THEIR peerless artwork has helped preserve the legacy of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Now Dai and Jenny Vaughan have committed the destruction of his most famous building to the canvas in a devastating painting set to be unveiled this week.
The Second Fire at Glasgow School of Art will have its first showing at Mackintosh Queen’s Cross church – the headquarters of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society – on Friday.
It is the couple’s interpretation of a Press Agency photograph taken as the Glasgow School of Art’s (GSA) “Mack” building burned for the second time.
The ferocious blaze, which warped even the steel girders of the historic building, is depicted in vivid yellows and oranges against a darkened sky.
But the couple – who have placed a key part in ensuring the legacy of Mackintosh and his collaborator wife Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh through their painstaking work at the couple’s House for an Art Lover and, this year, Ms Cranston’s restored tea rooms, Mackintosh at The Willow – concede that it will split the art establishment.
“It will not be universally well received,” says Dai. “We can accept that. But a terrible thing happened. We hope this will raise awareness and support for a full public enquiry.
“The Art School wants to sweep it all under the carpet. No. We should ask questions, and there’s only one solution to finding out the answers.”
The June 2018 fire, Dai tells the Sunday National, is an “utter disaster”. But, turning to the GSA board, he says it is “a chance for a new beginning – but you have to do a clean sweep of everybody involved”.
The Vaughans’ close connection to Mackintosh was cemented after they accepted the commission to create gesso panels from the Glasgow landmark in the style of its designers. Now a key destination for Mackintosh fans, the Bellahouston Park structure was erected over seven years from 1989 using original plans submitted to a German magazine by the couple in 1901. The Vaughans, who have been partners in life and work for around 50 years, were tasked with creating 24 panels for the project, and in doing so discovered the methods used by Macdonald in making her celebrated pieces.
Those methods, which differ from standard approaches to gesso, were thought lost as Macdonald had left no written record of her process. However, the couple discovered a reference to her “piping bag” technique in remarks made by Agnes Blackie, who had watched Macdonald working on the couple’s Helensburgh project, Hill House.
The commission changed their lives, leading to lucrative private commissions, and they “reluctantly” came out of retirement to take on the £10 million tea rooms project.
The Sauchiehall Street attraction opened last summer, less than one month after the “Mack” was gutted.
Dai and Jenny Vaughan have committed the destruction of Mackintosh’s most famous building to the canvas in a devastating painting set to be unveiled.
The couple were in London when the first fire happened in 2014, and asleep when the second struck. Their son texted to break the news, and when the pair saw the message the next morning, they thought it had been sent in error.
Dai’s response to both incidents is recorded in his new poetry collection, More Glasgow Moments, which will also launch at Mackintosh Queen’s Cross on Friday.
The book bears the painting as its cover, and inside tells how the first blaze saw “the glory of Glasgow/undone by a spark”.
On last year’s repeat, Dai wrote:
The first fire was a disgrace
The second condemns forever those
whose duty it was
to preserve this masterpiece”
“Last time it was an injury
This time it’s a death”.
DESPITE this, the couple are firm in their belief that the Mack should be rebuilt, as is the current plan. Scaffolding surrounds the site long after rubble clearance and salvage began, and investigations into the cause of the fire have yet to conclude.
Jenny wants to “emphasise the rebuilding of the Art School,” which she says has “gone right down in recent years”. The institution was bottom of the table for student satisfaction in the UK-wide 2018 National Student Survey.
“I’m not critical of the teaching staff,” she says, “They’re good people doing their best, but it needs the proper leadership.
“It’s been more about money than art. I know universities and colleges have to make money, but it’s lost the direction of being an art school.”
Referring to the GSA director who commissioned Mackintosh to create the world-famous building, she went on: “Fra Newbery was an artist who brought artists and craftsmen to Glasgow, teaching art and talking about it. That’s what it needs, a focus on art.”
The couple say they know that viewers may not want to focus on their latest artwork, due to what it depicts. Some visitors to their home studio in the south side of the city have turned their eyes away. “People walk in and don’t want to look at it,” Dai explains. “I think it should be in the Kelvingrove. It’s history – it’s like the Fire of London, there are drawings of that.
“We hope it will be part of raising awareness of a tragedy which can’t be swept under the carpet.”
Stuart Robertson , director of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, has also expressed support for a public enquiry.
On the new painting, he commented: “People are going to react to it. You might not like it, you might not want to look at it. It’s volcanic, it looks as though the school is erupting and it just shows that catastrophe. It’s an image you won’t forget.
“Both the School of Art fires were emotional and powerful. The second was unbelievable.”
GSA said it is “ranked as one of the world’s top art schools” and that it hopes the Vaughan’s exhibition is a “great success”
By Kirsteen Paterson The National
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