Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Not so long ago, the furniture of innovative Glasgow-born architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928) was broken up for firewood. Today art books are devoted to his distinctive, astonishingly elegant Arts and Crafts—and art nouveau—influenced interiors, and artisans around the world look to his theory that "decoration should not be constructed, rather construction should be decorated" as holy law. Mackintosh's stripped-down designs ushered in the modern age.

An Architect's Career

Mackintosh trained in architecture at the Glasgow School of Art and was apprenticed to the Glasgow firm of John Hutchison at the age of 16. Early influences on his work included the Pre-Raphaelites, James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), Aubrey Beardsley (1872–98), and Japanese art. But by the 1890s a distinct Glasgow style developed.

The building for the Glasgow Herald newspaper, which he designed in 1893, is now the Lighthouse Centre for Architecture, Design and the City. It was soon followed by other major Glasgow buildings: Queen Margaret's Medical College; the Martyrs Public School; the Hill House, in Helensburgh, now owned by the National Trust for Scotland; and Queen's Cross Church, completed in 1899 and now the headquarters of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society (www.crmsociety.com). In 1897 Mackintosh began work on a new home for the Glasgow School of Art, recognized as one of his major achievements.

Mackintosh married Margaret Macdonald in 1900, and in later years her decorative work enhanced the buildings' interiors. It was she who inspired the Glasgow Girls group of women artists. In 1904 Mackintosh became a partner in Honeyman and Keppie, and in the same year he designed what is now the Scotland Street School Museum. Until 1913, when he left Honeyman and Keppie and moved to England, Mackintosh's projects included buildings over much of Scotland. He preferred to include interiors as part of his overall design.

Commissions in England after 1913 included design challenges not confined to buildings, such as fabrics, furniture, and even bookbindings. However, after 1904 architectural taste turned against Mackintosh's style; his work was seen as strange. Mackintosh could not conform to the times; he lost commissions, drank heavily, and ended up poor and sick. He died in London in 1928. Mackintosh's reputation revived only in the 1950s and has continued to grow over time; 2018 is the 150th anniversary of his birth.

How to See His Work

Glasgow is the best place to admire Mackintosh's work. In addition to the buildings mentioned above, most of which can be visited, the Hunterian Art Gallery contains magnificent reconstructions of the principal rooms at 78 Southpark Avenue, Mackintosh's Glasgow home, and original drawings, documents, and records, plus the re-creation of a room at 78 Derngate, Northampton. The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum also has displays of his creations in several galleries. His iconic Glasgow School of Art building, being reconstructed after a fire, will reopen to visitors in 2020.

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