Charles Rennie Mackintosh: A Biography

August 12, 2010

Another book on Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928), the Glasgow-born architect, painter and designer, may seem superfluous, but this new substantial volume, graced with superb colour plates by Mark Fiennes and numerous other delightful illustrations, including historic material and charming drawings by Mackintosh and others, is welcome.

Nikolaus Pevsner, in his pernicious Pioneers of the Modern Movement from William Morris to Walter Gropius (first published in 1936 and a text still de rigueur in schools of architecture, of course), placed Mackintosh in the pantheon of supposed Modernists. To Pevsner, Mackintosh was "one of the few true forerunners of ... Le Corbusier", and his design for the Glasgow School of Art contained "not a single feature ... derived from period styles".

Both statements are absurd. Mackintosh's links with the Vienna Secession, with Art Nouveau and with Symbolism are well documented, and the Scottish architect was far more connected with the Arts and Crafts movement than he ever was with Le Corbusier: indeed, Mackintosh's position was more fin de siecle than pointing to the post-1918 period.

What Macaulay calls Pevsner's "authoritarian didacticism" denied Mackintosh's interest in traditional forms: yet the School of Art displays paraphrases of English "Wrenaissance" motifs; contains elements derived from Mackintosh's sketchbooks of vernacular architecture from the counties of Hampshire, Dorset and Somerset made during a tour in 1895; and even suggests an influence from Le Bois des Moutiers, a house designed in the 1890s by Edwin Landseer Lutyens. What is more, there are overt Art Nouveau themes, variations on surface treatments from the 16th-century Crathes Castle, Kincardineshire, and much else unquestionably "derived from period styles".

It is typical of Pevsner that he omitted anything that was inconvenient for his preconceived notions. Mackintosh's Queen's Cross Church, Garscube Road, Glasgow, is in a free Arts and Crafts Gothic style, so was not mentioned at all by Pevsner in his Pioneers: the building has inventive tracery, Art Nouveau detail, and a tower that is very clearly influenced by Mackintosh's sketch of All Saints Church, Merriott, Somerset (reproduced in the volume under review). Macaulay analyses Queen's Cross and other buildings, and puts Mackintosh where he belongs without any nonsense about influencing Le Corbusier or being a "pioneer": in the earlier chapters he conjures up the atmosphere of late-Victorian Glasgow with a vivid text and some stunning illustrations.

There are a few quibbles, though. First of all, it is a pity that the short, staccato and minimalist captions are not more informative. The caption "House for an Art Lover" actually shows a building based on drawings for a competition in 1901, erected as part of the modern "Mockintosh" mania, but it does not tell us this. Charles Harrison Townsend is spelled thus, and not as Macaulay would have it. "Gasgow" and "Hapsburg" (instead of "Habsburg") suggest proofreading was as minimal as the captions.

A certain coyness sometimes prevails, as when we are told that Mackintosh (having died of cancer brought on by heavy whisky-drinking and pipe-smoking) was cremated "in a Chapel" that was as "dismal" as the service, but we are not told where this was. In fact, it was Golders Green Crematorium, one of the better designs for that building-type in a Lombardic style that is far from "dismal", by Ernest George and Alfred Bowman Yeates: besides, bodies are not cremated in chapels, but in furnace-rooms under or behind.

Nevertheless, Macaulay's tome is a refreshing corrective to Pevsner and to Thomas Howarth, whose Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Modern Movement (1952 with later editions) followed Pevsner's line. The only regret is that Macaulay could have been more robust when exposing untrue fatuities for what they are.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh: A Biography

By James Macaulay. W.W. Norton, 304pp, £42.00. ISBN 9780393051759. Published 30 June 2010

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