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Weekend in Glasgow exploring Charles Rennie Mackintosh

20-22 August 2010

It was interesting, over our first dinner, to discover the various means by which fellow Cranleigh DFAS members reached Glasgow. Some had flown in that morning, some had bravely tried to let the train take the strain, others had come by car to be faced with the expense of NCP parking. We had taken a couple of days pottering northwards and had arrived early enough to take the bus tour of Glasgow with its pathetic commentary interspersed with heavy doses of Jimmy Shand.

Before dinner we were given an introductory talk by our tour leader, Dai Vaughan, full of enthusiasm, eloquence and bonhomie. I liked his approach of not giving a biographical introduction to an audience, most of whom have probably already read up on the subject, but rather to make connections with other artists and influences and to introduce some of his own theories. I remained rather sceptical when he started on about ley lines and, sadly, a glass of white wine on an empty stomach meant that, for me, a fair proportion of the talk was spent in the arms of Morpheus.

Having done National Service, learnt never to volunteer and, as a teacher, survived variously bullying and ruthless headmasters, I thought I was virtually bulletproof but I had forgotten the maxim "Beware nice ex-headmasters bearing Werther's Originals"! So there I was, landed with the task of writing up the trip having slept through half of the first lecture. It certainly had an instant effect on my attention span!

By nine o'clock on Saturday we were on the coach for a very busy day. Our guide, Stuart Robertson, President of the CRM Society, seemed, at first, rather dour but as he warmed to his task he proved informative, even witty, if sometimes difficult to hear. First stop was the "House for an Art Lover", built in the 1990s and based on CRM's entry for an "ideas competition" in 1900. The severe "Scottish baronial" exterior contrasted with the fascinating rooms inside. As the furniture was reproduction, we were able to enjoy touching or sitting on the chairs. The music room was laid for a wedding that afternoon. It was a splendid venue.

We were shown round the "Glasgow School of Art" by two students. Outside there was fascinating metal work. Inside for me, amongst a wealth of clever ideas, the highlight was the library with its huge windows, amazing woodwork and furniture. Next stop, the Kelvingrove Gallery. A wonderful building in its own right. Mackintoshwise this was not so interesting but it meant that people could snatch a snack in the café and enjoy a lunchtime organ recital. We were also able to view works of art by contemporaries of CRM including the "Glasgow Boys" and the "Colourists".

The high point of the day was, perhaps, the Hunter Gallery and the reproduction of Charles and Margaret's first house. Stuart explained how CRM used dark, earthy colours downstairs, as if one was on the floor of a forest, rising to lighter hues as one emerged in the treetops! Well, maybe--, it was certainly dark downstairs and light and airy above! The sitting room and bedroom were delightful and, indeed, there was nothing in those rooms not designed by CRM or Margaret. There was time to visit the large collection of paintings, many by Whistler, some beautiful designs by Frances Macdonald and more paintings by the "Glasgow Boys". By now some of us were beginning to look decidedly worn at the edges. We returned to the hotel, tired but happy with our full but satisfying day.

On Sunday, those of us not staying on had to vacate our rooms and put our luggage in a store room before the coach left. Dai Vaughan was in charge once more and we travelled out of Glasgow, past Castle Dun where Margaret had lived, past the church where they were married, past a village hall which Dai claimed he had been the first to discover as CRM's first project, until we reached "Hill House". CRM and Margaret worked together on this project. Here too the exterior was severe and plain; one entered first the dark hallway and the dark manly library and dining room and then the spacious, light and airy drawing room with Margaret's beautiful gesso as its focal point. Upstairs the bedroom was a delight and the bathroom, for its time, advanced and imaginative. I think we all felt that we would love to live in such a house. The house had been designed from within. CRM had refused to discuss exterior elevations until the interior design had been agreed.

On the coach Dai gave a fascinating account of how he and his wife, Jenny, had researched Margaret's technique for making gesso and then made an improved, longer lasting version for the plaques in the "House for an Art Lover". Back in Glasgow we visited the "Scotland Street School", built by CRM in 1903, for its time a clever, imaginative building. At one point there were 1200 pupils but, when it closed in 1979, there were only 79. Eventually, more by luck than judgment, the building was saved as a museum. Scotch broth formed the basis of the included light lunch.

No such luck with our last visit to the "Willow Tea Rooms" where, having climbed wearily to the "luxury" room at the top, we were invited to partake of tea and meringues at exorbitant prices. I think that, by now, some of us were beginning to suffer from Mackintosh fatigue! By now some were having to go early to catch their plane or return to the hotel under their own steam, so the coach was barely half full. Dai said a few well chosen words to finish and then….. the weekend sort of petered out.

Our bonus was an unexpected, spectacular, sunlit journey down to Scotch Corner and time to reflect on the weekend. We could imagine a Glasgow at the turn of the century, filthy and grimy, but with a prosperous middle class and patronage for artists.

The director of the "Glasgow School of Art" Fra Newberry had brought the four, CRM, Margaret, Frances and Herbert McNair together and CRM and Margaret had worked brilliantly together and a number of interiors were designed and buildings erected, in which elements of fairy tales, folklore, Celtic tradition and even Japanese culture appear. Some have likened it to a Glasgow version of "Art Nouveau" and CRM is even said to have influenced Klimt and Hoffmann in Vienna, but the success was short lived. After 1910, apart from the Northampton house, no more were built and CRM turned to design and watercolours until his early death from throat cancer in 1928. Apparently a control freak and not easy to work with, everything he designed had to be hand built and I think that World War1 and the advent of mechanical means of production contributed to the shortness of his success. Dai had carried us all along with his eloquence and enthusiasm but, viewed dispassionately, CRM was perhaps but a brief flash of brilliance at the turn of the century. Thus did I reflect as I resigned myself to the delights of the Scotch Corner Travelodge, designed by whom? Oh no, I think not!

Vernon Bryan

House for an Art Lover

Interior, House for an Art Lover

Typical CRM at the Willow Tea Rooms

Hill House

Two-inch squares on a cupboard door!

Scotland Street School

Some of the group at the girl's entrance of Scotland Street School

Enthusistic pupils at Scotland Street School