Writer Lorna Doyle explores the impact of the legendary Glaswegian designer.
If you know where to look, there are fragments of Charles Rennie Mackintosh grafted on almost every street corner in Glasgow. As an architect, his modern vernacular charm and penchant for roses were the flesh and bones of a quiet upheaval of Victorian Glasgow, as the city shrugged off the weight of persisting classicism to embrace Europe’s surfacing modernism. His designs are celebrated and recognisable all throughout Glasgow’s eclectic skyline and further afield – Mackintosh’s serenely elongated, contemporary gothic chairs have translated timelessly into modern popular culture, supporting the cast of Dr Who, Bladerunner, The Addams Family, and witness to Madonna’s sultry pursuit of a milk saucer in the music video for Express Yourself, among others. Surely, he would approve of the sentiment.
“Mackintosh’s serenely elongated, contemporary gothic chairs have translated timelessly into modern popular culture, supporting the cast of Dr Who, Bladerunner, The Addams Family, and witness to Madonna’s sultry pursuit of a milk saucer…”
Mackintosh was born in 1868 in Townhead and spent most of his life in Glasgow. Despite how well received he is today, Victorian Glasgow was unaccustomed to the attractive novelty of Mackintosh’s designs. Modernist flair was not something that those who had a say were ready for, and this led Mackintosh and his three contemporaries (his wife Margaret, her sister Frances and future husband Harold McNair) to seek and entertain success in Europe. The group were known as “The Four”, and later “The Spook School”, and they were lauded for their inventive collaboration – argued by some to be driven by an innate sexual chemistry. They became respected figures among the pioneers of the Viennese Secession, a movement that pursued a resurrection of art, which had become stodgy and pretentious under the prevailing conservatism of the European academies. The golden ticket into revolutionary art circles such as this was reinventing tradition and rejecting the rigidity of art institutions – The Four adopted existing themes familiar to the Victorian eye and recognisable Celtic influences while interrupting the status quo. Art was not something that had been heavily tampered with until the turn of the 20th century, and the rogue innovation of avant-garde experimentation was a breath of fresh air to Glasgow, which subsequently forged a concrete identity within the art world.
“The group were known as “The Four”, and later “The Spook School”, and they were lauded for their inventive collaboration – argued by some to be driven by an innate sexual chemistry.”
Mackintosh’s allure comes with his futurist agenda, precocious use of geometry and the elegant sex appeal of his collaborative work alongside his wife Margaret. Expressed by the American poet Jaqueline Osherow in Fantasia: Charles Rennie Mackintosh as “a whiff always of the heretical. Even his one church has an undertone of the sexual (the motif’s a seed in various stages of gestation)”. His church at Queen’s Cross on Garscube Road is a personal favourite. It is unassuming, but an unmistakable mark of Mackintosh’s fingerprint. The Mackintosh’s own home has been embalmed within the staunch concrete of the Hunterian Museum on campus. Their interior design – Margaret’s gesso panels are the delicate intricacy to her husband’s austere geometry – is the perfect example of harmony, for which they were commended both in Glasgow and in Europe. Mackintosh may be a household name associated with Charles Rennie, however his impact would be considerably less exciting without the simultaneous success of his wife. Margaret and her sister Frances similarly pioneered the revival of Scottish art and the conception of a Scottish Art Nouveau style. The sisters were well-respected during their careers and are attributed as crucial in the success of Art Nouveau as, literally, a “new” art style. As women at the turn of the century, their nonchalant, ethereal nudes were prescient of gender integration within art during the 20th century, and moreover, reflect their own assertiveness and career success while many other women took to art as amateurs rather than professionals.
“As women at the turn of the century, their nonchalant, ethereal nudes were prescient of gender integration within art…”
It is impossible to experience Glasgow without experiencing Mackintosh. As one of the best loved contributors to the city’s landscape, he extracted a distinct personality from Glasgow that has lasted until today. The character of his career was ultimately manifested by his natal bond with the city and its important role in his life. Glasgow maintains its unfaltering pride in the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh through the preservation of landmarks that bear the privilege of both his architecture and interior design. The Glasgow School of Art has long been celebrated as a favourite, despite succumbing to two destructive fires in quick succession, however less than 200 metres away the original Willow Tea Rooms also peacefully conserve his legacy. Further afield, the Hillbrook House and House for an Art Lover are infused with his vision.
As of 7 September, the Mackintosh House within the Hunterian Museum has been reopened to the public, now open from 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday. The house is more than just a shrine to the Mackintosh’s and their lasting influence on Scottish design; the tenement that the couple once occupied on Southpark Avenue (since demolished) has been methodically resurrected in perfect imitation of the original. The Mackintosh’s are precious, painstakingly preserved relics of Glasgow’s innovative reputation.