Ahead of the curve: the art of Charles Rennie Mackintosh

by Stanley Meisler

Smithsonian Magazine - January 1997"Ahead of the curve: the art of Charles Rennie Mackintosh" by Stanley Meisler was originally published in the January 1997 issue of the Smithsonian Magazine. A short abstract is available on the Smithsonian Magazine website. The complete text of the article is published here (copyright © 1997 - Stanley Meisler, all rights reserved). Subscribe to the Smithsonian Magazine.


With his wife, Margaret, he changed the face of Glasgow; now the city is celebrating them by sending a major exhibition across the pond

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the masterful Scottish architect and designer, created his small stock of exquisite work in a brief outburst of youthful exuberance around the turn of the century and then slipped into a desperate decline. After Mackintosh died in 1928, a critic described him as "the European counterpart of Frank Lloyd Wright" and a forerunner of Le Corbusier. In 1994, a Mackintosh writing desk was sold at auction in London for an astounding 793,500 pounds, setting a record for a piece of 20th-century furniture. But Mackintosh never felt the kind of acclaim during his lifetime that critics shower on great artists. After tasting early success in his native Glasgow, a depressed Mackintosh found himself falling out of fashion. Drinking too much, he muttered bitterly in his 40s about the world passing him by. Long before he died, he gave up architecture and design.

Even now, his work is not as well known as it deserves to be. Critics have never agreed where to place him. Some describe Mackintosh as a prophet of modernism; some call him an apostle of Art Nouveau. But, in fact, Mackintosh approached every building, every room, as if he were composing a different poem, using his imagination to create something special and whole.

The difficulty about placing him in a school of architecture or design probably contributes to a confused image of Mackintosh. He also left very few writings to clarify his intentions and feelings. The confusion is compounded in the United States by distance. While American textbooks always find space for him, Mackintosh is a remote figure here. There are few pieces of his furniture in American museums and no examples of his architecture in the United States. Glasgow, the home of his wondrous buildings, is not on the usual itinerary for Americans on their grand tours of Europe.

This lack of familiarity is bound to end soon because of a major artistic happening - the first retrospective of the work of Mackintosh to reach the United States. Organized by the Glasgow Museums, the Hunterian Art Gallery of the University of Glasgow and the Glasgow School of Art, and mounted first at the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow, the exhibition arrived at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in November, where it will remain until February 16. It will then go to the Art Institute of Chicago (March 29-June 22) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (August 3-October 12). So much energy and love has been expended on the exhibition from both sides of the Atlantic that J. Stewart Johnson of the Metropolitan, cocurator of the exhibition and a lifelong Mackintosh aficionado, joked to reporters at the opening in Glasgow, "Mackintosh is not a household name in the States yet. But he will be or I'll commit suicide."

Charles Rennie Mackintosh was born in Glasgow on June 7, 1868, the son of a burly policeman who captained the city's world-champion police tug-of-war team. Glasgow was then a teeming industrial town, "the second city of the empire," the most populous city in Scotland. Glasgow's wealthy industrialists prided themselves on their sponsorship of new architecture, their taste in design and their interest in cultural trends emanating from the European continent rather than London.

Mackintosh grew up in a Glasgow tenement neighborhood but not a hellish one. Young Charles was born with a lame foot, developed a drooping eyelid and probably suffered from dyslexia, but he was a determined student with a penchant for drawing and a desire to make a name in architecture. He apprenticed himself to an architect at the age of 16 and was hired by a prestigious architectural firm, Honeyman and Keppie, as a draftsman five years later.

Herbert McNair, another young draftsman at the firm, and Mackintosh took night classes in art and design at the Glasgow School of Art - a proper step for young architects intent on advancement in their firms - and soon became attached to a circle of young women students who liked to call themselves "the Immortals." The most talented were the Macdonald sisters, whose watercolors and designs and posters featured thin, ethereal female figures that struck local critics as weird and spooky. Mackintosh would marry Margaret Macdonald a few years later, while McNair married her younger sister, Frances, and the four often exhibited their furniture and interior designs and watercolors together.

Architectural offices were bastions of bourgeois gentility, but Mackintosh could assume a bohemian air while cavorting with the Immortals. Photographs show a strikingly handsome young man picnicking with McNair and the women and sporting a dark mustache, a loose shirt and an overflowing artist's cravat. Despite his limp and droop, he was popular and talkative. His friends called him "Toshie."

In 1890, he won a prize of 60 pounds for three months' travel in Italy. His tour diary revealed an unpretentious 22-year-old who was excited to find "the originals of many old and well-known friends" when he entered the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The monumental works of Italy did not shake his conviction that a Scottish architect must remain rooted to traditional Scottish architecture.

Margaret Macdonald, tall and freckled, with copper red hair, would have an enormous influence on Mackintosh's work. "She opened up to him a new intellectual world in which the artist is a self-conscious person," says Daniel Robbins, curator of British Art and Design for the Glasgow Museums and the project coordinator of the exhibition in Glasgow. Her influence was so great that foolish critics would sometimes dismiss the curvaceous, symbolic side to Mackintosh's work as nothing more than ruinous wifely interference.

In fact, Macdonald's contributions were vital. Mackintosh's art depended on creating a balance between forces like darkness and light, line and curve, abstraction and sensuality, function and symbol. His wife did not just add decoration to his work but helped him fashion the forces creating the tension. She and Toshie signed many works jointly, but her hand can often be seen even in furniture and buildings attributed solely to Charles Rennie Mackintosh. "Margaret has genius," Mackintosh once told a friend. "I have only talent."

His glory days as an architect did not last very long. All his buildings were constructed in the Glasgow area during a brief frenetic period from 1893, when he was 25 years old, to 1909, when he was 41. The output includes the Glasgow Herald Building, the Glasgow School of Art, the Queen's Cross Church, the Scotland Street School, the Hill House and a few other structures.

It is not easy to discern the influences upon Mackintosh. He agreed with those in the British Arts and Crafts Movement who preached the need of craftsmanship to break the monotony of the mass-produced objects coming out of the factories of the Industrial Revolution. He also accepted the pleas of those Scottish architects who urged their colleagues to scour the traditional buildings of the Scottish countryside for inspiration. But, far from mimicking the work of others, he infused his creations with extraordinary inventiveness, subtlety and wit. "The artist cannot attain to mastery in his art," he once said in a lecture, "unless he is endowed in the highest degree with the faculty of invention." Mackintosh was certainly endowed with it. "I have found Mackintosh to be a lonely figure who drew so heavily on his own formal imagination," wrote British critic Alan Crawford recently, "that much of what was going on around him was irrelevant."

Numerous critics talk about the wit and playfulness in Mackintosh's work. The Scotland Street School, for example, has two circular towers embedded in the facade, one housing the entrance for boys, the other for girls. These resemble the thick-walled towers on old Scottish castles that enclose spiral staircases in darkness. The towers of the school, however, are almost all window, and when you enter the building, you find that they do not enclose any spiral staircases at all. Straight and ordinary staircases are recessed far back into the building. The towers have no other function than to enclose a void and shower it with light. The trick makes you smile, but the overall mood is exhilarating.

The bold use of glass-dominated towers at this elementary school is surely one reason that some critics hailed Mackintosh later as a pioneer of modern architecture. Yet it is hard to fit the towers into the creed of modern architecture that "form follows function." They came out of the imagination of Mackintosh and not out of any use in the building. In fact, school officials were troubled by his disregard for practical matters in his design. They complained bitterly, for example, about the way he divided each window into many little panes. They were too hard to keep clean.

Mackintosh's masterpiece is surely the new Glasgow School of Art building that he designed in 1896. Much of its greatness comes from subtlety, and Glasgow at first failed to realize the value of the treasure that graced a full block of Renfrew Street high on one of the city's downtown hills. They did not treat the building as a wealth of creativity but as "thoroughly business-like," "suitable for the requirements of art education" and "primarily utilitarian." They were right in a sense. The building has certainly proven suitable; it has been used for almost a hundred years by generations of Glasgow art students who have sat in Mackintosh's high-backed chairs, studied under the hanging, geometric lamps of his library and rushed past the colored-tile designs embedded in the stairwell walls.

Yet the Glasgow School of Art is as spectacular as it is suitable. An onlooker standing across the street, however, needs time to discern the excitement and inventiveness emerging from its subtle beauty. The building is a continual discovery. Pamela Robertson, the curator of the Mackintosh Collection at the University of Glasgow and the cocurator of the current exhibition, says that she and other critics did not realize until recently that Mackintosh had used more than a hundred different designs for the school's windows and panes. This was discovered only when craftsmen prepared the scale model for the exhibition.

The front of the buff masonry school at first might even seem classical and symmetrical to a casual onlooker. But it soon becomes obvious that there is no symmetry, for there are three sets of windows on one half of the facade and four sets on the other. Curves dominate the center of the facade with a frieze of two ethereal women clutching a rosebud - straight out of Margaret Macdonald's work - above the entrance door. The final impression is a lovely tension between decorative curve and asymmetrical rectangle.

During the heyday of his architectural work, Mackintosh received numerous contracts to design interiors. In the case of the Hill House, the country home of Glasgow publisher Walter Blackie, Mackintosh designed the building, the interior decoration and much of the furniture. Although individual elements of his design can still startle with their inventiveness (decorative hinges that do not hold anything in place; high ladder-back chairs tempered by subtle curves; stencils of slight, pink roses upon a sea of solid white wood), Mackintosh conceived of each room and, to some extent, the whole interior of a building as a total work of art. His pieces of furniture do not show their full beauty until placed in the exact spot for which he designed them.

With Macdonald's help, Mackintosh designed the interiors of their own homes, the Hill House, various other private dwellings, the famous tearooms of Glasgow businesswoman Kate Cranston, a room that they showed in the Vienna Secession exhibition of 1900 and rooms for other international art shows. Harmony and contrast ruled their work. The Hill House, where dark staircases and hallways contrasted with dazzling white rooms, can send critics into raptures. In the catalog accompanying the current exhibition, John McKean of the University of Brighton calls the Hill House "an essay in chamber music" and exclaims "it is difficult to keep hold of the range of orchestrated sounds that together build into the experience of these interior places."

The Glasgow public saw the work of Mackintosh mostly in the popular tearooms of Kate Cranston. Encouraged by both the temperance movement of the late 19th century and the growing middle-class desire to dine comfortably and respectably in public, tearooms became popular in England and Scotland during the Mackintosh era. They offered light, nonalcoholic meals at small tables in a variety of different rooms in pleasant surroundings. Industrious and independent, Cranston wore funny hats and out-of-date dresses but wanted her tearooms fitted in the latest fashion. For almost 20 years, she paid Mackintosh to decorate the interiors of the various rooms of her complexes on Buchanan, Argyle, Ingram and Sauchiehall streets.

The Glasgow Museums have managed to restore and exhibit the walls, leaded-glass panels, fittings and furniture of the Ladies Luncheon Room of Cranston's establishment on Ingram Street, which had been dismantled in 1971. Mackintosh designed the silver-white room on two levels and broke its rectilinear mood with two dramatic murals facing each other, one by himself, the other, called The May Queen, by Margaret Macdonald. Rooms like these had an impact. "It is very amusing--and in spite of all the efforts to stamp out the Mackintosh influence," Macdonald wrote to the German critic Hermann Muthesius in 1904, "the whole town is getting covered with imitations of Mackintosh tearooms, Mackintosh shops, Mackintosh furniture,... it is too funny - I wonder how it will end." It did not end well.

Before World War I, Mackintosh received a good deal of attention from architectural and design circles on the Continent, especially in Germany and Austria. Muthesius, a critic who had been attached to the German Embassy in London for several years, wrote a long article in 1902 for the German magazine Dekorative Kunst (Decorative Art) extolling the work of both Mackintosh and Macdonald. Muthesius insisted that his two Scottish friends were the only ones in Great Britain who understood that "it is the room as a whole with which serious art should be concerned." Their display at the Vienna exhibition in 1900 impressed many of the leading lights of the Secessionist movement.

Work was so plentiful in Glasgow early in the century that the Mackintoshes felt stuck there. "We both wish that we could go & live somewhere in the south of England," Macdonald wrote in a letter in 1903, "but the bread-and-butter being here, we cannot." The bread and butter, however, soon ran out.

The final wing of the Glasgow School of Art, completed in 1909, was Mackintosh's last major architectural contract. Kate Cranston, who would give up her tearooms and retire by 1920, had very little work for Mackintosh after 1911. He entered several competitions after that time but won only a few minor contracts. Despite his reputation abroad, he was becoming outmoded in Glasgow. Customers lost interest in the individualistic Mackintosh free style and took up the latest fashion, classical architecture, with its straight and symmetrical facades. Some trendy Glasgow architects turned to new materials and built tall buildings of steel and glass like those going up in America.

Even though some of his friends were adapting to the latest fashion, Mackintosh would not. Nor did the new materials interest him. "These two comparatively modern materials iron & glass, though eminently suitable for many purposes," he had written in 1892, "will never worthily take the place of stone."

Mackintosh's relations with his architect partner, John Keppie, worsened. There had been a problem for a long while, in any case, because Keppie's sister, Jessie, a classmate of the Macdonald sisters, felt she had been jilted by Mackintosh in favor of Margaret in 1896. The firm found business slackening, and Mackintosh seemed to lose interest in the practice. He sometimes disappeared at lunchtime for more than three hours.

Mackintosh's drinking began to attract attention (he spent more time in the local pub than at the construction site on one job), and he angered Keppie by failing to finish plans in time to submit them for a contest. In 1913, Mackintosh quit the partnership and set up shop on his own but found practically no work.

Portraits of Mackintosh at age 45 and 46 show a pudgy man with a puffy face looking more like a tired clerk than an artist. All the youthful exuberance in the photographs taken when he was cavorting with the Immortals has disappeared. His old friend Walter Blackie called on him. "I found Mackintosh sitting at his desk, evidently in a deeply depressed frame of mind," Blackie wrote years later. "To my enquiry as to how he was keeping and what he was doing he made no response. But presently he began to talk slowly and dolefully. He said how hard he found it to receive no general recognition; only a very few saw merit in his work and the many passed him by."

In July 1914, the Mackintoshes finally did get to England, departing on vacation for Walberswick, a fishing village in Suffolk known as a resort for artists. World War I erupted in a few weeks, and they decided to stay for a while. "I induced Toshie to just stop on & get the real rest cure that he has so badly needed for quite two years," Macdonald wrote a friend. They did not realize it, but they had turned their backs on Glasgow.

Mackintosh whiled away his time in Walberswick making careful drawings of flowers in pencil and watercolor. In a few months, his wife wrote her friend that "already Toshie is quite a different being and evidently at the end of the year will be quite fit again." But the idyll was interrupted by neighbors who found it suspicious for a Scotsman to have so many friends in enemy countries during wartime. Military authorities searched their house, found letters from Germany and Austria, and ordered them to leave the coastal village so close to the Continent. The Mackintoshes departed for London, settling among artists in Chelsea.

Chelsea was a chance to start anew. Mackintosh was, after all, only 47. But he received few contracts. W.J. Bassett-Lowke, a manufacturer of engineering models, asked him to renovate a house in Northampton in time for his impending marriage. Mackintosh also designed a new basement for one of Kate Cranston's tearooms. A procession of artists asked him to design studio buildings for them in Chelsea, yet for one reason or another, all these projects but one were abandoned before construction.

The couple supported themselves in Chelsea by designing patterns for textiles and bookbindings, and collecting rent from the tenant of their house in Glasgow. Mackintosh resumed drawing flowers again. "I find myself at the moment very hard up," he wrote to an old patron in 1919, "and I was wondering if you could see your way to buy one of my flower pictures or landscapes for 20 pounds or 30 pounds.... I shall be glad to hear from you this week as my rent of 16 pounds is overdue and I must pay or leave." He had failed to restore his career, and after eight years, the Mackintoshes moved to the South of France.

From 1923 onward, they lived in various French towns near the Pyrenees, favoring Port Vendres, a Mediterranean town not far from the Spanish border. "I am struggling to paint in watercolour - soon I shall paint in oils," Mackintosh wrote to his old friend Francis Newbery, the director of the Glasgow School of Art. Mackintosh devoted the rest of his life to landscapes, mostly in watercolor, mostly of rocks and lifeless buildings.

In a 1924 survey of modern English architecture, a Times of London critic cited the work of Mackintosh, stating that "it is hardly too much to say that the whole modernist movement in European architecture derives from him." But that recognition came too late to bring Mackintosh back to architecture. A lifelong smoker, he developed cancer of the tongue three years later and, after radium treatment in London, lost the power of speech. Mackintosh died in a nursing home in London in 1928 at the age of 60. Margaret Macdonald died four years later. The value of her belongings, including 26 watercolors, five oils and a few pieces of furniture, all by Mackintosh, was assessed at a little under 89 pounds.

The fame for which Mackintosh had longed came soon afterward. Glasgow continued to ignore Mackintosh's work, but numerous critics hailed him as a master of modern, functional architecture. To do so, they had to dismiss the decorative side of his work, usually blaming it on Macdonald. After World War II, there was a worldwide renewal of interest in the curvaceous, flowery decoration that flourished as Art Nouveau at the turn of the century, and Mackintosh was suddenly hailed as a master of Art Nouveau. More recent critics now realize that he fits neither niche easily and is probably best regarded as an isolated genius with a fiercely independent imagination.

Glasgow could not continue ignoring so well known a native son. On the centenary of his birth in 1968, Mackintosh was honored by a special exhibition, held not in Glasgow but in Edinburgh. Perhaps the shock of a rival Scottish city taking over the celebration of a Glaswegian woke Glasgow. Two organizations, the Friends of Toshie and the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, began to drum up local enthusiasm. The city rediscovered Mackintosh. Glasgow soon brimmed with Mackintosh coffee mugs, Mackintosh T-shirts, Mackintosh jewelry, Mackintosh scarves, copies of Mackintosh furniture and Mackintosh posters. A wag called the ubiquitous giftware "Mockintosh."

In a kind of historical irony, the impetus for mounting a retrospective in 1996 - the 100th anniversary of the submission of Mackintosh's plans for building the Glasgow School of Art - came from Glasgow. Curators had an easy time persuading local officials that sending a Mackintosh exhibition across the United States was a surefire way these days of promoting the city. Toshie, ignored by his hometown for so many years, would have the last laugh.


One of the Ingram Street tearooms, from 1900, has been re-created for the travelling show, now at the Met.
Glasgow Museums

Regarded as Mackintosh's masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art (here, the north facade) is a subtle study of bold, straight lines played against curves.
Eric Thorburn, Glasgow Picture Library

"Toshie" (top, at age 25) and Margaret (bottom) were lifelong collaborators. She created the large panel The May Queen in the Ingram Street tearoom of 1900.
T&R Annan & Sons, Glasgow

In creating the Hill House (left), which echoed 300-year-old Crathes Castle, Mackintosh designed crucial details, from windowpanes to wall stencils (above).
Eric Thorburn, Glasgow Picture Library

Created for a Glasgow tearoom, this wooden settee fronted a dark wall painted with vertical designs.
Glasgow School of Art

Between 1893 and 1919, Mackintosh designed more than 400 pieces of furniture, as well as leaded-glass pieces such as the doors at right.
Eric Thorburn, Glasgow Picture Library - Metropolitan Museum of Art; Morgan Grenfell Property Asset Management of Glasgow; Hunterian Art Gallery of University of Glasgow (2)

Late in life, his career languishing, Mackintosh painted sumptuous still lifes; here, Anemones, from about 1916.
Private Collection - courtesy Roger Billcliffe Fine Art, Glasgow


Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Wendy Kaplan
Glasgow Museums & Abbeville Press, 1996

Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Alan Crawford
Thames & Hudson, London 1995

Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Modern Movement
Thomas Howarth
Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1977

Charles Rennie Mackintosh: The Architectural Papers
Pamela Robertson
MIT Press, 1990

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