Combining a progressive modernity with the spirit of romanticism, the Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) created many of the best loved and most influential buildings, furniture and decorative schemes of the early 20th century.
Few designers can claim to have created a unique and individual style that is so instantly recognisable. Often noted today for the chairs he designed, Charles Rennie Mackintosh was an architect who designed schools, offices, churches, tearooms and homes, an interior designer and decorator, an exhibition designer, a designer of furniture, metalwork, textiles and stained glass and, especially in his latter years, a watercolourist.
Excelling in all these areas, Mackintosh left hundreds of designs and a rich volume of realised work. His distinctive style mixed together elements of the Scottish vernacular and the English Arts and Crafts tradition with the organic forms of Art Nouveau and a drive to be modern. In his later works, perhaps inspired by contemporary German and Austrian design, Mackintosh began to employ bolder geometric forms in place of organic-inspired symbolic decoration.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s work can be divided into three main areas: public buildings, private homes and tea rooms. The majority of his work was executed in and around Glasgow, where he was born, trained and lived for most of his adult life, and his career paralleled the city’s economic boom. By the end of the 19th century Glasgow was a wealthy, burgeoning European city with an immense network of trade and manufacture that supplied the world with coal and ships. It was also a rich source of commissions for a gifted young architect and designer.
A budding young architect
The fourth of eleven children, Mackintosh was born in 1868 to William McIntosh, a clerk in the Glasgow police force, and Margaret Rennie. He grew up in Glasgow and from the age of nine attended Allan Glen’s Institution, a private school for the children of tradesmen and artisans that specialised in vocational training. At fifteen Mackintosh began evening classes at Glasgow School of Art, which he would continue to attend until 1894, emerging as a talented student. A year later, in 1884, he began a five-year pupillage with John Hutchison, a Glasgow architect, and in 1889 joined the more eminent firm of Honeyman & Keppie, where he received a traditional Beaux-Arts training typical of the period.
The 1890s was a decade of learning and development for Mackintosh, when he continued his architectural training, won a travelling studentship and visited Italy, attended and gave lectures, and formed new friendships. Among his friends were Francis Newbery, the inspirational director of Glasgow School of Art and his wife Jessie, Herbert McNair, a fellow draughtsman at Honeyman & Keppie, and the sisters Margaret and Frances Macdonald, who attended Glasgow School of Art. Mackintosh, McNair and the Macdonald sisters came to be known as The Four. Together they designed and exhibited works including posters and furniture. Through them, Mackintosh was introduced to the broader field of art and in particular to the feminine, symbolic graphic style of the Macdonald sisters. In 1894 they were described by the press as ‘the Spook School’, a reference to their elongated, sinuous and feminine graphic forms based on fabled and mythic themes. Mackintosh married Margaret Macdonald in 1900 and she was to remain his principal collaborator and inspiration throughout his life.
These experiences widened Mackintosh’s interest in architecture to include the fine and decorative arts, acquainted him with new styles such as symbolism and Art Nouveau, and caused him to align himself firmly with the progressive school. Progressive architects of the time were playful and eclectic, and those in Scotland were keen to draw inspiration from native Scottish architecture, developing a style known as Scottish Baronial that derived from castles and tower houses. This spirit of eclecticism and Scottishness created an environment that not only was congenial to Mackintosh, who began to manifest striking originality and imagination as well as deep enthusiasm for the traditional architecture of his native land, but also further encouraged him and informed his work.
Glasgow School of Art and the busiest years
In 1896 Francis Newbery invited twelve local architects to enter a competition to design a new building for Glasgow School of Art. One of these firms was Honeyman & Keppie, which came out as the winner with a design by Mackintosh, though his authorship was not publicly acknowledged at the time as he was only an assistant in the office. Before the competition Mackintosh had already made substantial and distinctive contributions to several key projects undertaken by the firm, incorporating individualistic and unorthodox elements in their design, such as the dramatic corner tower of the Glasgow Herald building and the unusual roof timbers and Japanese-inspired detailing at Martyrs Public School. The new Glasgow School of Art, however, was a building that would seal his future reputation and become his most celebrated masterwork.
The brief for the building of Glasgow School of Art on a steeply sloping site with an extremely tight budget was simple, utilitarian even, and it laid down requirements in great detail, specifying the height of the studio windows and the provision of exhibition space in the corridors leading to the studios, for example. Mackintosh’s design was primarily shaped by these practical considerations, but it was handled with such skill and character that the functions of the building were intimately united with his own ideals and aesthetic.
The School forms a simple E-shaped building with an austere and asymmetrical north façade with massive studio windows. A single central entrance leads to a staircase with two floors of studios to the right and left. The bright and airy Director’s Office with fitted cupboards and a fireplace is directly above the entrance. At the centre of the school, at the top of the stairwell top-lit with a glazed roof and timber trusses like a medieval barn, is an exhibition space called the Museum. The first-floor corridors are also top-lit with skylights, leaving a maximum of wall space available for exhibition purposes. A student common room, though not required in the brief, was also provided, which reflects Mackintosh’s sympathetic understanding of student life. There was little additional decoration to the building because of the limited budget. Unusually for the period there was only a small stone carving over the entrance and any decoration that Mackintosh managed to incorporate was functional as well as beautiful. The massive fenestration of the north façade is visually broken up by decorative wrought-iron brackets that brace the huge windows and can be used as window cleaning supports. The lively wrought-iron railings also give decoration to an otherwise reduced building with finials of stylised birds, bees and beetles that resemble Japanese Mon or family crests.
Due to the financial restrictions the design was completed in two phases. The eastern part and the entrance block opened in 1899, but the construction of the western part did not start until 1907 and was only completed in 1909. This time lapse coincided with the most productive period of Mackintosh’s career, during which he further developed his eclectic style and started to experiment with the new progressivism of order and rationality while working on a series of significant commissions for public buildings as well as for private homes and tea houses. He designed Queen’s Cross Church – his major ecclesiastical work – in a free late-Gothic style in 1897, followed in 1900 by a second newspaper office, the Daily Record building, where he exhibited an imaginative manipulation of practical building material for decorative effect. A year later Mackintosh became a partner in Honeyman, Keppie & Mackintosh, which also meant that he could no longer design whatever work received by the firm as he had been doing as an assistant but had to attract his own clients and secure commissions from them. Still, Mackintosh was appointed in 1903 as architect of Scotland Street School, for which he produced a more orderly and symmetrical plan with a pair of tradition-inspired, glazed towers that were in effect semi-cylindrical bay windows.
Contemporaneously, Mackintosh has a growing international reputation, especially in Austria and Germany. His work was extensively publicised by Hermann Muthesius, a German architect and writer who actively promoted progressive British designers and who facilitated Mackintosh’s commissions and participation in exhibitions in Europe. Mackintosh, together with other members of The Four, was invited to attend the Eighth Exhibition of the Vienna Secession in 1900. Their work drew considerable attention and interest and they enjoyed good relations with the leaders of the Secession. Mackintosh was subsequently invited by Newbery to design the Scottish Section for the 1902 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art in Turin, followed by exhibitions in Berlin and Dresden, which further consolidated his reputation in Europe and brought a stream of Austrian and German visitors to Glasgow. The influence, however, was two-way, as Mackintosh also seemed to have been inspired by the Viennese and started to employ their design elements in his work.
When Honeyman, Keppie & Mackintosh were appointed to finish the rest of the Glasgow School of Art building, Mackintosh radically revised his earlier scheme, partly because more space was needed than had been originally envisaged. While the western part of the north front was completed largely to the original design, with an attic storey added to create more studio space, the west wing was completely recast as a tower soaring on one of Glasgow’s steepest streets, and the vertical drama was accentuated by three spectacular oriel windows that ran up the height of the west façade.
The library – the main interior of the west wing – is no less surprising, where the central fall of light from the windows contrasts with the rectilinear dark stained wooden gallery supported by split beams. Mackintosh decorated the balusters with notches picked out in splashes of red, green and white – a magical mix of academic sobriety and modern geometric intensity. This library was probably one of Mackintosh’s most exciting interiors in a unique building that both kick started his architectural career and later revealed his mature style.
During the most promising period of his career Mackintosh undertook a wide range of domestic commissions at home and abroad, from room interiors to entire houses. From his first domestic interiors in Westdel in 1898 – an all-white bedroom – he continually experimented with and fine-tuned his aesthetic, not only with his own home at 120 Mains Street, where he – in collaboration with Macdonald – tried out an aesthetic ‘gender code’ that saw the interiors divided into light, feminine environments and dark, masculine environments, but also with a series of opportunities in Europe, such as room settings designed for international exhibitions as well as a music room in Vienna for Fritz Wärndorfer, a principal patron of the Secession.
Yet his most important work was Hill House on a hillside site on the outskirts of Helensburgh overlooking the Clyde estuary, where he brought into play his full decorative repertoire. Mackintosh secured the commission in 1902 after showing his client – the publisher Walter Blackie – Windyhill, a house that he built for his friend William Davidson in Kilmacolm in 1901.
The following year Mackintosh started work on Hill House by submitting the internal layout to Blackie for approval, before designing the elevations which reflected the function of the interior. A narrow building running from east to west with all the major rooms looking south over the estuary, Hill House was foremost a practical family home with the library off the main hall designed for receiving clients and the nursery situated at the furthest end in the north extension where the kitchen, services and children’s rooms were housed.
Mackintosh used local sandstone and plain roughcast rendered or harled walls. Features such as the massive chimney and staircase tower – which came from the Scottish Baronial tradition – were combined with a modern visual vocabulary, such as the flat roof of the sun lounge. Mackintosh was allowed a free rein with the decoration of the hall, sitting room and bedroom, where he designed everything from built-in wardrobes and chairs to fire tongs and pokers. His desire to create a total environment was in keeping with the artistic taste of the time. Josef Hoffmann in Vienna and C.F.A Voysey and M.H Baillie Scott in England also designed not only buildings but furniture and furnishings too.
Mackintosh was extremely fortunate to work throughout his career with clients such as Walter Blackie, who allowed him to have complete control over a project. However his most supportive client was Miss Catherine Cranston, who owned and ran a chain of tea rooms. Mackintosh was commissioned twice – in 1904 and 1908 – to redecorate Hous’hill, a house owned by Cranston and her husband John Cochrane, and here his decorative art underwent a similar change to that in his architecture. A shift can be seen away from organic forms and symbolism towards clarity and rectilinear ornament, especially the use of squares, a growing trend in his later work.
Miss Cranston’s Tea Rooms
The most generous and constant patron of Mackintosh, Miss Cranston employed him in the design of all her tea rooms and entrusted him with more and more responsibility. At the time Glasgow tea rooms were unique as places where people of different classes could meet friends, relax and enjoy non-alcoholic refreshments in a variety of spaces within the same building. At a time when the temperance movement was increasingly popular, tea rooms like Miss Cranston’s played an important role in Glasgow life. The tea rooms Mackintosh designed in the early 1900s are, like many of his work, a complete environment in which art, architecture and design came harmoniously together. These light, elegant and sophisticated interiors were an enormous contrast to the gritty, smoky urban city of Glasgow.
Mackintosh was first employed by Miss Cranston in 1896 to provide a stencil decoration for the walls of her tea rooms at 91-93 Buchanan Street. These rooms had been built and refurbished by George Washington Brown of Edinburgh, with George Walton overseeing the decoration and providing the furniture. Mackintosh was asked to create a wall decoration for the ladies’ tea room, the luncheon room and the smokers’ gallery. His frieze depicted elongated female figures in pairs facing each other surrounded by roses. This commission led to others for Miss Cranston. From 1898 to 1899 Mackintosh was asked to design the furniture for the Argyle Street tea rooms. For this, his first major commission for furniture, he designed his first high-backed chair. In 1900 he designed the ladies’ luncheon room and related rooms for Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street tea rooms and in 1903 the entire Willow tea rooms.
The Willow tea rooms occupied a narrow site on Sauchiehall Street – old Scots for ‘alley of willows’, hence the use of willow for many of the decorative motifs used. Nothing escaped Mackintosh’s attention. He and Margaret designed everything, from furniture and menus to the waitresses’ uniforms. Within the four storey building, Mackintosh created a ladies’ tea room on the ground floor, with a general lunch room at the back and a tea gallery above it. On the first floor was a more exclusive ladies’ room with a men’s billiard and smoking room on the floor above. The most extravagant of the rooms was the Room de Luxe on the first floor. Overlooking the street, it had white walls with a frieze of coloured glass, mirrored glass and decorative leading, a gesso panel by Margaret Macdonald, splendid double doors with further leaded glass decoration, as well as silver painted high-backed chairs and sofas upholstered in rich purple.
In the following decade Miss Cranston continued to employ Mackintosh to remodel or redecorate some of the tea rooms, such as the creation of the Dutch Kitchen at Argyle Street in 1906 and the Cloister Room at Ingram Street in 1912. The latter, decorated with a lozenge motif which might have derived from contemporary Viennese work, similarly manifested the change in his style as did the Glasgow School of Art library and his other later work.
In 1914 Mackintosh left Honeyman & Keppie – and Glasgow – for reasons which have now been lost. This is the period of his life that, over time, has been elaborated to create the image of a tragic romantic hero who was rejected by his home town, which so fits with the famous portrait of Mackintosh with a moustache and a bow tied at his neck. It has been written that he left Honeyman & Keppie because he had been depressed, drinking heavily and losing his grip professionally – at a particularly hard time when the partnership as well as other practices saw plummeting volume of work after the introduction of the increment value duty on all land in the 1910 Finance Act. It is possible that he intended to move to Vienna, where he was highly respected having forged friendships with Austrian architects such as Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, only for his plans to be thwarted by the outbreak of World War 1. Mackintosh and Macdonald went on holiday to, and then decided to stay in Walberswick, Suffolk in 1914, where he produced a series of botanical watercolours. While there he was arrested as a spy, possibly because he received post from central Europe, and he then moved to Chelsea, London.
Mackintosh tried to gain work to establish himself in England with the status he had enjoyed in Glasgow, but at a time when eclecticism and individualism increasingly gave way to a rigorous classical style as exemplified by the Beaux-Arts architecture, his style seemed outmoded. Although Mackintosh was not unwilling to cater to the taste of his clients, his unconventionality was well known and only exceptional clients were able to give him the free range he required. Nevertheless, in 1916 he received a commission to refurbish and decorate a house at 78 Derngate in Northampton for W.J. Bassett-Lowke. Seizing upon this rare opportunity, Mackintosh fully exploited his new style and designed striking, Viennese-inspired interiors, notably the lounge-hall with its dark walls and dense and vivid geometric motifs – a definitive move away from the lighter colours and organic forms characteristic of his early work.
With little income and with most other commissions eventually falling through, Mackintosh began to produce fabric designs for two textile firms, Messrs. Foxton and Messrs. Sefton of London, and he created a remarkable series of watercolour paintings during the 1920s, especially after 1923 when he moved to southern France with Macdonald, where he spent the last five years of his life. He died in London of cancer of the tongue in December 1928.
An endlessly fascinating man who created work with a very distinctive voice, Mackintosh emerged from the Arts and Crafts period as an architect who became progressively less interested in its rural aesthetic and increasingly inspired by the progressive art movements of Germany and Austria, which at the same time were drawing inspiration from his work. Although his career fell apart prematurely, his early and mid-career work in Glasgow – much of which still in use today – has sealed his reputation as an exceptional architect and designer of the turn of the 20th century possessed of powerful originality.
Portrait, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Courtesy of The Lighthouse, Glasgow.
Smoker's Cabinet. Designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Menu design for Margaret Macdonald. Designed in 1911, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Wikimedia Commons.
Settle. Designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Made in 1916. Given by Mrs. F. j. Bassett-Lowke. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Glasgow School of Art designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Photograph by P. Joyce. Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of a high backed chair for Ingram Street Tea Rooms, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. 1900. Design Museum.
Casket designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Made in 1909. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland
Attends Reid’s Public School and, in 1877, Allan Glen’s Institution
Begins evening classes at Glasgow School of Art, which he attends until 1894 and where he wins many prizes
Becomes an articled pupil to a Glasgow architect, John Hutchison
On qualifying, Mackintosh joins the renowned architectural firm Honeyman & Keppie as a draughtsman, where he befriends fellow draughtsman Herbert McNair (1868-1955)
Travels to Italy on a scholarship tour
Plays a prominent role in the design of the Glasgow Herald building at Mitchell Street, Glasgow, as well as in other major commissions received by the firm, such as the Queen Margaret College Anatomical Department in 1894 and Martyrs Public School in 1895
Develops designs with McNair and their friends, the sisters Margaret and Frances Macdonald. Together they are known as The Four
Goes on the first of many sketching holidays in England
Mackintosh is the lead designer on Honeyman & Keppie’s winning competition entry for a new building for Glasgow School of Art
The Four exhibits at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in London
Designs and produces stencil wall decorations for the Buchanan Street tea rooms, Glasgow for Miss Cranston
Designs Queen’s Cross Church, Glasgow
Construction begins on Glasgow School of Art
The Studio, an influential art magazine, publishes an article on Mackintosh
Designs several buildings for an architectural competition for the 1901 Glasgow International Exhibition
Commissioned by Miss Cranston to design the furniture and decoration for the Argyle Street tea rooms
Produces designs for Ruchill Street Free Church Halls, Glasgow and two domestic interiors: an all-white bedroom at Westdel, Queen’s Place, Glasgow for Robert Maclehose and a dining-room for Hugo Brückmann, editor of the German magazine Dekorative Kunst, in Münich
An article on Mackintosh and other Glasgow designers is published in Dekorative Kunst
The new Glasgow School of Art opens, as does the Queen’s Cross Church, Glasgow
Marries Margaret Macdonald. Together they design the decoration and furniture for their flat at 120 Mains Street, Glasgow
Miss Cranston commissions Mackintosh to design the interior and furniture for the Ladies’ Luncheon Room, Ingram Street tearooms
Completes designs for Windyhill, Kilmacolm, his first detached house, for his friend William Davidson
Designs the Daily Record building, Glasgow
Invited to participate in the 8th exhibition of the Vienna Secession, for which he designs a room setting
Becomes a partner in Honeyman, Keppie & Mackintosh
Designs interior and furniture for Mrs Rowat at 14 Kingsborough Gardens, Glasgow
Together with Macdonald, submits a competition design for a Haus eines Kunstfreundes (house for an art lover)
Designs the Scottish Section for the 1902 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art, Turin
Designs a music room at Carl-Ludwig-Strasse 45, Vienna for Fritz Wärndorfer, a supporter of the Secession Movement and later of the Wiener Werkstätte
Commissioned to build The Hill House, Helensburgh for publisher Walter Blackie
Miss Cranston commissions Mackintosh to design the exterior and interiors of The Willow tea rooms, Glasgow
The School Board of Glasgow appoints Mackintosh to design the Scotland Street School, Glasgow
Designs a bedroom for the Dresdener Werkstätte exhibition, Dresden, and starts to design a dining room for an exhibition of modern furniture to open in Berlin in 1905
Completes The Hill House, Helensburgh
Designs the decoration and furnishings of the hall, dining room, drawing room and two bedrooms at Hous’hill, Nitshill, Glasgow for Miss Cranston and her husband Major Cochrane
Designs a shop at 233 Sauchiehall Street for Messrs Henry and Carruthers
Begins work on Auchinibert, a house at Killearn, Stirlingshire for F.J. Shand and on the Dutch Kitchen for the basement of the Argyle Street tea rooms, Glasgow
Completes the designs for the boardroom at Glasgow School of Art
Moves with Margaret to 78 Southpark Avenue, where they create new interiors
Elected Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects
Produces designs for the west wing of Glasgow School of Art and for the Oak Room at the Ingram Street tea rooms for Miss Cranston
Designs the Card Room for Hous’hill as well as the Oval Room and ladies’ rest room at the Ingram Street tea rooms
Opening of the west wing of Glasgow School of Art
Creates the interiors of the Chinese Room and the Cloister Room for the Ingram Street tea rooms, Glasgow
Dissolves partnership in Honeyman, Keppie & Mackintosh
Moves to Walberswick, Suffolk where he paints watercolours and is suspected by local people of being a spy
Moves to Chelsea, London
Creates furniture and interiors for 78 Derngate, Northampton for W.J. Bassett-Lowke and starts to produce fabric designs for Messrs. Foxton and Messrs. Sefton of London
Designs the Dug-Out, a war-time café at the Willow tea rooms, and clocks for W.J. Bassett-Lowke
Completes designs for a guest bedroom at 78 Derngate, Northampton and a cottage at East Grinstead for E.O. Hoppé, which is not carried out
Moves to Port Vendres in southern France, where he paints a series of watercolours, mainly landscapes
Dies in London of cancer of the tongue
Charles Rennie Mackintosh: The Architectural Papers
Editor: Pamela Robertson
Publisher: White Cockade Publishing (1990)
Taking Tea with Mackintosh: The Story of Miss Cranston's Tea Rooms
Author: Perilla Kinchin
Publisher: Pomegranate Artbook (1998)
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