An Interview with Charles Rennie Mackintosh of the Glasgow Four
The following is the final (fictional) interview of a principal member of the ‘Glasgow Four’, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Charles acted as a key player in creating the now-famous Glasgow Style. This revolutionary art movement experienced prime relevance during 1896–1900 in Scotland and throughout Europe. This interview was conducted with Charles at a London Nursing Home in 1928 but would not reach publication until 1932.
The attendant guided me to the common room of the workhouse. It was a large open space with rows upon rows of wooden tables where the men would take their meals. The now-vacant common area sported a nearly 15-foot high ceiling supported by large marble pillars on either side. The eastern wall was nearly entirely made of glass, and I could imagine it being quite a spectacle if you were around to witness the cascade of sunlight in the early morning. The building itself is considered a housing unit for the poor and aging population and is by no means kept in pristine condition; regardless, I could not help but wonder what higher purpose it served during its initial creation. What could have warranted such intricacy in its interior? It was eerily quiet, not a single person was in attendance now other than Charles himself. He sat close to the entrance of the hall at the end of a table. For a moment before he noticed me enter I had caught him in a sort of trance-like state, staring at the air before him. Perhaps he was waiting in anxious anticipation of our interview, but this gaze seemed passive as if he were deeply lost in thought.
As I approached Charles turned to look at me and motioned to get up. I could see he was having difficulty and implored him to remain seated which he did not argue. He looked incredibly tired and yet was attractive for his age. I had been shown photographs of him depicting a youthful, square-jawed man with curled black hair and a well-trimmed mustache. His youthful looks had long since passed by the time I met him. What remained of his hair was now starkly white and brushed over in a vain attempt to hide a growing bald spot. He looked more like the grandfather of the man I was supposed to meet.
When I sat across from him, shook his hand, and looked him in the eye, however, I could see that thoughtful, energetic look that had been present even in his prime. He did not appear to be interested in the usual pleasantries of small talk and regarded my attempts with a half-smile and a nod. We were here to have a poignant discussion on his artistic career and nothing more than that. I assembled my recorder, provided by the station, and the interview began.
Interviewer: Tell me a bit about yourself. Where you’re from and all that.
Charles: My name is Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I was born in Glasgow Scotland on June 7th, 1868. (Bernard 08)
Interviewer: To start I’d like to have a chat bout your childhood. Do you remember it fondly?
Charles: It was uneventful. I was one of eleven, my father was a police superintendent. Lived in the suburbs mostly. Played in the gardens, visited the countryside. It was lovely and very inspiring for a young artist. (Bernard 08)
Interviewer: Would you say even at this age you had an affinity for the arts?
Charles: Oh yes, I spent much of my time sketching, flowers and buildings, and what have you. I was obsessed with architecture. My family didn’t really understand it though, seems I was the only one in our lineage that took a liking to such things. (Bernard 08)
Interviewer: And when did you really start to sink your teeth into that role?
Charles: What, in architecture? Well, when I was 16 I apprenticed at the architectural office of John Hutcherson. I was also taking evening courses at the Glasgow School of Art. By 21 I was named a junior draftsman for Honeyman and Keppie; at the time it was a very prosperous architectural firm. Any account the senior members didn’t have time for would be passed down to the junior members. I was very fortunate, not many men my age would have been given an opportunity like that. (Bernard 08)
Interviewer: And from there your career took off?
Charles: Well, I don’t know about that. I did gain a bit of notice throughout Scotland because of it.
Interviewer: Why Study at the Glasgow School of the Arts?
Charles: Everything they believed I believed. The stress on creative individuality, progressive thinking. Using natural forms as an artistic source and being true to the material; having high-quality material. All these things are very much ingrained in the fabric of the school and in me. Francis Newberry who was the head of the school, God bless him. If it were not for him, I wouldn’t even be talking about Glasgow the way I am now. (Bernard 08)
Interviewer: It appears you felt so fondly of this institute you even went so far as to design its west wing extension?
Charles: Right, the west wing. That space is gorgeous, with very dominating windows! Now that wing holds the library, studios, and housing. They never commissioned me for it personally though, that account came from a competition they held back in 1895. Honeyman and Keppie assigned me to design the submission. I won obviously. The Glasgow school even invited me back before it was constructed. They wanted me to work on some other revisions to the building thereafter. (www.gsa.ca.uk (1))
Interviewer: You and three others at the school established a group that gained some notoriety. Who all was involved in this group and what was your relationship to all of them?
Charles: I know what you’re getting at. Back then my colleague Herbert McNair and I came across Margaret MacDonald and her sister Frances at the school and we all hit it off right away. At first, it was a friendship and a fantastic creative team! Frances and Herbert married in 1899. And Margaret and I wed the following year. (Bernard 08)
Interviewer: And this was the beginning of the group ‘The Four’ wasn’t it?
Charles: Yes, we’ve had a few titles. ‘The Spook School’ was another one based on our curvilinear style, and our phantom female figures in illustration. (Bernard 08)
Interviewer: Do you have a specific memory of how your group first gained their notoriety in Glasgow and beyond?
Charles: I’d say back in 1896 when we exhibited our work in the Arts and Crafts Society of London. We had a distinctly modern style you see, it was our entire purpose. To create a truly modern body of work, without all that influence from the past! Obviously, this exhibition was no different. Everything was impeccably stylized! The furniture, craftwork, graphics. We turned a lot of heads! But not in a good way. No, those traditionalists, obsessed with their aestheticism and Pre-Raphaelitism had no taste for it. But the Studio! Now that magazine had some sense! They could see the value in what we were trying to accomplish. (Bernard 08) (Meggs 233)
Interviewer: The Studio gave you a good review then?
Charles: Your damn right and they didn’t back down either. We gained their support the whole way through. They showcased our work and…well I’ll say it, particularly mine, along with Beardsley, Toorop, and Voysey. It was all greatly inspiring! (Meggs 233)
Interviewer: Does this mean it was essentially smooth sailing from that point on then?
Charles: We had good luck for a while I guess you could say. Many collaborations throughout those years and I did some traveling to Italy, exploring the details of their architecture and how it related to ours. I gave some talks about the subject, but overall, I was not entirely ready to incorporate their stylistic choices in my own work. (Bernard 09)
Interviewer: Did you find Scotland to be more receptive to your group’s specific style after this event?
Charles: We gained most of our notoriety in Germany and Austria. The Vienna secessionist was also extremely receptive. I’m sad to say we never did quite acquire the acclaim we desired at home. (www.gsa.ca.uk (2))
Interviewer: And getting to your work. What else is there? Anything you believe is quintessential to the expression of your unique style?
Charles: I’ve had many commissioned works. For Miss Kate Cranston I designed a series of Glasgow tearoom interiors. For William Davidson, there was ‘Windyhill’ in Kilmacolm. Walter Blackie I developed ‘The Hill House’ in Helensburgh. All of these I take extreme pride in. I do have one design I would have loved to make however, ‘House for an Art Lover’ would have been pure dead brilliant. I never did have the means to develop it, shame. (www.gsa.ca.uk (2))
Interviewer: I often found throughout your work that when you designed a home you created not only the home itself but everything within it as well, including furniture. Why have a house that is fully constructed and designed by one artist? What is the benefit? As opposed to having the individual homeowner construct the interior of the home based on their own tastes?
Charles: We are dealing with art here! A home is a work of art! If you want a work of art to be created by me then you are asking for that concept in its entirety. If I am to allow even a single element to exist within the home which does not have my full consent to be there, then what is the point of the commission? As an artist, I can have it no other way. (Bernard 14)
Interviewer: It’s funny that you exercise such a sense of perfectionism. I can name a quote of yours that would contradict that statement.
Charles: I know well of it. “There is hope in honest error; none in the icy perfection of the mere stylist.” But don’t you try to teach your granny how to suck eggs! I’ve also been quoted saying “Art is the Flower — Life is the Green Leaf. Let every artist strive to make his flower a beautiful living thing, something that will convince the world that there may be, there are, things more precious more beautiful — more lasting than life itself.” (www.gsa.ca.uk (2)) Now how can I hold true to that statement by letting others get in the way of my creation?
Interviewer: I apologize if what I am about to say is too forthcoming, but it was precisely this personal perspective that gave you difficulties regarding your commissions in Scotland?
Charles: Your right, that’s entirely too forthcoming; however, unfortunately true. I did manage to retain some loyal followers over these years. But my work incurred a steady decline post the completion of the Glasgow School in 1909. Mainly regarding clients building costs who were not able to accommodate my level of perfectionism. Well, that’s their loss. Actually, in 1913 after dwindling commissions and no longer being able to suffer the life of an office employee at Honeyman and Keppie I chose to resign. (Bernard 14)
Interviewer: That’s when you and Margaret moved to London?
Charles: In 1914 we moved to Suffolk England. I started painting very seriously then, after that we moved out to Chelsea. I went through a bit of a rough patch back then. If I’m being candid half the time I couldn’t lie down without holding on. But with our move to Chelsea, I did manage to pick up some commissions; mostly interiors for the house in North Hampton. But then the outbreak of war came and that was a bust. I designed one other interior after that, the studio in Glebe Place for Harold Square. Even that place is diminishing in its quality as we speak. Since then, I haven’t had a solid project on the go considering my condition. (Bernard 14)
Interviewer: How do you spend your time nowadays?
Charles: Not well I’m afraid. I haven’t had the time, as you can see, to create. We were evicted from our Hampstead lodgings and now…well. (www.thegaurdian.com)
Interviewer: And Margaret?
Charles: I don’t see her much anymore, she’s was placed in a different home, they don’t mix the sexes here you see even if you are married. The last time I saw her she said she was feeling fine. That’s all I can hope for now; not that she would let me hear of anything different.
Interviewer: Is there anything else in this life you would like to accomplish before your time comes?
Charles took a moment, he looked like he was lost deep in thought at the mention of his remaining time.
Charles: What’s meant to be is meant to be.
That was the last thing he said before he began to cough. It was minor at first but grew quickly in intensity; I knew then our interview had come to an end. I wondered if the timing of such a display was intended as a means to end an uncomfortable discussion, but thought better of it and called a nurse to attend to him when the spell didn’t ease up. The interview was not to be continued, months later at the age of 60 Mr. Charles Mackintosh passed away in this London Nursing Home due to throat cancer. (www.theguardian.com) Out of respect for Margaret, the interview release was delayed. It didn’t seem to make much of a difference regardless, no one was interested in the forgotten architecture of a semi-popular Scotsman for his time. Now, however, with Margaret’s recent passing there has been an influx regarding these long-forgotten styles with the wave of the modern movement. Though Charles Rennie Mackintosh and ‘The Four’ flitted into obscurity, there is hope that the appreciation and implementation of this revolutionary modern style can be imposed on our culture once again. (Bernard 14)
Bernard, Babara. Mackintosh Architecture: The Complete Buildings and Selected Projects. Rizzoli New York, 1980.
Meggs, Phillip B et al. History of Graphic Design: Fifth Edition. John Wiley & Sons, 2012.
“http://www.gsa.ac.uk/visit-gsa/mackintosh-building-tours/charles-rennie-mackintosh/”, www.gsa.ca.uk Visited May 20th, 2018.
“http://www.gsa.ac.uk/visit-gsa/mackintosh-building-tours/the-mackintosh-building/”, www.gsa.ca.uk Visited May 20th, 2018.
“https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2004/nov/20/culturaltrips.weekendmagazine.theguardian” , www.theguardian.com Visited May 21st, 2018.