Glasgow School of Art, More Than Just a Mackintosh Exhibition
“The Glasgow School of Art existed decades before Charles Rennie Mackintosh,” says Curator Peter Trowles. “Is he the most talented student that ever studied there? Quite possibly, but he was also one of the most marketable. Local boy done good.”
“Every student who qualifies from the Glasgow School of Art deserves the same acclaim that Charles Rennie Mackintosh receives, we’re still discovering information about past students, some of whom went off to fight in world wars, at first they were just names on a war memorial, but now we find they received medals of bravery, they were heroes,” said the GSA curator.
It’s surprising to discover that Charles Rennie Mackintosh enjoyed a greater deal of success internationally than he ever did in Glasgow. Mackintosh travelled to various places in Europe on the back of winning the Alexander “Greek” Thomson scholarship. He also had work exhibited in Italy, Russia, Japan, Germany and beyond, during his lifetime.
He continues to be revered across the Pacific and the Hida Takayama Museum of Art in Japan, actually boasts the best collection of Mackintosh furniture and decorative arts outside of the UK.
“This 1912 student register gives an idea of the students enrolling at the time” says Archives and Collection Assistant Jocelyn Grant, delicately handling the register, a true relic of Glasgow School of Art’s history. “Something else you can notice when looking at the GSA staff members handwriting, is as time progresses you can see how the handwriting becomes less uniform.” she said.
Glancing down at the earliest signatures revealed that the majority of surnames were quite typically British. Smith, McCallum etc, as well as the odd Italian based surname, which generally fitted with the immigration patterns of the time. However it was delving further into the book which uncovered more interesting revelations. Student’s surnames became more geographically expansive. Meaning that Glasgow School of Art was actually being recognised internationally for academic greatness in 1912, during Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s life, instead of receiving a fluctuation of enrolling international students, as a result of his death.
“Glasgow School of Art existed for nearly 50 years before Mackintosh passed through its doors”, said Curator Peter Trowles, “it has existed for well over a century since. There have been tens of thousands of students who have studied at the GSA, many of whom have gone on to taste huge success, the Robbie Coltranes and Peter Capaldis, they may have taken different career paths than what they studied during their time at GSA, but no one can deny their success.”
The level of alumni who once called the GSA home is undeniable, Oscar winners, Turner Prize winners, automobile designers for Ford, Hollywood film stars, world renowned architects, rock stars, award winning photographers, product designers for Apple (yes, the “Apple”), politicians, war artists and so much more. Each one scorching their own mark in history.
Mackintosh along with the city of Glasgow herself, was kind of forgotten about for decades, no tours of Mackintosh’s living art, no exploration of his buildings or tea rooms, “it was more fortune than fate that resulted in Mackintosh becoming a tourism draw”, said Peter. “Glasgow City Council at the time were demolishing buildings to make way for the future (M8 motorway for example), there’d be no legacy if the council had decided simply to demolish right through any of his art.”
Mackintosh was only truly rediscovered as a significant factor in Glasgow’s history, after the city was awarded European City of Culture in 1990. A year long festival showcasing his work revived interest, which in turn led to the refurbishment of many of his “working art”. For example “House for an Art Lover” situated in Bellahouston Park was only completed in 1996. Nearly 80 years after his death.
As a result of the horrendous fire at the GSA, archivists are travelling back through the records after discovering exactly what has been lost and damaged in the fire. “It’s been unbelievable”, says GSA archivist Jocelyn,”what’s on show today is only a tiny proportion of the overall holdings, it really shows how diverse the archives actually are.”
Mesmerising Paisley Patterns, Embroidery bulletins from the 1940s (a kind of weekly magazine, teaching people how to embroider), even a student designed flier advertising “Activities Week” (a precursor to Freshers Week) exclusive only to Glasgow School of Art students. 50 years old decorative embroidered elephants. A bust of ex Director Francis Henry Newbery, each one almost impossible to put a price on.
One story of just how progressive the Glasgow School of Art has always been, relates back to ex student Dorothy Carleton Smyth. She studied at the GSA from 1895 to 1905, and was considered so talented she was anonymously granted money to study in Europe. Smyth designed costumes for several Shakespearean festivals but arguably her crowning glory was designing the costumes for the 1916 Quinlan Opera Company’s world tour.
Of such high regard, was Dorothy Smyth held, she was appointed the first female Director of the GSA in 1933, but tragically died of cancer before she could take up her post. Considering that woman over the age of 21 only received the vote in 1928, for Smyth to become the Director of the GSA five years later was groundbreaking.
Mackintosh left the GSA in 1891 and his design for the school was completed four years after Smyth completed her studies. As an architect Mackintosh enjoyed the majority of his success between the years 1899-1910. “It’s impossible to emphasise the GSA’s importance to Rennie Mackintosh at the time” said Peter, “and vice versa, because no one really knew much about him outside of GSA, who he hung about with or what he got up-to. In all honesty it seemed he was a bit of a loner.” he admitted.
Mackintosh had an extremely close set of friends, “The Four” also known as “The Spook School” because of their particularly gothic style of drawing, consisted of Margaret Macdonald (his future wife) Frances Macdonald (her sister) and Herbert MacNair, but before he joined the School of Art not much was known about him. For example no one is really sure why he or his father before him decided to change their name from McIntosh to Mackintosh.
“Like all artists he was ahead of his time” said Peter, speaking of the elusive Dennistoun genius, “his legacy of artwork is undeniable, it’s easy to see it now in Glasgow, but at the time his work wasn’t thought much of. People from Glasgow tend to be self deprecating and Mackintosh would have been no different.”
Mackintosh at the time never took all credit for his work, he referenced his wife Margaret Macdonald in many of his creations and once said ‘Remember you are half if not three quarters in all my architectural work.’
“Margaret travelled with him everywhere said the GSA curator, “She was a highly respected artist and was considered by Mackintosh and other peers to be his equal.”
Sadly because of gender inequality at the time, MacDonald would have never experienced the success Mackintosh did, and seemed to be content to sit and let her husband be the focal point. Many of her works can be found in Glasgow museums and in 2008 her work The Red Rose, and the White Rose when auctioned sold for £1.7 million pounds.
“The Glasgow School of Art is definitely proud of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, we’re proud of our past but we also recognise the potential in our future”.
“Who knows”, Peter continued prophetically. “The next Charles Rennie Mackintosh could already be studying at the GSA”.
Many thanks to Glasgow School of Art’s, infinitely knowledgeable Curator, Peter Trowles and also GSA Archives and collections Assistant Jocelyn Grant for allowing GlasgowLiving a peek at some of Glasgow’s timeless works of art.