GLASGOW ART SCHOOL (2)

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We face the prospect of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece being demolished because the fire damage was so great, and of it existing only in drawings and memory. Perhaps it can be rebuilt to Mackintosh’s plan, but the value of reproducing everything exactly as designed in 1897 is doubtful, and it seemed to me that some of the spaces inside, however interesting, beautiful or historically important, might be unsuitable for a 21st century art school.

I went back to Pevsner’s decription of GSoA in Pioneers of Modern Design. As it can’t be bettered, I thought I’d reproduce it here.

“... For in Glasgow there worked during these very years a group of artists as original and as imaginative as any in Europe. In painting, the Glasgow Boys, Guthrie, E. A. Walton, Lavery, Henry, Hornel, and so on are well enough known. Their first exhibition abroad impressed Europe considerably. But in design and decoration the first appearance of the Glasgow school at an exhibition in Vienna in 1900 was a revelation.

“The centre of the group was Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868- 1928) with his wife Margaret Macdonald and her sister Mrs McNair. In dealing with him, we are able at last to link up the development in England with the main tendency of Continental architecture in the nineties, with Art Nouveau. Before he was twenty-eight, Mackintosh was chosen to design the new building for the Glasgow School of Art, a remarkably bold choice due largely to the principal Francis H. Newbery. The designs date from 1897; the first part of the building was completed in 1899. Not a single feature here is derived from period styles.

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“The facade is of a strongly personal character and, in many ways, leads on to the twentieth century, although the entrance bay with balcony and short turret is deliberately fantastical and not unlike Townsend’s contemporary work. But the rest of the front is extremely simple, almost austere in its bold uniform fenestration. In the horizontal windows to the offices on the ground floor and the high studio windows on the upper floor, no curves are admitted; unbroken upright lines prevail even in the railing in front of the building, counteracted only by a few lighter and more playful Art Nouveau ornaments at the top. The same contrast exists between the rigidity of the upper-floor windows and the strange metal stalks at their base, functionally justified for putting planks on to facilitate window cleaning. However, be that as it may, this row of metal lines reveals one of Mackintosh’s principal sources and at the same time one of his most characteristic qualities. The source, particularly telling in the strange balls at the top of the stalks, with their intertwined tentacles of iron, is clearly the Celtic and Viking art of Britain, as it became familiar beyond the circles of scholars just at this time. The quality equally eloquent in the balls and the stalks is Mackintosh’s intense feeling for spatial values. Our eyes have to pass through the first layer of space, indicated by the stalks and balls before arriving at the solid stone front of the building. The same transparency of pure space will be found in all Mackintosh’s principal works. The ground plan of the building is clear and lucid, showing in another light the architect’s interest in space, an interest rare among artists of Art Nouveau.

“One more instance may be given to prove that this is really the keynote of Mackintosh’s creation: the interior of the library of the Glasgow School of Art, which forms the centre room of the west wing, planned in 1907. The simple motif of a high room with aisles and galleries around three sides is so enriched that the resulting impression is an overwhelmingly full polyphony of abstract form. The galleries do not project far enough to reach the pillars which separate ‘nave’ from ‘aisles’. Horizontal beams are inserted to connect the walls with the pillars and to support the galleries. Airy balustrades, Art Nouveau in detail, run from the parapets of the gallery to the pillars. Their sole purpose is to offer interesting perspectives. Curves, rare and all the more expressive in Mackintosh’s earlier work, have now completely disappeared. Uprights and horizontals, squares and oblongs determine the effect.

“This and the number of fascinating vistas which the architect has achieved here and in another principal work of the same period, the Cranston Tearoom in Sauchiehall Street, 1904, show him as the European counterpart of Frank Lloyd Wright and one of the few true forerunners of the most ingenious juggler with space now alive: Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier once confessed that his desire in building is to create poetry. Mackintosh’s attitude is very similar. Building in his hands becomes an abstract art, both musical and mathematical.

“The facade of the west wing of the art school is an instance of this. Here the abstract artist is primarily concerned with the shaping of volume and not of space, of solids, not of voids. The aesthetic value of the straight, slender shafts into which the windows are inserted is entirely independent of their function. The contrasts between fretwork and solid ashlar, and between the menacing bareness on the left and the complex polyphony on the right, are also effects more comparable to abstract relief than to buildings of Voysey’s kind. A glance at the earlier and the later part of the art school reveals the development of Mackintosh’s taste between 1897 and 1907. Delicate metal ornament of linear appeal is no longer used. A squareness and robustness prevail which come as a surprise. They are, it seems certain, Mackintosh’s way of admitting national tradition. His links with the Scottish baronial past are perhaps more evident in his country houses than in a public building such as the School of Art.”

GLASGOW ART SCHOOL

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A doorplate I photographed at GSoA in 2006.

When we were in Glasgow last week, the scaffolding on the art school obscured most of the Mackintosh building but indicated that it would soon be re-opened, improved beyond its condition when fire struck in 2014. Now comes the shocking news that another fire has damaged the building, undoing most of the painstaking restoration of the last three years.

The cause of the fire in not known yet. The 2014 fire was caused by gases from a canister used in a student project. (The Harrow art school fire at the University of Westminster in 2007 was also said to be caused by the ignition of materials used in a student project.) Will there be funds for another restoration?  I hope so: the Mackintosh building is Grade A listed and an important part of Scottish heritage.

Glasgow was one of the first British government art schools to teach pottery. In 1893 the school opened its Technical Art Studios, teaching stained glass, needlework, bookbinding, painting on china, and metalwork. The chairman of governors was James Fleming, a pottery manufaturer.

CHARLES RENNIE MACKINTOSH (2)

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Charles Rennie Mackintosh, bedroom at The Hill House.

I contrasted the plain walls and restrained patterning in Mackintosh’s houses with the busy Arts and Crafts style, by which I really meant the style of Morris & Co., which many middle class homes had adopted by 1900. But Mackintosh, of course, shared many design ideas with the Arts and Crafts movement, including attitudes to ornamentation. When I looked at the Society of Designer Craftsmen’s website, I found that Mackintosh was a member (when it was the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society).

Alan Crawford’s biography relates an account of the Society deriding Mackintosh’s exhibits in 1896, but says that it’s hard to find evidence, and notes that he exhibited again in 1899 and 1916.

CHARLES RENNIE MACKINTOSH

Glasgow is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and we went to see the Hunterian Gallery’s reconstruction of the house he designed for himself at Southpark Avenue, the exhibition at the Kelvingrove Museum about the Glasgow Style, and The Hill House, his most important domestic project, made for the publisher William Blackie.

All the photos here were taken at Hill House, except the last, taken at Glasgow Art School.

Mackintosh lived at Southpark Avenue in the later years of his partnership with Honeyman and Keppie and just as he began to practice on his own, so the house was his business card. He and his wife remodelled it, added doors and windows and commissioned furniture, fittings and textiles. It was designed to be airy and open, they used pattern sparingly and most of the rooms have white walls. A rare innovation was fitted carpets, made from stitching together narrow-loom runners. The effect is forward-looking and modern and strikingly different from the busy Arts and Crafts style popular in England at the time.

Mackintosh’s inspirations are partly Japanese and partly Celtic but he made something new out of them, designing houses with light, clever management of space and controlled use of colour. (He objected to Mrs Blackie putting yellow flowers in Hill House.)

His buildings are so iconic that it is surprising to find that Mackintosh was not successful in Glagow and was more appreciated in Vienna, where he influenced the Secession and the Wiener Werkstätte. The Blackie family loved Hill House and lived there until the 1950s.

Mackintosh was meticulous and demanding and the Glasgow Art School was horribly late and over budget.

The Art School is still covered in scaffolding as it undergoes major repairs following the fire.

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DENISE WREN AND THE KNOX GUILD

Denise Wren and a student packing a kiln, c.1926

Kingston Museum, Surrey, has an exhibition of rarely-seen work by Denise Wren and the Knox Guild. Wren (1891-1979) was a founder of the Craft Potters Association (CPA), the leading British group of studio potters, and was well-known among older potters, but the Kingston Museum displays work from her archive that reveals her as a significant designer in several other media as well. Little has been written about her, so this is a valuable show.

HOPE FOR BEAUTY
Kingston Museum,
Wheatfield Way
Kingston upon Thames
KT1 2PS
Until 7 April 2018
Closed Mondays
020 8547 5006
kingston.museum@rbk.kingston.gov.uk

This is her own account of her life, written in her seventies:

“Came to England from Australia in 1900. Trained Kingston School of Art under Archibald Knox 1907-11. Set up workshop within Knox Guild of Design & Craft at 24 Market Place, Kingston-upon-Thames 1911. Designed ‘a potters’ house’, Potter’s Croft, built with her husband Henry Wren (d.1947) and her two brothers in 1919. Whilst building she and her husband founded the Oxshott Pottery. Together they organised the Artist Craftsman exhibition at Central Hall, Westminster 1923-37, wrote Handcraft Pottery (1927), Fingerbuilt Pottery (Pitman), books on basketry and raffia and innumerable articles; ran short courses at Oxshott, supplied plans for small coke-fired kilns and sold pots continuously, exhibiting at e.g. British Empire Exhibitions 1923-4, Chelsea and the Rose Show. More recently exhibited with daughter Rosemary at Berkeley Galleries 1960’s, also Commonwealth Institute; continuously supported CPA – particularly concerned with its early development. Work V&A and other collections. Before the war, made earthenware with coloured glazes; since, stoneware and saltglazed pots and some hundreds of smoked biscuit elephants.”

Plate by Denise Wren, c.1920, with Art Nouveau design

Wren was one of the pioneers of studio pottery in Britain. It is interesting to note the women who played an important role in its early days: Dora Lunn, Dora Billington, Stella Crofts, Nell Vyse, Nora Braden and Katherine Pleydell Bouverie. Most of Billington’s students in the 1920s and 1930s, so far as they can be identified, were women.* Bernard Leach’s brand dominance in studio pottery from the 1940s to the 1970s tended to obscure the role of women.

Design for a brooch

Design for a pewter teapot

We are fortunate that Wren never threw anything away. Her archive contains designs for fabrics, jewellery, silver, pewter and posters as well as pottery. Her designs in the 1910s and 1920s were strongly influenced by Archibald Knox’s Art Nouveau and Celtic motifs. In the 1950s she had commercial success designing fabrics for Tootal.

Archibald Knox (1864-1933) designed extensively for Liberty’s and was a charismatic teacher at Kingston art school. His methods were not approved of by the school inspectors, who it appears were still wedded to the drawing syllabus of the old government art schools, and he resigned suddenly in 1911. Wren and some other students also resigned in protest and formed the Knox Guild in honour of him.

Denise Wren, square pot with incised deer and “stormy sunset glaze”, 1930s.

Denise Wren, George and the Dragon, 1920s.

Salt-glazed jug by Denise Wren. She exhibited her innovative glazes at the Craft Potters Association.

The Guild’s principles as applied to pottery were: “A piece of pottery is as much of a work of art as a picture. Therefore each of the pieces shown has been made by the designer. Each is the only one of its particular pattern.”  It has to be said that Wren’s early pottery was clumsy and badly made, but that applies to many of the early studio potters. Her application of Celtic and Art Nouveau patterns was original and unique. She achieved interesting glaze effects. In the 1950s, she and her daughter introduced salt-glazing to studio pottery, where is is now widely used. The little animal figures that she made towards the end of her career were artistically and commercially successful.

* Cayley Robinson, Gertrude Cohen, Annie Maule, Rachel Marshall, Winifrid Williams, Deborah Harding, Stella Crofts, Nora Braden , Sybil Finnemore, Zema Haworth, Olive Jones, Enid Marx, Ada Mason, Sylvia Fox-Strangways, Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Elsie Currie, Miss F. Maggs, Nora Stranaghan, Miss D. S. Bell, Mary R. Brace, Miss J. Williams, Constance Dunn, Mrs R. N. Tagore, Norah Godlee, Doreen Goodchild, Ursula Mommens, Rosemary Dugdale-Bradley, Dorothy Morton, Helen Pincombe, Joan Crossley-Holland and Eleanor Whittall. 

KÁROLY KÓS BUILDINGS IN BUDAPEST ZOO

It may be perverse to go to a zoo to look at the buildings, but that’s what we did on a recent trip to Budapest, because the popular zoo is one of the architectural highlights of the city. It’s one of the oldest zoos in the world. It made a loss in its first incarnation and at the end of the 19th century it was taken over by the city council, who had it completely rebuilt.

The exotic Art Nouveau entrance and the Elephant House were designed by Kornél Neuschloss; they’re great fun and they make bold statements, but we went to see the buildings by his young students Károly Kós and Dezső Zrumeczky.

Kós (1883-1977) was born in Transylvania and was passionately interested in its Hungarian culture. His zoo buildings are based firmly on Transylvanian folk models. He was an admirer of John Ruskin and William Morris and insisted on this vernacular style in his Budapest buildings against the prevailing Art Nouveau and the overblown Eclectic style. Although he was offered the post of professor at the College for Applied Arts in Budapest, he preferred to return to Transylvania. After Trianon, he campaigned for the rights of Hungarians in Romania but did not advocate reunion with Hungary. He was a senator in the Romanian parliament for the Hungarian People’s Union from 1946-48.

Bird House

Kós’s drawing for the Bird House