Charles Rennie Mackintosh: the art inside the art / by daintydora

"Architecture is the celebration of necessity and the celebration of opportunity and Mackintosh is that absolutely", Edward Cullinan, architect

Having lived in and around Glasgow for the last twenty years, the influence of Charles Rennie Mackintosh on the city and the associated 'Glasgow Style' has infiltrated my consciousness on many levels: from the iconic Glasgow School of Art building itself to the Willow Tea Rooms, House for an Art Lover (where I almost got married), and the many other hidden details and architectural masterpieces across the city, inspired and designed by his hand.

At the same time, it never occurred to me to take a tour at the one place he had so much influence then as now: the art school itself.

 Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Since the tragic fire in 2014, the building has been closed to the public and today stands swathed in scaffolding, yet even that has clear geometric structure and lines; I think Mackintosh would have approved (and viewing it in black and white certainly helps!).

 Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

I've now taken the 45 minute tour which encompasses the Mackintosh influence on Glasgow: how he started out, how he came to design the Glasgow School of Art, the influences behind the new purpose-built building, Mackintosh's foreshadowing of the Art Deco movement, and the private furniture collection - held in the new building across from the original art school - until the restoration work on the original building is completed in 2019.

In lieu of the real thing, a scale model is the focus of the first portion of the tour; the hidden details exposed, explored and brought to life by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide.

 Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

I learnt plenty that I didn't know about this iconic architect and designer, not least that he had a penchant for Japanese art and styles which he managed to include in clever ways in the design of the art school.

One very prominent example of this is in the perimeter fence posts running all along the front of the building, each depicting Samurai family crests/insects in the Art Nouveau style:

 Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

In fact, Japonisme as it later become known, informed much of Mackintosh's aesthetic:

This style was admired by Mackintosh because of its restraint and economy of means rather than ostentatious accumulation; its simple forms and natural materials rather than elaboration and artifice; the use of texture and light and shadow rather than pattern and ornament.

In the Japanese arts, furniture and design focused on the quality of the space, which was meant to evoke a calming and organic feeling to the interior."

So much thought went into his work, even down to details that remained concealed for over a century until the fire and subsequent renovations brought them to light (light of course being very much the operative word in much of Mackintosh's work).

Deliberate patterning in the brick lay hidden behind wooden panels from the outset, and the second floor of the library was found not to be supported by the structural beams running through the building as previously thought, but suspended from above.

 Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

 Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

True to the ethos of the building, it was decided these unique details are to be restored and replicated as far as possible. I find even this an interesting point of note, because I want to ask: 'What would Mackintosh do?'

I think the answer is - he would have moved on, re-imagining his style and moving ever-forward.

That's what creative people do.

I learnt that the building is very much influenced by the traditional, Scottish Baronial style, featuring arrowslit windows more commonly associated with castles and similarly, dovecotes on the east elevation. These details described as 'poetry' on the building hark to many of Mackintosh's influences at the time, which as well as Roman and Greek architectural styles, would have included Scottish castles, churches, and the buildings of the Industrial Revolution.

But he wasn't concerned with symmetry - quite the opposite - preferring asymmetry instead.

The front elevation (viewed from Renfrew Street) clearly shows an arrangement of six windows to the left of the main entrance, eight on the right. And with the eight-year gap between the start and finish of the building (while the necessary funds were sought to finish the project), he changed some of the details, developing his Art Deco aesthetic and foreshadowing the movement by over a decade.

 Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Another Baronial feature is the inclusion of the Glasgow crest in two finials at the top of the building. Telling of the 'miracles of St Mungo' - the bird, the tree, the fish and the bell - these tie the building to Glasgow as a city just as a family crest would do with a castle.

 Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Meanwhile, another (literally) striking gift of his to the art school upon its completion in 1909 was this 'Master and Slave' clock:

 Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

The idea was that the 'Master' clock was downstairs in the office and would be the only clock that 'knew' the exact time, while each subsequent 'slave' clock would be connected to it throughout the building, ensuring that they all ran in sync telling the same time. Glasgow School of Art was also one of the first buildings in the city to have electricity.

Ironically however, it was pointed out on the tour that currently, while in situ in the temporary space, the clocks are out of sync. I wondered if the 'ghost of Mackintosh' would find this to be an amusing anomaly!

Other treasures in the private furniture collection include a number of chairs, and I particularly liked this original Curved Lattice-back chair (1904), designed for the Willow Tea Rooms.

 Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Used by the supervisor who processed the orders (apparently by method of coloured marbles!), the curved back and chequered design form a stylised 'willow tree' motif.

Another snippet I hadn't realised is that 'Sauchiehall' translates as 'alley of willows', which is how the once-luxury Sauchiehall Street that runs behind the art school, got its name.

 Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Meanwhile, this striking yellow and purple piece, described as a 'Settle for the Dug-Out' (1917), was used in the staircase vestibule 'dug-out' - a dark space with no natural light - also in the Willow Tea Rooms. Again it features simple, bold geometric shapes, though the colour would have also been considered 'bold' for the time.

 Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Of course the symbol of the rose is omnipresent too, including in the window details. Angled metal 'elbows' protrude from the upper casements featuring black balls of differing sizes and details, which when you peer along them become blossoming, abstract roses.

Mackintosh believed the rose to be the ultimate metaphor for art and growth, so it's fitting it should feature so prominently.

 Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Tour

Although the tour lasted only 45 minutes, I felt like I learnt a lot and can't wait to go back and revisit the new (old) building once it is restored to glory in 2019.

"...the only art school in the world where the building is worthy of the subject...this is a work of art in which to make works of art" Sir Christopher Frayling, educator and writer

Excellent praise indeed for a man who at 28, and not yet qualified as an architect but working as an apprentice, won the competition to design this now-iconic building. An inspiring and motivational message to 'jump before you're ready' if ever there was one.

Find out about/book the GSA Mackintosh tour.

And Happy 150th Birthday Charles!

NB. This is a sponsored post, however all views are my own. Thank you to CitizenM for tickets.