Vintage view: Works of Charles Rennie Mackintosh


Vintage view: Works of Charles Rennie Mackintosh

There are many creative beings whose original genius has been sadly rinsed out in the franchising (authentic and otherwise), and plagiarising of their work.

Wander the showcases of any furniture superstore and you can find Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s kingfisher quick eye, reduced to an hoary old stare.

Even independent furniture designers cheerfully reel just a little too close to the unmistakable distillation of old Scottish lines and sturdy Art Nouveau in candlestick holders and vaguely crafted sideboards.

If you are weary of yet another up-thrusting ladder-back and don’t otherwise know the work of this handsome Victorian Scot — there’s a feast of greater discovery ahead, especially if you’re lucky enough to visit Glasgow on foot in the coming year.

The story of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928) is not just a Scottish story. It’s not even just a British story. In a relatively short career covering design, architecture and painting, he was to become a grandfather of modern European design.

We respond to design, great design, emotionally — a spareness and a leaning on what’s not there — it’s what left in a drawing that lights us up.

Looking up at the ceiling of the Free Church of St Matthew (now Queen’s Cross Church) by CRM and home of the Mackintosh Society in Glasgow, is like a raised salute mitigating the exquisite play of light and shadow.

There’s a stunning sense of creative tension, let’s call it romantic tension for the day that’s in it. This is a living charge — the stronger more rectilinear lines and masculine right angles seem to hold feminine flourishes lightly around the waist.

Mackintosh’s relationship with his wife Margaret MacDonald, one of the famed Glasgow Four, comprising of Charles, Margaret, Frances MacDonald and Herbert MacNair, appears in intimate decorative chapters throughout his work. Those stained glass and mitred flowers were her ingredients.

Next month the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) showcase Mackintosh’s contributions as an architect in London.

Architecture was his grounding, and although many of his designs and possibly greatest designs for cathedrals, museums and railways stations, were never to get out of the ground — what he did achieve, charms and inspires.

Glasgow at the end of the 19th century was a thriving international port with strong trading ties with the Far East. As a night student of architecture at Glasgow School of Art for over a decade, Mackintosh would have seen the spare lines, understood by the Japanese for millennia, in the design and decoration of ceramics arriving on the River Clyde and travelling onto the salons of London.

In 1890 at the age of 22, he was working for the architectural practice of Honeyman and Keppie when he won a competition, the Alexander Thomson Travelling Studentship.

The prize allowed CRM to sup at the wellspring of ancient, classical architecture. His signature project, started on his return, was an extension to the Glasgow Herald Building, now known as the Lighthouse c1899.

The decisions on his drawing board, threw off the lowering forms and crinolated decoration of high Victorian ‘Beau Arts’ and turned to something of minimal form, asymmetry and beauty.

These buildings by Mackintosh and his visionary peers, had far greater visual power than the lumpen, artificial, overstated public buildings people were used to seeing glowering over the city streets.

Keepie was credited in the media for the Herald extension, but the decorative ingredients are all CRM. Despite the critics’ sly description of his work as ‘enigmatic’ and side-spits like ‘free treatment of late Gothic’, what made Mackintosh immediately understood were those classic roots and some comfy Scottish vernacular including barrel vaults, common since medieval times and baronial rood beams.

Mackintosh practiced architecture with success for a modest 10 years (1896-1906). He was not fully recognised for his talent in Britain and some of his work including part of the Medical Hall at Queen Margaret’s College, was demolished.

It was largely his decorative work with the Glasgow Four and in particular Margaret McDonald, designing whiplash curves in metalwork, gesso panels, furniture and fittings, that brought him to European attention.

He and she were members of the prestigious Vienna Secessionists.

When he finally left Britain for the healing warmth of Port Vendres, France, and having abandoned commercial design, he continued to add to his portfolio of architectural drawings.

Extant and imagined buildings by Mackintosh are preserved as precious drawings largely in the care of the Hunterian Museum at Glasgow University, where the principal interiors of Mackintosh’s house at 6 Florentine Terrace, now reside in astonishing, evocative detail.

From the 18th of this month, 60 original CRM drawings will be on show at RIBA, 66 Portland Place in London. There’s a permanent exhibition of ‘Unbuilt Mackintosh’ at the Lighthouse, Glasgow.

The Willow Tea Rooms, Sauchiehall Street, is still serving steaming cuppas in CRM’s fantastical Room de Luxe on the city’s Style Mile.

If you want a single place to visit on a flash tour, make your way to House for an Art Lover, in Bellahouston Park, lovingly brought to life in 1996 — inside and out — by engineer Graham Roxburgh and his team, from CRM’s original drawings.

The Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building, suffered an accidental fire last May, but a visitor’s centre and partial view are filling the gap.

You can find a full list of CR Mackintosh jewels on a guided or self-propelled walking tour at

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