I ADMIT to a certain ambivalence about the prospect of another Charles Rennie Mackintosh exhibition. His work seems already so familiar to my generation of Glaswegians in their fifties and sixties as to inure us to its continuing global impact. The devastating fire at the Mackintosh-designed Glasgow School of Art in 2014 – a tragedy which had me in tears and not only because it was where my parents met as students – sparked a renewed awareness of our most famous architect and designer, fanned by the exhibition at the Hunterian in Glasgow that same year and the Riba retrospective held in London in 2015.

How, then, could there possibly be anything new to say about this cultural icon on the 150th anniversary of his birth?

So it was with a certain weariness that I descended the steps to the basement of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum to enter the windowless space dedicated to Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style.

I had some sympathy for curator Alison Brown and her team, whose challenge was doubtless to make Mackintosh speak to the millennials who do not yet know him, while also engaging jaded oldies like me.


Immediately upon entering the crepuscular space, the answer hit me like a slap in the face. Yes, here is his famous high-backed oak chair, made in 1900 for Mis Cranston’s Ingram Street Tearooms and downlit to dramatic effect. But it’s teamed with a gorgeous, lesser-known, 1898 cover design for the Book of Glasgow Cathedral by Talwin Morris, art director of the Glasgow publisher Blackie & Sons and friend of Mackintosh and his set; and to its right an embroidered silk and linen tablecloth by Ellison Young, an example of the Artistic Needlework that was taught at Glasgow School of Art from the very beginning in 1892.

And so the theme of this brilliantly revelatory exhibition becomes clear. Yes, it’s about Mackintosh, but in the context of how as a young architectural draughtsman he, his colleague James Herbert McNair and GSA students and respective future wives Margaret Macdonald and her sister Frances, became known as The Four – and how they in turn joined an influential artistic social circle that included such stellar names as Talwin Morris, Jessie Marion King, Jessie Newbery, Ann Macbeth, George Walton, James Pryde and E A Taylor.

It’s also a paeon to the Glasgow School of Art itself – which began life in the basement of the building which is now the McLellan Galleries before Mackintosh got the gig to design the existing one. Under its first headmaster Fra Newbery and the founding of the Technical Art Studios in 1893, expert teachers in the disciplines of stained glass, needlework, bookbinding, painting, metalwork, flower study, mosaic, furniture and interior design, nurtured their students in the Glasgow Style to the extent that Glasgow became the birthplace of the only Art Nouveau movement in the British Isles, and an acclaimed member of a seminal European arts and crafts movement. The Glasgow Style was a distinctly Scottish response to Art Nouveau.


When I visited at the start of its fifth day, there was a queue waiting to get in. By the end of the first hour, over 80 people had visited the 250 items on display – many of the pieces not seen in a generation. No signage meant there was some confusion about which route to take. Apparently someone suggested they lay down Ikea-style direction arrows on the floor, but according to the attendant I spoke to, “people don’t like being told what to do at exhibitions”. For those who prefer to take the chronological route, my advice is to take a right from the first room and into the Shock of the New, a suite chronicling the beginning of the Glasgow Style from 1893.

Moving on from a startling display of The Four’s groundbreaking elongated posters for the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts and for the Drooko umbrella factory, you enter a darkened chamber to encounter some of the most memorable pieces of the exhibition: The Seasons, four exquisite watercolour panels by the Macdonald sisters at their studio in Hope Street, Glasgow in 1897-98, and shown together for the first time since the early 1980s. Delicate to the point of ephemeral, these highly stylised, almost ghostly, depictions of spring, summer, autumn and winter somehow speak from beyond the grave of the feminine Gaia – and emphasise the importance of women artists at Glasgow School of Art.

The heavy repousse lead frames by Talwin Morris add a sense of weightlessness to the paintings; surely the perfect yin and yang.


Frances’ Autumn, depicting death and decay and grief, is especially prescient given her later death, reportedly by suicide, at age 49. Yet most moving, at least to these eyes, is her only known chalk pastel drawing, The Sleeping Princess, taken from Tennyson’s 1842 poem The Day-Dream. Each stroke of chalk on the tissue tracing paper is clearly visible, and it’s possible to discern the delicate pencil drawing of the composition underneath. The effect is somehow to bring the artist, as well as her subject, back to life.

Work exhibited by The Four at the Glasgow School of Art Club in 1894 was dubbed “ghoul-like”, “hideous” and “The Spook School” by detractors, but the very next year they go on to exhibit posters at La Maison de l’Art Nouveau in Paris.

The importance of Jessie M King to the flourishing of the Glasgow Style is given due acknowledgement here too – perhaps especially in the display of book covers. Book binding and book cover design was one of the first disciplines taught at GSA by Fra Newbery (I have proof of that in a collection of my father’s), and King’s designs for Globus Verlag’s Album von Dresden and Album von Berlin are an absolute pleasure to behold. As is an illustrated score cover for Wagner's Gotterdammerung by Dorothy Carleton Smyth. Another treat is the brass printing plate designed by Talwin Morris for the cover of the Golden Book of Children’s Verse in 1905. It’s tiny, in reverse, and its pristine clean lines topped by flower petals are a tribute to the technical skill required in this demanding creative discipline.


These are just some of many highlights. Small and unexpected items – a decorative 16th century Damascus tile in a vivid coloured pattern, a 17th century Japanese sword guard, a 15th century German copper ewer, a reproduction of an 8th century Celtic Tara brooch – help paint a wider picture of how ornaments and antiques collected from around the world informed many design exercises at GSA, as they did all art training across the UK when – as Alison Brown explains in the exhibition catalogue - it was under the control of the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A).

I suppose it’s understandable that the V&A is holding on to its prize Mackintosh exhibit for the September opening of the V&A Dundee rather than loan it out here. In any case, at 13.5 metres long, the fully restored interior of his magnificent Oak Room, designed for Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street Tearoom in 1907 and unseen since 1971, would be too large to fit the basement space of Kelvingrove – and would dwarf Margaret Macdonald stunning The May Queen gesso frieze designed for the same tearoom and shown here in its full glory.

Whether The Oak Room will be missed here is a moot point. There are other fascinating items from the four Miss Cranston’s Tearooms that Mackintosh worked on, such as a salvaged lathe and plaster wall section from the Ladies’ Luncheon Room at Ingram Street, featuring his original iconic stencilled rose motif, on display for the first time since its removal from the former tearoom premises; and a stencilled plaster fragment of George Walton’s 1898 ceiling decoration for the Argyle Street Tearooms, not seen since 1971.

If this is Mackintosh for the millennials, they are lucky to have it. It has much to teach the rest of us too.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Making the Glasgow Style is at Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, until August 14, 2018. Visit www.glasgowmuseums.com