Q & A with Heritage Professional Peter Trowles Offers Insights on Influence of Charles Rennie Mackintosh on Architecture of Glasgow & Art Nouveau Movement
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Peter Trowles served as the Mackintosh Curator at the Glasgow School of Art in Glasgow, Scotland for more than thirty years. He was responsible for the School’s important art, design and architectural collections and curated and co-curated exhibitions in the UK, throughout Europe, and in the USA, Japan and Colombia. He has lectured widely and has participated in conferences across Europe and in Australia, Canada and the USA, and has worked on various books, magazines and journals. He continues to collaborate with cultural and government agencies in the UK and overseas and has contributed to numerous radio and television programs both at home and abroad.
A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Peter was honored by the French Government in 2008 with the award of Chevalier, l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres for his contribution to developing Franco-Scottish cultural links. In 2019, Peter established Cultural Perspectives Limited a company providing services to tourism, heritage and the arts.
Enjoy this in-depth interview with Peter and his virtual tour of Mackintosh’s legacy to Glasgow and the world!
Meg: You served as the Mackintosh Curator at the Glasgow School of Art for more than three decades. Charles Rennie Mackintosh is a cultural figure closely identified with both Glasgow and, more broadly, with Art Nouveau. Can you explain when and what inspired your initial interest in Mackintosh, and what you consider to be the most compelling dimensions of his style and work?
A visiting delegation from the Kremlin Museum, Moscow. Photo: Peter Trowles
Peter: Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a Scottish architect, designer and artist whose work is mostly associated with the city of his birth, Glasgow. His early artistic approach owes an allegiance to the Arts and Crafts movement before embracing Symbolism, European Art Nouveau and towards the end of his career, even Art Deco. Today he is widely regarded as being one of the leading figures of early 20th-century architectural design.
Like a lot of students, I first came across Mackintosh when I was at college myself. I studied at an art school in the South of England in a somewhat uninspiring late 1960s building dominated by concrete and glass. In one lecture my art history tutor espoused the importance of Mackintosh’s somewhat idiosyncratic art school building and how it was still in use today. After art school, I moved to Scotland and undertook a Master’s Degree in Museum Studies at the University of St. Andrews. Here Mackintosh once again featured heavily in the curriculum only this time in the context of his importance to the development of European art nouveau which inspired my life-long affection for this type of work.
Of course, little did I know that in a matter of a few of years I’d be working and living in Mackintosh’s Masterwork, the Glasgow School of Art (GSA). When I first started at GSA there was space allocated in the Mackintosh Building for three small apartments (originally intended for the ‘live in’ janitor) and these were subsequently made available for use by the Mackintosh Curator and for visiting lecturers. Looking back on it now, being given keys to front door of the Mackintosh Building was a wonderful privilege and I’m sure many of those visiting lecturers have fond memories too.
So what has 30 years at GSA taught me about Mackintosh and his legacy? I think one of the most important things, and something that you won’t find in any book, is the sense that we as staff and the students we teach are merely temporal. We live, breath and enjoy Mackintosh’s art school as generations have done before and hopefully will continue to do in some shape or form for generations to come.
By passing through the dark-timbered corridors of the art school or in fact any of his other buildings, it’s all too easy to forget that what we’re experiencing is pretty much what Mackintosh himself did, albeit a hundred years earlier.
‘Japonisme’ & Glasgow School of Art
Meg: Can you give an overview of the linked histories of Glasgow & Mackintosh?
Peter: It’s clear that Mackintosh’s early work along with that of many of his Western contemporaries drew heavily upon Japanese culture as a source of inspiration. It was very fashionable at the time. Across Europe and beyond, influential artists including the French Impressionists and the American artist James Abbott McNeil Whistler were reinterpreting this Eastern style into their own work. Commercial trade between Glasgow and Japan was another key factor for Mackintosh’s liking for all things ‘Japonisme’. At the end of 19th century, Glasgow was an industrial powerhouse and traded worldwide. It’s hard to believe that around 1900 Glasgow was the 6th largest city in Europe and known as the 2nd City of the Empire. Large quantities of Japanese goods would have arrived in Glasgow before being distributed throughout the rest of the UK. There were art galleries and dealers in Glasgow trading in Japanese prints and ceramics and there’s surviving photographic evidence that shows Mackintosh owned examples of both.
Images of Japanese art could be seen in the very latest art and design magazines and Mackintosh would have access to these publications as a student at GSA. Glasgow also staged a series of major international exhibitions and we know that Japan provided its own ‘national’ pavilion for the second of these events in 1901. Hugely successful, the 1901 Glasgow exhibition attracted over 11.5 million visitors.
Then, of course, there is an affinity between the custom and etiquette of Japanese tea ceremonies and how Mackintosh’s own tea room interiors for the Glasgow businesswoman Miss Cranston were designed. Cranston was an early pioneer of the temperance movement and she owned a number of Glasgow tea rooms. These provided respite from the temptation of the city’s bars and gin palaces and provided lunch and light refreshments throughout the day. Importantly, the sale and consumption of alcohol was strictly off-limits. Each tea room consisted of a suite of individual interiors, laid out along social expectations with certain spaces set aside for exclusive use by men (such as smoking rooms) and rooms where afternoon tea was only served to women.
Today, of course, Mackintosh remains a popular figure within the Japanese art and design community. Moreover, the first-ever PhD focusing on Mackintosh’s architectural work was completed by a Japanese student studying at GSA as long ago as the early 1980s.
Meg: Mackintosh’s work on the Glasgow School of Art helped build his international reputation. Can you offer some insights into that project, and how it advanced his career and public awareness of his work?
Peter: Given Mackintosh’s reputation today it’s all too easy to imagine that his design for GSA would have been the perfect catalyst for projecting his name and future reputation. In fact Mackintosh’s career had pretty much peaked well before the School was finally completed in 1909. His early work as a decorative artist (producing items of furniture, metal and glass) had already received extensive press coverage through the most influential art publications of the day such as The Studio and Dekorative Kunst. And all this was before his efforts and skill as an architect were fully appreciated.
He’d been invited to exhibit at the 8th Vienna Secession in 1900 on the strength of his work as an interior designer. His appearance was so successful that he received further invitations to exhibit furniture and other decorative items in Turin in 1902 and Moscow a year later.
Interestingly, Mackintosh’s innovative design for the GSA generated little public attention when first built. It was constructed in two distinct phases due to an initial lack of money. When the first half of the building opened in December 1899, Mackintosh was only a junior employee in the winning architectural practice of Honeyman and Keppie and wasn’t even invited to attend. Ten years later, in 1909, when the building was finally finished Mackintosh was in attendance but by then he had risen in the ranks and was now a partner in the company. The opening ceremony was covered by the local (Glasgow) press but pretty much by no one else. Remarkably it was to be a further 15 years before the first monograph to mention and illustrate the School’s exterior appeared. Rather bizarrely, this review was published in a book entitled Modern English Architecture – so no reference to Scotland.
Meg: In 2018, the Glasgow School of Art was devastated by a second fire within four years. This has to be very distressing for you both personally and as a cultural heritage professional. Can you share any reflections on this tragedy?
Peter: As I write this in July 2019 it’s still hard to comprehend the total devastation caused by the second of the two fires. Although the first fire in 2014 was bad enough, the majority of the building on that occasion survived completely untouched and following extensive restoration, there was considerable anticipation in the pending reopening, planned for early 2019. That of course never happened.
Having spent so long overseeing the Mackintosh Building’s unique heritage it is a personal and professional tragedy and I’ve been heartened by so many friends and colleagues from around the world who have expressed their condolences. As with the recent devastation caused to the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, it’s clear that certain buildings resonate on an emotional level with a truly international audience.
The implications for GSA are and will continue to be substantial over many years to come. Whilst there’s still no definitive plan or timescale for a future rebuild it’s, without doubt, a great loss to the staff and future students who would have otherwise studied there. In addition, as Glasgow’s art school, its loss has been a body blow to the overall fabric of the city. Mackintosh’s name and reputation is held in high regard and his contribution to the city of his birth remains a corner stone of Glasgow’s long-term tourism strategy. His appeal in terms of numbers may not be to the same extent as Gaudi is to Barcelona or Frank Lloyd Wright is to Chicago but given Glasgow’s population (at just 600,000 people) the positive impact, both cultural and financial, over the years has been remarkable.
Margaret Macdonald & The Four
Meg: Mackintosh met his wife Margaret at the Glasgow School of Art and together with Margaret’s sister and her husband, they became known as “The Four,” and prominent members of the Glasgow School Movement. Can you give some history on this period in Mackintosh’s career and life and the movement?
Peter: Mackintosh trained as an architect but in the early 1880s he enrolled as a part-time student at the prestigious GSA, established 40 years earlier, but which at the time occupied an old building that was not purpose built. At GSA he studied alongside a fellow trainee architect Herbert MacNair and they were eventually introduced to two other students, the sisters Margaret and Frances Macdonald. In 1899 MacNair married Frances Macdonald and a year later Mackintosh married Margaret.
Known latterly as ‘the Four’, the Mackintoshes and MacNairs developed a strong working relationship with their designs becoming increasingly experimental. Inspired in part by the opposing ideologies of the Pre-Raphaelites and Aestheticism, their work drew inspiration from human, animal and vegetable forms often drawn in curved, sinuous lines. The use of weird, abstracted forms and metamorphic lines earned ‘the Four’ the nickname of the Spook School. Although favoured by some, other contemporaries were openly hostile to their unconventional work.
Although much of this early work consisted of watercolours, posters and bookplates, ‘the Four’ gradually transferred their use of symbolic imagery into three-dimensional materials including repoussé metal, stained glass, gesso and wood, producing candle holders, mirrors, clocks and furniture.
Meg: Mackintosh and his wife were close collaborators. Do you have any insights about their relationship and how they inspired each other?
Peter: This is a commonly asked question and one that is difficult to answer with any degree of certainty. During their formative working lives, the Mackintoshes didn’t keep any personal diaries and they were clearly not big letter writers, or if they were, nothing much exists. The one exception to this is a collection of just over 20 letters from Mackintosh to Margaret covering a six week period in 1927 with Mackintosh working on a number of paintings in and around Port Vendres and Collioure in the South of France, During this time Margaret is in England overseeing financial matters and is also having to seek medical and dental treatment. These few letters are a moving testament to the Mackintoshes’ loving relationship and are particularly poignant given that Mackintosh was to die just 18 months later. It’s also disappointing that assuming Margaret replied to most of her husband’s letters, not one of hers survives.
Despite inconclusive proof I think it’s safe to say that they both had an equal say when it came to decorating their own living accommodation in Glasgow. Here there are clear feminine touches that must reflect Margaret’s input. Likewise, in many of Mackintosh’s later architectural commissions for external clients, the use of a softer colour palette and the finer detailing of fabrics etc at The Hill House and at the Willow Tea Rooms are surely evidence of Margaret’s involvement too. The frustration is only a handful of decorative works can be directly attributed to Margaret.
Meg: Mackintosh’s imprint on Glasgow includes sites that range from the Willow Tea Rooms to Queen’s Cross Church to the “Lighthouse”, the former offices of the Glasgow Herald. Like his contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright, Mackintosh’s architectural designs often included extensive specifications for the detailing, decoration, and furnishing of his buildings. Could you make some observations about the design of these buildings and how they represent his style?
Peter: In the scheme of things, Mackintosh only completed a handful of major buildings where his direct involvement is clear and substantial. These aside, much time was spent re-aligning existing interiors and designing new bespoke furniture for clients who had no wish for a completely new building.
Mackintosh was fortunate that most of his clients were happy to give him a relatively free hand in how he perceived the look of a building or the feel of an interior. No two commissions were ever the same. His multiple interiors for the Glasgow Tea Rooms (completed over a 20 year period) provide the sense that this was almost a work in progress. Designs were constantly being tweaked. His iconic ‘high-back chairs exist in multiple variations, each one carefully chosen to fit within a certain space within a certain room.
More often than not costs were kept to a minimum. Although colour, pattern and form played an important part in Mackintosh’s design ethos, decorative elements such as carved wood, coloured glass, and twisted beaten metal were used sparingly.
Meg: For travelers to Glasgow who want to experience Mackintosh’s legacy, what other sites do you recommend they see and why?
Peter: As I’ve mentioned already, no two Mackintosh buildings are anywhere near alike and the first time visitor to a Mackintosh property is never quite sure what to expect. In his designs for Scotland Street School (now an educational museum and located just a few minutes from the city centre), the client was the Glasgow School Board. The School Board insisted on a tight design brief that imposed numerous regulations on every new school being built in the city – regardless of who the architect was. Here there was little room for artistic freedom. Nonetheless, the aspiring Mackintosh made the most of the two required entrances (one for boys and one for girls) creating glass-dominated, rocket-shaped stair towers.
Nearby in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park you’ll find Mackintosh’s House for an Art Lover. Designed in 1901 as a competition entry for a German magazine it was never built at the time. Ninety years later and using Mackintosh’s original design drawings the house was finally constructed. Now nestled within mature gardens, the House for an Art Lover offers a perfect insight into how adventurous Mackintosh’s designs could be given the freedom to experiment with little if any financial constraints.
Another ‘must see’ is The Hill House in Helensburgh, 25 miles from Glasgow but easily accessible by frequent trains. The Hill House is the epitome of Mackintosh’s skill as an architect and designer in tune with the needs (both financial and aesthetic) of the client. It’s rightly considered to be Mackintosh’s domestic masterpiece. Set within (now) mature gardens overlooking the River Clyde, The Hill House was designed as a large family home for the publisher Walter Blackie. The surprisingly uniform and mostly grey exterior of the house is however in complete contrast to the building’s interiors which provide welcoming and surprisingly intimate spaces, with the white-dominated master bedroom the most visually stunning. That said Mackintosh himself seems to have underplayed its importance. Handing over the building to the client, the publisher Walter Blackie, Mackintosh is quoted as saying, “Here is the house. It is not an Italian Villa, an English Mansion House, a Swiss Chalet, or a Scotch Castle. It is a Dwelling House”
Meg: Mackintosh is known to have influenced design beyond Scotland. Can you share some perspective on his broader impact on design?
Peter: Mackintosh was certainly lucky in that one or two of his earliest designs were picked up on and praised by some of the leading art critics of the day. All the same, apart from being given the opportunity to exhibit in national or international exhibitions or fairs there was little opportunity at the time for an artist’s work to be viewed on a global stage. Of course, for today’s young and aspiring artists, designers and architects it’s one click of a computer mouse and your work can viewed almost instantaneously by thousands of potential buyers or clients.
Unlike Frank Lloyd Wright whose works and teachings inspired later generations of students, Mackintosh garnered few if any disciples at the time. For over 30 years following his death in 1928, Mackintosh’s reputation barely existed. He was all but forgotten in the city of his birth. Thankfully, through the efforts of a small but loyal band of chiefly architectural historians in the 1960s and 1970s his legacy was kept alive. From the 1980s onwards Glasgow took steps to shake off its image as a city in post-industrial decline and began to reinvent itself as a vibrant arts capital. Since then, Mackintosh’s contribution to the cultural legacy of his native city has become central to Glasgow’s new found fame and fortune.
Mackintosh is now recognised as one of the city’s favourite sons and his contribution to early 20th century design is particularly appreciated in countries such as Italy and Japan. In fact it was an Italian manufacturer, Cassina of Milan, who were one of the first companies to make reproduction Mackintosh chairs. In doing so Mackintosh joined a select group of iconic designers including Frank Lloyd Wright, Gerrit Rietveld and Le Corbusier whose work continues to appeal to an altogether different, younger audience.
Meg: Mackintosh had a relatively short career as an architect; I understand he became disillusioned. Can you offer insight into this period in his life?
Peter: It’s been said that Mackintosh became disillusioned with Glasgow in the years leading up to the First World War which is why left he the city of his birth. This is partly correct. Glasgow post-1910 was not the Glasgow of the 1890s or early 1900s. Whilst the city remained relatively prosperous well into the second decade of the 20th century, it never had the same civic prowess, confidence or wealth that it once did. Cultural benefactors or champions of the arts were fewer in number and those that had supported Mackintosh during his early career were no longer in a position to continue aiding him.
Meanwhile, Glasgow was now home to a new younger generation of up and coming designers and architects. In an increasingly crowded market, and with less work available, Mackintosh was left with little choice. He found it almost impossible to compromise on his design principles but times had changed. Clearly frustrated he felt his reputation were being overlooked and thought that London deserved his expertise and he eventually settled there.
In the end this proved to be a false dawn. Whilst London provided greater architectural opportunities the competition was even more intense. He was now in his late forties and those architects winning the important commissions and taking the plaudits were men nearly half his age. A working life spent almost exclusively in Glasgow meant little. Mackintosh was no longer the artistic force he once was and apart from a commission to remodel an existing terraced property in the town of Northampton, 100 miles north of London, the UK capital provided him with no architectural work.
Meg: Mackintosh devoted the last 15 years of his life to painting. How would you characterize his style and legacy as a painter?
Peter: Mackintosh’s work as an artist, or more specifically as a painter, can be seen in the context of two distinct phases in his life; one at the beginning of his career and then again at the very end.
Mackintosh’s exposure to life at the influential GSA in the early 1890s provided him with a freedom to experiment, as art schools often do. Whilst the handful of paintings he produced at this time are critically acclaimed today they were never intended as commercial; rather they were an interesting distraction from his job as a trainee architect.
Fast forward 30 years and with Mackintosh’s architectural career at an all-time low he was forced to consider a return to painting as a means of generating some much needed income. By 1923, the Mackintoshes had moved to the South of France on the recommendation of friends. Here there was already an established ex-pat community, the cost of living was substantially cheaper than in London and the weather was considerably better. For the next four years Mackintosh produced a series of stylised, almost graphic watercolours, drawing almost exclusively upon the local landscape as subject matter. These often depicted isolated farm buildings set in empty mountain landscapes or views of the surrounding hill towns. More often than not the composition was heavily altered, creating a flat composition, with some buildings deliberately set in the wrong place or portrayed at odd, confusing angles.
Despite Mackintosh’s best intentions and with his wife acting as an ad-hoc agent touting his work to galleries back in London, none sold. They were nice, yes, and very competent but this was the time of Matisse and Picasso and of Surrealism and Mackintosh ‘the painter’ was not in the same league.
Meg: In 1999 you helped establish the Réseau Art Nouveau Network and became its president in 2009. Can you describe the network and what inspired you to create it?
Peter: The initiative behind this Network was primarily to raise the profile of art nouveau across Europe. This was seen as achievable in two ways; through academia, via exhibitions, conferences and publications, and also by encouraging tourist and heritage agencies in individual cities to celebrate and promote their own local version of art nouveau. It’s worth remembering that this artistic movement goes by different names in different countries, so for instance, Art Nouveau (in France and Belgium), Modernisme (in Spain), Glasgow Style (in Scotland), Jugendstil (in Germany and parts of Scandinavia), Secessionist (in Austria and Hungary) and Stile Liberty (in Italy).
When the Network was set up in 1999 it applied for grant funding from the European Union. This was on the proviso that cities that were already widely known for promoting their art nouveau heritage such as Barcelona, Brussels, Vienna and Glasgow would look at ways to collaborate and support the efforts of cities (and countries) that were shortly due to join the European Union. This included Hungary, Latvia and Slovenia amongst others and since then the cities of Budapest, Riga and Ljubljana have been integral to the Network’s delivery of touring exhibitions and pan-European publications, conferences and workshops.
Representing Glasgow (as the only UK member city) I was elected Network President in 2009. Since then membership has continued to grow. Geographically it now stretches from Ålesund in Norway, to Melilla the autonomous Spanish city on the north coast of Africa, and extends to the very east of Europe with Oradea in Romania and Subotica in Serbia.
It’s a vibrant Network which has delivered some important ground-breaking work. It’s also brought about some long-standing professional friendships and in November this year, it’ll be celebrating its 20th anniversary with a two day conference in Brussels. Details of this event and the Network’s other activities can be found at www.artnouveau-net.eu
Meg: I came across this quote, attributed to Mackintosh in a 1902 lecture:”Let every artist strive to make his flower a beautiful living thing, something that will convince the world that there may be, there are, things more precious more beautiful – more lasting than life itself.”
As someone who has devoted a significant portion of your own career to the heritage of Mackintosh, can you offer your own perspective on the aspiration of creatives to have their influence endure?
Peter: I’ve been lucky in the way my career has developed and I’ll be forever grateful for the advice and support I received when I first started out. Over the years I’ve worked with, and been introduced to, amazing individuals from diverse backgrounds and all hugely knowledgeable. Without exception, these people have been remarkably generous with their time and expertise and I would like to think that I’ve been able to reciprocate in a similar way when people have come knocking at my own door. I’m keen that this level of professionalism and personal interaction remains central to what I do.
When I first moved to Glasgow over 30 years ago little did I know that the city would take such a stronghold over me. I hadn’t been there very long when its architectural appeal was summed up to me with a comment from a former colleague, the late Professor Andy McMillan, former Head of the Mackintosh School of Architecture at GSA. As a recognised Mackintosh scholar himself, Andy once said, “Glasgow is Scottish in its stone, European in its pedigree and American in its grid plan”. It’s no wonder then that Glasgow holds a special place amongst architects and urban planners worldwide.
And what of Mackintosh and the legacy that is his Glasgow School of Art?
Generations of students (and staff) who were privileged to have spent time studying in that very special building continue to wax lyrical about how the experience impacted on their later lives and subsequent careers. I too share a degree of that sentiment, and it is a similar sentiment that is best summed up by the unlikeliest of characters, the former British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill. Speaking in 1943 following the partial destruction of the House of Commons Chamber by incendiary bombs during the London blitz, Churchill is on record as saying: “First we shape our buildings and afterwards they shape us”.
I couldn’t agree more.
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