“Just now, we are working on two large panels for the frieze… Miss Margaret Macdonald is doing one and I am doing the other. We are working them together and that makes the work very pleasant.” -Charles Rennie Mackintosh to Hermann Muthesius, July 1900
A bit of a longer post today where I thought I might share some of the research I’ve done on Mackintosh & Macdonald’s gesso panels, and especially The Wassail in honour of it being Twelfth Night. If you are in a hurry, you can click here to jump to where I tell you what this lovely work represents. But if you’ve got a few minutes, read on to hear about the history of these beautiful and fascinating works of art.
When locals hear my (somewhat diluted) American accent for the first time, they ask me ‘what brought ye to Glasgow’? I usually answer ‘Charles Rennie Mackintosh’, but in truth, it was just as much Margaret Macdonald, and the work they created together.
It’s been over a decade since I moved to our dear green place to study, and my earliest research was focused on the Mackintosh-Macdonald collaborative projects, especially for Kate Cranton’s tearooms. I am beyond thrilled that the Willow is finally getting the conservation work it so desperately needs, and also very excited to see the work Glasgow Museums is undertaking to install the long-dismantled Oak Room at the V&A Dundee, and, hopefully, to reconstruct the Ladies Lunchroom at the Ingram Street Tearoom (I’ve been unable to get any confirmation this will happen for the Mackintosh 150 exhibit this year, but my fingers are crossed). The two large gesso panels that were made for this room, The May Queen by Macdonald and The Wassail by Mackintosh (his only gesso work), now hang side by side in the Kelvingrove. This was a necessity due to the available space in the museum, however they were made to hang across from each other, and I hope that at some point we will see them this way again. But why does this matter?
Designed in the year of their marriage, the Ladies Luncheon Room at Miss Cranston’s Tearooms at Ingram Street was the first interior that Mackintosh and Macdonald worked on together. Kate Cranston, being a professional woman herself, envisaged creating a space where ladies would feel more comfortable conducting business and leisure (away from the affairs, and perhaps gazes, of men). The feminine scheme of the room, particularly in color (largely white, lavenders, and pinks), but most certainly in the elegant female figures depicted in the gesso panels, reflected the intended patrons of the space. Like most of these spaces, it is unknown whether the rooms were designed around the panels, or vice-versa. Probably it was a combination—an overall scheme that harmonized the two. With Mackintosh interested in creating a gesamtkunstwerk (a total work of art), it is to be expected that each and every component of the room had a specific place and significance. Macdonald was a fitting collaborator for this commission—being an independent woman artist with a history of collaborative work with her sister Frances—and created a significant component of the scheme.
The room comprised the front of the main floor of the tearooms, and was separated from the narrow entrance hall by a mid-height screen. The walls were paneled silver and white to a height of ten feet, and the gesso panels sat opposite each other in the upper third of the east and west walls. A bank of windows stretched along the north wall, allowing natural light to reflect off the white and silver walls below the panels. The color, in combination with the natural light, created a gentle and serene environment for quiet conversation. The dining furniture was of dark wood, with long tables and high-backed chairs arranged to emphasize the horizontal length of the space. The elongation of the furniture and the interior was reflected in the elongation of the forms in the gesso panels.
The gesso panels in the frieze are perhaps the most significant aspects of this room. The couple crafted these first panels together in the busy months before their August, 1900 marriage, while simultaneously setting up their own flat at 120 Mains Street, Glasgow, and making arrangements to install their exhibit at the Eighth Vienna Secession Exhibition in October. In a letter to Hermann Muthesius dated 12th July, 1900, now in the collection of the Hunterian Art Gallery at the University of Glasgow, Mackintosh reported:
I am not nearly done with “Miss Cranstons” yet it has involved a great lot of work. Just now we are working at two large panels for the frieze 15 feet long x 5 [feet] 3 ins [sic] high… We have set ourselves a very large task as we are slightly modelling and then colouring and setting the jewels of different colours.
Before they were installed at Ingram Street, the gesso panels were shown at the Eighth Vienna Secession Exhibition. The May Queen and The Wassail were arguably experimental in their construction, and may have proved fragile on their journey to Vienna and back, particularly because of their scale. The linear designs were not painted but constructed of twine pinned to the canvas in an almost haphazard fashion, with glass beads, shell, tin, and painted and modeled plaster “jewels”, almost an inch in relief, fixed to the surface. All of Macdonald’s subsequent panels are much lower in relief, and the linear designs are made of piped plaster instead of twine.
The May Queen and The Wassail remained in situ after Cranston sold all of her tea rooms and retired in 1918-19. They were salvaged from the building in 1971, but they did not, unfortunately, escape unscathed: while the tea rooms remained open under different management, but with respect for their special character, until 1950, after this they declined and were terribly abused by overpainting under various other businesses such as a souvenir shop. Glasgow Museums Curator Alison Brown related to me in a 2007 interview: “The room paneling had at least seven layers of different white and cream paints—so that gives you an idea of how the rooms were treated.” Both The May Queen and The Wassail were painted in the same colors: creamywhite faces with poorly repainted features, the string painted chocolate brown, with the golden background over-painted a jade green and the roses and flowers colored in pink. The rooms were dismantled and saved in 1970. The damage was fortunately reversible and the paintings were painstakingly cleaned and conserved in 1995, and The Ladies Luncheon Room was reconstructed for the 1996 Charles Rennie Mackintosh exhibit which toured the United States, returning the eye of the global art world to the work of the Glasgow Style.
The Wassail depicts six female figures: two at center, with their heads inclined towards each other, flanked by two more figures at each side. Like Mackintosh’s decoration for the Buchanan Street rooms, these figures are not fully formed, and seem to emerge from a vinelike decorative pattern reminiscent of Japanese design. By contrast, The May Queen is a more complicated composition. Five women are depicted, and their stylized robes make them appear more fully formed than those in The Wassail. The Queen is at center in a teardropshaped garment, faerie wings inscribed in linear decoration at her back. The figures at left and right stand like ladies-in-waiting, holding garlands of flowers between them which span horizontally in front of and behind the Queen. New shoots of vine spring forth at their feet, and flowers dot the canvas in a random pattern. The contrasting angles and curves in the contours of the design, as well as the women’s faces and kimono-like garments, are reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints. Although symmetrical in design, Macdonald’s composition is looser than Mackintosh’s. There is energy in The May Queen that reflects the birth of spring, while the stillness of The Wassail suggests winter’s death; they work in unison to convey this cycle.
The original oppositional placement of panels suggests a dialogue. Across from each other, they subtly encourage a discourse between these two representations of festivals that, like the panels, signify opposite celebration/worship times of the year. The May Queen is derived from May-Day celebrations, held on May 1st, whereby a young girl (a virgin) is chosen to be Queen for the day, and celebrants dance with her about a Maypole (a phallus) to celebrate the return of spring; as such, this event can be viewed as a fertility rite. It is possible, too, that Macdonald’s image is directly related to a poem by a favorite poet of hers, Tennyson, also titled “The May Queen”. The refrain reads:
But I must gather knots of flowers, and buds and garlands gay,
For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.
The Wassail is not as easy to interpret, as there is no direct festival related to it, and no obvious signifiers in the image of what wassail is or means. The word comes from the Old English “wæs hæil” which means “your health”, and was used as a toast. Later, it came to be the name for the liquor, usually a spiced wine or ale, drunk at Christmas or Twelfth Night Celebrations. Through this, it also became identified as the custom of drinking this libation, usually from a special wooden bowl. Finally, it is a carol, a song to be sung at the event of “wassailing”. Thus wassail is many things—a salutation, a drink, a custom, and ultimately, a celebration—which might be fitting for a tea room atmosphere, were it not for the incongruous aspect of wassail being an alcoholic drink, which is at odds with a temperance tea room.
There is also no obvious representation of a drink, a salutation, or a celebration in Mackintosh’s panel. It conveys a very quiet and staid atmosphere, as the two central figures mirror each other, heads bowed and eyes closed, within a cocoon-like arrangement of vines. The composition of each of the figures is closed; the sentinels to the right and left have their robes folded close about them as they gaze at two figures at center. Two butterflies, one on either side of the sleeping figures, foreshadow the blossoming of these forms come spring. It is at odds with the idea of festival.
However there is one other possible meaning for wassail which may explain the quiet composition—wassailing was also performed by farmers for the fertility of plants and animals, by either drinking to their health, or pouring a libation into the earth. In fact, an 1895 text by Frederick Thomas Elworthy, The evil eye: an account of this ancient and widespread superstition, speaks of the “old Christmas Custom of wassailing the apple trees” (and for fans of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage, you might have seen the episode where this custom is still in effect!). This idea has roots in Celtic and Germanic traditions of Yule, or winter festivals, that represented the death of the God, or the male aspect of the earth, whose seeds lie dormant in the land until the return of the Goddess in the spring. The red “lollipop trees” in Mackintosh’s composition could, in fact, be seen as representations of apple trees, signifying both the cider drink itself, and the plants which are wassailed each winter, the women at either side coming to offer libations for the trees to awaken and grow. Thus The Wassail can be seen as a visual representation of winter’s sleep, of life lying dormant, the opposite of the blossoming of spring found in the vibrancy of The May Queen.
These panels are exemplary of interests in the Celtic Revival of the time, but extend them to British heritage in general: May-Day celebrations and “wassailing” are particularly English traditions, with roots in Saxon and Nordic cultures. In Scotland, May-Day was known as Beltane, one of the four ancient quarter-days, and was (and still is) celebrated differently with the lighting of the bael-fire, or bonfire; and the most famous of the wassail carols, ‘Here we come a-wassailling’, is from the North of England, the birthplace of Macdonald (an aside: when I teach this subject to my students, it is only the English, American and Canadian ones who know the word or indeed the song). In this manner, both themes suggest Macdonald’s heritage, for although Scottish in ancestry, she was English in birth and upbringing. But that both found such subjects appealing is clear; one does not have to dig very deeply to find a communion with nature and the metaphysical, clear in the abundance of natural motifs and otherworldly females in both Mackintosh and Macdonald’s work.
As you can see there is a rich and considered history behind these beautiful works of art, that includes not just what they portray, but where and how they were displayed. So while I am very happy that we can still gaze upon them together in the Kelvingrove, I hope that in future they will be reinstated in their original configuration, so that they may gaze upon each other as they were intended.