpets and curtains based on descriptions and photographs of Mackintosh interiors of the period.  Oddly, the couple never built a residence of their own, but only remodeled, so loss of the exterior was irrelevant.

The other house Charles and Margaret are best known for is one they didn't live to see.

Although not built until the 1990's, this home was conceived almost a century earlier, in response to a competition announced in 1901 by a Viennese magazine.  The publisher's challenge was to design ' a grand house in a thoroughly modern style.' 

Portfolio cover for competition entry.
Lithograph c. 1902


The House for an Art Lover

Charles and Margaret somehow didn't manage to meet the submission deadline, so were disqualified from winning.  Even so, their drawings were awarded second prize and a special jury prize for 'their pronounced personal quality, their novel and austere form and the uniform configuration of interior and exterior.' 

The MacKintosh submission portfolio eventually came to life in two locations, one in Japan and the other in Glasgow's Bellahouston Park, where visitors can compare original documents with the finished rooms.  Complete with café and shop, it's a popular spot for weddings, conferences, concerts and other events.



The Lighthouse


MacKintosh clients on the commercial/institutional side included two Glasgow newspapers.  Designed in 1895 for the Herald and called The Lighthouse, the structure at left was his first public commission   It's now a center for architectural studies, hosting workshops,  lectures and other events.  At right is the Daily Record office as rendered in 1901 with a dazzling surface of sculpted sandstone and white-glazed brick.  The drawing's watercolor finish is also unique, since perspectives were then worked only in black ink.  



Of the latter, still an occupied office building, only the original exterior survives.

The 1906 Scotland Street School (below) was Charles'  last major commission in Glasgow.  Greatly admired for its spiral staircase,  it's become a museum of early 20th century education.  Much of Martyrs' School, dating from 1895, can also be seen, while portions are used as offices by Glasgow Museums staff.

Daily Record Building



Scotland Street School
1904

Martyrs' School
1895

Additionally, two Glasgow churches are MacKintosh designs, by far the more important being Queen's Cross. Built between 1897 and 1899 to serve a poor neighborhood, it slotted into a cramped corner lot amid tenements and warehouses. 

Within the asymmetrical exterior, a hulking sculptural mass that suggests a rock, the interior glows with abstract stained glass. At first it was to be called St. Matthew's, so there are details with a 'Matthew' theme ... plus usual Christian symbols and some that are offbeat:  apples, bees and an astounding ship's hull of a ceiling. Banded with steel and barrel-vaulted,  it's an Ark upside-down, reminiscent also of medieval barns. 

The church ... now headquarters for the Charles Rennie MacKintosh Society ... also owes a considerable debt to Herbert Macnair, who was responsible for introducing his friend to the idea of symbolism in architecture.  



Only stems and leaves adorn the pulpit and communion table, as if to hint faith brings forth its own fruit and flowers.


Charles clearly felt at home with the Queens Cross project, even though the institution was of the Free Church of Scotland chain, whereas his own religious background was Catholic.  Whatever his and Margaret's deepest spiritual beliefs may have been ... perhaps principally in those " flowers' of art that can blossom above our everyday leaves ...  they sustained them when tested.  The evidence is in the breathtaking pictures they produced after other doors closed to them.  


Detail from The Mysterious Garden Margaret Macdonald NacKintosh, 1911

During his depression (termed a 'breakdown' by some sources), Margaret once again inspired Charles to work in watercolor.  She'd been doing so, herself, in the absence of commissions requiring the large gesso and metal panels she was known for.  

While she retained her interest in metaphysical subjects and was painting these in a more mature style, he was always most fascinated by nature and created some of his loveliest flower studies during this period, particularly on summer painting trips to Walberswick in Suffolk.


Detail from Witch Hazel, Walberswick
 C. R. NacKintosh
c. 1914


Guest Room at Bassett-Lowke House
c. 1919

It was to Walberswick they moved upon leaving Glasgow, but they were driven from the vulnerable Suffolk coast at the start of World War I by officials who thought they might collude with the German enemy.  Relocated to Chelsea in London, they attempted to re-establish themselves in the professional world.  Mainly they created textiles for manufacturers such as Sexton of Belfast and William Foxton, who offered avant-garde fabrics in London, since architectural and decorative commissions were scarce in wartime.  They did design a fourth tearoom for Kate ...  the 'Dug-Out' ... and produced dramatic interiors for a client in Northampton.

At the Whynne Bassett-Lowke home, a bold new style asserted itself with primary hues and geometric motifs that anticipated Art Deco.  When as a guest, George Bernard Shaw was given the bedroom room shown and asked if the decor would trouble his sleep, he replied, "No.  I sleep with my eyes shut."

Shaw's was an attitude all too typical among the British in those days.  By 1920, Charles had abandoned hope of resuming his architectural career and, in 1923, he and Margaret abandoned England to settle in the French Pyrenees, occupying a hotel room in the Languedoc village of Port-Vendres.  Nonetheless,  it isn't despair we see in their late paintings.


Opera of the Sea (date uncertain)
Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh



La Rue de Soleil Port-Vendres, 1926
C. R. Mackintosh

Charles' last architectural design, still unrealized, was for an artists' studio complex in Chelsea.

Designed in 1920, it looks just as modern today.

 

 


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