If you’ve spent any length of time in Glasgow, then it’s highly likely that you would have seen a reference to famed architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, if not by name, then in the delicate glasswork of a Mackintosh-inspired Glasgow rose, or perhaps in the beloved exterior of the School of Art which is one of his greatest legacies. However, even those amongst you who have visited every Mackintosh attraction in the city might not have known some of these more mysterious details, and if this leaves you keen to learn more, then make sure you partake in some of the exciting events organised for the Mackintosh festival which comes to this city for the month of October.

1. His first public commission is still in the City of the Dead

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Image: Tour Guide for Friends of Glasgow Necropolis, Nigel guides us to a gravestone designed by a young Mackintosh when he had just started work with Honeyman and Keppie architecture firm.

Mackintosh’s father was the superintendent of the police force in Glasgow, and when the young architect started work with a local architecture firm, his first commission was the creation of a gravestone for Alexander MacCall, chief of police.

2. His marriage to Margaret MacDonald was controversial, to say the least

Image: Courtesy of GSA Archives
Image: Courtesy of GSA Archives

This image was taken in 1893. Aside from the unusually cheerful and playful poses being adopted (Victorian photography posing was usually a very solemn affair) this remarkable photo shows Mackintosh (front centre) with the rest of the Glasgow Four (Margaret and Frances McDonald are far left and back, and Herbert McNair is far right) as well as Jessie Keppie, daughter of Mackintosh’s employer and the woman he was engaged to when he decided to sacrifice the influence that wedding Keppie would bring, on order to marry Margaret – an Englishwoman and fellow student at the Art School. Perhaps if he had remained with Keppie, he would never have spent the last few years of his life scrimping just to pay for art materials and food in the South of France? But then he may never have created his best works. He often paid tribute to Margaret and considered her work to be superior to his own – ‘Margaret has genius’, he said, ‘I only have talent’.

3. His House for An Art Lover came last in the competition it was designed for, and could easily have been in Germany

Image: Glasgow Mackintosh website
Image: Glasgow Mackintosh website

Mackintosh entered a competition run by an international design magazine, with his design for a house for an art lover – a residence where the art is inseparable from the architecture and the imagination should run wild. He created his dream house in the winter of 1900, with Margaret helping to translate the whole thing into German and the feet into metres in order to enter the work. The application was received late, and could not therefore be considered. In saying that, the judges were so impressed that they awarded a special merit and a monetary prize for the effort. The house was actually built in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park in the 1990s, nearly 100 years after the idea was first conceived and with extraordinary attention paid to the details in the sketches Mackintosh entered for the contest. It is now a visitor centre, wedding venue, café and art class location.

4. Mackintosh had undiagnosed Dyslexia which sometimes caused problems at work and school

It was not until his letters were analysed that it became clear that Mackintosh had trouble with reading and writing. His beautiful letters to and from his wife in the later years of his life demonstrate this – he had even been known to spell his own name in a variety of different ways. The book of these letters is available to buy for those interested in understanding a little more one of the greatest artistic pairings of the 20th century.

5. Margaret and Charles were suspected spies in the First World War, and were investigated by the Foreign Office

Margaret and Charles - Image courtesy Scotiana.com
Margaret and Charles – Image courtesy Scotiana.com

By 1913, work in Glasgow was very difficult to get hold of, and the couple moved to Sussex. Charles’ ‘bizarre’ Glasgow accent, as well as their ‘artistic’ style of dressing and the fact that they sent and received so much correspondance abroad, meant that they became top suspects and had their house searched.

6. Glasgow isn’t the only place you can see his work

Image: 78 Derngate Website
Image: 78 Derngate Website

During their time living in England, Mackintosh was commissioned by WL Basset-Lowke to redesign his townhouse in Northhampton. The house at 78 Derngate is now a visitor centre, and is a remarkable example of Mackintosh’s work at a mature stage in his career. Basset-Lowke was so proud of his ‘ultra modern’ new abode that it featured in home magazines at the time, and he even made a silent film showing it all off, which is a joy to watch:

7. He died in obscurity, yet now his work sells for hundreds of thousands of pounds

Charles Rennie Mackintosh Watercolour (Image courtesy Scotiana)
Charles Rennie Mackintosh Watercolour (Image courtesy Scotiana)

In his correspondence to Margaret, Mackintosh used to write progressively smaller and smaller type in order to fit all the information on a single sheet of paper – the price of stamps and paper was almost too high. He begged friends in Scotland to buy his watercolours. Now, his work reaches high prices at auctions. Recently, a pair of chairs sold for £109,250.

8. Margaret was a brilliant artist in her own right

The Heart of the Rose (Margaret Macdonald) Image Courtesy David Jure WordPress
The Heart of the Rose (Margaret Macdonald) Image Courtesy David Jure WordPress

Mackintosh would probably have approved of finishing an article about him with a focus on his wife, muse and inspiration Margaret. She was adept at using a variety of materials, and was arguably the better-known and more successful of the two when they were alive. She and her sister Frances exhibited around Europe, although most of Frances’ work was destroyed by her broken-hearted husband, Herbert MacNair, when she died young. The Mackintoshes never had children, and Margaret’s work is frequently interpreted with this sorrow in mind.