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Charles Rennie Mackintosh review, Walker Art Gallery – a timely tribute to the guru of Glasgow style

The Telegraph – Mark Hudson, Art Critic
19 MARCH 2019

Britain is ridiculously London-centric. The number of modern art movements that have flourished outside the capital barely fills the fingers of one hand: the St Ives artists, of course; the Bloomsbury Group at Charleston; and, scraping the barrel a bit, Eric Gill’s arts and crafts experiments at Ditchling.

Towering over all of these is the mighty Glasgow School, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s merging of architecture, art and design in a home-grown brand of art nouveau whose influence was felt all over Europe. Mackintosh’s masterpiece, Glasgow School of Art, was all but destroyed in a fire last year, so this major exhibition featuring over 250 objects is very timely.

It begins with a single piece of furniture that feels very much a young man’s mission statement: a preposterously tall-backed chair – nearly 5ft high – with an air of “this is art – take it or leave it!”

The show gives a convincing sense of why Glasgow was a good place in which to create a new austere, and distinctively Nordic brand of art nouveau. Then the second city of the British Empire, the city had the economic clout to import ideas from as far afield as Japan, and export new designs around the world, without even touching on London.

Mackintosh, a clerk’s son, made a prodigious rise through the architectural firm Honeyman & Kepple. While designing landmarks such as the Glasgow Herald Building – drawings and plans for which are shown here – he developed a more experimental approach, working with two art students named Macdonald: Margaret, whom he eventually married, and her sister Frances, who married his best friend and fellow architect, Herbert MacNair. The Four, as they styled themselves, collaborated on designs for tea rooms – then a prominent feature of middle class Glasgow life – which gave them scope to create complete environments: everything from wall friezes and stained glass to crockery and cutlery.

Poster for the Glasgow Institute of Fine Art Frances Macdonald, Margaret Macdonald and James Herbert McNair 1895 CREDIT: GLASGOW MUSEUMS

Mackintosh’s furniture for the Argyle Tea Room (1898) has a looping, almost opiated art nouveau curve, seen best in the lop-sided ovoid head-rest of an elegant chair. But it’s trumped by Macdonald’s 4.5 metre-long and positively psychedelic May Queen frieze, 1900, for Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street Tea Room. Close examination reveals that its hallucinatory arabesques are picked out in string, with jewels formed from clusters of painted pebbles – details that wouldn’t have been visible in its original position high on the café wall.

Photographs show these objects as they appeared in an exhibition in 1900 at the Vienna Secession – one of the hot-spots of early modern art – though the show misses the opportunity to really put Mackintosh in his European context and show how far abreast he was of rivals such as Gustav Klimt and Antonio Gaudi. There’s a lot of good support material, though: card stencils used in decorating walls and furniture, beautiful architectural drawings by Mackintosh and a lot of twee embroidery.

Chair for a dressing table for the Blue Bedroom, Hous’hill, Nitshill, stained oak with modern upholstered drop in seat. Designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1904 for Miss Catherine Cranston. Made by Francis Smith, 1904 CREDIT: GLASGOW MUSEUMS

The bigger stuff – furniture, doors, glass – is rather flatly presented; you don’t feel immersed in Glasgow style in the way Mackintosh intended. The nearest we get to that is a wonderful walk-through section of the Chinese Room from the Ingram Street Tearoom, a pagoda-like construction of criss-cross beams in a beautiful, but incongruous blue (you’d expect it be red), with the cashier’s booth built into it and the original furniture set out for tea. Here you’re in touch with the quintessential modernist idea that design should alter not only your tastes, but your very consciousness.

Mackintosh didn’t get any major commissions in the city after his great School of Art, which is only represented here – frustratingly, if understandably – by plans and a few small photographs. He went on producing vibrant textile designs after his move to England in 1914, but the somewhat pedestrian presentation struggles to make this material feel exciting.

This is a worthwhile attempt to evoke a vital moment in European culture, one that’s still far too little acknowledged south of the border. Ultimately, though, you’re left itching to jump on a train to Glasgow to experience what’s left of Mackintosh’s world in situ.

Until Aug 26; 0151 478 4199; liverpoolmuseums.org.uk