Charles Rennie Mackintosh is known throughout the world as Scotland's most famous architect, while history has forced his wife to play a supporting role. But Margaret Macdonald's part in her husband's most celebrated buildings has recently gone through a long-overdue re-appraisal. In fact many leading art critics now contend that Mackintosh owes a lot of his success to the close collaboration he had with his talented fairer half.
Between 1895 and 1924 she contributed to more than forty exhibitions throughout Europe and America and won praise in the leading art periodicals of the day. Eminent curators bought her work and she was awarded numerous prizes in collaboration with her husband. Yet on her death in 1933, brief mention was given to her only in and Glasgow Herald, and subsequent writings on art history have played down her significance. This scant attention was partly due to her limited output, which faded even more in her final years, and to changing taste. But it is also due to an enduring tendency to look at her work in the shadow of that of her husband.
An accomplished and versatile artist
Charles Rennie Mackintosh was an apprentice architect at Glasgow firm Honeyman & Keppie when he first encountered Margaret Macdonald. Margaret, who was born in Wolverhampton on 5th November 1864, was already an accomplished and versatile artist in watercolours, metalwork, embroidery and textiles, long before she met Mackintosh.
Their backgrounds were vastly different. She was three years older than him and her wealthy background afforded her a privileged education. Margaret had travelled on the continent and spoke French and German. He was a boy from the tenements.
Margaret's father's career took the family to Glasgow in 1890 and along with her sister Frances, she soon registered as a student at the Glasgow School of Art. Meanwhile Mackintosh was engaged to marry Jessie Keppie, the sister of his boss, and had enrolled in nightclasses at the art school with his friend and fellow architect Herbert MacNair in 1884. But any promises Mackintosh made to Jessie were broken when the urbane, sophisticated Margaret Macdonald crossed his path.
If Mackintosh had stuck with Jessie, he would have secured his place in wealthy Glasgow society, in the mainstream of architecture in the city and would have been a made man. By choosing the outsider Margaret, he really put a spoke in the wheel of all that and shattered his social reputation in Glasgow. Mackintosh may have lost some influential friends but Margaret's influence on his life and work would prove to be far more important.
An unconventional character
Francis (Fra) Newberry was the dynamic head of the Glasgow School of Art in the mid-1880s when Margaret first encountered Mackintosh. At the end of the 19th century it was an exciting place to be. Newberry, along with his devoted wife Jessie (a gifted and original embroideress) were broad-minded, inspirational tutors who gave equal encouragement to male and female students. Fra and Jessie presided over a period of enlightenment for women artists at the Art School between 1885 and 1918. It was unusual at that time for a woman to pursue any career never mind one as frivolous as the visual arts. Women who opted for such a vocation would have been considered highly unconventional characters.
The Glasgow Style
In industrial and industrious Glasgow at the turn of that century a group of women were, for the first time in history, allowed to attend day classes at the city's art school. Margaret and her sister Frances became, along with Jessie Newberry, fellow embroiderer Ann Macbeth and Jessie M. King central to the evolution of decorative and interior design that became known as the Glasgow Style. Along with other talented women, their input would become sadly marginalised over the years by a distinctly patriarchal interpretation of art history. To the impressionable young Mackintosh this coterie of vibrant, talented, maverick female artists must have been a revelation.
Margaret and Frances and their friends dressed as they pleased and behaved in a Bohemian manner. They were fans of the controversial and influential illustrator and author Aubrey Beardsley. They read the plays of Oscar Wilde and had an opinion on them. It was Fra Newberry who introduced the Macdonald sisters to Mackintosh and MacNair.
In about 1893 Fra noticed a similarity in the style of the sisters design work and that of Mackintosh and MacNair and brought them all together. They soon became known locally as the Four.
Margaret and Frances early work together was controversially labelled "Spook" art because of its unusual symbolism and obscure spiritual influences. It featured gaunt human forms and stylised plants and provoked hostility and ridicule from some observers at the time. The Four set out to shock and provoke the suffocating conformity of Victorian society. Through their art they celebrated the relationship between sexuality and the forces of nature. It was like a little hippy commune with the two couples behaving almost like Victorian flower children as if the 1960s had been transported to the 1890s!
Feeding each other's imaginations
MacNair and Frances married in 1899, while Mackintosh and Margaret married the following year. Several months before their marriage Margaret and Mackintosh had been working on their own flat at Southpark Avenue in Glasgow, transforming a dull Victorian space into a work of art. Important elements of the original interior were reconstructed in Glasgow's Hunterian Museum in the 1980s. As the Four fed each others imaginations the Glasgow Style really began to make its mark on the Continent. It achieved international prominence at the VIIIth Vienna Secession Exhibition (1900) and the Turin International Exhibition of Decorative Art (1902).
Praise for the four
In Vienna an ethereal white room was shown to a fascinated public. Austrian critics dubbed the newly wed Mackintoshes the artistic couple. These rooms are like dreams, one wrote. Here is mysticism and aestheticism.
Though the group's output was small, this press coverage saw the Glasgow Style became widely recognised as an important and provocative phenomenon and the women especially received extraordinary publicity for their contribution. The Style won rave reviews in exhibitions in Liege, Paris, London, Venice and elsewhere and was also published in the , a radical literary periodical whose first art editor was the influential Aubrey Beardsley.
A blurring of roles
Although the ambitious young Mackintosh had contributed to several projects and been reviewed for his work on the Glasgow Herald building, his career was yet to blossom. And when it did, Margaret's art would be highly influential. Their roles as artist and designer blurred once they began to collaborate. But her influence was more noticeable on the interior rather than the exterior of his buildings. The first significant demonstration of their collaborative talents came with a commission for a tearoom interior.
In late-Victorian Glasgow these were highly fashionable institutions, none more so than those owned by the formidable Miss Catherine Cranston. She was a leading figure in the development of the social phenomenon of tearooms and was a major patron of Margaret and Mackintosh. But it wasn't all about safe, cosy little havens with people scoffing scones and jam. The tearooms of Glasgow were radical, cutting edge places where intelligent, avant-garde thinkers hung out. If Miss Cranston were alive today she would be commissioning the Mackintoshes to work their magic on the interiors of swanky bars and members-only clubs back then it was tearooms!
The Willow Tearooms
With Miss Cranston's backing, Margaret and Mackintosh created astonishingly original and at times highly sensual interiors. The Salon de Luxe at the Willow Tearooms on Sauchiehall Street is the best surviving example of the work that Margaret and Mackintosh undertook for their benevolent patron. The pair took the existing four-storey former warehouse building and behind Mackintosh's strikingly simple new façade turned it into a range of stunningly designed spaces, each with different functions and dcor for the different patrons to enjoy.
Margaret and Mackintosh designed almost every aspect of the tearooms interior, including the furniture, cutlery, menus and even (allegedly!) the waitress uniforms. Described at the time as a fantasy for afternoon tea, the Salon de Luxe, on the second floor, was sumptuously designed in a colour scheme of grey, purple and white.
The room featured one of Margaret Macdonald's most famous works. On the wall opposite the fireplace she created a gesso panel inspired by Rossetti's sonnet , a reference to the Scots Sauchiehall. Arguably her greatest achievements were in gesso, a plaster-based medium, which she used to make decorative panels for furniture and interiors. Gesso was a form of plaster of Paris used in the Middle Ages as a preparatory base for oil painting. Margaret was the first artist to use gesso as a medium in its own right. Her technique is still something of a mystery to artists inspired by her unique style.
The big chance
Mackintosh's big chance came in 1896 when at the age of 28 he won a major competition to design a new building at the Glasgow School of Art. His design was a stunning architectural achievement. In stone, iron, wood and glass Mackintosh expressed in three dimensions the ideas that inspired him and Margaret as members of the Four.
While Mackintosh was busy designing for the Glasgow School of Art, Margaret continued to work with her sister Frances. By 1896 the sisters had opened a studio at 128 Hope Street, Glasgow where they worked closely together and occasionally in collaboration with MacNair. The Misses Macdonald's early work, especially Frances (1896) and Margarets The Opera of the Winds (1901-3) influenced Gustav Klimt.
Previously unseen work
Previously unseen work, recently discovered in the United States, further reveals their talent in a series of watercolour illustrations for a book of Arthurian legends. The watercolours, which date from the 1890s, were on show in 2006 at the Hunterian Art Gallery in Glasgow as part of the Glasgow Mackintosh Festival.
In 1903 the publisher Walter Blackie commissioned the Mackintoshes to design a family home in Helensburgh, west of Glasgow. This gave the pair an opportunity to create a complimentary set of interiors and exteriors where everything, down to the smallest detail, including the cutlery was Mackintosh designed. The Blackie family fortune was based on publishing fairytales and these influenced Margarets design for the interior of The Hill House. In the drawing room, rose petals, leaves and thorns evoke the story of sleeping beauty. Centre-stage above the fireplace is a gesso panel depicting the princess in a bower of roses. Margaret also worked closely with her husband on designs for the House for an Art Lover, which, due to financial problems, was not built until the 1990s. Built from the original plans, it now stands resplendently in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow.
Disillusioned, the Mackintoshes left Scotland in 1914 and settled in Walberswick on the Suffolk coast of England. Here Mackintosh turned to the thing he loved best, drawing from nature. Ill-health and her preoccupation with looking after her, by then often depressed and alcoholic husband, meant that after 1910 Margarets output petered out.
In 1923 they headed for the sunshine of the South of France where Mackintosh produced a series of sublime watercolours that would become his artistic swansong. Mackintosh died in London of mouth cancer on 16 December 1928 at the age of only 60. His devoted lover, muse, best friend and creative partner, Margaret Macdonald lived on for another five years. Mackintosh was never in doubt about the influence of Margaret, claiming: Margaret has genius, I only have talent. In one of the many letters he wrote to her from France before his death he asked her to remember in all my architectural efforts that you've been half, if not three quarters of them.
The Mackintoshes legacy lives on
Despite not getting the plaudits they deserved in their lifetime the Mackintoshes legacy lives on. The continuing popularity of the Mackintosh style has created a lucrative market for a whole range of products. Today the Mackintosh brand is worth millions. At auctions around the world furniture by Margaret and Mackintosh commands the highest prices.In 2002 Glasgow Museums, the National Art Collections Fund and the National Trust for Scotland bought one of their writing desks, a jewel-encrusted bureau, for just under 1m. The newly reopened Kelvingrove Art Gallery has a new gallery titled Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style, celebrating the work of the Four. And over one hundred years on from Margaret Macdonald and Charles Rennie Mackintosh and its first period of enlightenment the Glasgow School of Art continues to produce a conveyor-belt of talented artists.
Glasgow School of Art alumni Douglas Gordon and Simon Starling won the prestigious Turner Prize in 1996 and 2005 respectively. Jim Lambie also made the short-list in 2005. In 2006 video artist Phil Collins was nominated for the shortlist for the 25,000 prize. Three graduates from Glasgow have won the Becks Futures, the leading art prize for young artists Roddy Buchanan, Toby Paterson and Rosalind Nashashibi.
And if that isn't enough, the celebrity world includes famous former pupils of the art school such as Robbie Coltrane, Muriel Gray and Peter Capaldi.