Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868 – 1928) was a Scottish architect, designer, and watercolourist who was a designer in the Arts and Crafts Movement and also the main exponent of Art Nouveau in Scotland.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh was born on 7 June 1868 in the Townhead area of Glasgow, close to Glasgow Cathedral. He was one of eleven children and he grew to become one of the most celebrated architects and designers of his generation.Today he is celebrated around the world as one of the most significant talents to emerge in the late 19th and early 20th century.
By the end of the 19th century Glasgow School of Art was one of the leading art academies in Europe and its reputation in architecture and the decorative arts had reached an all time high. At the very heart of this success was a talented young artist, architect and designer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Mackintosh trained as an architect in a local practice and studied art and design at evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art. He was apprenticed to an architect, but also attended evening classes in art. It was at that time he first met Margaret MacDonald (whom he later married), her sister Frances MacDonald, and Herbert McNair. These four artists collaborated on designs for furniture, metalwork and illustration, developing a highly distinctive array of weird images including abstracted female figures and metamorphic lines. The group of artists, known as “The Four,” exhibited in Glasgow, London and Vienna, and these exhibitions helped establish Mackintosh’s reputation. The so-called “Glasgow” style was exhibited in Europe and influenced the Viennese Art Nouveau movement known as Sezessionstil (in English, The Secession) around 1900. Their style earned them the nickname of the ‘Spook School’ and their work, particularly in England, was treated with suspicion because of its decadent influence of Continental art nouveau.
He joined a firm of architects in 1889 and developed his own style: a contrast between strong right angles and floral-inspired decorative motifs with subtle curves, e.g. the Mackintosh Rose motif, along with some references to traditional Scottish architecture. The project that helped make his international reputation was the Glasgow School of Art.
For over 20 years Mackintosh worked almost exclusively in Glasgow, yet he left Glasgow in search of greater success and died in London in relative obscurity. It is perhaps ironic that he was given little recognition by his native city at the time, for by the end of the 20th century he was being recognised as the father of ‘Glasgow Style’ and one of the driving forces behind a new approach to modern Architecture.
Described by critics as the “European counterpart of Frank Lloyd Wright,” as well as a prophet of modernism and an apostle of Art Nouveau, his work does not fit into any comfortable niche. Mackintosh took his inspiration from Scottish traditions and blended them with the flourish of Art Nouveau and the simplicity of Japanese forms. His most famous contribution may be the Glasgow School of Art itself.
In Europe, the originality of Mackintosh’s style was quickly appreciated and in Germany and Austria he received the acclaim that he was never truly to gain at home. In 1900 the Mackintoshes were feted in Vienna as a result of their contribution to the 8th Vienna Secession and this led to friendships with designers such as Josef Hoffmann and the commission to design the Warndorfer Music Salon. In 1902 the Mackintosh Room at the Turin International Exhibition was also enthusiastically received and he went on to exhibit in Moscow and Berlin.
Mackintosh also worked in interior design, furniture, textiles and, metalwork. Much of this work combines Mackintosh’s own designs with those of his wife, whose flowing, floral style complimented his more formal, rectilinear work. Like his contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright, Mackintosh’s architectural designs often included extensive specifications for the detailing, decoration, and furnishing of his buildings.
Despite this success and with his undoubted influence abroad, Mackintosh’s work met with considerable indifference at home and his career in Glasgow declined. Few private clients were sufficiently sympathetic to want his ‘total design’ of house and interior and he was incapable of compromise.
By 1914 Mackintosh had despaired of ever receiving true recognition in Glasgow and both he and Margaret moved, temporarily, to Walberswick on the Suffolk Coastline, where he painted many fine flower studies in watercolour.
In 1915 they settled in London and for the next few years Mackintosh attempted to resume practice as an architect and designer. The designs he produced at this time for textiles, for the ‘Dug-out’ Tea Room in Glasgow and the dramatic interiors for Bassett-Lowke’s house in Northampton, England show him working in a bold new style of decoration, using primary colours and geometric motifs. It was an output of extraordinary vitality and originality that went virtually unheeded.
In 1923 the Mackintoshes left London for the South of France where Mackintosh gave up all thoughts of architecture and design and devoted himself entirely to painting landscapes. He died in London, of cancer, on 10 December 1928.
With buildings and with interiors such as those at the Ingram Street tearooms, Mackintosh received early acclaim. He frequently collaborated on his designs with his wife, artist Margaret Macdonald, whose influence on her husband’s work was enormous.