Immortals, Beloved?


The Immortals: Frances Macdonald, Agnes Raeburn, Janet Aitken, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Katherine Cameron, Jessie Keppie, Margaret Macdonald, ca. 1893. Collection: GSA DC004/9

One of my favourite items in the Glasgow School of Art collection is a photo album of ‘The Immortals’: a group of friends studying at the Art School in the 1890s, and whose artistic interests can most clearly be scene in their wonderful group effort ‘The Magazine‘. Their interest in Symbolist art and faerie tales is very clear (see example below), and in her 1990 book Glasgow Girls, Jude Burkhauser suggested that the self-styled moniker of this group may have been inspired by Celtic mysticism (pp.49-50).


Lucy Raeburn (poem) & Agnes Raeburn (illustration), ‘Elfsong’ 1894. Pen and ink on paper, 31.8 x 25 cm, attached to page, signed bottom left “A. RAEBURN.” GSA Collection, from ‘The Magazine’ April 1894, p. 43.

Burkauser also suggested that these women artists calling themselves ‘The Immortals’ might reference the kind of posterity usually reserved for male artists of the academic variety, which very few females got to enjoy. But looking at the photo album, full of pictures of the women on a day out in the Ayrshire countryside with a few of their male companions, one might simply think that their being Immortals might just be down to that youthful feeling of invincibility – and what happens when such carefree moments are captured in a photograph to be shared in an unknown future (even via a form of technology they could not yet perhaps dream of).


The Immortals: Frances Macdonald, Margaret Macdonald, Katherine Cameron, Janet Aitken, Agnes Raeburn, Jessie Keppie, John Keppie, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Herbert MacNair, ca. 1893. Collection: GSA DC004/9

The album is comprised of a group of photos of the friends enjoying a sketching weekend at ‘The Roaring Camp’ in Dunure, the home of John Keppie (Mackintosh’s boss – an important point shortly). Perhaps the most well-known photo from this album is the one at the start of this post, of the women standing three and three, with the twenty-something Charles Rennie Mackintosh poised between them. He is not the usual focus of discussion in this image, however; that is reserved for the interesting exchange between the two women at far right: Jessie Keppie, John’s sister, and Margaret Macdonald. And the portrait often painted of the moment is not altogether flattering:

‘There is an astonishing vivid and frank expression of the fraught relationship between Jessie and Margaret caught in one of the photographs taken in the mid 1890s… Jessie Keppie, standing second from the right with her fist held provocatively, turns to confront Margaret Macdonald. The smaller Margaret stands her ground and stares back. It is not without a frisson.’ – William Buchanan, Mackintosh’s Masterwork, The Glasgow School of Art, p. 8.

FullSizeRender-1I have long been bothered by the characterisation of Jessie Keppie and Margaret Macdonald as being at odds in this photo. To my eye, the two women gaze at each other in familiarity, and although the image is even hazy in person, one can see that they are exchanging an amused glance. Keppie’s hand is not in a fist as the quote above suggests, but in an open-palmed gesture towards her friend. What is it that has made others have such a negative reading of this image?

Unfortunately, this interpretation is down to a rumoured love triangle between these two women and Mackintosh: he was once reportedly engaged to Jessie, but of course later married Margaret in 1900. It has been assumed Charles and Jessie were betrothed during this period, and he is seen next to her in some of the photos, such as the one below where he seems to steady her arm with his hand. But one might argue that this was merely gentlemanly: we also see McNair at the other end, holding hands with both Macdonald sisters (though he does eventually marry Frances in 1899), and in fact all the group seem to brace each other on the possibly precarious stone wall. But because of the story of the broken engagement, some have surmised that the aforementioned photo must show the tension between two woman at war over the love of the charismatic man at centre.


The Immortals: Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Jessie Keppie, Agnes Raeburn, Janet Aitken, Katherine Cameron, Frances Macdonald, John Keppie (head and shoulders), Herbert MacNair and Margaret Macdonald, ca. 1893. Collection: GSA DC004/9

William Buchanan is not the only person to view that image in this manner. The story that Mackintosh jilted his boss’s sister is one that is commonly repeated, now taken as rote. According to Roger Billcliffe, it may have initially been told to Mackintosh’s first major biographer, Thomas Howarth, by Francis Newbury’s daughter Mary Newbury Sturrock.  But as he points out in his recent book The Art of the Four, she was ‘not yet born when these events took place and… would have been quoting, or making deductions, from later family discussions.’ (p. 24) He continues: ‘Many years later, in discussions with [me], she modified the word “engagement” to “an understanding”, as close perhaps to a withdrawal of the original suggestion as she was able to make.’ Billcliffe also points to discrepancies in Timothy Neat’s account of events in his book Part Seen, Part Imagined (1994), showing convincingly that the timeline of events, alongside the fact that no formal engagement was announced as would have been appropriate for the social rank of the Keppies, make such an arrangement rather dubious. It is a compelling discussion that filled me with relief to read, as it makes previous interpretations of this ‘Immortals’ photo rather questionable, as I had suspected.

But just in case I was reading my own biased vision into this picture, I decided to do what any contemporary researcher might – I asked the internet! Taking it to my personal Facebook page, I asked friends, without context, how they would characterise the interaction between these two:

There is something “knowing” being shared between them. Her exposed palm is something striking to me in the photo. A softness or bit of connection in that hand. Such a willingness to look at one another….

I have no idea what this photo is, but I am fascinated by it.

That palm forward is an active posture….a choice. It doesn’t represent a body in repose.

I love this and keep coming back to it.

-Jennifer Kuchenbecher Thomas, Professor of Theatre Studies, New York

‘Yes! That extended hand can be interpreted in any number of ways. Her face does not add any more. The woman on the far right seems to be . . . Not-having-itAnd . . . Why are these two the only ones in a darker color?’

-Ivonne Vidal Pizarro, Dr of Neuroscience, Yoga Teacher & Extraordinary Mother, Taipei, Taiwan

‘The pose looks slightly awkward. The woman on the left looks starry eyed and the other one oblivious. It seems the romantic one is extending her hand to the other. Maybe she took her friend’s hand, maybe not. It’s not clear what’s happening. I get the impression something has been said between them just before the camera shot this.’

-Randy Bryan Bigham, Fashion Historian, USA

I think the one on the left is saying “I told you we couldn’t get out of participating” to the other who is reluctantly amused. The hand proffered to her friend to draw her in to? There is certainly a sense of complicity…

-Elspeth Hough, Policy Analyst, Edinburgh

My 2 cents… I see two women sharing a secret that doesn’t require words. There’s a very obvious affection between them.

-Crystal Freeman, Georgia, USA

My first thought was they were more than just friends but after seeing the detailed close up, they seem to be having one of those moments where nonverbal communication shows their friendship. I’d say it says something to the effect, “I told you…” while the other responds, “umhm.”

-Aniria Medrano Turney, Actress and Comic, Tampa, Florida

‘A conspiratorial exchange’

-Becky Quinton, Curator, Glasgow

And of course – I had to get some silliness:

“I told you the invitation said ‘wear something white’!”

-Norry Wilson, Lost Glasgow

And from my very own Auntie Cindy in California:

They’re saying “Can you believe they wore white to BAFTA?”

And the classic…

Chat-up lines… Ah’ thought ah’d hurd them all, but see yon wee nyaff back ther’? He told me he wiz an ‘under-appreciated genius’! Jist fancy that!

-Our own Professor Bruce Peter!

So despite some nonsense – I was happy that so many saw the camaraderie I did, and even though others weren’t sure, no one said they saw it as a purely negative exchange between the women.

It is also important to view this photo in the context of others in the album, and particularly a rather romantic shot of the women from behind, as we imagine them joined together in sororal* affection. They stand in the same order as the other photo – sans Mackintosh – as if they have just turned as one to gaze at the sublime landscape.


The Immortals: Frances MacDonald, Agnes Raeburn, Janet Aitken, Katherine Cameron, Jessie Keppie and Margaret Macdonald, ca. 1893. Collection: GSA DC004/9

And it’s also a divine portrait of their dresses – but that’s a subject for another post!

The rest of the photos show the friends having a wonderful weekend together, and in that context, as well as with a closer examination of the particular photo in question, I do hope that the interpretation that it depicts a ‘frisson’ between Macdonald and Keppie can be laid to rest. It is one of many that show the warmth of friendship this group obviously had. Friendship, and as this image below shows, fun – not without a touch of humour.


The Immortals: Katherine Cameron, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Janet Aitken, John Keppie, Agnes Raeburn, Jessie Keppie, Frances Macdonald, Herbert MacNair, Margaret Macdonald, ca. 1893. Collection: GSA DC004/9

*(n.b. Spellcheck doesn’t know this word, but it knows fraternal! Oh, irony.)


Some Wassail for Twelfth Night

The Wassail (Charles Rennie Mackintosh)

‘The Wassail’, 1900. Oil-painted gesso on hessian and scrim, set with twine, glass beads, thread, mother-of- pearl, and tin leaf; 158.2 x 462 cm. Collection: Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries, E.1981.177.1-3. Original Location: Ladies Luncheon Room, Miss Cranston’s tea rooms, Ingram Street, Glasgow. Provenance: Removed from the Ingram Street Tea Rooms, 1971.

“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.

Ladies Luncheon Room

The White Dining Room (Ladies Luncheon Room), Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street Tearoom, 1900 Reconstruction for the 1996 “Charles Rennie Mackintosh” exhibition. Collection of Glasgow Museums, acquired in 1971.

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.

Ing_LLRw-May004sm cropped

The White Dining Room (Ladies Luncheon Room), Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street Tearoom, 1900 Reconstruction for the 1996 “Charles Rennie Mackintosh” exhibition. Collection of Glasgow Museums, acquired in 1971.

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.

Conservator working on The May Queen

A conservator removing pink and green paint from ‘The May Queen’ ca. 1995. Image courtesy Glasgow Museums.

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 May Queen’, 1900. Oil-painted gesso on hessian and scrim, set with twine, glass beads, thread, motherof- pearl, and tin leaf; 158.4 x 457 cm. Collection: Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries, E.1981.177.1-3. Original Location: Ladies Luncheon Room, Miss Cranston’s tea rooms, Ingram Street, Glasgow. Provenance: Removed from the Ingram Street Tea Rooms, 1971.

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 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.

*Correction: a previous version said ‘North of England’ without clarifying that while the song originates there, Macdonald was born in the Midlands, just a bit further south. This does not dilute the over-arching point about this being and English tradition, versus Scottish.

If you are interested to learn more about the tearooms, you can also download an article I’ve written on the Willow from RADAR, the GSA research repository. – Robyne


2018 – A Year of Mackintosh


‘Drawing for a New Year’s Card’, 1890–1928. Graphite with touches of gold pigment, 12 7/8 × 5 1/4 in. (32.7 × 13.4 cm). The Met, New York: The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1954; 56.646.2

Glasgow is looking forward to 2018, for it marks the 150th birthday of one of it’s most famous sons, our own Charles Rennie Mackintosh. While he was born the 7th of June, we will be celebrating all year long with a wide variety of activities, not the least of which is a new major exhibition at Glasgow Museums, the Kelvingrove.

While we certainly plan to get in on the festivities at the GSA, our Mackintosh building will not re-open until 2019 – a project which keeps us all incredibly busy! So to celebrate in a small way, the research team has decided that we can at least take a moment each day to share a favourite bit of Mackintosh, which we will do at our new Twitter handle @CRMackintosh365.

And what better way to launch our year that with this lovely card from Charles & Margaret, now in the collection of The Met in New York? The Met suggest a rather wide date range of 1890-1928, the year of his death; but I’d comfortably narrow this to ca. 1900-1906, the year of their marriage and the period in which they collaborated on very similar motifs in interior designs for tea rooms, etc. I would have loved to have been on their festive card list!

We hope you’ll see some old friends and find some new favourites throughout the year.


GSA at Glasgow Doors Open Days Festival

After last week’s exciting announcement about the progress of the Mackintosh Library, we are pleased to present a series of events on this week for the Doors Open Days Festival, from staff across the Glasgow School of Art. Several talks relate to the project, while others talk about the wider heritage of our ‘dear green place.’


It’s actually Doors Off Days in the Mack, as our doors are lined up awaiting conservation. Photo: Robyne Calvert

Today (Monday), our project Conservation Skills Co-ordinator Thomas Simmons has planned two very exciting events, Craft: A Case Study at 2pm, and Conservation: A Case Study at 5pm.

Our Senior Project Manager Liz Davidson will be giving her annual update talk on Friday at St Andrews in the Square, the festival hub. Always an inspiring speaker, it’s worth taking your lunch break to head over for her 1pm talk, Re-building the Mackintosh at Glasgow School of Art.

Still mostly on the topic of Mackintosh, Dr Robyne Calvert will also be giving a talk at St Andrews in the Square on Rethinking Glasgow Style: Symbolism in Scottish Architecture in Designon Thursday evening at 7:30pm.


Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh’s ‘The Heart of the Rose’, seen here after its 2015 conservation treatment, will feature in Dr Calvert’s talk.

And if you were up for being truly entertained, come along a bit earlier on Thursday because the fantastic Prof Bruce Peter will also be giving a talk, Entertainment Architecture in Victorian and Edwardian Glasgow, at 6pm. If you don’t get enough of Bruce’s style of ‘edutainment’ there, he is talking again on Sunday afternoon on some his new fabulous book on modern hotels, The Modern Hotel is Scotland.

Continuing to branch a bit further away from ‘strictly Mackintosh’, our Creative Ecology Fellow Helen Kendrick will be talking about her wonderful research on Glasgow’s Historic Interiors on Saturday. You can also catch our own ‘Bringing Back the Mack’ PhD fellow Rachael Purse, also one-half of the dynamic duo The History Girls Frae Scotland with GU/GSA PhD student Karen Mailley-Watt, at their talk on A HERstory of Glasgow.

And that’s just the GSA folk! There is so much on this week, on Mackintosh and so much more, with the highlight of course being Doors Open Days itself this weekend. Don’t miss the chance to have a poke about some of the incredible spaces we’ve got in town, some only open to the public for the festival! Check out the full schedule here.


Ash to Art

Ash to Art at Christies King St , 8 March 2017

Today, 25 truly remarkable artworks – all made with or from burnt fragments of the Mackintosh Library – will be auctioned at Christie’s for the benefit our campus appeal.

Having seen the works in the catalogue, the emotional response I had upon entering the small preview exhibition was rather unexpected. I was reminded of walking into the library for the first time post-fire: the punch in the gut, the lump in the throat, the tearing eyes. And perhaps most surprisingly, while standing in front of GSA alumni Martin Boyce’s wonderful ‘Spook School’ piece, a faint scent of smoke. A smell mostly long-vanished from the Mack, yet those of us who frequent its halls for the project still catch the occasional unexpected whiff.

Rachael Purse contemplates Martin Boyce’s work.

This was an experience shared by some of the contributing artists, as GSA alumni Chantal Joffe noted:

“Receiving the box was quite upsetting, like receiving the ashes of a dead friend. The charcoal was softer than I’m used to, it was hard to get an edge. As I drew, it released the smell of the fire.”

Rachael and I are in London for research, but we timed the trip to take in the auction, which will no doubt be very exciting. But from an academic perspective, it is bittersweet as this will be the only time this collection will be exhibited together before dispersed to fortunate private collectors – though there is always the hope that a savvy public collection will bid on some of these pieces, which are all rather reasonably priced, if you’ve got that kind of budget. My own lottery ticket didn’t come in, so sadly the Grayson Perry urn, poignantly preserving a bit of library-charcoal, won’t be coming home with me.


Grayson Perry, ‘Art is dead Long live Art’. Charcoal from the Mackintosh Library in glazed ceramic. 21 x 10cm.

As a body of work, the lot is worth a much more considered analysis than I’ll offer in this quick post, but the range of responses is truly impressive. From Anish Kapoor‘s minimal encasement of an unaltered fragment in rich red Perspex to Tacita Dean‘s dreamy charcoal drawings, the variation in approaches is reflective of the manifold artistic practices taught at the Glasgow School of Art.

One GSA alumni, Alison Watt, offered and exquisitely minimalist canvas that to my eye looks very like an elegant detail from a piece of Mackintosh furniture. The work reflects the loss Watt felt, as many of us did, at the fire:

“I cried when I heard of the fire. The Glasgow School of Art has a particular hold over those who studied there, not only through its remarkable physical presence, but also as an idea. The idea of creativity coming from the wreckage resonated with me. I delicately shaved small slivers from the charred wood and ground them to a powder mixed with Payne’s Grey and Burnt Sienna oil colour, creating a particularly intense black. It’s a darkness which is hard to define.”

Alison Watt ‘Deep Within the Heart of Me’. Oil & charcoal from the Mackintosh Library on canvas. 46 x 46cm.

Some pieces are not such emotional responses, even irreverent, and I was particularly delighted by Joseph Kosuth’s ‘O.M.C.’ – of which he said:

The title ‘O.M.C’ signifies ‘One Mackintosh Chair’, which is a semi-ironic reference to that well-known early work of mine. So, potentially, the charcoal used in the drawing is the remains of the chair being depicted.”

Joseph Kosuth ‘O.M.C’. Charcoal from the Mackintosh Library on paper. 92.5 x 79.5cm.

Referencing his iconic 1965 ‘One and Three Chairs‘, a piece that opened my young art student mind to semiotics and conceptual art, it rang a doubly personal note.
But perhaps my most favourite piece – and surely I am biased here – is Sir Peter Blake’s velvety composite image of the library before and after the fire. The classic Annan photo hovers at the surface, in which the artist has employed his charcoal.


Sir Peter Blake, ‘Untitled’. Inkjet graphite and charcoal from the Mackintosh Library on paper. 57.7 x 71cm.

The caption reads:

“Charles Rennie Mackintosh in the Library at Glasgow School of Art, both before and after the fire (his cravat is drawn in charcoal from the burnt Library).”

While my fingers are crossed for a massive return on the time and heart these artists invested and gave us, I confess a bit of sadness thinking these pieces will not be seen together again. Perhaps they might be gathered once more in another 100 years, when even the reconstructed areas of the Mack will again be viewed as historic cultural icons.

And here we go…

EDIT: What an exciting event! The final results can be viewed by clicking here (lots 240-264), but a quick & dirty calculation shows that the auction realised just under £570,000 for us! Deepest thanks to all the artists who gave time, care, and effort to support the Glasgow School of Art.


Five Questions With… Liz Davidson

Today we are launching a regular feature on the blog, a series of interviews entitled Five Questions With… During these informal chats we will be asking members of the interdisciplinary Restoration Design Team five questions, to give you a personal insight into the work of the individuals responsible for the success of this vast project.

Our Bringing Back the Mack PhD student Rachael Purse recently sat down with Liz Davidson, the Mackintosh Restoration Senior Project Manager, to conduct the inaugural interview.

What does an average week consist of for you?


Contemplating the library timbers. Photo by Robyne Calvert.

There are a lot of meetings, but what we always try and fit in is a daily walk around the Mack building.  There’s nothing better. The progress is now massively rewarding, and it’s exciting to see happy builders working on site, you see good craftsmanship even on things like a stud wall partition. Well better than I could do, otherwise I’d be up there doing it! The project is moving fast so this walkabout with the plans is important.

There are two of us [with Project Manager Sarah MacKinnon] and we must use our time as wisely as we can. One of us will go [to a meeting], and then come back and we’ll have a chat about it. Quite often we do have different opinions, but I think we come at things differently. Sarah is a conservation surveyor and project manager and much else besides, I come from a history and architectural conservation background. I think we quite often come at it from different directions but invariably, 99% of the time we come to the same conclusions, and it’s good to have both of these approaches.

The other way in which our careers have coalesced, is that we also both have building preservation trust backgrounds, Sarah with Strathclyde Building Preservation Trust, and myself from Glasgow, and what you learn when working with a BPT is that you need to know how funding and construction and design teams work, but crucially it’s all about how the building will work, the functionality and the reuse of the building, so there are solutions and compromises that have to be made. We know that this building needs to work for the client or otherwise this project is pointless, they have to be able to put students back into the Mackintosh Building. Architects, quite rightly sometimes, exist within a more purist bubble.

We both probably describe ourselves differently, both as conservationists, but we are still the client representative. It’s the BPT training we have had that has given us a pragmatism in terms of end use. Here we are a part of the amazing creative client group, and we are trying to hold fast to good conservation principles whilst flexing them to make it function.

Both of us are trying to keep under control is the sheer amount of hours that this project demands, which is way beyond a normal working week. It just is relentless.

To be fair to the entire project team are all working incredibly hard. With this building, everybody feels as though they are going way above the call of duty, it couldn’t be any other way. I think Mackintosh laboured into the wee small hours when he was designing it and I think it was his labour of love.

Liz on a typical walkabout with HRH Prince Charles, the school’s Patron. Photo copyright Alan McAteer, 2015.

What was your relationship with the Mack before this project?

Well, I live in Glasgow, so it was usually coming up every year to go to the Degree Show and the odd exhibition. Experiencing the Mack during a degree show is such an exciting night, when you come up and it spills out onto Renfrew Street and you have this incredible ability to run wild through the building, packed with people, looking at things you wouldn’t normally be able to, and just feel all that amazing energy. Bumping into people on odd half landings you haven’t seen for years, and just talk about art that you might one day buy. The sad thing is then I would probably leave it alone for the rest of the year because it’s a working school. Let the students get on with what they’re doing. I think it’s fair to say I am by no means complacent about this building, it’s still a thrill, it’s still a privilege to walk around it and be in it, but Degree Show night was always a special night.

One of our challenges is to keep pushing our awareness and knowledge of the building, so the work being done in the archives and by the research team is constantly feeding that understanding of the building. But also you have to be strong because Mackintosh I don’t think was overawed by this building or by the occasion, I think he thought ‘I’m at the top of my game and I’m going to come in and deliver what this client needs.’ What we need to do collectively as a project team is come in and be strong and confident in what we are doing, and not let the platform or the world stage that we are on over-awe us. The School is not a bashful client and it needs to be able to project the fact that it is a confident and risk-taking and even anarchic client at times, and all those words don’t necessarily resonate with a conservation project.


Work starting on the roof. Photo copyright Alan McAteer, 2016.

What have been the most professionally and/or personally fulfilling moments for you on this project so far?

The most personally fulfilling thing so far which has happened to me was the other night when I got a Happy Meal delivered to my door by a security guard! (laughs) How good is that?!

There is a huge amount of information that’s coming in and you constantly want to feel you’re on top of it. It’s constantly shifting and constantly moving and growing, and you only need a day or two outside that because you’ve had meetings or student  – so in the space of 48 hours you can completely lose grip because so much has happened, it’s as fast moving as that, and then it takes you about 8 days to catch up.

It’s quite a dull answer because you want to say it’s when the finial was gilded and put back on the roof or whatever…

But at the moment the most professionally fulfilling moment for me is when I go to bed or get up in the morning and I can say I’m on top of it.


Walkabouts aren’t just for inside the building. Photo by Sarah MacKinnon.

Describe the Mack in one sentence

Oh, flip. I don’t think I can describe it in one sentence!

If you had a Tardis, what point of the Mack’s life would you go back to and why?

Well, it should obviously be right back to about 1909, that’s what I should be saying. Purely selfishly, I’d love to go back to the late 40s because that’s when Joan Eardley, who’s my favourite ever artist, was here. I would have loved to have met that woman and I would have loved to have painted like her. The answer I should be giving, for Kevan Shaw [the Design Team’s lighting consultant], is to go back and look at those black and whites and say is that blue or green or yellow?

There’s no doubt that [Mackintosh is] still an enigma. I’ve just read a fictional piece about Mackintosh living in Suffolk with Margaret by Esther Freud, when he was living there over the first world war period, and they talk about this dark Glaswegian who stormed over the moors and the sand dunes at night with his binoculars, picked flowers and then took them down to his little hut to paint them. There’s this thing of constantly trying to find out who he is. We know so little about the man, he had no children so there are no direct descendants and there were still people from William Davidson’s family who did remember him until recently, but there’s so little you really know about who he was as a person. Was he a nice person? I think we know that he was. A bit of a hell-raiser, who absolutely adored his wife Margaret MacDonald, and it must have been reciprocal.

How extraordinary it would have been to have met him… I’ve never seen a film of him. Such a beautiful man in those early photographs, who is the contemporary equivalent?

Stay tuned for our next 5 Questions With… featuring Restoration Project Manager Sarah Mackinnon.


State of the Mack

On Monday the 17th of October 2016, over 150 people attended our ‘State of the Mack’ series of short talks. Seven speakers discussed different aspects of the restoration of the Mackintosh Building, with each providing their own unique perspective on this vast project.

Liz Davidson, the Senior Project Manager of the Restoration Project, first discussed some of the issues facing the team in bringing the building back into use. ‘What Would Mackintosh Do?’ is not a question we can readily answer ‘without the availability of a Tardis’, Liz  commented. As such, she explained the importance of research and informed decision-making in our process. She also discussed the opportunities the restoration has created for much-needed improvements, such as the renovation of the lift to enable better accessibility for wheelchairs. Liz concluded by stating that the Mack is a building which remains ‘capable of listening to its users.’

Brian Park of Page\Park architects, explained the conservation philosophy being carried out by his team as they record and investigate this building: piece by piece, room by room, and finally as a whole. The importance of archival and physical evidence was discussed, with Brian highlighting just how lucky we are to have such a complete archive of the School, spanning its entire history.


A group of female students in the Hen Run, GSA Archives, c.1930s.

Ranald MacInnes, Head of Special Projects at Historic Environment Scotland spoke passionately about the importance of the idea of the Mack. Using the Hen Run as an example, he explained that though material is lost, the idea remains. An idea cannot be destroyed, he said, and the Mackintosh Building we had inherited by 2014 had been drastically altered since it opened in 1910. By extension, although the material of the library has been destroyed, the design, space, and idea of the library remains with us. Ranald also highlighted the exciting new centre for building conservation HES is establishing in Stirling. The Engine Shed will open in January 2017 and its first temporary exhibition will be on the Mackintosh Building. Several items damaged in the fire will be on display. Insights into the effects of fire on historic buildings and  materials will be shared with heritage professionals and members of the public alike.

Image result for the engine shed stirling

A visualisation if the completed Engine Shed Building, Historic Environment Scotland, 2015.

Duncan Chappell, Academic Liaison Librarian at the GSA, eloquently discussed the fire and its effects on the GSA’s collection of rare books. 81 were salvaged from the wreckage of the library, with 14 being deemed cost-effective to restore. Donations have also been very generous, with over 22% of the priority replacement volumes being gifted within the first three months of the call for contributions. Duncan stated that ensuring access to the collections in the remade Mack is a priority for the GSA’s library team: the books will be unchained, and the original book store above the library will become a reading room where students and members of the public can access the Library’s treasures.


Plaster casts awaiting treatment. Photo by Robyne Calvert.

Polly Christie, the Project Lead for the Archives & Collections Recovery Project, gave us a very exclusive look at the wonderfully unique conservation techniques being used to stabilise the Art School’s scorched plaster casts. Graciella Ainsworth is the conservator of these objects, and she is employing everything from medical IV drips and endoscopy cameras to ensure her charges receive the very best care. These casts were crucial to 18th and 19th-century art education, when students started drawing in the flat, moved on to the round, worked from casts, and then finally worked from life. Now the blackened fire damaged casts can remain as a stark and beautiful reminder of this point in the School’s history, as we cherish them in a new way.

Dr Robyne Calvert, the Mackintosh Research Fellow and the organiser and chair of this event, introduced us to the restoration of Mackintosh’s iconic library lights. The work carried out by the forensic archaeologists in removing the detritus from the library floor in such a meticulous way ensured that many of the twisted melted light components have been salvaged. Polly Christie and Restoration Project Manager Sarah Mackinnon have led a project to coordinate their conservation, and the audience got a sneak preview of some of the surprising results so far. Robyne also introduced new research into the revaluation of previously overlooked spaces within the Mack, including the beautiful former ‘Masters Room’- the staff room for male teachers – in the east end of the building. Blog posts on research developments like these will be published here over the course of this three-year restoration project, so it is well worth staying tuned.


‘Master’s Room’, photo by Robyne Calvert

Dr Paul Chapman, Director of the School of Visualisation + Simulation (formerly DDS, Digital Design Studio), closed the event by sharing some of the incredible images they produced after laser-scanning the Mack post-fire. The team, who have recently scanned the entirety of the Forth Bridge, and led the Scottish Ten project, are the world leaders in this field. Paul played a short but hauntingly beautiful fly-through of the Mack generated from the laser-scan point-cloud data created by Sim + Vis staff Alastair Rawlins.


Laser scan of the library post-fire, 2014-2015. School of Visualisation and Simulation, The GSofA.

Events like this reveal just how exciting and challenging this vast restoration project is, and allow us all to come together and celebrate the importance of the Mack on a personal level. It is a building all of the speakers and attendees clearly feel a connection with, which is part of what makes it so unique. We must, of course, say big thank you to all of our speakers, for taking time out of their hectic schedules to share their insights with us.

Do keep an eye out on this blog for upcoming interviews with members of the Restoration and Design Team, as we give you behind the scenes access to the Mack and the people who are bringing it back to life.