Mackintosh was a designer of great versatility whose oeuvre included furniture, metalwork, stained glass, and carpet and fabric designs. He also became an accomplished painter although he saw himself first as an architect whose interest in other areas of design came from a desire for continuity in his buildings whose interiors harmonised with their exteriors, down to the smallest detail. Although this style fell into neglect during his lifetime, with the recent revival of interest in anything to do with Mackintosh, it is clear that his work is as relevant today as it was then.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh was born in a tenement in 1868, and brought up in the area of Glasgow that lies just behind the city’s Necropolis. This place is a spectacular Victorian hillside cemetery for the city’s then wealthy (but now dead) citizens, and is filled with mysterious, seriously overblown, and sometimes fantastical mausolea. I think that this area was the origins of Mackintosh’s later love of architecture because, while he was a child, he spent most of his playtime there in that strange landscape of child-size houses and towering monuments. I also think that his love of design, particularly in floral motifs, came from the early years that he spent tending and drawing the flowers in his policeman father’s little garden plot, which he rented from the City Council.
At any rate, against the wishes of his policeman dad, he started work in an architect’s office, aged 16, and also attended evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art, which was then situated in the MacLellan Galleries in Sauchiehall Street. It was here that he met his future wife, Margaret MacDonald, who became a designer and artist in her own right, and who later came to play a great influence on his future work.
When Mackintosh finished his apprenticeship in 1889, at the age of 21, he joined the architectural design firm of Honeyman and Keppie, most of whose building work consisted of houses, churches, schools, offices and shops. The architecture of Glasgow at that time was wonderfully coherent in its classicism, and also uniformly beautiful because the city was almost entirely built from 2 types of stone – a honey-coloured sandstone at first, which slowly gave way to a soft red sandstone from the quarries in Ayr and Dumfries. The classical look had been applied to public buildings, tenements, schools, and even police stations, with the ideal being, the ancient Mediterranean aesthetic of refinement, nobility, and economy of form. Now that many of Glasgow’s sandstone buildings have been cleaned up, we can really appreciate the lovely colours of these old buildings.
In 1891, Mackintosh entered and won a scholarship, which enabled him to travel abroad to Italy. More importantly, it set the seal on his professional status and gave him added confidence at the beginning of his professional career. By this time he had taken up the decorative arts wholeheartedly, which henceforth, would always accompany his architectural work. His early work for his Firm had been more or less conventional and contained nothing new but in his competition designs, which he did in his own time, and while giving lectures, he gave out his own – and not his firm’s ideas. Basically, Mackintosh was out of sympathy with the Classical style, which was predominant in Glasgow. He thought of it as ‘foreign in spirit and far away’. He felt that architects should exploit the spirit of the old to produce something new – meaning that his work drew heavily on 19th century architectural practices while anticipating the functionalism and clarity of 20th century Modernism.
This gave him the reputation of being called by the critics of the times ‘Clever’ Mackintosh, which was both an expression of their admiration for his verve and facility, but also a hint of his new fashionability which could be seen as facile, and which they thought would soon pass quickly out of fashion.
The first major undertaking Mackintosh was involved with was the old Glasgow Herald newspaper building in Mitchell St. He designed the 3 differing window stories on its frontage and the huge, 150 foot water tower on its corner which has helped give it its modern name today of the ‘Lighthouse’. He was also beginning at this time to develop a new graphic language of colour-washed, intricate linear patterns with his best friend and colleague, Herbert MacNair.
The two friends met kindred spirits in this new type of art, in the shape of the MacDonald sisters, Francis and Margaret, with whom they became closely linked – not just professionally but personally when first, Herbert married Francis, and then later, Mackintosh married Margaret. All four of them attended the Glasgow School of Art and it was the School’s director, Francis Newbury, who noticed the similarity of their work, and who introduced them to one another and encouraged them to exhibit together as a group. They were later known as ‘The Four’ who established what is known as ‘The Glasgow Style’.
The earlier idealism of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain had made the decorative arts particularly attractive to progressive architects and, during the 1890s, progressive design developed a style of its own in Glasgow which was based on an admiration for the work of the painter Whistler, and the Aesthetic Movement, but also influenced by Symbolism and Art Nouveau – or ‘New Art’ as we say here in Govan.
When a new site for the Glasgow School of Art was acquired in Renfrew St., Mackintosh’s mainly Free Style design won the competition for the right to design and build it in 1897. Simply put, Free Style architects designed buildings that followed a single programme however free the composition, or the juxtaposition of the elements. The best way to understand this is to go some day to the Art School, and you will see what I mean.
Between then and 1899, Mackintosh created a variety of designs for various projects. For instance, he drew the stencil decorations for the interior of the Willow Tea Rooms in Sauchiehall St., the façade design for Queen’s Cross Church in Garscube Road, and the interior design of a bedroom where the walls and the furniture are fully integrated. This last looked forward to Mackintosh’s interiors of the early 1900’s on which he collaborated from now on with Margaret MacDonald whom he had married in 1900. Not long after this, ‘The Four’ were invited to furnish and decorate a room for the Secessionist Exhibition in Vienna. This was such a success that it went on to be shown in various parts of the Continent which delighted all four of them in that they had discovered another group of artists and designers who were interested in their overall design schemes or where an entire room, or even a house, could be a work of art – what you might say as the Free Style taken to its logical conclusion.
In 1902, the Italian government held an International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art in Turin and the Mackintoshes’ principle exhibit was a feminine room setting in white, pink, silver and green. The furniture was all in white including 2 armchairs, an oval table and 2 high-backed chairs with enamelled roses inset into the furniture, and the décor surrounding the room. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the exhibit came to be known as the ‘Rose Boudoir’ while the theme of the rose itself became emblematic of any further work by the Mackintoshes. (Cue music 3: You Don’t Bring Me Flowers) Barbara Streisand & Neil Diamond
During the next few years Mackintosh was kept busy with a wide variety of work such as his Free Style conceived White House in Helensburgh in 1902, Scotland Street School in 1903, an English Style house in 1904, and his contribution to a German exhibition of interiors in Berlin, in 1905. This was his last major exhibition in Europe and here the furniture and décor was dark, and severely rectilinear in design, which showed another side to the Mackintoshes’ imagination.
In 1906 the two of them moved from their white decorated rented flat in the city centre to a bought house near Glasgow University. Visitors to the reconstructed interiors of the new house in the Huntarian Art Gallery can see for themselves what the Mackintoshes’ made of their new home. I’ve seen it myself and, if you’ve any love of home décor, go and see it too because it’s a knockout!
After his triumphs abroad, Mackintosh must have hoped that there would be a surge of interest in the decorative arts at home. However, perhaps he didn’t realise that what was important to him and a small band of fellow enthusiasts was not important to the majority of his countrymen. In fact, this was the case in Britain were ignorance of the new art of design and decoration proved more deeply rooted than even Mackintosh had realised. As time had passed, the job of converting the Philistine had begun to feel like a one-man crusade and he became increasingly embittered as his enthusiasm and optimism changed towards anger and resentment.
Worse was to come for, after the completion of his Glasgow School of Art in 1909, until the outbreak of the Great War, he only had half a dozen minor commissions. By that date, Mackintosh’s individualism, his decorativeness and his domesticity were out of date. British architecture had moved away from this towards a stricter, more impersonal Classicism, which left him, stranded. The demand for his extraordinary style of work had dried up because Mackintosh’s style had become out of date.
This all became too much for him and he resigned from his firm in 1913 and, when he went on holiday to Suffolk the next year, he closed his house and never came back to Glasgow again. In Suffolk, he and his wife devoted themselves to watercolour painting before moving to London in 1915. Due to the War, architectural work was hard to find but Mackintosh managed to find some and also became involved (along with his wife) in designing sets and costumes for the theatre.
The last building project of note that Mackintosh worked on was to be a theatre for Margaret Morris who was the founder of the Celtic Ballet. The designs show us that this would have been a formal and symmetrical structure with an air of monumentality but, like so many of his plans then, it came to nothing when the authorities refused permission to pass them. Frustrated, fed up and bored, Mackintosh and his wife left London in 1923 and headed south to the sun.
They settled for the last 4 years of Mackintosh’s life in and around the small fishing village of Port Vendres on the Mediterranean side of the Franco-Spanish border. Here, Mackintosh devoted himself entirely to painting landscapes and still lives. His landscapes are forceful, 2-dimentional architectonic representations where we see Mackintosh bringing his talents as a designer to bear on the landscape while his still-lives – mostly of flowers – are exuberant and full of colour and life.
These watercolours were not just a pastime of retirement for Mackintosh had begun a new career as a painter, and was building a portfolio, which he intended to exhibit in the future. Unfortunately, he never completed his final design because he became seriously ill in 1927 and, when he returned to London for treatment, he found out that he had cancer of the tongue and throat. Although he had radium therapy, this proved ineffective and he died soon after at the age of 60 in 1928.
Finally, although Mackintosh had many regrets in his life concerning his designs and architectural plans that never came to fruition, one that resurfaced nearly a hundred years after it had been put aside, was Mackintosh’s design of a large country house for an art-lover or connoisseur. The house was to be modern and the assumption was that the art should consist of the house itself, (being the art object) and not in a house with a picture gallery attached to it. Well, in 1988, Mackintosh’s forgotten plans were resurrected, and that very house was built here, in the Bellahouston Park. I’m sure Mackintosh would have been very pleased because I know for certain that every time I walk past this place, I am.