Charles Rennie Mackintosh: the man behind the myth
In June 2018, images of fire consuming Glasgow’s famous School of Art for the second time in four years dominated the news. The author of A History of Scottish Architecture reflects on the man who designed the iconic building.
The recent shocking fire at Glasgow School of Art again underscored the psychological as well as the physical space the building occupies in Glasgow. Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s name and reputation were again much discussed and in last September’s Open House there was a reference to the world-famous designer, architect and artist. There was also a comparison made with another individual – and individualistic – architectural genius, Antonio Gaudi, designer of the stupendous church of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
Such a comparison has been made before. Both designers are seen as outsiders. However, to put the two designers together is to wrench them out of all-important contexts informed by a powerful urge to take ‘genius’ designers out of the mainstream and put them in an international pantheon inscribed by UNESCO. ‘Mackintosh’ himself was involved in the making of his own myth, even the making of his own name. This was nothing new, but the anonymity of urban life and the internationalisation of architecture and design through publications has created the conditions for a new kind of cosmopolitanism.
Mackintosh began life in a Townhead tenement in 1868 as Charles McIntosh, the fourth of eleven children of a Glasgow policeman and Margaret Rennie from Ayr. His father, William, came from Belturbet, County Cavan but told his family that he had come from Nairn in the North of Scotland, where Mackintosh later journeyed on some sort of misinformed atavistic pilgrimage, sketching while there the wonderful Spynie Palace, seat of the Bishops of Moray. The McIntosh family never found out the truth about their father.
McIntosh senior and junior changed the family name to Mackintosh around 1893 but on the father’s gravestone it reverts to McIntosh. Later Mackintosh self-consciously added the ‘Rennie’ – his mother’s name – and signed himself ‘CRM’. It is around this time that the ‘business card’ of Mackintosh with the famous Annan photograph appears, moustachioed with artistically floppy neckwear.
If there was a reason for any of this we do not know what it is and can only speculate. It is a common enough, although incorrect, assertion that ‘Mc’ is Irish and ‘Mac’ is Scottish. By accenting the ‘Mack’ the architect asserted his Scottishness in line with his artistic inspiration which he confirmed in a public lecture and in practice. So, ‘Mackintosh’ is a kind of self-made product, a brand complete with its own font.
Did it all work? Not according to the narrative determinedly overlaid on the myth, which goes like this: Mackintosh, a solitary, driven genius somehow lands a wonderful commission to design the new School of Art. A masterpiece, it receives little praise or attention. Heartbroken, Mackintosh leaves Glasgow and wanders around the South of France with his beloved wife, ending his life a forgotten man and a penniless painter.
The truth is much more interesting. Mackintosh’s talent was noticed at an early stage in his career. The design culture of Glasgow thrived on a combination of flair, precision and innovation: commercial success depended on it. Mackintosh won many prizes as a student and, following an apprenticeship with another firm, became an assistant with Honeyman and Keppie in 1889. In the following year he won another major award, the South Kensington National and Queen’s Prize.
In September of the same year Mackintosh won the Alexander Thomson travelling scholarship with a design for a public Greek Revival hall, although he himself had by then come to regard classical architecture as ‘foreign in spirit and far away’. Mackintosh’s inspiration was to come mainly from Scotland and, arguably, from his wife and artistic partner, Margaret Macdonald.
In 1901, the partnership of Honeyman Keppie and Mackintosh was formed and the firm carried out some of the most important works in Glasgow, in Scotland and, in the case of the School of Art and The Hill House, the world. Mackintosh was on top of his game when he designed the second phase of the School of Art, which was completed in 1909. There were difficulties, though, and Mackintosh’s partnership with Keppie stuttered to a close. By 1913 Mackintosh had decided to leave Glasgow to pursue work in London.
It was an inauspicious time to re-locate and Mackintosh’s work from this period has few highlights one of which, nevertheless, is the astonishing remodelling of an ordinary terraced house, ‘Derngate’, Northampton. It would be easy to conclude that as the architectural work dried up Mackintosh turned to painting, but perhaps not as a last resort but as a passion-filled artistic necessity. Some of the built-up, monumental compositions he produced from a base in Port Vendres in the 1920s could be described as architecture without construction. In other words the desire to express himself artistically did not diminish throughout Mackintosh’s life. Dying in 1928 with cancer of the tongue and with his water colours accepted for exhibition in the USA, he thought himself on the brink of a new artistic life.
Ranald MacInnes is Head of Place and Publishing at Historic Environment Scotland.