Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Colour photographs by Mark Fiennes
New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010
Hardback. 304 pp. ISBN 978-0-393-05175-9. $65.00 / £42.00
Reviewed by Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen
One would expect the bibliography on Mackintosh, this towering figure of British art, to be so vast as to be overwhelming—but such is not the case. James Macaulay indirectly pays tribute to the pioneering work of Nikolaus Pevsner (from 1936) and Thomas Howarth (from 1950)—and of course the latter went on to become the foremost “Mackintosh scholar”, with three editions of his Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Modern Movement (1952-1990). Unusually for biographies of great men, therefore, the author (rightly) does not feel compelled to justify the publication of yet another book on Mackintosh’s life and times.
The superb book under review was born apparently of an encounter between the author and the photographer, who died (having taken all the photographs) before the volume appeared. There is no doubt that many people would not hesitate to buy the book only for its wealth of fine photographs, but this does not mean that it is a mere “coffee-table book” with a worthless text—far from it. Macaulay tells us that he was born and brought up in Glasgow, reminiscing about his drinking orange squash with his mother in the Ingram Street Tea Room, being “instructed to look at the huge lead chimney piece and the other decorations” .
That the author has a great love for his native city is clear from the preface and the first chapter, which dwells at length on the history of Glasgow’s peak of prosperity between Mackintosh’s birth there in 1868 and his departure in 1914. We learn that on the eve of the Great War “Glasgow had become the sixth-largest city in Europe, taking its place after London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin and St. Petersburg, all imperial capitals”  and that “it could be claimed that in the century after 1845 almost every article made elsewhere in the world was also produced in and around Glasgow” . This economic activity naturally produced great wealth—very unequally shared, as one may imagine. The great merchants, manufacturers and businessmen spent their money in the usual ostentatious way in spite of their rigid Presbyterian education, and the building industry—including architects—was the main beneficiary. As an 1889 article put it, “Glasgow and the west of Scotland, owing to progress in wealth and population, afford a constant field for building operations” .
Glasgow became “the prominent Victorian city in Britain” and in 1971 (in spite of the public vandalism of the 1960s which among other acts of crass Philistinism pulled down Mackintosh’s house to make way for ugly University buildings in concrete) it was still described as “the finest surviving example of a great Victorian city” . The book has large-size colour photographs of the great Victorian edifices among which Mackintosh was brought up: Charing Cross Mansions (J.J. Burnet [Figs. 6-7], the Glasgow Savings Bank (James Salmon [Figs. 14-16]) and many others, like St. Andrew’s Halls (James Sellars [Figs. 32-33]) or Westbourne Church (John Honeyman [Fig. 55]).
This full treatment of Glasgow’s economic expansion appears justified in two ways because it provides context for Mackintosh’s life: the move of the élites of the city towards its west end was followed by Mackintosh’s family and later professional circle—and of course it led to commissions. An unexpected consequence of this move west is that part of the profits from Glasgow’s first International Exhibition, in Kelvingrove Park in 1888, were earmarked for the building of a new art school. A chapter entitled “The Mentors” is devoted to the “three men who would most affect his professional and personal life”: John Honeyman (1831-1914), John Keppie (1862-1945) and James Herbert McNair (1868-1955). Having become an architectural apprentice in 1883 (with classes in the evening at the Art School founded in 1840), Mackintosh entered the office of John Honeyman in 1888, with John Keppie becoming a partner a year later, when McNair joined it (Mackintosh became a full partner in 1901 and McNair left in 1895 to set up as “architect and designer”). “From the school records it is clear that Mackintosh was the outstanding student of his generation”, Macaulay argues—but then he hastens to add that Keppie and McNair “were catching at his coattails” , fully documenting the complex relations of emulation, friendship and rivalry between all these forceful personalities, with love and marriage adding to these entangled connections when Mackintosh reportedly courted Jessie Keppie—John’s sister—for a time, and McNair married Frances MacDonald (1899), with her sister Margaret marrying Mackintosh the next year.
Macaulay does his best to tease out all these complicated formative, artistic, emotional and professional threads which concurrently shaped Mackintosh’s life in the 1890s, from the prize which allowed him to visit Italy in 1891 to the formation of “The Four” (McNair, Mackintosh and the MacDonald sisters) some time in the mid-1890s and his submission (sometimes successful, sometimes not) of projects for major commissions in the last years of the century. All this very detailed and excellently documented discussion is illustrated by examples of work from the Four—most notably a superb little-known Smoker’s Cabinet by McNair [Fig. 101]. Not unexpectedly a full chapter is devoted to the Glasgow School of Art: the genesis of the commission, the genesis of Mackintosh’s treatment of it, and a discussion of the strong and weak points of what is “one of the twentieth century’s iconic architectural statements” —the whole with superb colour photographs to illustrate the points made. His other major Glasgow commissions, like the Daily Record and Glasgow Herald buildings and the Queen’s Cross Church, also naturally receive full treatment.
Another complex relationship emerged, this time with the Continental avant-garde, notably the German cultural attaché in London, Hermann Muthesius, the Viennese Secessionists, and the various art and architectural journals of the time. The competition launched in 1901 by the Zeitschrift für Innendekoration for the best design for a Wohnhaus eines Kunst-Freundes (loosely translated into English by “House for an Art Lover”) is fully discussed, together with the Mackintoshes’ participation in the Vienna Secession (1900) and Turin (1902) Exhibitions. As we know, the actual building of his House for an Art Lover only took place in the 1990s—and the book has a magnificent one-and-a-half-page spread with a photograph of it on a cloudless glorious day with a deep blue sky. The journals Dekorative Kunst and Deutsche Kunst & Dekoration showed great interest in his two great projects of the early 1900s: the Hill House (completed 1904) and the Willow Tea Rooms (built, extended and decorated 1903-1909).
Conceding that “one cannot devine Mackintosh’s creative processes” , Macaulay nevertheless undertakes a splendidly documented exploration of how he may have met the sometimes contradictory demands of utility and novel design. It seems in fact that it was not until his move to his new home in 1906 that Mackintosh applied his art to his own surroundings—now very effectively reconstructed as part of the Hunterian Art Gallery, where the fine colour photographs were taken.
The chapter ends on a sad note, with Macaulay quoting from reminiscences of Walter Blackie (from the celebrated publishers’ family), who had commissioned the Hill House and went to see Mackintosh in 1914 “sitting at his desk, evidently in a highly depressed frame of mind” before he left Glasgow for ever: “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” . His addiction to whisky did not help. Once again, Macaulay very convincingly tries to recapture what went on in Mackintosh’s mind—this time, not “Mackintosh’s creative processes”, but the “cessation of confidence in oneself”  noticed by Blackie, at least in the field of architecture, since he turned to flower painting and then watercolour landscapes of the Port Vendres area, near the Franco-Spanish border, where the Mackintoshes finally settled from 1923 until his death in 1928 after trying the Sussex coast and Chelsea. His slow descent into hell had lasted for over fifteen years, the big question—which Macaulay is forced to leave largely unanswered in spite of his best efforts—being why. The Epilogue ends on another sad note—this time not on Mackintosh’s personal life but on his gradual fall into oblivion in the world of architecture, even in Glasgow, between the wars. It now seems unbelievable that no illustration of the exterior of the Glasgow School of Art was published until 1930, and no plans until 1950—the book naturally has plenty [figs. 138-145].
The succession of events is not always easy to follow in Macaulay’s narrative, but fortunately he gives a welcome two-page Chronology at the end of the book. The Bibliography is comprehensive and up to date, though it is not classified by topics, which would have made it more useful for future research. The proof-reading must have been very thorough: not a single misprint was detected, and this matches the high overall quality of the volume, with its thick paper and sewn (not glued) sections. There is absolutely no doubt that Charles Rennie Mackintosh should be in all Art and Architecture Libraries, but its public is not limited to a scholarly readership, as it would make a perfect present for an “Art Lover”.
Cercles © 2011