Naomi Adam

Rennie’s Set, Go!: ‘Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style’ at the Walker.

Seven reasons to wander down to the Walker and take a deek * at the collected artworks of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his Weedgie milieu.

Championing the ‘Glasgow style’ today are the likes of singer Lewis Capaldi, sitting pretty at the top of the singles chart, and premier model Connor Newall. Back in time, circa 1890, however, it was a group of artists from the Glasgow School of Art, known simply as ‘the Four:’ sisters Frances and Margaret Macdonald, James McNair, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. By the turn of the century, the quartet had made like the bread slices of their infamous Tearoom’s sandwiches, and coupled up, with art in various forms- painting, sculpture, architecture- the filling that melded their relationships together. Now Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery is hosting a major exhibition of their works, alongside that of contemporaneous creatives from the same school. Here’s seven reasons why you should go and drink in the Scotch artwork on show.

* (Translation: ‘take a look’ in Scottish slang.)

  1. It’s Multimedia.

Scone but not forgotten: the replica Tearooms.

There’s over 250 pieces on display for this special retrospective, collected to mark 150 years since the birth of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928). They span architectural sketches of elevation to intricate zardozi-style embroidery, literally an artistic a to z, and everything in between: pottery and ceramics, wall-length murals, magazine covers…

There is a special focus on his achievements in the realm of interior design, with the exhibition featuring fittings, furniture and stained glasswork from the legendary Willow Tearooms. Commissioned by local entrepreneur and arts patron Cate Cranston, these ornate cucumber sandwich- serving salons were designed by the Mackintosh marital duo in 1903. Reconstructed from photographs, a replica has recently been erected on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street, but the Walker’s recreation is just as immersive, and a saving on train fares. It’s also the installation’s first excursion south of the border. The effect of viewing the Chinese room of the Ingram Tearoom, all high-backed chairs fused with the diktats of feng shui, is to leave you craving a scone (also originally a Scottish export) or some shortbread…

2. It’s International.

Viennese Swirl: the Klimt- evoking The May Queen (1900).

Far from being insular and parochial, the exhibition shows the ‘Glasgow Style’ to have been definitively cosmopolitan, and influenced by the art scene worldwide. Japanese artefacts circulating in Glasgow, as the Emperor lifted the ban on outside interaction for his island nation, are illuminatingly compared to the undeniably Oriental style of Mackintosh et al.’s interiors. Informative plaques also align the Glasgow School with their Continental counterparts. Both Mackintoshes met Klimt whilst touring Vienna, for example; his influence is inescapable in Margaret’s elaborate, beaded gesso frieze, The May Queen (1900).

  1. It’s Local.

From Sauchiehall to Seel Street… Bringing things closer to home, the Walker is keen to emphasise the Liverpudlian connection. Half of the Four, James and Frances McNair (’ship name Frames?) chose to settle in Liverpool; James was employed at the University. Mackintosh, meanwhile, applied as an anonymous entrant to design a facade and interior for a new Anglican Cathedral to be built in Liverpool. While the collection showcases his designs, he failed even to progress to the second round for consideration: the judges snouted out faceless entrant No. 85 as Mackintosh, who they rejected as too outre. One English architect, an Edward Lutyens, described his decor as ‘a wee bit vulgar.’ (The apparent mimicry of his accent no doubt made the comment sting all the more.)

  1. It’s Inclusive.

Half of ‘the Four’ were female, and the retrospective focuses on the role of both Macdonald sisters. Alongside other previously marginalised women artists. Among them is Ann Macbeth (1875-1948), who worked largely in textiles and was renowned for her embroidery. She certainly created something wicked with the geometrically embroidered tea cosy on display. Aside from her artwork, contextualising plaques also trace her trailblazing life as an active suffragette through archive photographs and source material.

  1. It’s Allusive.

A major thread running through the collection (quite literally in the case of the textile exhibits) is the influence of mythology (Salome) as well as fairy tale (The Seven Dancing Princesses) on the Glasgow Movement’s subject matter. There’s evidence of porousness across disciplinary boundaries too, with one painting, Gather Ye Rosebuds, explicitly quoting from the poet Robert Herrick’s ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’ in its unfurled banner. It’s a ‘seize the day’ message via an artist’s palette: carpaint diem.

    6. It’s Enduring.

Poster Boy: Rennie Mackintosh’s style is instantly recognisable.

The gallery’s final wall plaque, its salient ‘take home message,’ characterises Mackintosh as ‘the father of Modernism.’ He himself exhorted people to originality with the line ‘Go alone- crawl, stumble, stagger, but go alone.’ Whilst not advisable as a motto on a night out, it captures the uniqueness Mackintosh sought- and achieved. Why else, 150 years later, would we find pop culture references to his work everywhere from Doctor Who episodes to Madonna music videos, and a virtual industry of ‘Mockintosh’ merch? He certainly put the ‘Nouveau’ into Art Nouveau. Talking of merch, don’t forget to stop off at the gift shop post-gallery traipsing. There you will find the perfect present for any Rennie fan: a rubber duck designed to look like the artist- Quackintosh?

  1. It’s Instagrammable.

While the exhibits cannot be photographed for copyright reasons, feel free to filter away to your heart’s content in the dedicated dress-up corner. You can sit yourself down in an ergonomic Mackintosh chair, don straw hat and silk cravat, and snap a selfie Glasgow Style!

‘Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style’ is at the Walker Art Gallery until 26 August 2019. For tickets and information, visit liverpoolmuseums.org.uk, or call 0151 478 4444.

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