05 May 2015

Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh and other women were there, you know!

Margaret Macdonald (1865–1933) was born into an engineering family near Wolverhampton. By 1890 the family had settled in Glasgow, and after a couple of years in their new city, Margaret and her sister Frances enrolled as students at the Glasgow School of Art. There Margaret worked in textiles and other media, spending some time studying in Germany, and learning French and German well.

It was at the Glasgow School of Art that the MacDonald sisters met their future husbands. Architect/artist/designer Herbert MacNair and architect/artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh first met each other when the two young men attended evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art in 1889, then worked together as apprentice architects in a large Glasgow firm. MacNair married Frances Macdonald in 1899 and Mackintosh married Margaret Macdonald in 1900. This intimate group, linked together by family ties and by a passion for art, became the Glasgow School graduates known as The Four. Margaret worked at first with her sister on joint projects.

Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh, The May Queen

At this very time, Glasgow was right at the centre of the temperance movement. The Superintendent of the Glasgow Halls inaugurated popular concerts for ordinary working families in halls & parks as a drink-free alternative to public houses. A notable offshoot of temperance that became important for the Mackintoshes was Miss Kate Cranston's Tea-Rooms. [The temperance movement clearly didn't work for CR Mackintosh; he became a heavy drinker later in life]

The works that Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh was best known for were the large gesso panels made for the tea room interiors that she des­igned with her husband, not with her sister. Margaret’s The May Queen was one of three gesso panels created for the Ladies Luncheon Room in the Ing­ram Street Tea Rooms, opened in Glasgow in 1886. They were made from oil painted gesso on hessian, and set with twine, glass beads and mother of pearl. The May Queen had been made to partner Mack­in­tosh's panel The Wassail in the tea rooms. Oh ye, all ye that walk in Willowood form­ed part of the decorative scheme for the Room de Luxe in the Willow Tearooms. All three of these are now on display in the Kelvin­grove Museum in Glasgow.

Ingram Street Tearooms, Glasgow

The May Queen was removed from the tea rooms, for a time, and was transported to the Scottish display at the Vienna Secession Exhibition of 1900. In fact Margaret’s work was specifically exhibited in the Viennese Exhibition Room designed by her husband Charles. Margaret and Charles’ art works must have stood out - the Viennese Secessionists Gustav Klimt and Josef Hoffmann both recorded how impressed they were with the two Mackintoshes.

It is said that in Austria the Mackintoshes received the acclaim that they hoped for in Scotland but did not always achieve. In 1900 the Mackintoshes’ success in Vienna and the friendships they formed with designers like Josef Hoffmann directly led to the contract to design the Warndorfer Music Salon. Amazingly the Warndorfers, industrialists and influential patrons of the Vienna Secession, travelled to Glasgow in late 1900 and travelled around Scotland with the two Mackintoshes.

Sometimes the collaboration between husband and wife was planned, before a project even started. The Opera of the Wind and The Opera of the Sea were two inlaid gesso panels designed by Margaret and Charles for Fritz Wärndorfer's fabulous house in Vienna in c1902. And we know that the Warndorfer Music Salon was white with rose and lavender accents, with a deep frieze of large decorative panels. The walls below the frieze were panelled in wood and a jewelled fireplace with inglenook was placed at one end of the room. Armchairs that had been road-tested in the Glasgow tearooms were dotted around the splendid Viennese salon.

In 1902 the Rose Boudoir at the Turin International Exhibition was designed by the Mackintoshes and was also enthusiastically received; and from there the couple went on to exhibit in Moscow and Berlin.

Christie’s says The Heart of the Rose in Turin was a version of a panel installed over a fireplace designed by Mackintosh for a patron in Glasgow in 1901; The White Rose and the Red Rose also exists in a slightly more elaborate version designed for an over-mantel in the Mackintoshes' own Glasgow home and may have been made before this Turin version. Macdonald also made other small gesso panels for the exhibition, which were incorporated in a black writing cabinet designed by Mackintosh. The cabinet and the larger gessos were acquired by Fritz Wärndorfer of Vienna who commissioned further panels from Mackintosh and Macdonald for his Music Salon, designed by Mackintosh in 1902.

Glasgow meets Turin meets Vienna!

Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh, Opera of the Seas c1902

In 1903, Charles built The Hill House for a wealthy publishing family with cutting edge, modern interior design and furniture. Margaret completed The Sleeping Princess gesso panel in 1906 which was set into a recess above the fireplace in of Hill House's drawing room.

In 1906 the Mackintoshes moved from their central Glasgow flat to a terrace house that they had to renovate and decorate. Today visitors to the Hunterian Gallery (Glasgow University) will be pleased to see the rooms of that terrace house restored and preserved in a safe location. The 1906 furniture, designed by both artists, includes their high back chairs, table, sideboard, bookcase, desk, mirrors, four post bed and sculptural wardrobe.

So the big question is: how much of their joint projects was done by Charles and how much by Margaret? Charles credited his wife with being an important part of the figurative, symbolic interior designs. She was certainly active in the art world, producing a wide range of embroidery, gesso panels, watercolours, menu covers and glass art. But I would love to have seen her actual signature on the various works. In the end, everyone in the universe knows Charles Rennie Mackintosh, but how many know Margaret? The best document I could find addressing itself to Margaret’s work was The Sisters of Glasgow, Margaret and Frances Macdonald by Brett Aronowitz.

The artist, sitting in front of her work, c1906

What about other women in Glasgow? The Glasgow Style Exhibition: Arts & Crafts from 1890-1930 (Blackwell House of Arts and Crafts, 2014) was telling. The tendency for female designers to study/work in Glasgow suggests the city must have been an unusually emancipated place in 1900.

Hannah Moore Walton and her sister Helen Walton joined their famous designer brother George Walton in hand painted pottery and enamelled glassware.

An oak bureau carved with flowers on long wiry stems was created by Isabella Thomson Miller.

Jessie King  became a committee member of the Glasgow Society of Artists (1903) years before she married and her more famous husband, EA Taylor. King designed jewellery, fabric, painted pottery and book illustrations.

Margaret and her sister Mary Ann Gilmour had studied at the Glasgow School of Art and later opened a metal work studio of their own. Their repousse' wall panels were inlaid with brooch-like enamels.

The conclusion was that by raising the status of decorative art and the beautification of the home, the Glasgow Style provided a professional outlet for creative individuals who worked outside the limits of  the "fine" arts - paintings, sculpture and architecture. Women decorative artists must have loved the opportunity to shine.

An exhibition devoted to the architecture and style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh will continue until the end of May 2015. Held in The Architecture Gallery at 66 Portland Place in London, the exhibition called MACKINTOSH ARCHITECTURE will also examine the collaboration with his accomplished artist-designer-wife, Margaret Macdonald.


Art Lover said...

In class you remember that we looked at the Mackintoshes' popularity in Vienna. Even now I would say that it was amazing and strange: the Mackintoshes had more success in sophisticated Vienna than they did at home.

Andrew said...

As is usual, I did not know much about the subject, certainly not Glasgow being high in the art hierarchy. I did have a chuckle, well more a snort, at Glasgow having a temperance movement. #fail

Hels said...

Art Lover

The work of The Four was exhibited at the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society in London in September 1896 and noticed in Germany and Austria in 1897 and 1898. So all four were _invited_ to exhibit at the Vienna Secession in November 1900. People apparently lined the roads and cheered, as the artists made their way to the Vienna Secession Building.

How unfortunate that the very originality of Mackintosh's work (if not his wife's) made him loved in Germany and Austria but that he met mostly indifference in Scotland.

Hels said...


The Arts and Crafts movement was going gangbusters in England, so it might be a bit of a surprise that Scotland was also developing its own stunning movement. After 1890 in Scotland, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and others, influenced by the ideas of Morris and Ruskin, were making themselves famous by adding a distinctive Scottish twist eg Celtic knots and thistles.

Art Lover said...

I don't think the thistles upset the Scots. I think would-be patrons did not enjoy Charles and Margaret's geometrically themed rooms. Especially when the entire house was integrated in the grand design.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I always find it an odd research question when people try to separate the individual contributions to a collaboration. I suppose sometimes it is discretely divisible, but I would imagine that each artist influences the other both directly and indirectly. Of course a good start might be to look at their individually created works. One possible exception would be the Margaret and Walter Keane paintings for which it turned out that Walter had taken no part at all. (Not that Margaret Keane can in anyway be compared with Margaret Macintosh!)

Hels said...

Art Lover

How strange the art world is. Charles Rennie Mackintosh certainly matured into bold geometric forms that were severe, yes, but very clean and modern. His famous flowing white-on-white interiors were replaced by bold geometric black-on-black interiors which might have predicted Art Deco but did not endear him to his potential patrons.

Hels said...


agreed... it is inevitable that each artist would influence the other both directly and indirectly in any collaboration. But particularly a married couple who established their careers separately and married later.

They had no children, which might or might not have been so both artists could concentrate on their projects. Yet I always have an uncomfortable feeling that one member of this collaboration was honoured while the other half slipped away from public recognition.

Mackintosh Architecture said...

'Mackintosh Architecture' provides a richly-illustrated Catalogue of all known architectural projects by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The site also provides entries for projects by the practice, John Honeyman & Keppie/Honeyman, Keppie & Mackintosh during the Mackintosh years 1889–1913; images and data from the office record books; a catalogue raisonné of over 1200 drawings by Mackintosh and the practice; essays; biographies of 400 clients, colleagues, contractors and suppliers; timeline; glossary; and bibliography.

Hels said...

thank you! I was going to include the Mackintosh Architecture Exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. But a] the exhibition ended in May 2015 and b] there was only one mention of Margaret Macdonald's collaboration i.e in the 1901 ‘House for an Art Lover’ designs. Clearly The Hunterian is home to the largest single holding of Mackintosh's work anywhere.