Beautiful Mackintosh key to Glasgow School of Art to be sold

The beautiful Mackintosh key used to officially open the Glasgow School of Art in the late 19th Century is to go up for auction with the sale to help fund the restoration of the building that was badly damaged by fire in 2014.

The Mackintosh key used to open Glasgow Art School in 1899 will be sold at auction. PIC: Lyon & Turnbull.

The piece of design history will be sold by Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh on April 11 with an estimated sale price of between £20,000 and £30,000, plus fees.

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A percentage of the sale price will be donated to the Mackintosh Campus appeal by its owner and the auction house.

The Mackintosh key used to open Glasgow Art School in 1899 will be sold at auction. PIC: Lyon & Turnbull.

The key, designed by Mackintosh and held in an oak box, was used to officially open Glasgow School of Art, now the Mackintosh Building, on December 20, 1899.

It was placed on a pale, oblong satin cushion, which was co-designed by artist Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, who was married to the architect, for the presentation.

Mary Newberry, the daughter of Fra Newbery, then director of the art school, was just six when she presented the key and cushion to Sir James King, then the Lord Provost of Glasgow so he could unlock the new art school.

The Mackintosh key used to open Glasgow Art School in 1899 will be sold at auction. PIC: Lyon & Turnbull.

She later recalled: She said: “I was shepherded up holding a small, oblong, pale, pearly silk cushion with a silver fringe round. It was oblong so as to be suitable to hold the special key of the front door.

“This cushion was made by Mrs Mackintosh and my mother.

“Then the door was unlocked and in we went. There was a feeling of cheerful achievement. The thing is the Mackintoshes were perfectionists and they couldn’t have an ordinary key.

“The door had a special plate and to open that interesting door of the new School of Art there had to be a proper key and that key had to be laid on a special cushion.”

The iron key is distinctively Mackintosh and bears a large square with circular insets and plant motifs.

A silver inscribed commemorative plaque, probably applied after the ceremony, is attached to the key by chain.

The silver is hallmarked Glasgow 1899 and the engraved lettering almost exactly matches the typeface used by the School of Art at this time.

John Mackie, Director and Specialist at Lyon & Turnbull said “This remarkable object, a symbolist key for the opening ceremony of The Glasgow School of Art in 1899, was designed by the architect of the new school, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

“With his masterwork the new Glasgow School of Art of 1899 and 1910, became a building that has come to symbolise his achievement as an architect.”

Following the sale a donation will be made by both the owner of the key and Lyon & Turnbull to The Mackintosh Campus Appeal.

Sir James King, owner of the key and direct descendant of Sir James King who opened the building with it, said: “With opportunities provided by the restoration of the Mackintosh Building for a new era for The Glasgow School of Art, it seems entirely fitting and the right moment to hand over the inaugural key to a new patron.  

“If this beautiful and symbolic key can help unlock even just a little support from today’s entrepreneurs to restore this Glaswegian cultural masterpiece it will have done its job inspiring future generations. A percentage of the sale will be donated to the restoration fund.”

Prof Tom Inns, Director of The Glasgow School of Art, added: “The history of The Glasgow School of Art is inexorably linked to the rich history of our city and the people who contribute to its growth.

“This key is a beautiful and highly poignant reminder of that heritage at a time when we are focussed on the sympathetic and authentic restoration of the Mackintosh Building.

“We have cause to be grateful to many charitable Trusts, companies and individuals, across the UK and overseas, for the financial support they have given to our Mackintosh Campus Appeal and we are particularly touched by the generosity of Sir James King and Lyon & Turnbull for their commitment to donate a percentage of the sale price of the key to the Appeal.”