Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Charles Rennie Mackintosh (7 June 1868 – 10 December 1928) was a Scottish architect, designer, water colourist and artist. His artistic approach had much in common with European Symbolism. His work, alongside that of his wife Margaret Macdonald, was influential on European design movements such as Art Nouveau and Secessionism and praised by great modernists such as Josef Hoffmann. Mackintosh was born in Glasgow and died in London.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh was born at 70 Parson Street, Townhead, Glasgow, on 7 June 1868, the fourth of eleven children and second son of William McIntosh, a superintendent and chief clerk of the City of Glasgow Police, and his wife, Margaret Rennie. Mackintosh grew up in the Townhead and Dennistoun (Firpark Terrace) areas of Glasgow, and he attended Reid’s Public School and the Allan Glen’s Institution.

In Honeyman & Keppie he started his first major architectural project, the Glasgow Herald Building (now known as The Lighthouse), in 1899. He was engaged to marry his employer’s sister, Jessie Keppie.

Around 1892, Mackintosh met fellow artist Margaret Macdonald at the Glasgow School of Art. He and fellow student Herbert MacNair, also an apprentice at Honeyman and Keppie, were introduced to Margaret and her sister Frances MacDonald by the head of the Glasgow School of Art, Francis Henry Newbery, who saw similarities in their work. Margaret and Charles married on 22 August 1900. The couple had no children. MacNair and Frances also married the previous year. The group worked collaboratively and came to be known as “The Four”, and were prominent figures in Glasgow Style art and design.

In 1904, after he had completed several successful building designs, Mackintosh became a partner in Honeyman & Keppie, and the company became Honeyman, Keppie & Mackintosh. When economic hardships were causing many architectural practices to close, in 1913, he resigned from the partnership and attempted to open his own practice.

Mackintosh lived most of his life in the city of Glasgow. Located on the banks of the River Clyde, during the Industrial Revolution, the city had one of the greatest production centres of heavy engineering and shipbuilding in the world. As the city grew and prospered, a faster response to the high demand for consumer goods and arts was necessary. Industrialized, mass-produced items started to gain popularity. Along with the Industrial Revolution, Asian style and emerging modernist ideas also influenced Mackintosh’s designs. When the Japanese isolationist regime softened, they opened themselves to globalisation resulting in notable Japanese influence around the world. Glasgow’s link with the eastern country became particularly close with shipyards building at the River Clyde being exposed to Japanese navy and training engineers. Japanese design became more accessible and gained great popularity. In fact, it became so popular and so incessantly appropriated and reproduced by Western artists, that the Western World’s fascination and preoccupation with Japanese art gave rise to the new term, Japonism or Japonisme.

This style was admired by Mackintosh because of: its restraint and economy of means rather than ostentatious accumulation; its simple forms and natural materials rather than elaboration and artifice; the use of texture and light and shadow rather than pattern and ornament. In the old western style, furniture was seen as ornament that displayed the wealth of its owner and the value of the piece was established according to the length of time spent creating it. In the Japanese arts furniture and design focused on the quality of the space, which was meant to evoke a calming and organic feeling to the interior.

At the same time a new philosophy concerned with creating functional and practical design was emerging throughout Europe: the so-called “modernist ideas”. The main concept of the Modernist movement was to develop innovative ideas and new technology: design concerned with the present and the future, rather than with history and tradition. Heavy ornamentation and inherited styles were discarded. Even though Mackintosh became known as the ‘pioneer’ of the movement, his designs were far removed from the bleak utilitarianism of Modernism. His concern was to build around the needs of people: people seen, not as masses, but as individuals who needed not a machine for living in but a work of art. Mackintosh took his inspiration from his Scottish upbringing and blended them with the flourish of Art Nouveau and the simplicity of Japanese forms.

While working in architecture, Charles Rennie Mackintosh developed his own style: a contrast between strong right angles and floral-inspired decorative motifs with subtle curves, e.g. the Mackintosh Rose motif, along with some references to traditional Scottish architecture. The project that helped make his international reputation was the Glasgow School of Art (1897–1909). Mackintosh’s architectural career was a relatively short one, but of significant quality and impact. All his major commissions were between 1895 and 1906, including designs for private homes, commercial buildings, interior renovations and churches.

Mackintosh, his future wife Margaret MacDonald, her sister Frances MacDonald, and Herbert MacNair met at evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art. They became known as a collaborative group, “The Four”, or “The Glasgow Four”, and were prominent members of the “Glasgow School” movement. The group exhibited in Glasgow, London and Vienna, and these exhibitions helped establish Mackintosh’s reputation. The so-called “Glasgow” style was exhibited in Europe and influenced the Viennese Art Nouveau movement known as Sezessionstil (in English, the Vienna Secession) around 1900. Mackintosh also worked in interior design, furniture, textiles and metalwork. Much of this work combines Mackintosh’s own designs with those of his wife, whose flowing, floral style complemented his more formal, rectilinear work.

Later in life, disillusioned with architecture, Mackintosh worked largely as a watercolourist, painting numerous landscapes and flower studies (often in collaboration with Margaret, with whose style Mackintosh’s own gradually converged). They moved to the Suffolk village of Walberswick in 1914. There Mackintosh was accused of being a German spy and briefly arrested in 1915.

By 1923, the Mackintoshes had moved to Port-Vendres, a Mediterranean coastal town in southern France with a warm climate that was a comparably cheaper location in which to live. Mackintosh had entirely abandoned architecture and design and concentrated on watercolour painting. He was interested in the relationships between man-made and naturally occurring landscapes and created a large portfolio of architecture and landscape watercolour paintings. Many of his paintings depict Port Vendres, a small port near the Spanish border, and the landscapes of Roussillon. The local Charles Rennie Mackintosh Trail details his time in Port Vendres and shows the paintings and their locations. The couple remained in France for two years, before being forced to return to London in 1927 due to illness.

That year, Charles Rennie Mackintosh was diagnosed with Head cancer and neck cancer. A brief recovery prompted him to leave the hospital and convalesce at home for a few months. Mackintosh was admitted to a nursing home where he died on 10 December 1928 at the age of 60. He was cremated the next day at Golders Green Crematorium in London. His ashes were scattered, in accordance with his wishes, over the Mediterranean at Port Vendres from one of the rocks he had painted.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh Lovers!

Design for a house for an art lover: the children’s playroom with panel by Margaret MacDonald