FEATURE CHARLES RENNIE MACKINTOSH
As Glasgow mounts the biggest ever exhibition of work by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Gavin Stamp, lecturer at the city’s Mackintosh School of Architecture, rates the hugely popular but much misunderstood Scottish designer.
or a city to have a patron saint can be both a blessing and a curse. In Glasgow, Charles Rennie Mackintosh has long eclipsed poor old St Mungo, who had no particular line in decoration or furniture design, and so is difficult to sell. Mackintosh has a recognisable image and the city fathers are doing their best to promote it, throwing themselves behind the biggest retrospective of the designer’s work yet.
As Mackintosh mania heightens before the launch of the exhibition at Glasgow’s McLellan Galleries, some feel there is a problem with the city’s narrow view of its architectural heritage. Mackintosh was great, but he was not alone. Barcelona has Antonio Gaudi’; Brussels has Victor Horta; Chicago has Frank Lloyd Wright. In each city, the cult of the local genius flourishes, but it also encourages a wider, popular interest in architecture.
In the same way, Mackintosh should be seen in Glasgow as part of an extraordinarily creative architectural culture dating from the turn of the century. There was his friend, James Salmon, architect of the ‘Hatrack’ in St Vincent Street, who was much more interested in constructional innovation; there was the great J. J. Bumet, a designer of immense versatility and sophistication who imported the rigour of the Beaux-Arts and a taste of America. And there was that other architect of international stature and conspicuous originality, in whose memory a travelling scholarship was established, and who took the young Mackintosh on his first visit to Italy, Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson.
But Glasgow prefers to single out and isolate Toshie. In this, the perversion of history is abetted by the cult of the misunderstood genius, ahead of his time. The circumstances of Mackintosh’s career, from brilliant student to alcoholic depressive, fit him for this dreadful role much more than Horta or Gaudi’. But to appreciate the truth about this inspired designer unfortunately requires effort, for — like any artist — Toshie must be put into context.
Did Glasgow reject Mackintosh, or was it the other way around? It is difficult to believe that Mackintosh could have achieved as much in any other British city, and for a time, he was actively fashionable in Glasgow. But in 1914, Charles and his wife Margaret Macdonald went to Suffolk on holiday, and the outbreak of war somehow resulted in his never coming back.
Clearly, there was little future for architecture back home with a war on. Besides, he had been
18 The LiSt 17-30 May 1996
Charles Rennie Mackintosh: so much greater than his caricature
obliged to resign his partnership at Honeyman. Keppie & Mackintosh for simply not pulling his weight. Times had changed: a younger generation was now interested in steel-framed
The forthcoming exhibition will be the biggest and perhaps last official expression of Mackintosh mania.
it should help us understand the real achievement of this brilliant artist.
classical American skyscrapers, while Mackintosh’s symbolism was seen as old-hat, Victorian and Germanic.
All over Europe, after about 1905, designers who had flourished with l'art nouveau or Jugendstil had to change course or go under. Horta and the Viennese architects Joseph Maria Olbrich and Josef Hoffman all moved towards a more austere, classical rectilinear style. There
aking an exhibition of a legend
are hints of this in Mackintosh’s work — for example, the West Wing of Glasgow School of Art — but Mackintosh seems to have been unwilling to learn many new tricks.
The forthcoming exhibition will be the biggest and perhaps last official expression of Mackintosh mania. As well as giving the opportunity to explore the range of his talent and to see an interior from Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street Tea Room re-created, it should help us understand the real achievement of this brilliant artist. There are so many myths to explode. He may no longer be seen as a pioneer, but we need to appreciate his debt to contemporary England and, above all, to Scotland both past and present.
A debt is also due to Margaret Macdonald, who took on this brilliant policeman’s son from Dennistoun and transformed him into the self-conscious aesthete with the loose