The line of beauty

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 62

The line of beauty

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 43, Summer 2015

Page 62

The work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh was dismissed by later generations. Wrong, says Gavin Stamp, the designer was a genius

Charles Rennie Mackintosh is an almost mythical figure, too often seen as a lone misunderstood genius, a sort of Glaswegian Van Gogh. It is a misleading interpretation, encouraged by his native Glasgow, which for many years turned its back on him, but is now stuffed with 'Mockintosh' memorabilia. A brilliant architect and designer he certainly was, but if he eventually left Glasgow for self-imposed exile, it was partly because his temperament was unable to adapt to changing circumstances. Mackintosh was once an artist in the European avant-garde, with a vanity manifest in a famous photograph showing the young architect with his mustache elegantly waxed, a scarf tied in a floppy bow around an open-necked soft shirt. For this prodigy later to find his work dismissed by a younger generation was perhaps too hard to bear.

Born in 1868, Mackintosh emerged when so many architects and artists were striving to escape historical styles. His work was an expression of the Art Nouveau or Jugendstil which was flourishing on the Continent. A product of the vigorous contemporary artistic culture in Glasgow, the policeman's son was deeply interested in the building traditions of his native land. What Antonio Gaudí was to Barcelona, Mackintosh was to Glasgow.

He trained with a firm of architects, but took classes at Glasgow School of Art and became involved with a group of talented students, mostly women, who called themselves 'The Immortals'. Mackintosh became close to three in particular: Herbert McNair and two sisters, Frances and Margaret Macdonald. Known as 'The Four', they produced paintings, hangings and decorative work of a romantic strangeness. Images of tall, ethereal and mysterious female figures abounded, and soon The Four became ridiculed as the Glasgow 'Spook School'.

'Toshie' and Margaret married in 1900. They came together, as his biographer Alan Crawford put it, "not only as man and woman, but also as artists. From this point on, the story of Mackintosh's life and work cannot be told as if he were a single person." Mackintosh himself once wrote: "Margaret has genius, I have only talent."

Perhaps their highest expression was in the interiors they designed for themselves, first in a flat and then in a house in Kelvingrove in the west of Glasgow, which survive today in The Hunterian museum. These were intense and almost impossibly pure white interiors, carefully articulated with furniture manifesting an Art Nouveau curvaceousness and eroticism, such as chairs with very tall backs and a cheval mirror framed by curving tree-like piers containing delicate drawers. Inventive, contrived and with a strong presence, they can almost be regarded as sculpture. An example of their style, a music cabinet made for a private client, is offered at Bonhams New Bond Street in June's Decorative Arts Sale.

While the German architect and critic Hermann Muthesius admired the refinement of the Mackintoshs, he observed that, "Even a book in an unsuitable binding would disturb the atmosphere simply by lying on the table ..." At the Arts & Crafts Society exhibition in London in 1896, their style seemed alien to the English insistence on simplicity and solid craftsmanship.

But it was the couple's interiors that brought their work to an international audience. In 1900 they exhibited at the iconoclastic Vienna Secession exhibition, and their designs were also shown in Italy, Germany and Hungary. Back in Glasgow, Mackintosh and his work won admirers thanks to Mrs Kate Cranston, for whom he designed furniture and decorated tea-rooms, known for their good taste. Only the Willow Tea Rooms in Sauchiehall Street partially survive.

Meanwhile, Mackintosh's architectural career was taking off. The first building in which his hand is evident in its Art Nouveau detailing was built for the Glasgow Herald newspaper in 1894-95. The following year his practical yet stylistically complex and allusive design won the competition for new premises for Glasgow School of Art, his masterpiece. He was responsible for several large houses which drew upon the simplicity of Scottish vernacular architecture and castles. When Hill House at Helensburgh – now owned by the National Trust for Scotland – was finished in 1904, he said, "Here is the house. It is not an Italian Villa, an English Mansion House, a Swiss Chalet, or a Scotch Castle. It is a Dwelling House." In 1907 work began on completing the School of Art. He created a magical library with timber columns like a forest of trees. This was his last important work in Scotland. Art Nouveau was going out fashion. Commissions were drying up and Mackintosh, now drinking heavily, was prone to depression and inertia.

He left his native country in 1914, to recuperate with Margaret on the Suffolk coast, and never returned. With no work in the offing, the Mackintoshes moved in 1923 to Port Vendres in France. There he developed his prodigious talent as a draftsman and painter in landscapes with powerful, almost architectural form. He returned to London in 1928, where he died of cancer of the tongue, followed five years later by Margaret.

These sad years contributed to the Mackintosh myth. But he was not a lonely pioneer of Modernism, as is sometimes still argued. What is beyond dispute is that Mackintosh was a designer of genius, particularly of furniture. Last year, in the fire that gutted the west wing of Glasgow School of Art, more than a hundred pieces of his furniture were lost. Which makes what survives all the more precious.

Gavin Stamp is an architectural historian and writer for Apollo magazine.

Related auctions