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Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s ‘masterwork’

Nick Myall
Thursday 07 Jun 2018

It’s the 150th anniversary of the birth of Charles Rennie Mackintosh this week, a groundbreaking architect and designer who was not fully appreciated at home during his lifetime...

As Charles Rennie Mackintosh's home city of Glasgow celebrates the anniversary of his birth, his work could not be more popular, with his face and his trademark motifs adorning everything from dishcloths and carrier bags to coffee cups.

He is now the epitome of Glasgow Style but he died 90 years ago in poverty-stricken obscurity after a career that ground to a halt in his early 40s. He was not widely recognised at home and was considerably more popular in Europe in cities like Vienna. He was heavily influnced by the industrial backdrop of Glasgow with its shipyards and steel mills and also the emerging Japanese infuence that came to the city via the ship building industry.

These days Mackintosh's most famous architectural creation is his Glasgow School of Art building and it is described by the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society as the architect's "masterwork" There was a national and international outpouring of grief when it was devastated by fire in 2014 and its magnificent library completely destroyed. But when it was first unveiled in 1899, the half-finished building was deeply unpopular and appeared to lack symmetry and logic.

Outside a close circle of friends few knew about Mackintosh's architectural genius but his furniture designs were attracting an international following, especially in Austria and Germany.

Following the fire at the school of art, Scottish studio Page/Park Architects was appointed to oversee the restoration of the building, which is anticipated to complete in spring 2019.

Another of Mackintosh’s creations, The Hill House in Helensburgh was a family home with a difference, built in 1904 for publisher Walter Blackie. On the outside, the house had solid massed forms with little ornamentation but inside the rooms exuded light and space, and the use of colour and decoration was all part of Mackintosh's uncompromising vision.

One wealthy patron who returned to Mackintosh time and again was Miss Catherine Cranston, the queen of Glasgow's ever popular tea rooms. Following several projects in 1903, Catherine Cranston asked him to design her fourth Glasgow tea room.

The famous Willow Tea Rooms was once Glasgow's ultimate house of splendour. But after Miss Cranston was gone it became part of a department store and Mackintosh's elaborate designs gathered dust behind the bathing suits and bridal wear. Today the tea rooms have been refurbished at great cost and will be returned to their former glory for the 150th anniversary.

Mackintosh built a few other landmarks in Glasgow, such as The Martyr's public school, on the street in Townhead where he was born, Queen's Cross Church in Maryhill and Scotland Street School in Govan.

But by his early 40s, Mackintosh, who was said to have a "satanic" personality, was worn out and is thought to have had a nervous breakdown. Subsequently he moved to a small flat in London and then onto France where he spent some of the happiest days of his life painting watercolours in the sunshine far away from the rain of Glasgow. However it was not to last and he was forced to return to London when he got cancer of the tongue.

He spent his last years unable to speak and died in Paddington in 1928, at the age of 60.

Mackintosh asked for his ashes to be scattered, not in Glasgow, but in Porte Vendre, France, where he had spent four happy years in the sun.

Nick Myall

News editor

Key Facts:

Architecture
United Kingdom

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