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Neil Oliver: I’m no Brad Pitt but The Hill House shows us all in a good light

Neil Oliver 10 March 2019, The Sunday Times

The campaign to restore a Mackintosh masterpiece is inspiring

We are a strange and mercurial lot in Scotland. I was in Helensburgh last week, at The Hill House designed by Glasgow architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. High on a hill above the Firth of Clyde it sits, a glimpse of a world just beyond the reach of living memory. It is widely regarded as a masterpiece and has been cared for by the National Trust for Scotland since 1982.

I was there in my role as the charity’s president, having a guided tour of the astonishing effort being made to conserve the place. When it was built, in the first years of the 20th century, it was as modern as could be, a visionary’s take on a home of the future. It is presently in the process of being cocooned in the best of 21st-century thinking — a strong, younger arm thrown around shoulders that are elderly now, and a bit poorly.

Mackintosh was many things but, as it turns out, he hadn’t thought enough about the reality of Scottish weather. He clad the outside of the building in Portland cement — a brand new material at the time — and in so doing unwittingly condemned the structure to a lifetime of dampness. Who can truly say how rainy it was, or was not, in Argyll and Bute in lost and dreamy Edwardian days before the war that awoke everyone to a world unimagined? Let us imagine the weather was oftentimes, then as now, soft. It may well be damper these days, what with climate change and all. It had, anyway, been Mackintosh’s plan to make the place watertight for eternity but, with only good intentions, he wrapped the exterior in a fabric that could not breathe. Water found its way in, however, as water always does, and for more than a century his The Hill House has been sweating like a Munro-bagger in a plastic Mackintosh as it were. The place is quietly fizzing like an aspirin in a glass.

Determined to bring the process to a halt, the trust is spending several million pounds erecting a specially designed transparent box that will shelter the house for a decade of drying. A framework of steel uprights and beams will support a metallic mesh — permeable as gossamer — that will keep the worst of the rain out, while allowing in air and light. It has built-in walkways so visitors will watch the conservation project in action. It will even be possible to look down on The Hill House from above, a drone’s eye view that even Mackintosh could scarcely have imagined. The interior will remain accessible too — so that visitors might continue to appreciate how he, together with his wife and collaborator Margaret Macdonald, imagined modern living.

The father of the Glasgow style was mostly overlooked in his day. The Hill House was commissioned by publisher Walter Blackie but similarly adventurous clients proved elusive. The work dried up and not even a move to London changed his luck. He died thwarted and all but forgotten. Only in the years since has his vision been appreciated, influencing others the world over.

I was led from room to room — shapes and lines instantly familiar; light through squares of coloured glass in narrow windows spilling soft on pale walls and floors; black wood; long halls and corridors with unexpected nooks.
How strange we are, in straitened times, to rack our brains and empty our pockets to stop one old house dissolving. You might say it’s only a house and you would be right enough. Yet there’s something encouraging, life-affirming, about knowing that, in the midst of everything else that’s going wrong, some folk are dedicating their best efforts, offering up hard-earned coins, to putting something right.

Hollywood A-lister Brad Pitt is a Mackintosh fan and had a private tour of The Hill House a few years back. His car blocked the gate and a member of staff huffed into one of the rooms, bemoaning the fact to a colleague there.
“That’s because we have a visitor,” said the colleague, tilting her head towards the figure framed in a tall window. “Brad Pitt.”

“You DO look like Brad Pitt,” said the other, glancing his way and missing the truth of it.
“I get that a lot,” said Brad Pitt.

Ah — handsome things . . . beautiful things . . . easily overlooked, even when they’re right before us. Thank goodness there are those few who do notice, and bother to look after the prizes before they’re gone altogether.