1. Built environment
March 22, 2023

Why Charles Rennie Mackintosh's legacy is grander than designing the Glasgow School of Art

To many in Scotland, the life of Charles Rennie Mackintosh amounted to little more than attending an art school, designing a modernised Glasgow School of Art, having it named in his honour, and before dying designing a few tea rooms and art traps in Glasgow.

By Gregg Kelly

But this limited understanding does a disservice to one of Scotland’s most influential, innovative and enigmatic sons. Charles Rennie Mackintosh was one of four students who helped usher in an era of bold artistic flair, a legacy that inspired “The Glasgow Style” – an entirely new art movement, and a movement that still inspires worldwide to this very day.

Glasgow school of art - mackintosh
The Glasgow School of Art was designed in 1896 by Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Claudio Divizia/Shutterstock)

Art lovers from across the world continue to arrive in Glasgow paying homage to Mackintosh’s timeless legacy, from The Lighthouse in Mitchell Lane, to House for an Art Lover in Bellahouston Park. The depth of Mackintosh’s portfolio even extends far beyond the walls of Glasgow. It was no secret that Mackintosh and a lot of his contemporaries derived inspiration from Japanese culture of the time (Japonisme). Today he has a strong reputation in the Asian country, and it’s said that the Hida Takayama Museum of Art in Japan, boasts the largest collection of Mackintosh’s work outside the UK.

Little is known of Mackintosh during his time outside or prior to the School of Art. No journals or diaries have ever been discovered that outline his thoughts as a student, or even what his ambitions for the future might have been. What is known during his time is that he met his future wife Margaret McDonald, and along with her sister Frances and Mackintosh’s close friend Herbert MacNair, they became known as “The Four”, or more disparagingly “The Spook School”. Together they forever changed the face of art in Scotland.

It’s thought that Mackintosh as a child suffered from regular bouts of ill health and as a result developed a keen sense of drawing and an affinity for nature. His family home in Parson Street in the Townhead area of the city looked onto Glasgow’s Necropolis, which one could surmise as being one of the founding influences of his gothic-laced inspiration.

It could only be a sense of heightened irony that Mackintosh’s first commissioned piece was to design the tombstone of Glasgow’s recently deceased chief constable. It remains standing in the Necropolis to this day.

It was his time at the School of Art that helped cement Mackintosh’s beliefs regarding architectural process, embracing the concept that the entire structure from shell to interior to wall fittings was a work of art. The technique is one reason his work has an heir of timeless quality.

His individual style is another. In 1890 and on the back of his burgeoning talent and reputation as an architect and interior designer, Mackintosh was awarded the Alexander Thomson Travelling Studentship. (Thompson is another architectural icon that Glasgow under-appreciates even to this current day.)

This provided Mackintosh with the opportunity to travel extensively throughout Europe, absorbing and sketching his experiences – to use, one presumes, as inspiration during the creative process of his many future projects.

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Beyond the Glasgow School of Art

In 1900, thanks to his time spent travelling, Mackintosh designed and unveiled artwork in Vienna (Warndofer Music Salon). He followed this up by displaying art exhibitions in Turin, Moscow and Berlin, offering Mackintosh a level of adulation that far exceeded any he had received in Glasgow.

It’s hard to confirm some of the more spectacular rumours that surrounded the iconic architectural icons, such as the aura of Mackintosh and his wife Margaret McDonald; but according to legend, during their time in Vienna, the duo were carried aloft along the street, above the heads of worshipping crowds, such was the brilliance of their exhibition at the Vienna Secession Exhibition in 1900.

Forever tasting greater success beyond Scotland’s borders, Mackintosh and his wife Margaret – considered his creative equal if not a greater talent – left Glasgow for Sussex seeking grander acclaim. The outbreak of war in 1914 caused problems, however, due to the German and Austrian friends he had collected on his travels. He pleaded his innocence, but matters grew worse when the military raided his home and discovered letters address to German and Austrian addresses. Apparently unable to decipher his Glaswegian accent, he was thrown in jail.

After being released, Mackintosh sought new beginnings. In 1915 the couple effectively fled to London, and began pitching for projects. Although never reaching the same levels of excellence, his time and work in London are still heralded as genius. A plaque commemorating his incredible achievements and talent is located in Chelsea’s Glebe Place.

Leaving London for France in 1924, Mackintosh turned his back on architecture and spent the last four years of his life devoted to painting in watercolour.

Returning from his time in France in 1928, aged 60, Scotland’s greatest architect died penniless in London, succumbing to cancer of the tongue.

Mackintosh’s exhibitions are regularly showcased across the world, from New York to Moscow, his architectural creations are considered some of the greatest ever conceived during the Art Nouveau movement. His influences stretched far beyond the borders of Glasgow and Scotland, and if anything he was defiant in his determination to enlighten the reserved artistic minds of the stubborn Scottish elite.

It’s only through the prism of time that someone such as Mackintosh could be truly appreciated. How many individuals have been inspired by his unique beautifully constructed designs? Have sat and continued to marvel at his architecture worldwide? How many people in the last 80 years have passed through the doors of the Glasgow School of Art, using Mackintosh as inspiration, and aspired to greatness?

[Read more: Could trams return to the streets of Glasgow?]

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