by Alistair Moffat

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

May 14, 2010 | by Alistair Moffat

Charles Rennie Mackintosh could have designed anything but he wasn’t given the chance. He could have been our Corbusier. Instead, examples of his genius are frustratingly rare.

To his contemporaries Charles Rennie Mackintosh was an enigmatic figure and he remains a puzzling, brilliant and tragic phenomenon even today. Although James Macaulay does a workmanlike job with the available material, and the photographs by Mark Fiennes are superb, this book adds little that is new to our sense of this extraordinary man. There is plenty of carefully footnoted exposition but not much explanation or speculation. That, though, may be unfair; Mackintosh has been dead for more than eighty years and any pungent sense of his personality is likely to have long ago fled.

The surviving photographs are also enigmatic, even puzzling. The transition from the dashing, darkly handsome, moustachioed blade with the floppy bow tie familiar to the Mackintosh industry is instructive. In a relatively short time photographs show a puffy, grey-headed middle aged man who looks completely different. It is difficult to believe that the Mackintosh whose Ronald Coleman good looks stare confidently at Craig Annan’s camera in the 1890s can be the same man captured twenty years later. It was not just age that thickened his features and frosted his hair, it was also experience, much of it bitter.

Twenty-five years ago Mackintosh was much on my mind. I was making a film for Channel Four, Dreams And Recollections, which hoped to show something of his artistic achievement and say worthwhile things about what sort of man he was. Television needs talking heads and I set off on a series of research trips in search of people who knew Mackintos, who in 1928. There were two sparkling old ladies in Scotland who had clear memories. Lady Alice Barnes was a child when she knew Mackintosh but Mary Newbery Sturrock was a young woman in 1928 and her recollections were vivid, substantial and tinged with sadness. Mary was the daughter of Fra Newbery, the Head Master of the Glasgow School of Art and the man who commissioned Mackintosh’s largest project. Here is how she summed up the architect’s life when she spoke to me in 1985:

“Looking back now I feel terribly, terribly sad at the waste. Here we have this brilliant man whom it would pay you to use. And he wasn’t given any real use at all, apart from the Glasgow School of Art and the odd jobs he got in Glasgow….Mackintosh could have designed anything, but he just didn’t get a chance. Perhaps he did all he was going to do, but I’d like to have seen his fiftieth house. I don’t know how many houses Robert Adam did but his fiftieth house mustn’t have been a bit like his first. I would like to have seen Mackintosh’s fiftieth house, with all the edges rubbed off and all his experience and development brought into play. We could have had somebody as good as Corbusier but we weren’t able to do it. Thinking back now, the tears come to my eyes and I feel so sad that the genius was wasted. I feel great sadness. When I hear of these high prices, I think if the Mackintoshes could have got a hundredth part of the money, how happy they would have been and I would be now. I’ve got a lot of pleasant memories but I must say I could weep at the waste of his genius.”

As an epitaph, Mary’s memories and insights are eloquent but they could also serve as a context to start you thinking about Mackintosh and his work. I made eight hours of tapes of our conversations – she lived near me in Edinburgh – and they are peppered with wonderful comments. In the 1920s the Mackintoshes had very little cash and decided to move to France where life was much cheaper. Slowly, however, he became a lost soul. He’d nothing else to back him but the love of his wife. And, in the period when she was away, he missed her terribly.

The Mackintoshes stayed at the Hotel du Commerce in Port Vendres, on the Mediterranean coast just north of the Spanish border. I found three people who remembered them but because Mme Therese Marty, M. Rene Pous and Mme Isabelle Ihlee had little or no English, they only observed the quiet, arty couple from Glasgow and sometimes saw Mackintosh outdoors painting his stunning watercolours of the area. Perhaps the most striking record was a series of letters written while Margaret Mackintosh was in London. Known as The Chronacle, they supplied a powerful sense of what and how Mackintosh thought. And when we came to make our film for Channel Four, I asked if we might use some extracts. In return for a fee to Glasgow University, permission was granted.

In 1989 Colin Baxter, the photographer, and I collaborated on a book about the enigma, Remembering Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I had compiled a mass of interview material for the film and only a tiny proportion had been used. The idea of the book was to get closer to what Mackintosh was like by telling his story only through the eyes of people who knew him. Extended captions to Colin’s lovely photographs could fill in dates, places and locations. The French period of the 1920s had few witnesses and to tell that part of the story I used nine extracts from The Chronacle. At first Glasgow University was happy about their publication, just as they had been about the film. But then, quite suddenly, Colin and I found ourselves served with an interim interdict banning publication of the book. In the Court of Session, after a great deal of very expensive legal argument and as the result of what the judge called a “very narrow decision”, the interdict was upheld. Publication on Channel Four was acceptable to Glasgow University, but in a book it was not.

After a nightmarish wrangle, Glasgow University was persuaded to recall the interdict. Perhaps the sight of a university banning a book was not attractive. In return for adding a humiliating sticker on the title page which branded me as, at best, a chancer, and insisting that as a material punishment, we make a donation of royalties to the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, we were told that the legal action against us would be suspended. We were bleeding to death financially and even though what happened was a travesty, we were forced to agree and the book was eventually published.

Despite all the pain and opprobrium, Remembering Charles Rennie Mackintosh has apparently become a useful (and probably unique) research tool and James Macaulay makes use of its record of testimony several times in his new book. More surprising is an entry in his bibliography. To my amazement I saw that The Chronacle, the letters from France from Mackintosh to his wife, had been published in 2001. What had changed? Where was the interdict this time? Unable to get hold of a copy (perhaps it had been banned after all), a quick internet search revealed that the book was published by none other than Glasgow University. The sticker forced onto the title page of my book reads: These letters were given on the condition that they are not to be published in any way. What cost Colin Baxter and I a fortune in grief and cash ten years before was now, it seemed, okay.

Having got all that off my chest, I am bound to say that, despite the odd quibble, I enjoyed Macaulay’s book. Comprehensive, with its material clearly presented and the superb photographs of Mark Fiennes, it is a good and informative read. Nothing of artistic importance appears to have been overlooked and, as a celebration of the work of one of Scotland’s greatest artists, it is a success. Mackintosh, however, remains an enigma, as Mary Newbery Sturrock said, a huge missed opportunity, a genius who achieved too little. Whether or not that was a consequence of temperament or circumstance (and World War One was a substantial circumstance), it is hard to judge.

Glasgow School of Art: Mackintosh’s masterpiece

Charles Rennie Macintosh serves as a useful antidote to what Murray Grigor termed ‘Mockintosh’. Pastiche copies and ‘interpretations’ have perhaps passed through their peak of popularity, but much rubbish nevertheless persists in polluting even upmarket shops. By bringing together so much research and constructing both a critical biography and a revealing analysis of Mackintosh’s influences and tastes, James Macaulay has reminded us of the tremendous power of the real thing. And unusually for the work of a great artist, some of the real thing is available, if a touch pricey. As a complete architect who oversaw every detail, Mackintosh insisted on filling his buildings only with artefacts he designed. Everything, from door furniture to cutlery, needed to fit with his vision of how a building should look, inside as well as outside.

In the creation of strikingly original pieces of furniture, Mackintosh had the gifts of a genius. His chairs, in particular, are utterly distinctive and almost sculptural. Several designs are reproduced by master cabinet-makers and can be bought – for a price. And here enters an interesting philosophical principle. What is an original piece of furniture? If a craftsman can make an exact reproduction of a Mackintosh chair with the same materials stipulated by its designer, what is its status? For Miss Cranston’s Tea Rooms in Glasgow hundreds of identical chairs were made. What is the difference between one of them when it was new and one made last week? Only context and cost, it seems to me. Surely one of the many joys of Mackintosh is that if you are a dedicated buff and prepared to save up or do without, you can own something by him. James Macaulay was a lecturer in the Mackintosh School of Architecture in Glasgow and so it is not surprising that his focus is more on buildings than artefacts. And his treatment of the Glasgow School of Art, the story of its construction and the final achievement of its completion is fascinating. Surely Mackintosh’s most impressive project (the Hill House in Helensburgh always seemed a bit chilly to me), the School of Art impresses from the first sight of its powerful facade, through its entrance and on to the amazing interior of the library. It is a working building with the edges scuffed off, a place used by students and staff, and somewhere, I suspect, Mackintosh would have felt entirely at home. But as Mary Newbery Sturrock said, he was a restless genius. Would it not have been wonderful to see the edges knocked off his fiftieth house? And for Scotland to have had someone as good as Corbusier?

CHARLES RENNIE MACKINTOSH James Macaulay

W. W. NORTON & CO, £42.00, ISBN 978-0393051759, PP256

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