The roll call of former students is a journey through decades of Scottish creativity: famous actors, writers, poets, designers, architects, musicians and, of course, some of the nation’s finest artists.

While at its heart sat the much loved and much grieved gem: Glasgow School of Art’s precious Mackintosh Building summed up the city’s style. A masterpiece of design and function, delivered by a young draughtsman destined to become one of the city’s best-known sons.

Down the years, Glasgow School of Art claimed the crown as a world class hub of art and design. It was where winners and nominees of the Turner Prize were honed, BAFTA-winning actors emerged, and the seeds for BRIT Award winning bands were sown.

A dazzling beacon of cultural excellence, it put the city and Scotland on the international stage then, and now: polymath Alasdair Gray, whose name is back in the spotlight as creator of Poor Things, laid down sections of Lanark while studying there in the 1950s.

He later recalled how the mural department offered students like him huge creative freedom to use whatever was to hand – paint, ink, biro, pen – and whatever surface they wanted.

He was just one GSA artist whose work would light up our lives.

Yet the School’s birth came from the dark, soot-thick air of the industrial revolution, when it was neither art nor culture the nation craved, but people with the creative skills to keep the country moving forwards.

Glasgow’s artistic foundations had been laid down by The Foulis Academy. Founded in 1753 by printer and publisher Robert Foulis, it had a significant impact on the development of 18th century Scottish art.

The Herald: The distinctive library within the Mackintosh BuildingThe distinctive library within the Mackintosh Building

It was the first art school in Britain that aimed to train professional artists, and the UK’s first to award travelling scholarships enabling students to study in studios in Italy.

But the poverty-stricken artist was real: the Academy struggled financially and closed in 1775 leaving its founder, Robert, struggling with debts.

Anderson’s College, founded in 1796, emerged to teach practical scientific and industrial subjects and become the first public institution in Glasgow to offer Fine Arts instruction.

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But by the 1830s, industrialisation was bringing sweeping changes; and there was surging demand for designers and craftsmen who could work with new technologies.

In France, state policy since the era of Louis XIV had supported arts and crafts training. But the lack of organised training for designers and draughtsmen here needed to be addressed.

It led to the launch of 20 government schools of design across the UK’s key manufacturing centres. Glasgow’s was established in January 1845 at a building in Ingram Street in the Merchant City – as it happened, a stone’s throw from Ramshorn Cemetery and Robert Foulis’s grave.

The Herald: Artists at work within one of the Art School's studiosArtists at work within one of the Art School's studios (Image: Contributed)

The new Glasgow Government School of Design offered courses spanning design and elementary drawing, geometrical drawing and figure painting.

Engineering drawing was the largest class, and there were lessons in ship drawing, building construction and steam engine technology.

By 1853, it was known as The Glasgow School of Art.

Demand for its courses was overwhelming: the School was over-subscribed and accommodation far from adequate.

By 1869 it had Ingram Street behind for Corporation Buildings in Sauchiehall Street.

But this building was dark and cramped. Students – many attending evening classes – worked under gaslight in oppressive, uncomfortable rooms that were originally domestic dwellings.

A new purpose-built home would have to be found.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a 28-year-old junior draughtsman at Glasgow architecture firm Honeyman and Keppie, when a competition called for designs for a new art school building.

The son of a police lieutenant with eight brothers and sisters, had attended Allan Glen’s school in the Townhead area where the technical department offered lessons in technical drawing, along with woodwork and metalwork – two subjects that had not yet been introduced in English schools.

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Mackintosh had enrolled at a Glasgow School of Art aged 15 in September 1883 taking classes in drawing, painting, modelling and design, and winning awards for his efforts at a time creativity was flourishing.

His design for the new school was accompanied by a highly detailed written report that documented every element, from heating and lighting to drainage, ventilation, construction methods and costs.

Honeyman and Keppie beat off ten other firms to win the competition but not everyone was impressed that the School’s maverick director, Fra Newbery, had chosen the relatively inexperienced Mackintosh.

Yet Mackintosh was well known to Newbery, whose leadership steered the School through a golden age of creativity. With wife Jessie, Newbery had elevated the Decorative Arts to the same status as painting and sculpture and opened the door to artists in textiles, ceramics and jewellery to spread their wings. 

And he had introduced Mackintosh to fellow students James Herbert MacNair and sisters Margaret and Frances Macdonald – Margaret would become the architect’s wife – after spotting similarities in their innovative, decorative and at times controversial graphics.

They became known as ‘The Four’, and their work would form the basis of “Glasgow Style”.

Mackintosh's design was approved, but its scale and financial constrictions meant it was built in two phases. The first opened in 1899 and second in 1909 at a total cost of £25,584, mostly funded by private donations.

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It was certainly different. Its huge windows, open spaces and sharp lines drew influences from the Arts and Craft movement, Celtic revivalism and the traders who brought prints and cloth to Glasgow from the Far East.

Clever use of light created a unique atmosphere; the Japanese-inspired stairwell and library, with its timber beams and shards of light were likened to entering a forest clearing.

There were light-bathed galleries, the distinctive glass-walled, timber-framed ‘hen run’ that linked two parts of the building and provided generations of artists with natural light and shade. There was even a greenhouse to grow plants for drawing exercises.

Everything, including the clocks and air vents, were stamped with Mackintosh's style. 

It was bold and daring, at odds with the dark, grey industrial city and its existing buildings.

The Herald: The Mackintosh Building libraryThe Mackintosh Building library (Image: Getty)

Some found it too new, too challenging, too different. One newspaper condemned it as an eyesore that resembled a prison and suggested Mackintosh should “have his bare arse whipped”.  

Eventually the remarkable building would be recognised for what it was: a wonderful expression of Glasgow’s unique style. In 2009, the Royal Institute of Architects declared it the finest building designed by a British architect in the last 175 years.

While the Art School itself had come to be regarded as one of Europe’s most prestigious establishments, attracting students from around the world to study at the Mackintosh School of Architecture, the School of Design, the School of Fine Art, the School of Simulation and Visualisation and the Innovation School.

It was enjoying waves of fresh success with a string of Turner Prize winning former students when the first of two devastating fires ripped through the Mackintosh Building.

Investigators found the May 2014 blaze was caused by a canister of expanding foam left next to a hot projector. The second, in June 2018 during restoration works, reduced the Mackintosh Building to embers yet no cause has ever been found.

Prof. Dunlop, Fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, and an alumnus of the Glasgow School of Art who trained at the Mackintosh School of Architecture, has been at the forefront of calls for the School’s reform in the wake of the two fires.

“Mackintosh’s School of Art is Glasgow’s and arguably, Scotland’s most important 20th century building, designed by an architect considered to be the country’s greatest,” he says.

“The Glasgow School of Art was very much a working building, housing a prestigious school of art of international renown, until it was destroyed by fire in 2018.

“However, what no fire can erase is the history, the spirit and goodwill of the thousands of students, artists, and architects who have worked there, and who, consciously or subconsciously, will have been influenced by Mackintosh's essence.”

Perhaps, though, the School was on borrowed time ever since Mackintosh first set down his designs on paper.

Documents uncovered just three years ago revealed that within a short time of its opening, there were warnings it “would be rapidly gutted” in the event of a fire.

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Files from 1913-14 showed concerns then that the school’s design and construction posed a potential fire risk. The rate of insurance for loaning artworks to the school was doubled because the building was considered to be so hazardous.

One report, dated April 1913, raised issues with the building’s Plenum system of heating and fire hazards such as the wood panelling, timber construction and boarded up fireplaces.

The inspector’s words were particularly ominous: “I am of opinion that if a fire once started the premises would rapidly be gutted.”