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James Herbert MacNair (1868-1955)

James Herbert MacNair

Scottish-born Herbert MacNair was a highly individual designer and talented teacher. He made an important contribution in the early 1890s to the development of Mackintosh’s creative imagination, and his paintings and furniture designs were among some of the most most individual of the Glasgow Style of the 1890s. The promise of his early career was not fulfilled however, largely because of external factors, and no work after 1911 is known.

MacNair trained as an architect with Honeyman and Keppie, Glasgow from 1888 to 1895, where he met Mackintosh. He subsequently set up an independent studio as an artist and designer in the city centre – he never practised architecture. MacNair had early success with a one-man show of his pastels in London in 1898 and his appointment that year as a lecturer at the School of Architecture and Applied Art, University College, Liverpool. Frances Macdonald and he married the following year, and their only child, Sylvan, was born in 1900. The couple exhibited work in Vienna (1900), Turin (1902) and Dresden (1903), as well as regularly exhibiting watercolours in Liverpool and London in the early 1900s. Difficulties arose with the closure of the School in 1905. MacNair and a colleague set up an alternative school but this experiment was short-lived. Combined with these setbacks, the family wealth had been dissipated through poor business management. MacNair and his family returned to Glasgow in straightened circumstances. A final but unsuccessful attempt to re-establish a career appears to have been made with an exhibition of the MacNairs’ work at the Baillie Gallery, London. No work by MacNair after that date is known. Following Frances Macdonald’s death in 1921, he destroyed much of her work, and subsequently lived in Argyllshire where he died in 1955.

Examples of his work are held by the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, and the Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool. There is little published information currently available, except for an early article by Roger Billcliffe in the Walker Art Gallery Annual Bulletin, 1970-1.  The recent book by Roger Billcliffe, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Art of the Four is the most comprehensive account yet of the shared endeavours of The Four.

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