Encountering C. R. Mackintosh in Glasgow

Glasgow, Scotland

Driving home Friday evening, June 15, 2018, I heard a BBC broadcast about the tragic fire at the Glasgow School of Art designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Here we go again, I thought. One more thing to mourn.

News of the fire brought home one of the ironies of travel, something that brings so much pleasure. Once you’ve experienced more of the world, your heart can be touched when something happens to someone or something you met along the way. That’s how I felt when I heard about the fire.

When David and I were about to visit Scotland in 2016, two architect friends asked if we were planning to see any of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh exhibits in Glasgow. We hadn’t a clue. Who’s Charles Rennie Mackintosh? I did my usual pre-trip sleuthing and discovered that Mackintosh was an architect and artist, as well as an interior, furniture and textile designer, who worked from the 1890s through the 1920s. His professional life was relatively short, with his primary architectural work finished by 1910. Mackintosh continued his art intermittently until his death in 1928.

Mackintosh’s work reminded me of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs, combing elements of Japanese simplicity with the whimsy of art nouveau. It had a lot in common with both Wright’s prairie-style designs and the California craftsman bungalows built by the Green brothers, who themselves drew inspiration from the British arts and crafts movement. The Glasgow School of Art building that went up in flames was considered Mackintosh’s masterpiece and the jewel in Glasgow’s architectural crown.

Glasgow flanks the River Clyde in western Scotland. Glaswegians have been building ships there since the 15th century, but the heyday of ship building in the early 1900s coincided with Mackintosh’s life and work. It is said that a fifth of all ships built worldwide, including the QE2, were built on the River Clyde.

The vibrant, gritty city has been called the “second city of empire.” And Charles Rennie Mackintosh is considered Glasgow’s architect laureate, whose work has become synonymous with Glasgow in the way that Antoni Gaudi symbolizes Barcelona and Frank Lloyd Wright recalls Chicago.

On Glasgow’s Mackintosh Trail

Our Mackintosh list included four sites: the Glasgow School of Art, the Mackintosh House at the Hunterian Art Gallery on the University of Glasgow campus, the Mackintosh Interpretation Center at the Lighthouse Centre for Design and Architecture, and the Willow Tea Rooms. We made it to all four but were only allowed to photograph at the School of Art and the Willow Tea Rooms.

To join one of the student-led tours at the School of Art, we walked past pubs, shops, buildings with elaborate iron gates, and civic art old and new. The tour met in the school’s modern Reid Building across from the 100-year-old masterwork destroyed in last week’s blaze.

Sadly, the original building was clad in scaffolding and not open to the public because construction to repair damage from a massive fire in 2014 was still under way. We could only glance longingly across the street and look at a model of the acclaimed building, which gave us a hint of its beautiful interiors and famed library. After the inferno this June, it seems unlikely that the building will be able to be restored.

Instead we had a good look at some of Mackintosh’s marvelous furniture, from a bright yellow settee with purple upholstery, to high-backed chairs, tables that would be right at home in a Berkeley bungalow and a massive cabinet with artful metal panels designed by his wife, artist Margaret Mackintosh.

Afterwards a Glasgow double-deck tour bus took us around by the river, past a massive shipbuilding crane and the ultra-modern Riverside Museum designed by Zaha Hadid to the University of Glasgow, where the couple’s flat has been reproduced in the Hunterian Art Gallery. I was ready to move in. The walls were white, the windows touched with whimsical stained glass, and lighting fixtures in every room made me smile.

But no photos allowed, except the exterior, where you can see a few Mackintosh touches in the door and the transom. If you look carefully, you can see that the front door is above street level. That’s because the flat was transplanted to the museum interior, and the interior and exterior elevations don’t line up.

The Glasgow Tea Room Experience

The next best thing to living in a Mackintosh-designed flat is having breakfast at the Willow Tea Rooms on Buchanan Street, which was inspired by and modeled on the Ingram Street Tea Rooms Mackintosh designed for Kate Cranston in the early 1900s.

We ate in the delightful White Dining Room with its high-backed chairs. Before we left, we walked upstairs and explored the exotic Chinese (Blue) Room.

It seems that the entire tea room craze started in Glasgow as part of the temperance movement. The first tea room was created by tea merchant Stuart Cranston as an alternative to pubs. His sister Catherine (Kate) took the idea even further, opening four Mackintosh-designed tea rooms for sophisticated ladies to join their friends for tea and treats. The menu at the Willow Tea Rooms is a combination of classic tea room fare and modern adaptations like avocado toast.

The charming breakfast stop was our last in Glasgow, a city well worth exploring in greater depth than we had time to do. But even with our short trip, we felt connected to Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his work. We were truly saddened to hear that his masterpiece, The Glasgow Art School is gone, probably forever.

Is there any place you’ve visited that is now gone, perhaps lost forever? Let us know in comments so we can compare notes.

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  1. Glad to know I am not all alone in this second round of extreme shock and incomprehension at this now final loss of an amazing masterpiece….. I went to Glasgow just to see the Art School for a day when I was teaching a study abroad class in London in 2000….. I’ve known about Mackintosh since my Art History high school class, and was thrilled to scamber around the old wooden spaces…. the school was out for the summer and just a few of us went along with a guide who seemed to leave us to explore freely, or was that just my imagination. Being there fullfilled a fantasy of stepping into the life of a 1900 bohemian art student . How a second fire came just as the rebuilding was a minute from being done hits me every day ….the Willow Tea Shop looks a lot bettrt than 2000..It had a redo ! Thanks for your thorough and glowing update on the once gloomy Glascow…. the new Hadid and the new attached modern Art School building can’t make up for this loss . See the online art journal Hyperallergic for their updates on the fire .

    • Thanks Susan. It would have been wonderful to see the inside like you were able to do. Amazing that we had not learned about him until we went to Glasgow, but glad that we were able to see some of his work. Apparently some folks in Glasgow have set up a Tea Room Trust and are remaking one of the old tea rooms in its original place. It’s supposed to open this summer. I’m not sure what that group’s relationship is with the woman who runs the one we went to. She has another Mackintosh tea room located in one of the department stores.

  2. How fortunate for us you could document your trip there. Learning about Glasgow through MackIntosh was fascinating and I feel the loss too. What an incredibly talented designer, furniture and architecture. I’ll take a trip there with TJ since his focus is furniture right now. Thanks for sharing.

    Love the pic of you sipping tea.;-)

  3. Wonderful photos of the Willow Tea Room. And thanks for writing about one of my favorite designers, Charles Rene Macintosh! You and David look right at home in that setting. This SECOND fire at the art school is indeed a major tragedy, and your piece combined movingly the wonders of Macintosh with the sadness of the fire.

  4. Thanks Francie and Leslie! It really was sad to hear about the second fire since I was hoping to see the library on our next trip to Scotland, whenever that may be. Since I only learned about Mackintosh just before our trip, the fire made me feel like a lost a new friend way too soon.


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