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.”

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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