Was Margaret MacDonald the overlooked inspiration behind Glasgow’s best-known artist architect?
It used to be said that behind every great man there must be a great woman. So what about the marriage between Scotland’s most famous artist architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and one of the original “Glasgow Girls”, Margaret MacDonald?
Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s architecture, design and paintings are now an iconic aspect of Glasgow, the city in which he was born 150 years ago. Admirers visit from around the world to see unique designs such as the Glasgow School of Art, the Scotland Street School, and the former Herald newspaper building, which is now home to The Lighthouse, Scotland’s national centre for design and architecture.
Meantime, born in Tipton near Wolverhampton, Margaret MacDonald and her younger sister Frances moved to their father’s home town of Glasgow in 1890. The pair soon opened an artists studio on the city’s Hope Street, producing work inspired by Celtic imagery, literature, symbolism and folklore.
Margaret and Frances were also among the first women allowed to attend day classes at the Glasgow School of Art, where they were soon introduced (by the School’s director, Francis “Fra” Newbery) to fellow students – and future husbands! – Charles and fellow architectural student Herbert MacNair. Encouraged to collaborate and exhibit together, they became known, with great originality, as “The Four”, with much of their work heavily steeped in mysticism and symbolism.
Pamela Robertson, Professor Emerita of Mackintosh Studies and Honorary Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow, is an acknowledged expert on Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s work. She has published numerous articles and curated several exhibitions, including the award-winning 1996 Mackintosh retrospective organised by Glasgow Museums, which subsequently toured New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Yet the first “substantial” exhibition she put together, “in terms of research and locating objects and bringing them together,” actually focused on Margaret’s life and work. Organised in 1983 to mark the 50th anniversary of Margaret’s death, the event was, surprisingly perhaps, her first ever solo exhibition.
Some supporters of Margaret’s importance to Charles point to a series of letters Charles wrote to her in 1927. By this time the couple had settled in France, but Margaret was was back in London undergoing medical treatment. “You must remember that in all my architectural efforts you have been half if not three-quarters of them,” Charles wrote in one letter. Famously, he also insisted that, Margaret had genius, whereas he had only talent.
“I think this was a genuine love affair and companionship and mutual support which was very important in the personal life, given the difficulties they’d had later on,” Pamela says. “Also, creatively and professionally, during those early years in the 1890s at the School of Art, she – along with Frances and also Herbert MacNair – opened up the young Macintosh, who had been through a very technical training, to another way of thinking, creatively and imaginatively.”
Pamela accepts that critics have not always been kind to Margaret. “In the early 1900s, when Macintosh was pitched as the Modernist, anything that was decorative or ornamental was considered bad and therefore the result of Margaret’s negative, dilatory influence.
“But that was one particular perspective of those who want Macintosh to fit the ‘white cube’ modernist box. Whereas I think he had a genuine interest in their creation. In certain key interiors from the early 1900s – the Willow Tea Rooms, their own home together – there was a mood, a tone and sense of colour that I think she brought into the interiors at that point.”
Pamela accepts that she can’t point to any obvious influence from Margaret in Charles’s later work. “Thinking of it from the other point of view – what did Macintosh do for Margaret? – I think it’s clear that, because of the commissions that he received, he provided her with opportunities to do her gesso panels in the Willow, in the Hill House. I think it gave her opportunities and possibly stretched her creatively to have those commissions available to her.”
Roger Billcliffe is a former Keeper of Fine Art at Glasgow Art Gallery and, since 1992, owner of the Roger Billcliffe Gallery, the largest privately owned venue of its kind in Scotland. A respected expert on Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the “Glasgow Boys” and the Scottish Colourists, the author of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Art of the Four admits to Margaret becoming something of a “bête noire” for him, not least because of his firm views on her work. “I don’t deny Margaret has considerable talents, but influencing Mackintosh in his artwork is not one of them,” he says.
It’s too easy, he believes, to take Charles’s letters to Margaret out of context. “He’s guilty that she’s in London suffering from medical treatment, and he’s in the South of France,” Roger says. “He’s missing her, and in the dog house because she says he doesn’t write often enough. But even if he did say that, it’s just a statement; it’s not evidence that he was influenced by Margaret; you can’t jump from that in a letter to all of his later work being influenced by Margaret.
“Crucially, modern art history courses tend to look at the sociological, philosophical, historical background to art, because they’ve run out of things to say about the paintings. I went back to the artwork,” Roger says, talking about his most recent book on “The Four”.
“Of the Four, Margaret is the least inventive,” he insists. “She is the most repetitive; she only blossoms when she’s working with somebody else. Margaret is the one will work best with the others. On her own, she struggles. And when she’s on her own, because she’s struggling, if you look carefully, she repeats the same figure half a dozen times. The people who are extolling her virtues certainly haven’t noticed.”
Roger insists, though, that Margaret did have particular talents, not least developing the idea of gesso panels – the name coming from the white chalky paint used to prime the panel’s surface – into something that nobody else did, not least because it was incredibly time-consuming. “She produced about three pieces in three years, which I think suited her,” he says. “She didn’t have to sell them. It was almost a hobby.
“The more Mackintosh produced the less Margaret produced. Surprisingly, having said that all of her work was basically illustrative, she produced three or four works that were really from the heart, which I think were triggered by the death of her mother and then her sister Frances, her sister. Then she gave up. Having suddenly achieved a completely new level, she turned her back on it. You probably could put it down to the fact that she wasn’t a terribly well woman, continuously having treatment for what medics today call left ventricular heart failure.
“So, that’s why I’m not a supporter of Margaret becoming a major contributor to Mackintosh’s work; she does contribute to what Mackintosh was doing, in that she helped him furnish a room, but the content of what she’s doing is so different from The Four that I would almost go as far to say that Mackintosh worked out the design and she turned it from a drawing to a panel 15 feet wide – but that doesn’t go down well with certain art historians!
“But if they chose to look at the evidence, they would see that, all of a sudden, from being a fairly repetitive artist, Margaret suddenly becomes a much more inventive one at the time of her marriage to Mackintosh. Now if that’s so, it must speak of the influence going the other way.”
Many events and exhibitions commemorating Charles Rennie Mackintosh are taking place in Glasgow during 2018, including:
• Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style
Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Argyle Street, G3 8AG; until 14 August. Tickets: £7/£5
This new exhibition presents Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s work “in the context of Glasgow, his key predecessors, influences and contemporaries, particularly those working in the Glasgow Style.”
• The Lighthouse: Building Tours.
The Lighthouse, Mitchell Lane, G1 3NU; £5
Scotland’s Centre for Design and Architecture runs a 40-minute tour of the building every Saturday at 1pm.
More information: www.glasgowmackintosh.com
DID YOU KNOW?
• Charles Rennie Mackintosh was the fourth of 11 children.
• Like his father before him, Charles changed the spelling of his surname from “McIntosh” to “Mackintosh”.
• Thanks to their unusual designs, “The Four” were sometimes dismissed as “The Spook School”; the name is now used by an Edinburgh-based indie pop band, which has released three albums since 2012.
• Even during his lifetime, Mackintosh’s work was appreciated more in Austria and Germany than the UK. He exhibited architectural designs in Moscow and Berlin, and both he and Margaret were feted for their contribution to the 8th Vienna Secession in 1900.
• Italian company Cassina was the first to start producing replicas of Charles’s furniture designs, most notably his high-backed chairs from the Willow Tearooms and The Hill House.
First published in The Scots Magazine, #July 2018.