Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Future-proofed genius

PUBLISHED: 12:59 31 October 2017 | UPDATED: 13:00 31 October 2017

House for an Art Lover by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow

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From Baronial-style to Blade Runner, the genius of Charles Rennie Mackintosh is in his timelessness. But, as CHRIS SULLIVAN explains, the great Scot’s fortunes were not always as enduring

The creative genius of Charles Rennie Mackintosh can be difficult to pigeonhole.

His daring constructions, such as the Glasgow School of Art, the Scotland Street School and Hill House in Helensburgh are universally recognised as architectural masterpieces, much admired by giants such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier; his furniture, including the high-backed Hill House and Argyle chairs, is as revolutionary today as ever and is still being reproduced; his daring interiors, such as The Willow tearooms, influenced the Viennese Secession and Bauhaus; while his jewellery, posters, book bindings, painting and drawings still inspire intense admiration.

But he is not a difficult man to place, geographically. Glasgow is not just the greatest gallery of his work, but the wellspring of so much of his creativity. So although his relationship with the city was not always an easy one, it is entirely appropriate that Glasgow annually devotes the whole of this month to a festival – comprising more than 40 events, exhibitions, talks and walks – celebrating his life and work.

Mackintosh was born in Glasgow on June 7 1868, the fourth of 11 children to William McIntosh and his wife, Margaret Rennie (mystery surrounds his subsequent change of name, but his father also later made the change).

As a boy, Charles would often head from his home in the suburb of Dennistoun into the city to sketch buildings or to help his police superintendent father cultivate a nearby area of land, which the family knew as ‘the garden of Eden’. It was here that he developed an abiding love of nature: something which surfaced later in the floral motifs found in his architecture’s decorative schemes.

At school Mackintosh, who suffered from some sort of dyslexia and had difficulty with spelling, was considered not the greatest academic but showed a gift for art.

Consequently, he enrolled as an evening student in the Glasgow School of Art, aged just 16, and signed up as an apprentice architect with John Hutchinson’s local practice. He completed his articles and in 1889 moved to the larger, more established and prestigious form of Honeyman and Keppie.

Still attending art classes, he enthusiastically studied life drawing and made full use of the school’s library that prided itself on a full retinue of architecture and design journals accrued from home and abroad. Here Mackintosh soaked up the past and the present while the art college’s headmaster Francis Newbery encouraged his undeniable talents.

Accordingly, he won a stack of student prizes and competitions culminating in the Alexander Thomson Travelling Studentship in 1890, which allowed him to embark on a tour of Italy’s architectural wonders.

Meanwhile, while studying at night in Glasgow, Mackintosh had met fellow artists Herbert MacNair and the MacDonald sisters, Margaret and Frances. Sharing a love for Aubrey Beardsley’s hugely controversial drawings (some of which featured men with humongous penises) the work of Whistler, the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris and the Aesthetic Movement, they immediately became firm friends and collaborators.

But, lest we forget, liking such work in the 1880s was akin to showing a penchant for punk rock in 1976. Both movements had their signature attitude and a style of dress which, for the male Aesthete, was that of a rakish dandy – longish hair, extravagant neckwear and breeches – while, for women, uncommonly pale skin, really long hair and Arthurian long gowns were de rigueur. Photographs of Mackintosh testify to the fact that he was indeed an Aesthetic acolyte.

Soon, this eminently Bohemian group came to be known as ‘The Four’, as their association crystallised, their work bearing the recognisable attributes of art nouveau but with their own exceedingly distinct interpretation.

In what was subsequently dubbed ‘the Glasgow Style’, they employed lithe economic lines, stretched and re-imagined vegetable and animal forms and stylised the human form beyond recognition. This, combined with their use of a rather subdued colour palette, earned them yet another sobriquet, the somewhat mocking ‘Spook School’.

But, as with many art movements, the four were purely reacting. Glasgow had undergone a huge transformation. It had grown exponentially during the 19th century and had been transformed from a small merchant town into a flourishing industrial city – a dynamo for not just the Scottish and British economies, but for the Empire – that fostered industrial and technical innovation. Glasgow’s population had risen from 32,000 at the start of the 19th century to 760,000 by the end.

Such expansion and industrialisation had come at a price. Glasgow, once bucolic, was a now a steaming, foggy, heavily-polluted city replete with the customary hastily-erected slums, poverty and crime.

No wonder then that ‘The Four’ referenced a simpler, eminently more natural, world. They believed that everything should be of beauty, whether teacup, table, tap or tenement, and set about collaboratively creating, to this end.

Mackintosh’s reputation as an outstanding draughtsman and inventive interior decorator was growing in Glasgow by the day. His first major project for Honeyman and Keppie was the Glasgow Herald Building – now known as The Lighthouse – which was designed in 1895. Here, he integrated pioneering technology, including a hydro-pneumatic lift and fire-resistant diatomite concrete flooring.

By then, Mackintosh was also enthusiastically engaged as a furniture designer of merit and the next year was invited (along with the other three) to add to the London Arts and Crafts Exhibition.

Unfortunately, the show was not a success for the Scots as anything seen as remotely ‘art nouveau’ was regarded as outmoded and rather unfashionable by London’s snobby style elite. Indeed, Mackintosh would not truly make his mark in England until after his death.

But England’s loss was Glasgow’s gain. The same year as the Arts and Crafts Exhibition flop, Mackintosh met Catherine Cranston, a businesswoman who had conceived the idea of a series of ‘art tearooms’ to open around the city. A tide of alcoholism in Glasgow had been pushed back by the temperance movement, of which Cranston was a leading light, and such tearooms were intended to become fashionable destinations for people to relax and enjoy (non-alcoholic) refreshments.

Who better, then, to design one of them than the continentally-feted Mackintosh? Cranston and Mackintosh started a long working relationship, during the course of which he would design and re-style all four of her Glasgow tearooms, often in collaboration with Margaret MacDonald.

Here, he was given absolute carte blanche and so designed everything from the light fittings and wall ornaments to spectacular high-back chairs and even the cutlery. What emerged here was the most beautiful tearooms ever designed, becoming something of a social marvel at the turn of the century.

For Stuart Robertson, director of Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, his work on the tearooms exemplified his integrated approach to creativity, while his business relationship with Cranston, which lay behind the project, shone a light on his approach to much else.

“Mackintosh saw his work as whole, as a story in which every detail was important, didn’t believe in compromise,” Robertson says. “He didn’t like it if he didn’t get his own way and could be very forthright in trying to achieve that. By all accounts he wasn’t the easiest person to get on with but had a real sense of humour and children loved him but he wasn’t the type of man who went on the golf course to get a contract.”

Instead, he relied a select number of clients to keep him employed, and creative.

“He had just four or five patrons who commissioned him and kept him going and he wasn’t beating around the bush to get others,” Robertson says. “He gave lectures that heavily criticised Scottish architecture that leant heavily on classic Greek and Roman influence, as he believed in going forward. Of course this didn’t make him that popular with either fellow architects or those who commissioned them.”

The turning of the new century started with a significant personal milestone and another exhibition away from Glasgow – this one considerably more successful than the Arts and Crafts one at which Mackintosh had flopped just a few years earlier.

In 1900, he had married Margaret Macdonald (MacNair and Frances had wed the previous year). In reality, their creative and professional partnership long predated their marriage and continued for the rest of their lives. She is credited with a strong influence on much of the design of many of his most celebrated interiors, and her contribution was acknowledged by him. He noted: “Margaret has genius. I have only talent.”

Shortly after their wedding, they both exhibited at that year’s Viennese Secession exhibition, where their combined influence was said to be huge. Such was their fame that devoted architecture students transported them through the Austrian city on a flower-strewn cart.

Josef Hoffmann, among the founders of the Secession movement, described Mackintosh as the leader of the modern movement and the two became good friends. In fact, it is not too much to suggest that the other leading Secessionist Gustav Klimt, who also admitted how much the couple influenced him, would not have created his later masterpieces, like The Kiss, had he not seen both Charles and Margaret Mackintosh’s work.

The start of the new century also marked a brief hiatus in the construction of what would become Mackintosh’s magnum opus, the Glasgow School of Art. He had received his most ample commission to date – to design a new venue for his alma mater – in 1896, but construction took place in two distinct phases. The first, between 1897 and 1899 and then, after a pause caused by lack of finance, a second, from 1907 to 1909.

Of course, this gap suited Mackintosh who relished the opportunity to amend his original concept, which had a foot firmly in Scotland’s earlier baronial tradition, with additions that looked to the 20th century.

As one might expect, the construction was an eclectic mix of styles and stimuli drawn from all over the world and especially traditional Japanese domestic interiors, including the rather dramatic New Library that was an entirely magnificent amalgamated space, comprising oblong wooden pillars and beams more reminiscent of a medieval Samurai lodge than an art school library.

Not that reception of the building at the time was universally positive. One local newspaper queried why a house of correction had been built in the city centre, while another advocated Mackintosh’s public whipping. Such views no doubt confirmed Mackintosh’s view of his fellow Glaswegians as “philistines”.

Between the two art college phases Mackintosh kept himself busy with a commission from publishing magnate, Walter Blackie, to create Hill House. For this, Mackintosh, as well as designing the house itself, conceived the furniture, fittings, floors and even the flowers for prescribing a colour palette of cut flora to adorn the living room.

“He always told a story with his buildings,” says Robertson. “Whether it’s the Willow tearooms that were based on a willow woods or the Hill House that was based on a children’s fantasy because the Blackie’s were publishers of children’s books. He is telling a subtle story that only he knew and only he could control as anybody else’s intervention would muddy the waters.”

And yet Mackintosh never overdid it. Apart from the myriad chairs he created for the tearooms, he also designed a plethora of chests of drawers, wardrobes and cupboards, as commissioned by Glasgow firm of cabinet makers Guthrie and Wells. Most of these items confine ornamentation to well-imagined locks, beaten metal panels and rather schematic evocations from nature that, just as the tea rooms and Hill House had, evoked the rather more restrained future of design.

“He had a futuristic approach,” says Robertson. “You’d walk up this very industrial, very polluted street in Glasgow and enter this tea room that would whisk you away to Africa or Japan. That whole idea of escapist architecture was very much ahead of its time. He integrated Japanese European art and presented this simple uncluttered style that was the opposite of Victorian whish was fussy, dark and over-ornamental.

“He also played with natural light and investigated how the light fell before he designed a house. He never explained his symbolism, as that’s for you to work out, but the feeling of calm is evident.”

Macintosh’s last public commission in Glasgow was the Scotland Street School where he didn’t get everything entirely his own way but still created a milestone that, completed in 1906, features a Scottish baronial-style tower based on Rowallan Castle in Ayrshire and went hugely over budget.

Indeed, those wranglings with the school board over the Scotland Street building (they, not unreasonably, were looking for a less expensive design) perhaps get close to the heart of the frustrations which were growing by this stage of his career. Despite his success and reputation in Europe, many private clients were sufficiently unimpressed by his ‘total design’ aesthetic.

Mackintosh’s despair manifested itself in further obstinacy and an inability to compromise, which wielded unnecessary anxieties on his colleagues. Thus, in 1910 he resigned from his firm (now called Keppie and Mackintosh) and then, when Glasgow’s economy took a turn for the worse, he and Margaret moved first to Suffolk and then to London, in an effort to revive his career.

The move south turned out to be an ill-fated one, coming, as it did, at the start of the First World War, which severely restricted any building work. Indeed, his decision to settle in Walberswick, on the Suffolk coast, seemed particularly unfortunate when he was briefly arrested on suspicion of being a German spy, accused of signalling out to sea. (Police were particularly intrigued by a bundle of his correspondence, written in German, – a reminder of his still glowing reputation within avant-garde circles across Europe. It took him a week to confirm his credentials.) As work dwindled, Mackintosh had to live off his wife’s small private income. As his career had declined, he had also turned increasingly to alcohol, perhaps ironically, given his earlier links to the temperance movement.

His last significant work was 78 Derngate in Northampton, the only English house he ever designed. In 1919, its owner W J Bassett-Lowke commissioned Mackintosh to redecorate the building’s interiors including the guests’ bedroom. As was his wont, he showed a bold new style, employing primary colours and geometric patterns, but it went virtually ignored.

In 1923, the Mackintoshes moved south again, to Port-Vendres, a town on France’s Mediterranean coast where the climate was kind and the cost of living favourable. By now, Mackintosh had entirely abandoned architecture and design and concentrated on watercolour painting. They returned to London in 1927, due to illness. The same year, Mackintosh had been diagnosed with throat and tongue cancer. He died the following year, aged 60. Margaret died five years later.

The relative obscurity of his final years was not to last, though. England had finally begun to appreciate his status as one of history’s greatest designers by the 1970s and 1980s, with endorsements from the likes of Terence Conran, of Habitat fame, pioneering graphic designer Neville Brody, who designed The Face magazine, and the hugely influential Parisian interiors innovator Philippe Starck. Throughout the 1980s Charles Rennie Macintosh was the name to drop in London’s fashionable creative circles.

Back in Glasgow, the home city with which he had had a sometimes prickly relationship, the clearest expression of the regard in which he is held came in 2014, with the outpouring of grief that followed the fire that gutted his masterpiece, the School of Art (the renowned library was destroyed).

The reason for this revival in enthusiasm for his work is not hard to fathom. While cliché dictates that much art is timeless, Mackintosh’s can genuinely claim that quality. For the uninitiated, his furniture, in particular, is all but impossible to date. There can be no greater demonstration of this, than the inclusion of two pieces of Mackintosh furniture in Deckard’s room in the 1982 film Blade Runner, which is set in an imagined 2019. Even in the future, the items do not look out of place.

Chris Sullivan wrote for The Face and Loaded and was GQ style editor

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