No visit to Glasgow would be complete without a bit of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Glasgow’s architecture is defined by the sudden influx of capital in the Victorian period. Wherever you go in the city, you will find Grecian/Egyptian stylings, Renaissance parodies, and Baroque re-imaginings. These may be impressive now, but for critics like John Ruskin they were the height of arriviste vulgarity. Worse still, the pagan associations were frivolous, effete, and quite out of keeping with Victorian values. Ruskin encouraged a homegrown architecture that was integrated with nature and it was his influence that laid the ground for the arrival of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Born in 1868, Mackintosh was a sickly child who drew thistles and flowers in the countryside while other boys played sports. With the MacDonald sisters and Herbert MacNair he formed “The Four“, a group of artists influenced by the delicate beauty and exotic minimalism of the Japanoiserie that had begun to circulate in Britain. Mackintosh joined the firm of Honeyman and Keppie as a draughtsman in 1889, where he refined his unique combination of natural light and minimalistic ornamentation on such jobs as Martyrs’ School and the Herald Building (now the Lighthouse), becoming a partner in 1901.
Architect, graphic designer, interior decorator, and creator of radical furniture, Mackintosh’s singular vision demanded an extraordinary level of integration (much to the chagrin of the Glasgow Corporation who butchered his plans for the Scotland Street School). He was a pure design auteur, who brought something distinctively his to everything from spoons to staircases. The first thing that strikes you about Mackintosh’s designs is that they are like no one else’s. The light shades in the Glasgow School of Art library are weird cuboid things. His chairs look so distorted they might be from a surrealist painting. The rooms recreated in the Hunterian Museum are profoundly moving due to the tension between minimalism and ornamentation.
His presence in Glasgow, via ubiquitous Mockintosh (sic) lettering, tourist knick-knacks, and four (at least partly devoted) museums, is everywhere. Despite his ubiquity, it is hard to find many Glaswegians whose interest in Mackintosh goes beyond the financial. His dandyish moustache, billowing bowtie and general aestheticism do not sit well with their chippy common sense. Indeed, although he was briefly fashionable in his native city, his career ended in disappointment as commissions dried up and he turned to the bottle.
Further Reading: Ten Best Stops on the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Tour
A different version of this piece appeared in the 2006 Time Out Guide to Edinburgh.