Charles Rennie Mackintosh was born on the 7th of June, 1868.
In the late 1890s, Glasgow School of Art was one of the leading art academies in Europe, with its reputation in architecture and the decorative arts at an all time high. That was primarily down to one talented man, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the celebrated architect, painter and designer. Rennie’s reputation quickly spread beyond his native city and he was regarded as one of the foremost British figures in the art nouveau movement, and as the principal exponent of the ‘Glasgow Style’. No, that’s not a contradiction in terms, despite what anyone from Edinburgh might say.
Few designers can claim to have created a unique and individual style that is so instantly recognisable. Charles Rennie Mackintosh is famous as a designer of chairs, but he was also an architect who designed schools, offices, churches, tearooms and homes. He was an interior designer and decorator, an exhibition designer, a designer of furniture, metalwork, textiles and stained glass and, in his latter years, a watercolourist. Without doubt, Mackintosh had a distinctive style. With a spirit of romanticism, he mixed together traditional Scottish forms, the English arts and crafts tradition, Art Nouveau, and simple styles reminiscent of Japanese, to produce his own unique brand of progressive modernism.
Mackintosh was born in the Townhead area of Glasgow on the 7th of June, 1868. Charlie was one of eleven children, and after his junior education at Reid’s Public School and Allan Glen’s Institution, he was apprenticed to a local architect, called John Hutchison. However, in 1889, he transferred to the larger, more established city practice of Honeyman and Keppie, where he later became a partner. In 1883, Mackintosh also enrolled for evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art, where he pursued various drawing programmes, under the watchful eye of the headmaster, Francis Newbery.
Mackintosh’s talents flourished and in the School’s library, he consulted the latest architecture and design journals, gaining an excellent knowledge of his contemporaries, both at home and abroad. He won numerous student prizes and competitions, including the prestigious Alexander Thomson Travelling Studentship, in 1890, which allowed him to undertake an architectural tour of Italy.
Mackintosh’s projects for Honeyman and Keppie during the early 1890s included his design for the Glasgow Herald Building, which incorporated cutting-edge technology, such as a hydro-pneumatic lift and fire-resistant diatomite concrete flooring. However, it was in 1896 that Mackintosh gained his most substantial commission, which was to prove to be his ‘Meisterwerk’. That was to design a new building for the Glasgow School of Art; his former school.
Significantly, the building was constructed in two distinct phases, due to a lack of money, between 1897-99 and 1907-09. Stylistically, the building was a combination of Scotland’s earlier baronial tradition and twentieth century materials and technology. The most dramatic interior was the new Library, which was a complex space of timber posts and beams, completed in 1909. Its construction drew upon traditional Japanese domestic interiors, but ultimately the building was an eclectic mix of styles and influences.
Mackintosh’s originality of style quickly gained him admirers in Germany and Austria, where he contributed to the 8th Vienna Secession. He also participated in international exhibitions in Turin and Moscow. In 1900, he famously entered an open competition to design ‘ein Haus eines Kunstfreundes’ (a house for an art lover), put forward by a German design journal, ‘Zeitschrift fur Innendekoration’. He didn’t win the competition, but his architectural designs were of such a high standard that they were later reproduced as a portfolio of prints. The following year, he designed a music room at Carl-Ludwigstrasse, in Vienna, for Fritz Warndorfer, a supporter of the Secession Movement and later of the ‘Wiener Werkstätte’.
Throughout his career Mackintosh relied on just a few patrons and supporters, one of these being the Glasgow businesswoman, Catherine Cranston. His series of tearoom interiors, which were designed and furnished between 1896 and 1917, provided him with a virtual freedom to experiment. Mackintosh was responsible for their ‘total design’ and provided the tearooms with furniture, including the famous and instantly recognisable high-back chairs, light fittings, wall decorations and even, equally recognisable to folks the world over, the cutlery. Miss Cranston’s Willow tea rooms were designed in 1903 and you can still visit them in Sauchiehall Street or you can book a table in the August 1997 recreation, in Buchanan Street.
Mackintosh often worked in partnership with his friend and colleague at Honeyman and Keppie, Herbert MacNair. Together with two fellow students from the Glasgow School of Art, the sisters Margaret and Frances Macdonald, this artistic alliance became known as ‘The Four’. The group produced innovative, and at times controversial, graphics and decorative art designs, which made an important contribution to the development and recognition of what became known as the ‘Glasgow Style’.
Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald married in 1900, but they moved to London, in 1914, in search of the recognition Mackintosh felt he deserved. For some reason, perhaps because he demanded total control of both the interior and exterior design, he was never really commercially successful, despite his contemporary celebrity status. He was also reputedly obstinate and incapable of compromise. These days, Glasgow loves Charles Rennie Mackintosh – as it should.
In 1923, Mackintosh moved to Port Vendres in the south of France, where the last years of his life were spent painting. However, he died in London from cancer of the tongue, on the 10th of December, 1928.