Mackintosh, Charles Rennie (1868–1928), architect, decorative artist, and watercolour painter
by Alan Crawford

Mackintosh, Charles Rennie (1868–1928), architect, decorative artist, and watercolour painter, was born on 7 June 1868 at 70 Parson Street, Glasgow, the fourth of the eleven children of William McIntosh (c.1837–1908), a clerk in the Glasgow police force, and his first wife, Margaret Rennie (c.1837–1885). He was educated at Reid's Public School and Allan Glen's Institution, both in Glasgow, between 1875 and 1884, and from 1884 to 1889 he was an articled pupil in the office of a local architect, John Hutchison. From 1889 he worked as a draughtsman with Honeyman and Keppie, one of the leading architectural firms in Glasgow, where he remained for most of his architectural career. It was in the office of Honeyman and Keppie, at first as a draughtsman and from 1901 as a partner, that he designed his finest buildings for sites in and around Glasgow and much of his remarkable decorative work. He was extraordinarily creative but his career was uneventful, at least until it started to go wrong. For many years it was simply the story of his work.

Early work in Glasgow

While training as an architect in professional offices, Mackintosh also attended Glasgow School of Art between 1883 and 1894. He was one of a group of talented students there, mainly young middle-class women, who called themselves The Immortals. Herbert McNair, a colleague from Honeyman and Keppie, was also part of the group and in the mid-1890s he and Mackintosh worked closely with the sisters Margaret and Frances Macdonald, painting complex watercolours and designing posters and works of decorative art. Symbolism, the arts and crafts movement, and art nouveau are all influences on this work. Mackintosh's experiences at Glasgow School of Art and the friendships he made there seemed to settle the shape of his career, with its interplay of architecture, decorative art, and painting, and he learned a good deal about himself and his abilities. Hard-working, voluble, kind, sometimes moody, and above all talented, he moved easily among these women despite his working-class origins. A photograph of 1893 by James Craig Annan shows him as he learned to see himself, dressed in the style of an artist of the 1890s rather than in the dark suit and stiff collar of the professional architect which he wore at Honeyman and Keppie. In a way, his whole life was lived between the identities of architect and artist.

When Mackintosh began work, progressive architects in Britain were playful and eclectic. They mixed several styles in a single building, handled masses freely, and focused attention on individual details. The high academic styles, classical and Gothic, no longer had authority over them. In Scotland eclecticism was combined with a specifically nationalist enthusiasm for a style derived from Scottish castles and tower houses and known as Scottish Baronial. This spirit of freedom and Scottishness informed much of Mackintosh's architectural work, though it was less obvious in his work as a decorative artist. It can be seen in the earliest building which can be confidently attributed to him, an addition to the printing office of the Glasgow Herald newspaper at 68–76 Mitchell Street in the centre of Glasgow (1894–95; now a centre for architecture and design). Here there is a dramatic corner tower and the upper stages break out into elaborate detail like a Scottish tower house. Indeed, it is hard to imagine an atmosphere more congenial to an architect of such determined originality as Mackintosh than this eclecticism. Later, when progressive architects turned to new ideals of formal composition and rational planning, it was a question whether Mackintosh could follow them.

In 1896 a competition was held for the design of a new building for Glasgow School of Art, to be built in the centre of the city. Honeyman and Keppie won the competition with a design by Mackintosh, which laid out studios and workshops in two ranges of equal length on either side of a centrepiece with tall wings at either end. For lack of funds, only the eastern part and the centrepiece were built in 1897–9, with the rest left to be completed later. Glasgow School of Art is an enigmatic and endearing building. It looks bare, as if the design had been generated only by its functions. But careful contemplation reveals Mackintosh's purely compositional skill. He handled parts of the building, bays, wings, whole façades, with a freedom and expressiveness most architects achieve only in their handling of detail. The freedom of eclecticism, which amounted to little more than playfulness in the hands of Mackintosh's British contemporaries, is here taken to an extreme, suggesting ambiguities and dislocations between the different parts, between inside and outside, between what seems to be the case and what is. The self-consciousness would be mannerist if Mackintosh had been working with rules that could be seen to be broken, but he was not. His design engages not with a stylistic code but with his own activity as a designer and with the perceptions of those who use and look at the building: it is a commentary upon itself.

In the years that Glasgow School of Art was being built, Mackintosh was also working at Honeyman and Keppie on Martyrs' Public School (1895–8; now in museum use), Queen's Cross Church (1897–9; now the headquarters of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society), and Ruchill Street Free Church Halls (1898–9). This was typical work in a respected architectural practice in a thriving industrial city at the end of the nineteenth century. Less typical was the decorative work which Mackintosh was beginning to do, some of it probably in his own name. In 1897 he designed stencilled decorations for Miss Cranston's Buchanan Street tea-rooms and in 1898 furniture for her Argyle Street tea-rooms. His first domestic interiors were a bedroom in Westdel, a middle-class house in Glasgow (1898?), and a dining-room in Munich for the publisher Hugo Bruckmann (1898?); the Buchanan Street decorations have been destroyed, but some furniture from the other interiors survives. It was work such as this which first brought Mackintosh to the notice of the public, for his architectural work was necessarily done in the name of Honeyman and Keppie. In 1897 the influential art magazine The Studio published two articles by Gleeson White on Mackintosh, the Macdonalds, McNair, and their associate Talwin Morris; this was followed in 1898 by an article of similar scope in the German magazine Dekorative Kunst.

When Mackintosh designed an interior he usually also designed furniture for it, and this was always a significant part of his production, running alongside larger projects. It was not unusual for progressive late Victorian architects to design furniture, but Mackintosh was peculiar in that he would almost always create new designs for each interior, so strong was his appetite for formal invention, so acute his sense of the wholeness of interiors. Conversely, he rarely designed furniture without a specific interior in mind, and never for any kind of industrial production. His work was, in this sense, bespoke.

Within each interior the furniture helped to create a harmonious and exclusive atmosphere. Some of the more ambitious pieces also played a subsidiary architectural role, articulating the space. The high-backed chairs which Mackintosh designed for the Argyle Street tea-rooms, for instance, created an intimate enclave when gathered round a table. The backs of these chairs have tall, tapering uprights with an oval headpiece slotted through them; they manage to combine a Japanese simplicity of construction with a weird sense of authority, as if they were creatures from another world. Furniture designed in this way might be expected to look odd once removed from its original setting, but it is a curious truth, and a tribute to the strength of Mackintosh's visual imagery, that his furniture designs, many of which are now widely available in reproduction, are not diminished when seen by themselves. The high-backed chairs, in fact, seem to grow in stature.

The busiest years

On 22 August 1900 Mackintosh married Margaret Macdonald (1864–1933) [see ] in the episcopal church at Dumbarton. (Herbert McNair had married Frances Macdonald, (1874–1921) in the previous year.) Their marriage set the seal on a personal and creative relationship that had been developing for some time, and the story of their life together and the nature of their work both suggest its profound importance for Mackintosh: he once told Macdonald that she was half, if not three quarters, of the inspiration for his architectural work. But Mackintosh's life is relatively poorly documented and the true, and no doubt changing, nature of their relationship cannot be firmly established for lack of evidence. It seems obvious that they would have collaborated on the decoration and furnishing of the flat at 120 Mains Street in the centre of Glasgow into which they moved when they got married, and this interior can be read as an intimate expression of their relationship. The dining-room was spare and dark, the drawing-room spare and light, in a heightened, aesthetic version of the gender code which divided contemporary middle-class interiors into dark masculine and light feminine areas. With the bedroom at Westdel, the Mains Street flat introduces a sequence of interiors very different from Mackintosh's earlier architectural work: stone gives way to softer, more ephemeral materials, the powerful but somehow conflicted intellect that expressed itself in the dislocations of Glasgow School of Art gives way to strong and simple emotion.

The first of these interiors was the ladies' luncheon room at Miss Cranston's Ingram Street tea-rooms, on which Mackintosh and Macdonald were working at the time of their marriage. Glasgow was famous for its tea-rooms, places of light refreshment serving good cheap food in pleasant surroundings. (In other cities they might be called cafés, tea shops, or refreshment rooms. In all such places alcohol was not served, thanks to the influence of the temperance movement.) Kate Cranston was well known among Glasgow tea-room proprietors for the quality of her establishments, the homely and artistic interiors of which catered particularly for middle-class women. In the 1890s she had employed a number of architects and designers, including Mackintosh, but now she began to give him all her work. At Ingram Street Mackintosh created a silvery-white interior with gesso panels of dreaming women in the frieze, one designed and made by him, the other designed and made by Macdonald. (The Ingram Street tea-rooms no longer exist, but the interiors have been partly reconstructed by Glasgow Museums.) Three years later he remodelled an entire building in Sauchiehall Street as the Willow Tea Rooms, on the first floor of which he and Macdonald created the most visually sumptuous of their feminine interiors, the Salon de Luxe. Although these interiors were quite unlike other tea-rooms in Glasgow or elsewhere, they worked well: the mixture of art and domesticity which Mackintosh and Macdonald had created for themselves at 120 Mains Street fitted Miss Cranston's needs exactly when transposed to a place of public refreshment.

Late in 1900 Mackintosh and Macdonald travelled to Vienna to supervise the installation of their work, and that of Frances Macdonald and Herbert McNair, at the eighth exhibition of the Wiener Sezession, the leading avant-garde art group in the city. Their work was not altogether well received by the critics, but they enjoyed good relations with the leaders of the Sezession, especially Josef Hoffmann, who seemed to be working along the same lines. Soon afterwards Mackintosh entered a German competition to design a Haus eines Kunstfreundes (‘a house for an art-lover’). The remarkable designs, partly attributable to Macdonald, were unsuccessful, but they were lavishly published in Germany in 1902. In that year also, Mackintosh designed a music-room for Fritz Waerndorfer, one of the principal patrons of progressive decorative art in Vienna, again with contributions from Macdonald. Work and contacts such as these, together with the advocacy of the German architect and critic Hermann Muthesius in books and articles, gave Mackintosh something of a reputation in Europe, especially in Germany and Austria, and much has been made of this since his death. It has to be remembered that progressive British architecture and decorative art as a whole was very influential in Germany and Austria at the turn of the century; and Mackintosh was not, in fact, as widely known as some of his contemporaries. But his reputation was enough to make it painful for him, when demand for his work in Glasgow began to fall off, to reflect on the difference between his reception at home and abroad.

The favourite building type of progressive British architects at the turn of the century was the detached middle-class house in the suburbs or in the country: it could be so informal, and so traditional (‘cottage’, ‘manor house’). Mackintosh designed several such houses, of which the most important were Windyhill in the village of Kilmacolm, west of Glasgow (1900–01), and the Hill House, Helensburgh, on the banks of the Clyde (1902–4; National Trust for Scotland). Both present a sequence of controlled but apparently artless and irregular façades clothed in harling (which the English call roughcast). With typical complexity, Mackintosh used harling both to create proto-modern abstract details and to locate his work within Scottish traditions, for harling was the usual covering for Scottish houses of the lesser gentry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At Windyhill the interior was relatively plain, in keeping with the tastes of the client, but at the Hill House, Mackintosh's full decorative repertory was brought into play. Spaces were defined by the pattern of carpets on the floor. The walls were stencilled with organic ornament as if the house was a garden. And all over the house pieces of coloured glass, worthless in themselves, were set into doors, light fittings, and balusters, so that as the light moves round the house they glow like jewels. With its plain, harled exterior and its jewelled, decorative interior, the Hill House presents one of the most telling examples of dislocation in Mackintosh's work.

By the time the Hill House was completed in the spring of 1904, a change was coming over Mackintosh's work. At Glasgow School of Art he had been all playfulness and dislocation. At Scotland Street School (1903–6; now a museum), a building of a similar type, he was calm and rational: the elevations clearly express the orderly plan, except that a pair of semicircular stair towers noticeably do not contain spiral stairs. He knew that progressive architects in Britain, and especially in Glasgow, were moving away from eclecticism towards ideals of order and efficiency. Beaux-Arts training in Paris, the classical tradition, and steel-framed office buildings in America: these were their enthusiasms, and Mackintosh hoped perhaps to share them. His decorative art did not always march in step with his architecture, but it underwent a similar change at this time. At Hous'hill (dem.), an old house on the outskirts of Glasgow which he decorated and furnished in 1904–5 for Kate Cranston and her husband, John Cochrane, a shift can be seen away from organic ornament, sensuousness, and hints of symbolism towards clarity, rectilinear forms, and the decorative use of squares.

Scotland Street School and Hous'hill are outstanding works, and yet there was perhaps a loss of nerve mixed up in these changes. Around 1905 the flow of work which had kept Mackintosh busy and creative for eight or nine years showed signs of drying up. Normally he prided himself on his creative independence, but in 1906 he designed a house in a broadly conventional Cotswold style (Auchinibert, Killearn, 1906–8), simply because that was what the client wanted.

Later work in Glasgow

Then, early in 1907, Honeyman, Keppie, and Mackintosh were asked to complete the building of Glasgow School of Art. Between 1907 and 1909 the west range was completed broadly to the original design and the west wing was completely recast. Mackintosh treated the wing as a sheer tower up the west face of which run three immensely tall oriels, 63 feet of stone, iron, and glass, a treatment derived from the canted bays which lit the rear elevations of contemporary, American-inspired office buildings in Glasgow. Mackintosh was borrowing from the new progressives here, but only for certain effects, not in the design of the building as a whole. It is not rationality which makes the west wing remarkable, but its vertical drama, and elsewhere he created contradictions as remarkable as any in the 1896–9 phase. In the library, the principal interior of the west wing, the wooden gallery is a rectilinear forest of quasi-constructional timber. On one side it runs right across the face of Mackintosh's great oriels, cancelling out their light. Glasgow School of Art is Mackintosh's masterpiece, and the west wing and the library are its most masterly parts, but they were designed in the spirit of 1890s' eclecticism. By the time the building was finished it was out of date. The magazine of the architecture students at the school, among whom the new progressivism ruled, described it as ‘bizarre’.

Between the completion of Glasgow School of Art in 1909 and the outbreak of war in 1914, Mackintosh had only six new jobs, none of them large, though the Chinese Room and the Cloister Room at Miss Cranston's Ingram Street tea-rooms, of 1911–12, are both powerful designs. His career was beginning to fall apart, but it is not clear exactly why. The office records of Honeyman, Keppie, and Mackintosh suggest that the firm's workload fell by half in 1910 and half again in 1911, and recovered only in 1914. John Keppie, Mackintosh's active partner, seems to have suffered equally in these fallow years, and the loss of work was not peculiar to Mackintosh. But it was probably complicated in his case by a habit of heavy drinking and a tendency to depression, for both of which there is good evidence. At all events, he seemed to lose his grip professionally. In 1913 he was responsible for the firm's entry in a competition for a teacher-training college in Glasgow. As the deadline approached, he had almost nothing to show and the job was taken away from him. Shortly afterwards he left the partnership and opened an office of his own; so far as is known, he got no work.

Wanderings

In the middle of July 1914 Mackintosh and Macdonald went on holiday to the seaside village of Walberswick in Suffolk. About three weeks later war broke out. They decided to stay on in Walberswick and, as things turned out, Mackintosh never went back to Glasgow except to visit. His parting from his native city, with which so much of his creative life was bound up, was thus casual and accidental. While they were staying at Walberswick, Mackintosh painted more than forty delicate watercolours of flowers in the precise style of botanical illustrations but with an eye, as always, to decorative effect. He had used watercolour before, not only to embellish sketches he made from nature but also as the chosen medium for his earliest substantial experiments as a painter, the symbolic and decorative watercolours he created alongside McNair and the Macdonalds in the 1890s. Now its simplicities acted as a kind of healing. By January he seemed to Macdonald much improved. But then he was reported to the military authorities on suspicion of spying. This absurd idea arose from his Glasgow accent, his sketching, his habit of taking long solitary walks at dusk, and the real fear of invasion on the east coast. It seemed to be confirmed in early May, when the military authorities found letters from Germany (all some years old) among his belongings. Mackintosh was asked to leave the area, and went to London; Macdonald followed soon after. In August they found two studios to rent, next door to each other in Glebe Place, Chelsea.

Mackintosh and Macdonald spent the next eight years in Chelsea, with little money and little prospect of work in a strange city during wartime. Late in 1915, as if in a fairy story, W. J. Bassett-Lowke, a manufacturer of scale models and an ardent modernist, asked Mackintosh to remodel a small house for him in Northampton, 78 Derngate (1916–19). Mackintosh's vivid, Viennese-inspired interiors show that he had regained his creative nerve, as do the dozen or so watercolour still lifes he painted at this time and the textile designs which he and Macdonald produced in their hundreds and sold to manufacturers to make ends meet. In the watercolours and textiles particularly, Mackintosh drew freely and fruitfully on Post-Impressionist and Fauve work, and on Bakst and the Ballets Russes. With these progressives, at least, he was in tune. But the couple were continually short of money and, as in Glasgow, it is not easy to catch the tenor of their lives. They had good friends among the artists of Chelsea—they could call themselves bohemians now, and put a bold face on their adversity—but stories of Mackintosh's depression recur. In photographs of this date he looks saddened. After the war he was asked to design studio-houses and studio-flats in and around Glebe Place, and for a few months in 1920 he had as much work on his drawing-board as in his busiest Glasgow days. But almost all the commissions fell through, and all that was built was one studio-house, 49 Glebe Place (1920–21), much altered from his original design.

In 1923 Mackintosh and Macdonald went to the south of France for a holiday that turned into something much longer. They stayed in the Roussillon region, where the Pyrenees meet the Mediterranean, a quiet, expatriate couple moving from place to place, living in hotels, and depending greatly on each other. They were probably most often in Port Vendres, a busy little town where the cargo boats unloaded from Algeria. Mackintosh now painted with a steady purpose, producing a series of more than forty watercolours, mainly views of rocks, buildings, and landscapes rendered in a stylized, geometrical manner and drenched with colour. In leaving Britain he had given up any hope that he might practise again as an architect, and painting was now at the centre of his life. These late watercolours were much more ambitious than most of those he had painted in Glasgow or Walberswick. His letters at this time show him scrutinizing the landscape, struggling to adapt the medium to his purposes. When they were exhibited in Glasgow after his death, the late paintings startled his contemporaries. But at the same time they grew out of his earlier skills: line, plane, and perspective are handled just as they were in his most sophisticated architectural work in Glasgow. The artist and the architect in Mackintosh had found a new relationship.

Death and conclusion

In May 1927 Macdonald went back to London for six weeks for medical treatment and Mackintosh wrote to her almost every day. Almost at the end of his life these letters show us a Mackintosh impossible to know from looking at his work: down-to-earth, funny, slightly defeated, stumbling in the expression of his love. In one of the letters he wrote that his tongue felt swollen, and blamed it on his American tobacco. (At this time, America stood for everything he disliked in the modern world.) In fact, he had cancer of the tongue. He became seriously ill in the autumn of 1927 and was taken back to London. After radium treatment at Westminster Hospital he lived for some months unable to speak, before dying at 26 Porchester Square on 10 December 1928. The funeral was held the next day at Golders Green crematorium.

The large collection of Mackintosh's drawings and designs, together with furniture and archival material, which was still in his possession at his death passed, after Macdonald's death in 1933, into the hands of their friend and client William Davidson, and thence to the Hunterian Art Gallery at the University of Glasgow. Together with the furniture from 6 Florentine Terrace (Mackintosh and Macdonald's last house in Glasgow) which was also given by the Davidson family, it constitutes the Mackintosh estate and collection at the Hunterian.

The standard account of Mackintosh's life and work is Thomas Howarth's Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Modern Movement (1952), which, as its title suggests, presented Mackintosh's work as part of the development of twentieth-century architectural modernism, with its belief in functionalism and its turning away from the past. Howarth described Glasgow School of Art as the first major building of the movement, and he shaped Mackintosh's career so that it fitted neatly into the larger narratives of modernism, arguing that he was not fully understood in Glasgow, and only properly appreciated in the proto-modern circles of Vienna. More recent work on Mackintosh has not been so obviously modernist in spirit, but it has tended to revise or supplement Howarth without displacing his general account. The decorative element in Mackintosh's work, which Howarth had rather deplored, was brought forward in the 1960s and 1970s, and Roger Billcliffe's catalogue raisonné, Charles Rennie Mackintosh: the Complete Furniture, Furniture Drawings, and Interior Designs (1979), is the most enduring product of this phase. In the 1980s and 1990s writers have questioned the isolation in which Mackintosh has been placed, drawing attention to the richness of architectural and decorative talent in Glasgow at the turn of the century, and particularly to the importance of Margaret Macdonald and the two artists' shared creativity. Meanwhile Mackintosh has become more popular than almost any other architect in British history. His admirers are struck by the qualities of light and space in his work and by an originality that seems uncannily up to date. Thinking of the ‘clutter’ of the nineteenth century and the ‘clean lines’ of the twentieth, they see Mackintosh as Howarth saw him, a man ahead of his time.

In his own day Mackintosh's reputation was that of an architect and decorative artist of extreme originality. This reputation was strongest between about 1900 and 1910 and in progressive artistic circles. But anyone outside those circles, asked who was the most important architect in Glasgow, would have given the name of John James Burnet, whose work is more skilled and varied than Mackintosh's but not so strangely original. Even within progressive artistic circles in Britain, Mackintosh's work was much less widely publicized and less influential than that of the architect–designers C. F. A. Voysey and M. H. Baillie Scott. And though he seems to have been much talked about in parts of Europe, it is hard to find evidence of the influence of his work on his European contemporaries, beyond the borrowing of motifs. His work was essentially strange, and isolated in its strangeness.

Today Mackintosh is ranked, not with Voysey or Baillie Scott, but with a handful of architect–designers of great originality and international reputation, particularly Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona and Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago. Like the modernist version of Mackintosh, this account can do violence to history, for Mackintosh, Gaudí, and Wright worked in different and separate worlds. But it has this merit: that, by placing Mackintosh in a position of relative isolation, it reflects the strangeness of his work, the self-conscious dislocations of his architecture, and the intensity of feeling in his interiors, qualities not paralleled in the work of his contemporaries.

ALAN CRAWFORD

Sources  

T. Howarth, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the modern movement, 3rd edn (1990) · Charles Rennie Mackintosh: the architectural papers, ed. P. Robertson (1990) · R. Billcliffe, Charles Rennie Mackintosh: the complete furniture, furniture drawings, and interior designs (1979) · R. Billcliffe, Charles Rennie Mackintosh: textile designs (1993) · P. Robertson, Charles Rennie Mackintosh: art is the flower (1995) · A. Crawford, Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1995) · W. Kaplan, ed., Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1996) · D. Brett, C. R. Mackintosh: the poetics of workmanship (1992) · I. Paterson, ‘In search of the Mackintosh family: a preliminary study’, typescript MS, 1990, priv. coll. · Mitchell L., Glas., dean of guild court MSS

Archives  

Glasgow Museum and Art Gallery · Glasgow School of Art, collection · Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow, corresp. and diary · U. Glas. L., corresp. and papers · University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, MSS and drawings


Likenesses  

J. C. Annan, photograph, 1893, Glasgow School of Art [see illus.] · T. & R. Annan, photographs, 1893, T. & R. Annan & Sons, Glasgow · F. Newbery, oils, 1914, Scot. NPG · E. O'Hoppé, photographs, c.1920, Glasgow School of Art · E. O'Hoppé, photographs, c.1920, Glasgow, Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery


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Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/34764