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Review: Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style

Charles Rennie Mackintosh was an artist with his eyes open. The exhibition at Walker Art Gallery, dedicated to his life and work, and that of his peers, is a view in true perspective of the world around Mackintosh, and the relationships within it.

His designs have defined the cities we live in, and shaped the way we see the world around us, so it is a privilege to see and understand the world that existed around this great creator.

He was a pioneer by chance rather than by effort, as his work evolved from the joy he gained from observations of the world around him. His inspirations were never hidden, and his resolve to create things that pleased him never wavered. Something which is abundantly clear in Making the Glasgow Style.

The relationships he created between his furniture and his buildings, and their occupants are as bespoke as the objects themselves, manufacturing new ways of living in space; new ways of interacting with it; of being.

What stands out at the Walker exhibition is the time it takes to understand it. This is not a walk through exhibition, or a display of objects that can simply be enjoyed for their visual power – though they have that abundantly – it is a show of unity across a movement, that exhibits precisely why, where and how it came to be, and why, where and how, it came to end.

Frances McNair, Mackintosh’s sister-in-law, and fellow artist, died in Glasgow in 1921. Her husband then gathered as much of their work as he could, and destroyed it. One year later, Margaret, Charles’ wife stopped making work. And six years later, having drastically moved away from the Glasgow Style, Charles Rennie Mackintosh died.

Their deaths were not the end of the Glasgow Style, but came while it was moving on to become something else more relevant to the modernising world. As they moved away from the style, and their lives took them further and further from it, the movement dissipated.

Their influence lived on, but was never quite matched in its truth to form. Essentially, when they began observing a new stage of life, which was closer to death, their love of creating space faded, and they instead began reflecting on the spaces that existed around them.

Observant to the end, and appropriately reflective on their own existence throughout.
Making the Glasgow Style is a celebration of what was one of the strongest creative communities in British history. William Morris’ Arts & Crafts bled straight into the movement, which can probably be best described as a movement away from beauty without thought, into beauty with reason.

Take the High-Backed Chair for Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street Tearooms for example, the first piece you see after the ticket desk. It’s a bewilderingly beautiful object, with no more functionality than most seats of the time, but it’s consideration of how it would make the sitter feel is unusual. The driving force behind this chair sums up so much of the Glasgow Style; a force led by the idea that space was a quality that could be harnessed; that every space was a place.

Created to encompass its sitter, the High-Backed Chair is an elegant throne that wraps its subject in its presence, and elevates the act of being in that place to an experience. The posters, the stained glass, the furniture, the cathedrals of education. They were more than their titles suggest. Every drawing came from seeing the world for what it was.

Mackintosh’s entry to the competition to design Liverpool Cathedral is probably the most famous building to never exist. The Giles Gilbert Scott masterpiece is an outstanding global attraction, but what could have been would have been revolutionary, and likely made Liverpool a very different place to live. His design is the only piece in the exhibition to have been here before, having been displayed during the competition in 1902.

The flora that framed his design softened the cathedral, while presenting a similar scale to Gilbert Scott’s work. Had it come to exist it would have been an altogether different experience entering the building – one that was more connected to the world around it than the elevated grandeur of the eventual cathedral.

But this exhibition is not just Mackintosh, it is, just like the Cathedral’s design, a collaboration. His architecture practice was run with James Herbert McNair. The two attended evening classes at Glasgow School of Art, and met their future wives there. ‘The Four’ as they became known were the driving force of the movement.

Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, Charles’ wife, holds a dear place in the exhibition’s centre, with a frieze, The May Queen, That demands an emotional response. It speaks of the relationship between the artists of The Glasgow Style movement, and the relationship of the movement to the rest of the art world. The tactile, rough nature hints at a longing to stray from the clean lines of the movement, and the preservation of it as a key part of this collection shows how important that openness was.

The openness to expand, and explore other disciplines, entrenched in the learned lines of The Four makes this more than an exhibition of artefacts. The entire collection, as it is hung, has a voice as relevant today as it was then. Artists and designers weave their own path, often collaborative. Tensions exist between those groups, and artists stray from their paths and into new territory. Their explorations inform the decisions of their peers, apprentices, masters and equals, and lead movements to change directions.

But the movement is known as the Style because no matter what other influences, media, materials or subjects encroached on their work, the aesthetic values remained the same. Never did they waver form the Glasgow Style we know today, and never has a movement been so defined by one identifiable look.

As I said in the opening, Mackintosh was an artist with his eyes open, whose unique perspective on the world lent him his success. That same passionate ability to see beyond the surface to the quality of objects and spaces is taught all over the world now in art schools, often attributed to John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, but never more accurately displayed than by the Glasgow Style. And no artist defines that time more than Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style is at Walker Art Gallery until 26th August 2019
Tickets: £9 adult, £8 concession, £2 children
Art in Liverpool.com By Patrick Kirk-Smith – April 2, 2019