Myths about Mackintosh


First thing’s first: HAPPY BIRTHDAY TOSHIE! Today is his 150th, as anyone reading this probably already knows.

In honour of that, I thought I’d put together a very quick little post addressing some of the most popular misconceptions (and at times, myths) about our Toshie. Many have simply arisen from hearsay or misunderstandings of history. Almost all have roots in the earliest scholarship on CRM, namely Thomas Howarth‘s book Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Modern Movement, 1952/77. Not to disparage this work – it is the foundation text for any serious research in the field. But it is also written through a particular Modernist (and male-biased) lens, and from accounts told to Howarth by people who knew Mackintosh – fascinating, but also second hand, and often unsubstantiated.

It is also the case that as ‘dead artists’ go, we’ve very little factual information left behind, and only a very small amount in Mackintosh’s own words.

What is somewhat baffling, though, is that these myths yet persist despite scholarship having debunked many of these decades ago. Writing in 1996, Alan Crawford spoke of what he called the ‘Mackintosh Myth’:

‘Howarth’s book and the popular image of Mackintosh are both informed by stereotypes of the genius, rooted in 19th-century Romanticism, and of the pioneer, rooted in 20th-century progressivism. Howarth’s Modernist version of Mackintosh may have lost academic credibility, but it lives on in the popular imagination.’

Over 20 years later, we still hear these same myths repeated even in the most recent articles and tv programmes, which Crawford and other authorities since have tried to clarify. Here is a sampling of the most common:

Mackintosh was a ‘(misunderstood, neglected, lone) genius’.

I (and I’m sure other CRM scholars) often get asked ‘Why was he so neglected? Why was he forgotten? Why was he so popular in Europe and not Glasgow?’ I’m not sure any of these notions are entirely true.

I suppose this misconception is a matter of perspective. It is true that for some time in the early-to-mid 20th-century, his name was not as famous in Glasgow as it has been for the last several decades. During his life, some press reports were derisive of his work, leaving behind the impression that he was a ‘misunderstood genius’. His critical success in international art & design exhibitions (such as the 8th Vienna Secession in 1900 and Turin 1902) have likewise been interpreted as his being valued and wildly successful on the continent, while Britain rejected him.

I feel this does not necessarily equate to neglected, or even genius. On the latter point, I’m going to borrow from Crawford: ‘I have not called him a genius because I am not sure what that means.’ He was very well-received in Europe in certain circles, and the handful of press articles (mostly in niche art and design journals like Decorative Kunst) lauded his work alongside others artists and designers associated with The Glasgow School of Art. And perhaps there is a nugget of truth in the notion that these designs were more palatable to European tastes, in their relationship to the Art Nouveau/Secession styles that were emerging at the time. The reality is, though acclaimed in press, Mackintosh received very few continental commissions from this exposure.


The original Willow Tea Rooms building, post-conservation, fresh and glorious in the rarified sun. Image courtesy the Willow Tea Rooms Trust, 2018.

I also think these assumptions do a disservice to Glaswegian art and design of the period, which was flowering both metaphorically and in decorative motif. To say that Mackintosh was misunderstood or even seen as bizarre, simply based on the comments of a few perhaps backwards journalists, is an over-simplification. After all, it was a savvy businesswoman, Catherine Cranston, who gave him some of his best visibility in her popular tearooms. And alongside the innovative architecture of the late Victorian ‘Second City’ (think Thompson, Leiper, Salmon, Burnett), Mackintosh was unique but certainly not out of place in radical inventiveness. Perhaps most importantly, he was part of a wider art movement which we now like to call ‘Glasgow Style’, and was certainly not alone in the production of such work, nor was Cranston the sole consumer.

Again, I must point to Crawford’s excellent 1996 biography, which successfully debunks this idea throughout. In any case – look around today. We certainly have rectified any neglect he may have experienced!

Verdict: Misconstrued.


Mackintosh is an internationally famous architect/design icon.

You wouldn’t believe it in Glasgow today, but unless you are really into architecture or design, Mackintosh is actually still little-known in large parts of the world. Maybe this is where the ‘neglected’ notion comes in, but by that argument we might say the majority of architects, and virtually all designers, are neglected. Perhaps we can get him a ‘Simpsons’ guest spot like Frank Ghery had?

Verdict: Aspirational


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

Mackintosh was engaged to Jessie Keppie. He then jilted her and married Macdonald, which ultimately ruined his career.

There is literally no factual evidence to support any of this.

I’ve recently written another post that talks about this supposed ‘love triangle’ in more detail, particularly as it relates to the misinterpretation of a group photo of ‘The Immortals’ now in the GSA collection. In brief, this image is often portrayed as depicting a ‘frission’ between Keppie and Macdonald, at far right. I don’t see it – they look like pals sharing a cheeky laugh to me, and to many others I’ve asked. People have read into this based on the aforementioned myth.

Roger Billcliffe most recently wrote that this bit of gossip may have initially been told to Howarth by Francis Newbury’s daughter Mary Newbury Sturrock. But as Billcliffe 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.’ 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, made such an arrangement rather dubious.

It also doesn’t make any sense to say he left Jessie Keppie, OR that it ruined his career, since he made partner in Honeyman & Keppie a few years after the supposed jilting took place.

Verdict: Possible but unsubstantiated, and unlikely.


Margaret Macdonald was a massive influence on Mackintosh. Mackintosh said, ‘I just have talent, Margaret has genius.’ Mackintosh said that Margaret was ‘half if not three-quarters’ in all his work.

Or some version of these.

In fact, as someone who entered this field by researching Margaret Macdonald, I often do get asked if she influenced him, how she influenced him, etc. I’ve always been happy to answer affirmatively as she was so unfairly marginalised in the past. However it is more accurate to say that their relationship was of mutual influence and import.

Did Mackintosh say, ‘I just have talent, Margaret has genius’? Maybe. It is another second-hand comment reported by his friend Major Desmond Chapman-Huston (in the Major’s own reminiscences). In fact Chapman-Huston goes on to say he disagrees with this, as he doesn’t see the same level of inventiveness in her work (to paraphrase).

Mackintosh DID say, in a letter to Margaret, ‘You are half if not three-quarters in all my architectural work.’ This does seem to indicate he felt her to be an inspiration, if not an influence, in this area.

I’ve written an article about their collaborations in the most recent issue of the Mackintosh Society Journal, but you can also get a little more insight at this post.

Verdict: Mostly true, but often overstated or taken out of context.


Macdonald’s ‘The Heart of the Rose’ (1902) from the GSA collection, on the conservator Graciela Ainsworth’s easel back in November 2015.

Mackintosh designed Macdonald’s gesso panels.

This one is a matter of critical debate, with some believing that because these works are so precise and architectural, and/or because Macdonald wasn’t as inventive; that the gessoes were likely designed by Mackintosh and executed by Macdonald.

I confess that my initial outrage at this theory kept me from thinking critically about it for some years. But I’ve taken a step back to consider whether this has merit. I will allow that it is certainly true that Macdonald often repeated subjects and motifs in her work; and that also she didn’t necessarily show a great deal of long-term ambition in her design practice (meaning her extant body of work is relatively small, all considered). But I do not feel that she was incapable of intricate or complex design work, particularly when she hit her stride with the gessoes after 1900.

What interests me is this thorny issue of collaboration, and how we can’t necessarily pick apart how their creative partnership worked. As above, Mackintosh considered Macdonald to be a massive part of his creative process, including his architectural work. He also said, when working on the Ingram Street panels, ‘Miss Margaret Macdonald is doing one and I am doing the other. We are working them together and that makes the work very pleasant.’ But this is the only word we have on this subject – what does ‘working them together’ mean? Perhaps he managed to help flesh out her ideas in sketches that were then executed by her hand, we simply don’t know. And we simply never shall.

Verdict: Unprovable. Unlikely.

Mackintosh was an alcoholic.

Again I am going to borrow from Billcliffe, and I shall have to paraphrase as it was in a recent talk given at Queen’s Cross Church where I heard him say that in his view, Mackintosh didn’t drink any more than anyone else in the office (or in Glasgow on any given day). And Keppie probably drank a lot more!

Mackintosh struggled with his career in Glasgow after he parted company with Honeyman and Keppie. Again from reports of friends, he certainly seemed despondent, and of course the Mackintoshes ended up quitting Scotland altogether. Because the latter part of his life seems to our mind a melancholy struggle, I think we tend to assume it was either due to drink, or perhaps he drank as a consequence.

In contrast, we know for a fact that it was McNair that was the alcoholic, even to the extent that he was sent of to Canada for a time to ‘dry out’. This is substantiated in a letter by close friend Jessie Newbery, and other reports.

Ultimately it was tobacco (via cancer), not drink, that did Mackintosh in.

Verdict: Perhaps, but we don’t really know for certain.

Mackintosh was into the occult.
1-2 MC_G_8

‘The Tree of Personal Effort, The Sun of Indifference’, January 1895 (from The Magazine, Spring 1896). Pencil and watercolour on paper, 213 x 173 mm. Collection: Glasgow School of Art (MC/G/8)

My favourite! Because I really want it to be true!

However, there is absolutely no evidence to support this prospect. What he definitely was into was Symbolism. And Symbolist Art was influenced by all sorts of esoteric fin-de-siecle philosophies and ideas, including Theosophy, which explored religions and spiritual practices of all kinds. And he certainly had friends in Glasgow who were Theosophists. Spiritualism and interest in the metaphysical were all part of the ‘cultural soup’ in this period, and these notions go hand-in-hand with the interest in Celtic/Nordic mythology, and a romanticised vision of Scotland’s past, which is evident across Glasgow Style art & design.

But there is zero evidence that he was an Occultist, a Theosophist, a Rosicrucian, a member of the Golden Dawn, or part of the Order of the Phoenix. Or a Timelord (although another famous GSA graduate was).

If there IS missing evidence though, I hope I’m the one to find it!

Verdict: If only!


Mackintosh was Steampunk

Full confession – I’m the culprit in this one! Every time I give an interview, either it slips out in chat, or I’m even asked if I think there is something Steampunk about him – and it seems to be the one thing I get quoted on now, every time! That and that he shows up in science fiction, something that fascinates me. In fact you can read the latest quote in today’s EXCELLENT article by Olly Wainright – in which no (other) myths appear, hurrah!

The truth here, expressed somewhat more intelligently I hope, is that there is something rather retro-futuristic about his work that is difficult to quantify. It looks back at the same time it looks forward, giving it a timeless quality. I often do explain this in interviews, but it usually doesn’t make the edit, heh. Ah well. I need a pair of brassy Mackintosh goggles to turn up, to prove my theory.

Verdict: Apologies – but kind of true if you think about it!

Mackintosh invented the Glasgow Style

Despite the title of the current exhibition at the Kelvingrove, Mackintosh did not ‘make’ or ‘invent’ the Glasgow Style on his own. And in fact this exhibition does an fantastic job of showing precisely how many amazing artists, designers, and architects – many friends of his – were involved. The accompanying text by Alison Brown is also excellent, and here’s hoping she can make an expanded version of this! Don’t miss this wonderful exhibit!

Verdict: Untrue, as you can see for yourself at the Kelvingrove!

There is just SO MUCH to celebrate about Mackintosh – so much he has given to the city, and the world. No need to romanticise him, or make him overly tragic – we can appreciate him in truth and beauty, as he would want.



Willowwood for World Poetry Day

O YE, all ye that walk in Willowwood… that walk with hollow faces burning white…

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Willow Tea Rooms (1903), Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Willow Tea Rooms (1903), Glasgow

In honour of world poetry day, I’d like to share an excerpt of some older research on the Willow Tea Rooms here in Glasgow, the decorative theme of which was inspired by my favourite Dante Gabriel Rossetti poem: Willowwood.

As most will be aware, this building is undergoing its own exciting restoration project lead by The Willow Tea Rooms Trust, and will re-open this June as an expanded ‘Mackintosh at the Willow’ experience. But don’t worry, there will certainly be tea & cake still! The original tea room, opened in 1903, was designed by Mackintosh for its fascinating proprietor Katherine Cranston, and takes its name from the street upon which it sits, Sauchiehall, which loosely translates ‘meadow of willows’ in Gaelic. Mackintosh remodelled an extant building and in addition to the main dining room, the upper floors contained a smoking and billiards room for gentlemen, while the crowning jewel of the Willow, the Salon de Luxe – a lavender and silver toned dining room, intended to appeal to female clientele – took pride of place on the second floor of the building, taking full advantage of the Northern light from the Mackintosh’s new stained-glass bow window.

Charles Rennie and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, 'Salon de Luxe' at the Willow Tea Rooms (1903)

‘Salon de Luxe’ at the Willow Tea Rooms (1903)

For the interior of this dazzling room, Mackintosh enlisted the aid of his wife, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh. Specifically, Macdonald crafted a gesso panel for this room, arguably amongst her most beautiful, titled after the first line in the third sonnet of Rossetti’s cycle of four, O Ye, All Ye That Walk In Willowwood. The Salon de Luxe is a quintessential example of how the Mackintoshes engaged with Symbolist practices in the creation of a gesamtkunstwerk—a total work of art. The panel may be viewed as a narrative key to understanding the space’s meaning.

Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, 'O Ye All Ye That Walk in Willowwood', 1902, gesso and glass beads, 1645 x 585 mm. Collection: Glasgow Museums. Gesso panel from Willow Tearooms entitled 'O ye, all ye that walk in Willowood', by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, 1902 E.2001.6

Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, ‘O Ye All Ye That Walk in Willowwood’, 1902, gesso and glass beads, 1645 x 585 mm. Collection: Glasgow Museums, E.2001.6

What follows is an excerpt from a longer essay focused on the Salon de Luxe. But for this post I’m going to focus on the analysis of the poems. Literary analysis isn’t something I often get a chance to tackle, and I enjoyed writing this a great deal. Unfamiliar readers may wish to spend some time with the original poems (posted here from his text The House of Life), considering them on your own before reading my interpretation.

Rossetti’s Willowwood

The ‘Willowwood’ sonnets form the heart of a larger work by Rossetti, The House of Life. Rossetti scholar Jerome McGann tells us ‘The House of Life project grew out of the composition of these four poems in December 1868’ and argues that the Willowwood sonnets are a sort of miniaturized version of The House of Life, both expressing ‘a problem about love and the hope of its fulfilment.’[i] There are varied interpretations of the sonnets and of the work as a whole, but in Rossetti’s own words: ‘I should wish to deal in poetry chiefly with personified emotions; and in carrying out my scheme of the House of Life (if ever I do so) shall try to put in action a complete ‘dramatis personae’ of the soul.’[ii] On other interpretations, McGann observes: ‘[e]veryone agrees, however, that the ambiguities all pivot around [Rossetti’s] complex love-commitments, and especially his commitments to his wife Elizabeth, on one hand, who died in early 1862, and his friend’s wife Jane Morris, on the other.’ The sonnets, told in first-person narrative, suggest that the speaker is Rossetti himself; to clarify the discussion here, the three main characters in this drama will be referred to in the following manner: The Poet (the narrator), the Lost Love (the vision of a lost love), and Love (personified).

The first sonnet opens with The Poet sitting with personified Love by a ‘woodside well.’ Upon Love’s touching of his lute, The Poet recalls the voice of his Lost Love, and begins to weep. His tears fall into the well, and the rippling of the water creates a vision. With the sweep of Love’s wing-feathers touching the water, the vision of his lost love rises to meet him, and The Poet leans down to touch his lips with hers on the surface of the water. This image is quite important, as it is symbolically represented in the Willowwood panel, as shall be seen.

Here, Rossetti establishes important contrasting themes for the rest of the work: passion and sorrow, love and loss. ‘Willowwood I’ also serves as an introduction for iconography in the work, and as a reminder of Rossetti’s influences, chiefly Italian art and poetry such as Dante Alighieri’s Vita Nuova, which is similarly centred on the narrator’s pining for an unattainable Love, mediated by encounters and discourses with personified Love. Rossetti comes to this theme repeatedly in his poetry and art, such as in his famous Beata Beatrix, appropriating Christian iconography and transforming it into his own symbolic conventions to relate an imagined moment from the Vita Nuova. In an 1873 letter to William Graham, for whom he painted a replica, Rossetti explained Beata Beatrix in the following manner:

The picture must of course be viewed not as a representation of the incident of the death of Beatrice, but as an ideal of the subject, symbolized by a trance or sudden spiritual transfiguration… and in sign of the supreme change, the radiant bird, a messenger of death, drops the white poppy between her hands.[iii]

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Beata Beatrix', c.1864-70. oil on canvas. Collection: Tate Britain.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Beata Beatrix’, c.1864-70. oil on canvas. Collection: Tate Britain.

Thus instead of a white dove or a red rose, symbols that are more familiar Christian signifiers, he appropriates the bird/flower iconography of the god/virgin relationship, and creates a red bird/white poppy messenger of death. The symbolic language is familiar, yet not, like a different iconographic dialect.

Rossetti’s twisting of iconography appears in both his painting and poetry, foreshadowing later Symbolist interventions. Take for example, the central component of the well in Willowwood (which we shall see in the central formal element of the gesso panel, the green oval). Symbolically, wells are meeting as well as drinking places, which is an intriguing consideration for a tea room theme. In ‘Willowwood I’, we witness two metaphysical meetings, as seen through the gaze of the poet: first, with Love, whose eyes he meets in the waters below, and second, with the Lost Love who comes forth from the reflected eyes of Love in the water. The well itself is a liminal space, a site for The Poet to encounter his Lost Love, whether she is the spectre of a dead woman, or simply someone out of his reach. Both images suggest a moment between the physical and spiritual, suggestive of sensuality and desire through the encounter with Love and the kiss.

The second sonnet opens with the words ‘And now Love Sang’, which would seem to suggest we are about to hear his song. Instead, Rossetti makes us wait, and rather describes the nature of the song, as well as the rising action of the drama that occurs while Love sings, indicated by the first words of the last line of the sonnet ‘And still Love sang.’ Rossetti describes the song in complex terms, and while it has been argued that these lines may somehow reference souls waiting for the ‘second coming,’ [iv] there is precedent for another more esoteric theme here, that of reincarnation. In 1854, Rossetti wrote the poem ‘Sudden Light’ while vacationing with Elizabeth Siddal in Hastings:

I HAVE been here before,
  But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
  The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

You have been mine before,—
  How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow’s soar
  Your neck turned so,
Some veil did fall,—I knew it all of yore.                    10

Has this been thus before?
  And shall not thus time’s eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
  In death’s despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?[v]

There can be little question that reincarnation is the theme of this poem, signalled by the opening of each verse: ‘I have been here before… you have been mine before… has this been thus before?’ In Willowwood, Love’s song is akin to one ‘disused souls’ would sing, ‘meshed with half-remembrance’ when their ‘new birthday tarries long’; in other words when they are waiting to reincarnate, and filled with fading memories of their former life. This interpretation is especially poignant when considering the subsequent lines about the dumb throng, the mournful forms which emerge from the wood, who The Poet recognizes as their former selves, ‘The shades of those our days that had no tongue.’ They could be memories, but could also be shadows of past lives. All of this happens in the same moment as the kiss upon the water, at which these shades cry out in longing as we are returned to the song of love, which is the subject of the next sonnet.

This third sonnet is the most important for the purposes of this study, as its first line is the title of Macdonald’s panel. This sonnet is actually Love’s song, but rather than being a ‘romantic’ ballad sung by Love as troubadour, it is a mournful song that offers a poignant message: pining for lost love is fruitless, and will bring naught but more pain.

Here is an appropriate place to address a question that is perhaps the most important in interpreting both Rossetti’s poem and Macdonald’s work: what, in a larger sense, is a Willowwood? In a literal sense, it is the wood of willows next to the well in which the action takes place. But willowwood also carries with it several symbolic connotations. The associations of the willow with sorrow and mourning are evident. In an agricultural light, willows are found near riverbanks, and their roots are excellent for preventing soil erosion. Thus, they are associated with water (also a signifier of continuity), which is represented by the well in the poem. It is also an ancient medicinal plant. The bark and leaves are rich in salicin, a natural glucoside akin to the active ingredient in aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid. The most common way of utilizing the willow’s healing properties was to boil its bark in water and drink it; in other words, to make tea. Finally, Willows were also considered guardians, and planted around cemeteries to keep spirits bound. This could apply to the ‘shades’ in ‘Willowwood II’ that manifest themselves each next to a tree, but have no voice to speak with, and which do not approach the action of the scene.

The place that is Willowwood is defined by all of these associations, and also by the action ascribed by Love’s song. Those who ‘walk in Willowwood’ are those who mourn yet long (‘hollow faces burning bright’), those who have been left behind in ‘soul-struck widowhood’, whose existence has become ‘one lifelong night’. This last could have a double meaning: night, as in the darkness, but also as in the time when spirits can be seen (and perhaps even touched). The song goes on to suggest that these souls cultivate their sorrow in vain, those who ‘wooed your last hope lost’ and ‘in vain invite your lips to that their unforgotten food’. This is a direct reference to The Poet’s action of kissing the vision in the well, which the shades—manifestations of the lovers—lament in longing. Thus Willowwood is a place of mourning, if not a place of the dead, where yearning souls (living or not) dwell, those who attempt in vain to be with those lost to them.

The sextet that follows offers even more insight into the painful nature of Willowwood:

Alas! the bitter banks in Willowwood,
With tear-spurge wan, with blood-wort burning red:
Alas! if ever such a pillow could
Steep deep the soul in sleep till she were dead,—

Here we again find Rossetti’s colour symbolism: red and white used interchangeably for love, passion, life and death. This is reinforced by the rhyme scheme: the second line of the octet ends ‘burning white’ while the second line of the sextet ends ‘burning red’; and each have their own associations within their verse: ‘white’ rhymes with ‘night’, ‘invite’, and ‘light’; and ‘red’ rhymes with ‘dead’. The word associations within the rhyme serve a similar function to the visual symbolism discussed above in Beata Beatrix, to connote colour and words in a crafting a reinvented system of signification.

Like these plants, dwellers in Willowwood are weakened by their tears and burning with their rage and passion. Also interesting to note is the bitter nature of each of these plants: spurge is an invasive plant that consumes and takes over wherever it takes root, and bloodwort was used medicinally to induce vomiting (spurge carries within it a milky white sap, while the red roots of bloodwort were used to make dyes). Thus in a beautiful crafting of language and imagery, Rossetti uses the natural plant-life found on an English riverbank as a tool to describe the bitter emotion involved in this sort of longing. Willowwood here is not just a place of mourning, but the mourning itself made manifest in the bitter banks of which Love laments that one cannot ‘steep deep the soul in sleep till she were dead’ (and here, one cannot help but think of Elizabeth Siddal, who steeped herself in sleep with laudanum, then died from it).

The closing lines of the sonnet/song carry the potent message that love wishes to relate:

Better all life forget her than this thing,
That Willowwood should hold her wandering!’

But far from offering closure, Love has planted the seed of hope in the midst of his song: the last line of the octet, in the middle of his song, he declares: ‘Ere ye, ere ye again shall see the light!’ Recall its rhymes, which when said together say, not coincidentally, ‘white night invite light’. This promise of light foreshadows the ambiguously hopeful ending of the final sonnet.

The cycle closes with a description of the end of the encounter, and an enigmatic image of hope. In the final sonnet, Rossetti analogizes the ending of the kiss as two clinging roses who, having withstood the ‘wind’s wellaway’ or Love’s lamentation, at the end of the day drop their leaves that had been loosened ‘where the heart-stain glows’. The opening line of the octet is also a double-entendre recalling the action of the second sonnet, the ‘meeting rose and rose’ (and the importance of rose symbolism to the Mackintoshes is well-known). The vision/phantom of Lost Love fades back, ‘drowned’ from view, and The Poet reveals uncertainty that he will ever see Her again. Yet at the end, Rossetti offers a hopeful twist: As The Poet takes a last draught of his Lost Love’s presence, Love leans forward and graces him with a blessing through his touch, his ‘moan of pity and grace’, and finally, in a potent visual image, moves his head ‘till both our heads were in his aureole.’ It is rather ambiguous as to whom the ‘both’ refers to, Love and The Poet, or The Poet and his Lost Love, but a potent case could be made for the latter if one recalls the themes of Dante’s Vita Nuova and the repetition of trinities. By encompassing both of the lovers’ heads in his aureole, Love joins the three of them, gracing them with his blessed halo and making profane love sacred. It is this interpretation of the Willowwood, as a place of unrequited love, where sorrow and longing mingle passionately with longing and hope that provides the most compelling interpretation of Macdonald’s Willowwood, and the Salon de Luxe.

Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, 'O Ye All Ye That Walk in Willowwood', 1902, gesso and glass beads, 1645 x 585 mm. Collection: Glasgow Museums. Gesso panel from Willow Tearooms entitled 'O ye, all ye that walk in Willowood', by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, 1902 E.2001.6

Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, ‘O Ye All Ye That Walk in Willowwood’

The Willowwood panel is a symbolic illustration of Rossetti’s poems. It is in fact a continuous narrative of the vision of the Lost Love in the well, and the shades of her wandering the wood. The green oval at centre is the well, and the face that hovers inside it is that of the Lost Love. The similar features and hairstyles, plus an understanding of the poem, tell us that the other two figures are her shades, walking in a circular fashion about the well, inside the wood that is represented by the rhythmic gesso lines on the surface. The Poet and Love are also present, however. A ghostly hand hovers on the surface of the well; The Poet touching the surface of the water. The ripple this creates is in the form of a rose—this rose, along with the others found throughout the composition, denotes the presence of Love. However, the particular rose that is beneath the hand serves a dual function—it is positioned just over the Spirit’s lips, and is therefore also representative of the meeting of lips—the kiss—described in ‘Willowwood I’.

Surely it was a simple bit of logic which moved the Mackintoshes to borrow from Rossetti’s willow-themed poetry; but the Willowwood sonnets also embraced perhaps the most idealistic motif of the Mackintoshes’ life and work: love. There is a melancholy hopefulness to the theme, that in some other place we shall find those we love, that they wait, and that we should not linger on their loss. In the context of the design scheme, the Salon de Luxe is like a liminal space; somewhere not quite otherworldly, but also hardly typical of a public dining room: a chamber of glittering silver and lavender juxtaposed against the grey city beyond the windows; the musical clinking of china and whisper of voices versus the noise of the street. If the Willowwood panel depicts Rossetti’s sonnets, and the theme extended about the room in mirrors and leaded glass (like water, reflective surfaces), then the room itself becomes the wood in which she dwells. Her accompanying shades are the patrons who come for tea, passing through the fantastical doors to the otherworldly spaces, touching their lips to their libations as The Poet who drank from the well. The Salon de Luxe is, symbolically, Willowwood.


[i] Jerome J. McGann, ed., The Complete Writings and Pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Rossetti Archive] (Freely distributed by IATH and the NINES consortium under a Creative Commons License, 2008), Comprised of sonnets written between the years of 1847-1870, the text ranges in size depending on its publication date, from the first sixteen-sonnet sequence published in the Fortnightly Review in March 1869, under the title ‘Of Life, Love, and Death: Sixteen Sonnets’; then subsequently added to and restructured until the final version of forty-five were published March 1, 1870.

[ii] Dante Gabriel Rossetti in a letter to his friend Hake. Quoted in Jerome J. McGann, ‘Willowwood – Collection Introduction,’ The Rossetti Archive, n.d.,

[iii] Dante Gabriel Rossetti in a letter to William Graham, March 1873. Quoted in Lady Frances Horner, Time Remembered (W. Heinemann, ltd., 1933), 25.

[iv] A footnote for this poem in the ‘The Norton Anthology Online Archive’ states: ‘as souls unused in death’s sterility may sing when waiting for the second coming (i.e. ‘new birthday’).’

[v] Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Poems, A New Edition (London: Ellis & White, 1881), 242.


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.