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The man who saved Mackintosh: Roger Billcliffe

Glasgow’s Charles Rennie Mackintosh is feted as a design genius.

Yet not so long ago his home city was set to put a match to his work. Gallery owner Roger Billcliffe tells how he arrived just in time.

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Rats! Not a word you’d ever think of in connection with Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who is more commonly associated with beauty, genius, elegance. Yet rats – and lots of them – are foremost in Roger Billcliffe’s mind as he recounts stories from a lifetime devoted to preserving the work and reputation of one of Scotland’s finest architects and designers, a man who is second only – if at all – to Robert Adam.

A gallery owner, with a distinguished career as keeper for the art collections of Glasgow University, the Kelvingrove and the Fine Art Society behind him, sixty-something Billcliffe recalls his early days in the world of art preservation. It was a time when, he says, “I was just a boy”.

Thanks to a tip-off by documentary filmmaker Murray Grigor, in the early 1970s Billcliffe helped save the contents of Mackintosh’s Ingram Street tearooms, in Glasgow, from oblivion. Put into storage in the basement of the City Chambers when their original building was sold to Stakis for a hotel, Grigor discovered the distinctive bony black furniture piled high in an ominous pyre. Billcliffe remembers: “The curator of the City Chambers said to Grigor, ‘Oh, ye’ve just got here in time. We’re going to have a bonfire next week.’”

“He meant it,” he adds, in case this sounds like anecdotal hyperbole.

“He was going to burn it because it was taking up space where he could put more important things.”

It fell to the youthful Billcliffe, who was then working for the University of Glasgow, to catalogue everything in the basement before it was removed to a better home.

“So I spent three months there working out where everything had been, with great arguments with city councillors and building control and God knows who else,” he says cheerfully from a sofa in the Billcliffe Gallery in Blythswood Street, a few doors down from the tenement where Mackintosh moved after his marriage to artist Margaret Macdonald.

With relish, Billcliffe lists all the calls he got from establishments keen to get a slice of this thrilling discovery – “the V&A, the Cooper-Hewitt in New York, the LA County Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago, who said, ‘We hear you’re dismantling the Ingram Street tearooms. Is there anything we can help with?’” Billcliffe roars with laughter, “Like, ‘take off your hands’!” Had they seen the conditions he was working in, however, they might have retracted their offers.

Billcliffe still shivers at the memory. “We had to work with bicycle clips round our legs to stop the rats running up our trousers.

“It was absolutely unbelievable. Oh, terrible. We went down into one of the basements, which were full of dry rot, and the smell was overpowering. And in one corner was a pile of the Chinese lamps from the Chinese Room.” Billcliffe’s technician assistant picked one up to show him, “and 50 rats ran out of it. We were grown men, but we ran.”

Even when the furniture was put into safekeeping in Glasgow’s old Fruitmarket, its run of bad luck continued: a series of break-ins meant many pieces were stolen, and others were damaged when one thief set fire to the place. “It moved several times, getting more and more damaged every time it moved,” says Billcliffe, with a sigh.

He has put aside an afternoon to talk about the sumptuous new edition of his book, Charles Rennie Mackintosh: The Complete Furniture, Furniture Drawings And Interior Designs. Given how much he knows, and how colourfully he passes it on, we could spend a month on the subject.

Billcliffe has devoted much of the past 30 years to this life’s work. His achievement is all the more remarkable since he was diagnosed with cancer in the early stages of preparing this edition, and underwent treatment while pulling it together. Today, he looks happy and well. Who, with a book like this to their name, would not?

With this, the fourth edition, he has pretty much completed the most beguiling and readable piece of design history you could wish to read.

It’s so heavy those with dodgy knees might prefer to place it on a lectern, but one thing’s for sure: you’ll be turning the pages for hours, so absorbing are the photographs and the stories behind the 400-odd pieces of furniture and their sketches that Mackintosh created in his too-short and tragic career.

Those who think of Mackintosh as primarily an architect will find Billcliffe’s work a revelation. Dating from the start of the artist’s career in the early 1890s, when he worked for the Glasgow firm of Honeyman & Keppie, through his glorious pieces from the late 1890s and early 1900s, it carries on to Mackintosh’s days of self-imposed exile in England after 1914.

By this time he had been virtually shunned by his colleagues in Glasgow. Ill-health ruined his final years, and he was dogged, rightly or wrongly, by rumours about his drinking and his capriciousness. The final insult came long after his death in 1928 when, despite the high regard he was held in across Europe, in his homeland many of his finest pieces were treated with contempt.

One such instance was the case of Glasgow’s Scotland Street School. Billcliffe recalls it with a smile, but at the time it was not very funny. The school, along with Queen’s Cross Church and Martyrs Public school in Townhead, was threatened by a six-lane highway on stilts that was envisioned as soaring over Glasgow city centre.

In the immortal words of the councillor who had publicly to defend this plan: “Unfortunately, Mackintosh built his building in the plan of the Orbital Ring Road.” Fortunately, there were those like Billcliffe who were prepared to fight. All three were thus saved, though both schools were effectively isolated by the motorway, and Scotland Street School and Queen’s Cross Church lost their catchment areas.

Five minutes into the conversation and another sore subject arises, namely the guides who show visitors around Mackintosh’s houses and works. “With some guides, you can’t believe a word they say,” snorts Billcliffe. “Some of the women who do the guiding are very good. But I was at Hill House [in Helensburgh] recently with an American friend, and I said, ‘let’s not join the tour.’ But we heard some of the tours and it makes your skin crawl some of the stories you hear.

“But none are as bad as the [Glasgow] Art School. The students who do the tour are unbelievable. Perhaps not all of them, but I was encouraged to go and listen to their star student, and I said, ‘If he’s your star student God knows that the others are like.’”

So what’s the problem? “It’s the old ‘send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance’. They’ve heard a story which is partly apocryphal, partly anecdotal, partly true, and you can bet your life the truth goes out the door and the story is built up. But people go away with distinctly wrong impressions. I’m not really getting at the guides, who do as well as they can, but the organisations that control them, who don’t really train them well enough.”

Then there is his bête noir, what he refers to grimly as “the incomprehensible mess that is the Willow Tea Rooms”, whose modern chatelaine has “just stuffed things in any old how. People who don’t know any better think it’s wonderful and right, and people who do know any better wince. They can’t understand how Glasgow lets it happen.”

Yet despite this catalogue of neglect and ignorance, Billcliffe is quick to give the city its due. “Mackintosh couldn’t have survived anywhere else,” he says emphatically, “because Glasgow is a fashion and style-conscious city. And Kate Cranston [a leading Mackintosh patron] realised this, even if Mackintosh didn’t. And I’m sure she gave him carte blanche and probably encouraged him to go just that bit further. He couldn’t have survived in Edinburgh.”

The result of this aesthetically ambitious, modern-minded environment was not just Cranston’s famous tearooms, but the interiors of some of Mackintosh’s finest buildings, among them Hill House and the more diminutive, but equally beautiful Hous’hill in Nitshill, Glasgow, once Cranston’s own home and now demolished.

As Billcliffe reveals, the style of Mackintosh’s furniture evolved swiftly in the space of his career. His first priority was its appearance, even when, as with the tearooms, budgets were tight.

“Mackintosh’s furniture for the tearooms is very cheap,” says Billcliffe. “The big tall chairs cost seven shillings and sixpence. Not a lot of money even then … But when he had to produce expensive items he did. Some of the furniture at Hill House is beautifully made. Had it been Chippendale, people would have looked after it a lot better.

“But then, most architects who design furniture are making things that look good. They’re not interested in how they’re made ... If you look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s furniture, and Gaudi’s furniture, it’s all a bit gim-crack. They’re concerned with it looking right.

“People say Mackintosh wasn’t a functional designer, but he was a perfectly functional designer because the function of his furniture was to complement and create the rooms for which it was designed.”

When Hill House came up for sale in the early 1970s, Billcliffe tried to interest a Mackintosh collector in purchasing it for the asking price of £25,000. The collector turned it down, and has never forgiven himself.

Recently, that same collector bought a tiny table designed for the Waerndorfer Music Salon in Vienna. That table, Billcliffe tells me, cost the buyer several times what the house would have cost, complete with furnishings. That’s how Mackintosh’s reputation has flowered in the space of 40 years.

Over the decades spent putting this book together, Billcliffe has come to a much better understanding of the great designer: “It told me a lot about the architecture and how the architecture developed.” He portrays Mackintosh as a decidedly difficult man: “A lot of people didn’t like Mackintosh. I don’t think he was terribly easy to get on with. He wasn’t a clubbable man, and I don’t think he suffered fools gladly. He was a serious person and he had serious ideas and wanted to get on with them.”

Given the profusion and detail of his work, he believes Mackintosh had obsessive compulsive disorder “at least”. He not only designed the buildings, and the rooms, but the material for curtains, the carpets, the friezes, the light fittings, wallpaper, bed-linen and table-runners.

It is also noticeable that his stern, more masculine early work shifts gradually to lighter, more uplifting pieces following his relationship with Margaret Macdonald. Billcliffe argues strenuously that, despite the Macdonald friezes and designs that enhance her husband’s work on several occasions, theirs was not a collaborative partnership.

He is certain, however, that “without a doubt the marriage did make a difference”. The pre-eminent art historians of the mid 20th century, he says, “saw Margaret as a hindrance; one or other of them says that ‘the tearooms, which are the result of his wife’s interference …’ etc etc. Which is nonsense, because it’s suggesting all of this decoration, all of this carving and everything else, was her rather than him.

“But if you look at Mackintosh’s earliest work, if you look at the top floors of the Herald building [in Mitchell Street], it’s full of the most incredible carving.”

Not only did Mackintosh love ornamentation, he also loved jokes, especially suggestive ones. Amid his carvings and designs, close observers can find naked women, sperms and eggs. “The sexual imagery of Margaret Macdonald, her sister Frances and Mackintosh was all coded.”

It was one of Mackintosh’s biographers, Alan Crawford, who first pointed out this playfulness. “The most important thing he said,” says Billcliffe, “is that Mackintosh played games. You look at elevations and you see faces in them. You look at the pillasters in the Governor’s Room (in the Glasgow School Of Art) and it’s musical notation. In fact, one day I’m going to take a musician in there and say: ‘Play it! See what it says.’

“It’s the same in the Art School library, and all of these pendant designs. They’re all different. It’s notation, it’s a language, and he’s telling a story.”

Glasgow may have blown hot and cold on the man, but he had one unswerving champion, who would not hear a word against him. Mary Newbery was the daughter of Francis Newbery, Director of Glasgow School Of Art, who chose Mackintosh’s iconic architectural design for its building. Mary lived to a great age, dying in 1985, and Billcliffe was able to quiz her about their mutual hero.

“I can remember talking to her. I said, ‘why did Margaret and Mackintosh not have any children? Was it by choice?’ She said, ‘Oh no, my dear, no. Wherever Margaret went, when they went to Vienna and Budapest and St Petersburg, she would see the best man, the top man, to find out why she couldn’t have children.’ I said, ‘And who did Mackintosh see?’ She said, ‘Mackintosh? There was nothing wrong with Mackintosh!’”

He may not have had children, but his imagination, as shown in this teeming catalogue of his work, was more richly fertile than that of any artist Scotland has known before, or since.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh: The Complete Furniture, Furniture Drawings And Interior Designs by Roger Billcliffe, is published by Cameron & Hollis, £120

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