Charles Rennie Mackintosh – A Different Perspective

This is an unusual post for me although it fits my general aim of writing about people who have brought great benefit to Glasgow, Charles Rennie Mackintosh being one such individual. I wrote about him briefly in my Keppie post and intend to add a bit more about my personal view of his character compared to what is generally accepted about him.

I have been able to discuss informally my views with a couple of academics over the last couple of years and whilst they have not agreed with me, in one case almost entirely however the need for further exploration of the subject was accepted, and in the other some common ground was established. What does seem more difficult is objective discussion with folk who revere Mackintosh, who think, it seems to me, he came out of ‘the egg’ fully formed, prepared for artistic life with no formative experiences necessary, consequentially with none requiring acknowledgement. Also that the troubles he encountered were not of his doing but the result of other people not understanding him and his abilities, that he was hard-done by. He seems also to be viewed as an ‘innocent abroad’ by some people; the ‘artist in the garret’ syndrome.

As may be expected in 2018 the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mackintosh was celebrated by exhibitions, tours, publications, the creation of the Oak Room in the V & A in Dundee and many other events in Glasgow. It was also the year in which a second disastrous fire all but destroyed the Glasgow School of Art (GSA), which building is considered to be his masterpiece.

When most people are asked ‘what do you know about Charles Rennie Mackintosh’ I believe the most frequent casual answers given would be that he was an architect, or the GSA would be mentioned. More considered answers would include references to other specific buildings, tearooms, and high back chairs.

I’m not saying these are the views of academics or aficionados of Mackintosh but if the above is true, if this is the man in the street view, then is it not the case that his fame is more narrowly based than it should be and that perhaps his reputation as an architect is overstated as a consequence?

This is heresy no doubt to a large number of people and I must admit I felt a touch uncomfortable writing it. However, in my non-academic, but instinctive view it is as a designer and artist that Mackintosh’s fame and reputation is best based on.

His paintings are exquisite, but not very much is made of them. His designs are exceptional and wide ranging and are capable of being translated in a number of materials including stone.

Trying to understand Mackintosh and his work better than I do I have read a number of books over the past two years all of which have added to my knowledge of the man, particularly with reference to his paintings and furniture design. They have enhanced my opinion of his broad artistic abilities, in which I include his architecture.

However little objective effort is made to fully understand his behaviour from his weekends with Keppie at Prestwick to his inability to complete work in his final years as Keppie’s partner, nor is proper heed paid to the broader influences he experienced from Honeyman and Keppie, his wife Margaret and her sister Frances, Herbert McNair, and perhaps even fellow designers such as George Walton.

The following hopefully will illustrate what I mean. I make it clear that it is pure conjecture on my part, not to do Mackintosh down but to provide a different story that will, if possible cause a more objective understanding of the man and his motivations to be established.

When he joined Honeyman and Keppie in 1889 it was as a draughtsman/assistant. It wasn’t long after that Keppie began the working weekends at his house in Prestwick with Mackintosh and Herbert MacNair. On occasion they would be joined by the Macdonald sisters, Keppie’s sister Jessie, and others who would stay at accommodation in Dunure. This group of young men and women in due course became ‘the Immortals’.

The purpose of these weekends was primarily, at least initially, to discuss and work on architectural projects. Perhaps in time they became more like social events, they probably were when the ladies stayed at Dunure. During this time Mackintosh became attached to Jessie Keppie, which attachment lasted a number of years.

What did Keppie get out these weekends? I believe for him it was, in modern parlance, a team building process involving perhaps two of the brightest stars of the architectural practise, the three of them having common artistic skills in varying degrees. If so, such a process involves coaching, teaching, influencing, exchanging ideas, free discussion on aspects of any project in hand, the objective being two fold. Firstly, in the short term in the context of a specific project. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, in the long term establishing a critical modus operandi that would serve the business well in the future.

Why did Mackintosh in particular attend these weekends? By comparison with the others he did not come from a particularly well to do family. The Keppies had money, the McDonald sisters had money and MacNair came from a well to do military family.

Put cynically, did he see the weekends as a means to mix with people who were financially better off, to keep close to his boss directly and also through his sister Jessie, and to be in the company of a number of young attractive women, all for his own personal advancement? If the foregoing has little or no truth, what did he get out of it in terms of his professional artistic and architectural life, what ‘seed corn’ was planted in his mind by these weekends? There does not seem to be any narrative that discusses this, in particular with reference to Keppie. In fact, their total relationship until the end of the partnership, as indicated by the more subjective, in my view, of Mackintosh supporters, can perhaps be described in simple Donald Trumpesque as CRM – good, JK – bad.

In the event he did not marry Jessie but married Margaret McDonald in 1900, her family however being very unhappy about her marrying beneath her financial status.

When Mackintosh was nearing the end of his partnership with Keppie he was not bringing in significant work to the practise; he was taking out more money than he was bringing in, he drank, he was vague in respect of leading his team, did not complete work, his mood swings affected those he worked with and generally he would/could not listen to suggestions and advice.

All sorts of reasons have been put forward for this and indeed for his behaviour during his life. One which I read about recently. and is the more believable to me, is that he may have suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome. The author John McKean’s view was that this explanation would cover his physical and psychological/mental issues, which is probably why he drank. I found this really intriguing, not least because it was the first time I had read any serious attempt to explain Mackintosh and his behaviour.

However, perverse as ever, I had some difficulty squaring that entirely with how I believe he behaved when younger, particularly between c.1889 and 1900 when he associated with the Immortals and was photographed frequently in the company of the young women of the group. Therefore, maybe he was just a typical young man, a bit of a lad, liked the ladies and the booze, and enjoyed socialising/partying. Maybe therefore his drinking was the cause of his problems and not as a result of them.

I should say I don’t necessarily believe what I have written above but what I genuinely believe is that if an individual such as Mackintosh is fully understood in all aspects, if that is possible, then his works get put into a fuller, broader context which can only improve our appreciation of them.

I have hesitated to publish this post because I’m not trained in architecture and know only a little about art. My views whilst striving to be objective are probably tainted with more (total?) conjecture/subjectivity than I would like. They are not meant to do anything else other than tell what I think could possibly explain Mackintosh. Whether they are sound to any degree by any academic test or any other, is secondary to me. In a sense I’m getting Mackintosh off my chest! However, a lot has been written about Mackintosh the genius, what about Mackintosh the man?