Issue 203
May/June 2018

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Jun 21, 2018
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    The making - and re-making - of Mackintosh Style

    Richard Carr on Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum's offering for Mackintosh 150

    Mackintosh merchandised

    THE EXHIBITION, Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style, which has just opened at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum in Glasgow, marks the beginnings of this year's celebration of the 150th anniversary of CRM's birth.

    The most significant event will be the unveiling of the reconstructed Oak Room, part of Miss Cranston's Ingram Street Tearooms in Glasgow, which Mackintosh designed in 1911. It will be a major feature in the new V&A Design Museum that opens in Dundee in September.

    However, designing an exhibition celebrating Mackintosh is a problem. After his death in London in 1928, Mackintosh became a forgotten figure – especially in Glasgow – until interest in his life and work began when the CRM Society was set up in 1973. One of its first tasks was to bring a new use to Queen's Cross Church in Glasgow, which CRM had designed from 1897-9 but which had lost its congregation.

    Making the church the home of the society was important at a time when two other buildings by CRM – the Martyrs Public School of 1895 and Scotland Street School of 1903-4 – were due to be demolished by Glasgow City Council. They were saved because the council ran out of money for its road-building programme.

    Another early task undertaken by the CRM Society was to mount a campaign to save the building that housed The Willow Tearooms in Sauchiehall Street, designed by Mackintosh (and others) for Miss Cranston in 1903. Maybe, saving the building and re-creating the dining room on the first floor marked the beginning of a renewed interest in Mackintosh, with the publication of books on his architecture and furniture, and some exhibitions, following soon after.

    Interest was also encouraged by the opening of The Hill House in Helensburgh to the public in the 1970s. Commissioned by Walter Blackie and completed by CRM in 1904, this was another of his buildings that was saved for the nation, this time from a developer who wanted to replace the house by a block of flats. More about The Hill House later.

    In the following three decades, Mackintosh was slowly embraced by Glasgow, which began to celebrate his work by, for example, converting the Glasgow Herald building designed by CRM in 1895 into The Lighthouse as part of Glasgow's UK City of Architecture & Design 1999. He was then being regenerated as a force for tourism that could draw crowds to much bigger exhibitions of his work, and to the few buildings open to the public (including, almost reluctantly, Glasgow School of Art, built by CRM from 1899-1907 and badly damaged by fire in 2014).

    Wrought iron finial atop the School of Art

    At the same time, reproductions of his architectural plans, posters, furniture and domestic items were augmented by products whose designs may be based on CRM's style but are described by Mackintosh aficionados as ‘Mockintosh.' Indeed, ‘Mockintosh' designs have now become big business, as can be seen in the shop attached to the Kelvingrove exhibition.

    So, back to the exhibition. Because there has been so much exposure of Mackintosh in recent years, its designer, Alison Brown, who is Curator, European Decorative Art from 1800 for Glasgow Museums, decided to take a very academic approach to her subject.

    Furthermore, its presentation, unfortunately situated on the lower ground floor of the museum, takes place in a space that is relatively dark (maybe good for textiles and paper exhibits), laid out in a series of differently-sized rooms that can be confusing in their relationship to each another.

    They reflect an unusual approach to CRM, dealing separately with specific aspects of the story such as the influence of Japan, the architect's training, the artistic interior, architectural masterworks, international exhibitions, textile design and so on. By homing in on the story in this way, the exhibition aims to put Mackintosh and his circle into their geographical, historical and cultural context in a way that one would normally find in a book.

    School of Art, in pre-fire days

    Indeed, the accompanying catalogue is like a digest, reflecting the subjects of the rooms and interspersing them with sections that act as a timeline, dating all the work done by CRM and his circle and uniting them with relevant events, both national and international. It is a fascinating and exhaustive record.

    However, it is perhaps because of the density of the exhibition that one of the most revolutionary aspects of Mackintosh' design – namely his use of light and, in his interiors, decorative patterning and the sparse, geometric shapes of much of his furniture – fails to come across.

    In 1900, the Japanese-inspired interior of his house at 120 Mains Street, Glasgow, with its white walls, sparse white or black furniture and fittings, and restrained dashes of pattern and colour, must have startled visitors used to the heavy Victorian furniture and decor in a city blackened by smoke.

    Thus one of the most interesting features of the exhibition are the films, both in black and white and colour, that focus upon CRM's buildings. Some, like the sequences on Windyhill in Kilmalcolm (1900), The Hill House and Glasgow School of Art, include interior shots, while others, like The Herald Building and Scotland Street School, show exteriors only. But they reveal much about his architectural composition and (in some cases) how badly poor contemporary furniture fits into CRM's interiors!

    Academically adventurous as this exhibition is, I think it's the wrong one for today. For, instead of concluding in the section called End Days with the sad and dispiriting final years and death of CRM, his wife Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, and Herbert and Frances McNair, it should have put CRM into his contemporary context.

    Thus, his influence on late 20th century design could have noted the use of his furniture in Babylon 5, the sci-fi tv programme set far into the future. It could also have shown how two of CRM's own designs – The House for an art Lover and A Cottage & Studio for an Art Lover – have now been built in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow and in Farr in Inverness.

    In Glasgow, besides giving the former Glasgow Herald building a new life, Scotland Street School has become a Museum of Education. And in Northampton, CRM's 1916 remodelling of a terraced house, 78 Derngate, for the Bassett-Lowke family has been returned to its domestic state after years as part of a girl's school.

    It contains the famous guest bedroom that was so notorious for its overwhelming, vivid jazzy decoration that, when George Bernard Shaw was asked how he could sleep in it, he replied by saying, "I always sleep with my eyes shut.”

    In the 1920s, the Bassett-Lowkes wanted to commission a house from CRM but couldn't locate him, so they commissioned a design from Peter Behrens. Amazingly, a house built to the same design exists overlooking the road from Dundee to Broughty Ferry.

    And finally, there is The Hill House. Saved from demolition when the house's second owners, the Lawson family, sold the house for £25,000 to the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland in 1972, the house then passed through two further owners before being acquired by the National Trust for Scotland in 1982.

    Then, trouble began. The house was built so badly, with its exterior, white harled sandstone walls being laid vertically (instead of horizontally) so that water seeped in from the roofs, splitting the strata. As a result, more than £250,000 has already been spent on repairs and the National Trust is now having to build a cage over the whole building to isolate it from the weather and allow the walls to dry out. Its rescue is expected to cost £4m.

    Indeed, saving The Hill House is relatively as expensive as building three barriers to prevent the water in Venice's lagoon from rising so high that it would destroy the city. So perhaps the place of CRM and his circle in contemporary life deserves yet another exhibition!

    Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style on until August 14.

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