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Willow talk: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and friends

Willow talk: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and friends

Glasgow’s most famous son was born 150 years ago. An exhibition takes us back to a time when the city was at the cutting edge of modernism

Glasgow’s most famous son was born 150 years ago. An exhibition takes us back to a time when the city was at the cutting edge of modernism

Samuel Reilly | May 31st 2018

“Those who want to see art”, said the leading German architect and critic Hermann Muthesius in 1902, “should bypass London and go straight to Glasgow. Glasgow’s take on art is unique.” At the turn of the century, Glasgow was the second city of the British empire. It was also, as the home of Britain’s only Art Nouveau movement, at the cutting edge of modernism. The Glasgow Style was a powerful concoction of simplified linear form and poetic detail that fed into design, architecture and art. It was to prove short-lived – its heyday had passed by 1908 – but its influence on continental Art Nouveau, and especially on modern art in Vienna, was profound. At its heart was Charles Rennie Mackintosh: the child of a local police clerk, who would become the city’s favourite son.

Big Mac Charles Rennie Mackintosh at the peak of his career

Timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of his birth, an exhibition at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove is, in part, a dutiful retelling of Mackintosh’s rise to prominence. For Glasgow, the late 19th century was a time of booming industry, rapid development and cultural exchange. While Mackintosh was employed as a junior architectural draughtsman in the 1880s, doodling chair designs when he was bored, he found inspiration in everything from Scottish Gothic architecture to Japanese painting.

With his fellow draughtsman James Herbert McNair, and the sisters Margaret and Frances Macdonald, Mackintosh formed a group called the Glasgow Four in the early 1890s. It made all manner of arts and crafts, from furniture and textiles to posters and paintings. By the turn of the century, the work of the Four was featuring in important exhibitions across Europe, and Mackintosh himself had begun work on the grand architectural projects, such as the Willow Tearooms on Sauchiehall Street and the new Glasgow School of Art (GSA) building, which would assure his legacy as one of the leading architects of the Modern movement.

Yet the environment in which Mackintosh forged his career nurtured countless others, and this exhibition is also an attempt to place Mackintosh in their context. As the educational programme at the GSA was radically transformed under the direction of Francis Newbury, a generation of talented craftspeople was instructed in everything from book design to metalwork, glassblowing and embroidery, infusing every aspect of domestic life with the Glasgow Style. By moving between Mackintosh, and this profusion of creativity among his lesser-known contemporaries, the exhibition becomes a celebration less of the one man’s genius, than of the brief but brilliant explosion of artistic energy it helped to ignite.
 

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, “High-backed chair for Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street Tearooms” (1900)

Mackintosh worked on all four of the tearooms founded by the entrepreneur Catherine Cranston. These refined social spaces – the result of the efforts of Glasgow’s Temperance movement to provide an alternative to the pub – gave Mackintosh the chance to realise an ambition he shared with the leading continental architects of his day. He wanted to create a gesamtkunstwerk: a total work of art, in which every detail complements and augments every other.

The ladder-backed chairs that furnished the tearooms are Mackintosh’s most famous design. They are the perfect demonstration of his aim to achieve a harmony of style and function; decoratively elegant and unfussy when compared to Victorian styles, they also happen to be excellent for posture.

 

Frances Macdonald, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh and James Herbert McNair, “Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts” (c. 1895)

This poster, with its sinuous lines and symbolic motifs of plant forms – including an early iteration of the iconic Glasgow rose design in the top corners – is one of a series exhibited by the Four in early 1895. The ethereal quality of these works, created by the sparseness of the composition and the deployment of negative space, earned the group the derogatory nickname of the “Spook School” in the Glasgow press. The dramatically elongated forms of the figures owe much to Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s notorious play, “Salomé”.

 

Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, “The May Queen” (1900)

Mackintosh married Margaret Macdonald in 1900; in the same year, the couple was invited to exhibit works in the 8th Secessionist Exhibition in Vienna. This vast panel was paired with Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s The Wassail in their specially designed “Rose Boudoir”, where it impressed Gustav Klimt so much that he took it as the inspiration for his “Beethoven Frieze” (1902). The application of gesso – a fine plaster – to hessian allowed Margaret and Charles to explore sculptural modes of texture in two dimensions; the lines are created by brown painted string, while the whole is ornamented by beads of glass and mother-of-pearl.

The May Queen, who presides over the ritual of May Day to celebrate the coming of spring, has long been associated with the ancient worship of tree spirits; at once luxurious and spectral, Macdonald Mackintosh’s May Queen shows how the Four rejected Victorian materialism in favour of a new kind of symbolic spirituality.

 

Peter Wylie Davidson, “Longcase Clock: The Swallow’s Flight” (after 1902)

This clock demonstrates a range of the metalworking techniques taught at the Technical Art Studios, where the silversmith Peter Wylie Davidson, a contemporary of Mackintosh’s at the GSA, taught from 1897 until 1935. The 14 swallows whirling in a blur around the brass clock face have been embossed using both chasing and repoussé techniques – hammered into shape from both the front and the reverse of the metal – while the pair attached to the pendulum have been cast in copper.

The elaborate beauty of the swallows is offset by the simplicity of the wooden frame, which may have been built to a Mackintosh design. Mackintosh believed – in contrast to the principles of the English Arts and Crafts movement led by William Morris – that decoration should not be valued merely for its own sake, but rather for the symbolic meaning it imparts upon a design. Followers of the Glasgow Style were influenced by the Celtic revival and fascinated by magic and legends. They had all read “The Golden Bough”, a comparative study of mythology and religion by the Scottish anthropologist James George Frazer. The swallow was a popular subject, along with the May Queen, the rose and the moon.
 

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, “Grey Iris” (c. 1923)

After the completion in 1909 of what is widely regarded as his masterpiece – the new Glasgow School of Art building – Mackintosh never worked on another large-scale architectural project. He left Glasgow with Margaret in 1914, never to return after the war, and increasingly turned his creative attentions to textile design and ruminative, intimate watercolour studies of flowers. In this painting, vegetation takes on rhythmic forms, and ceramic vases loom forward from a stark black interior. The careful alternation of light with shade, and of curves with vertical lines, echoes the characteristics of Mackintosh’s best architecture.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum until August 14th