Charles Rennie Mackintosh: The London years

It is a time in Charles Rennie Mackintosh's life often regarded as one of decline. But his work in the capital which began in 1915 has now been commemorated there, reports Martyn McLaughlin

• Mayoress of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Daria Coleridge, left, celebrates the unveiling of the plaque which marks Mackintosh's work in the area.

FOR nearly a decade, it was the bolthole of Scotland's greatest architect. But while Charles Rennie Mackintosh's hometown went on to enthuse over and promote his genius, his connections with a house just off the King's Road have remained largely unknown.

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Now, in the centenary year of Mackintosh's most celebrated design, the Mackintosh Building at the Glasgow School of Art, the London studios where the architect, designer, and painter spent eight years of his life have finally been recognised. Yesterday heralded the unveiling of the first plaque in the capital commemorating the man behind architectural masterpieces such as Scotland Street School and Hill House. Located at Glebe Place, a narrow wynd in Chelsea, it commemorates the period between 1915 and 1923 when Mackintosh lived and worked in London with his wife, Margaret Macdonald.

It is a time of Mackintosh's life which has often been disregarded as a period of decline, at least when compared to the outstanding legacy he left in Scotland. Yet, while Mackintosh moved away from the architectural designs which later won him fame, he continued to display his eye for design during his time at Hans Studios. Experts said that it remains a common misconception that Mackintosh's career "ended" following his departure from Scotland's biggest city, and that his creative output would have been different were it not for the advent of the First World War.

The initiative has been supported by the Royal Borough, the Chelsea Society, and the Church Commissions for England, while the plaque was unveiled by Daria Coleridge, the Mayoress of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, who said that Mackintosh's time in London was a matter of pride, and deserved wider knowledge. "The fact that Charles Rennie Mackintosh spent a substantial period of his life working at Hans Studios is significant to the history of Chelsea," she said. "I am delighted that his great contribution to art, design and architecture and connection to Chelsea is being recognised with this plaque."

Stuart Robertson, director of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, who was given a tour of the studio yesterday, said it remained largely unchanged from Mackintosh's time. "There's a very good light, and a gorgeous courtyard outside which would have been very stimulating. It feels as if you're far away from the world."

Mackintosh left Glasgow in1914, five years after completing the last phases of the Glasgow School of Art. Suffering from depression, he sought solace in alcohol, and dissolved his partnership with the architectural practice, Honeyman and Keppie. Quite what his intentions were have been lost in time. Having struck up friendships with Austrian architects such as Koloman Moser and Josef Hoffmann, it is possible he planned to relocate to Vienna, an idea that would have been thwarted by the outbreak of war.

Instead Mackintosh drifted south to Walberswick in Suffolk, and reinvented himself as a painter, producing a series of flower studies that most critics agree are his greatest. But his time in Walberswick was not tranquil. Word spread of his affinity with Austria, and he was arrested on suspicion of being a spy.

Soon afterwards, he arrived in London, determined to win over clients with the finances and disposition that would allow him to emulate the architectural designs that made his reputation in Glasgow.

Socially, at least, the move was a welcome one. Mackintosh could often be found at the Blue Cockatoo, a nearby caf frequented by the likes of the painter, Augustus John, the dancer, Margaret Morris, and other artistic Chelsea denizens.

But few clients were forthcoming, the prospect of commissioning expensive building work at a time of conflict holding little appeal. As a result, many of Mackintosh's designs from the period, including adventurous proposals for a suite of artists' studios and a theatre, went unrealised. "It's all too easy to forget that Mackintosh's career did not end with his departure from Glasgow in 1914," reasoned Peter Trowles, Mackintosh curator at the Glasgow School of Art. "But all one can do now is speculate how his architectural career may have continued and developed in London had not World War I had such a devastating effect on society as a whole. Had circumstances been different, who knows how Mackintosh, regarded as a key figure in the Art Nouveau movement, would have responded to the challenge of Art Deco?"

One project which was commissioned and completed makes for a notable exception, however: Mackintosh's redesign of a Northamptonshire terrace house for W.J. Bassett-Lowke, a young modernist patron. The project, known as 78 Derngate, may not be as familiar to Mackintosh fans as his commissions in Scotland, but it shows that the architect had lost none of his power or vision.

Mackintosh was initially commissioned to make adjustments to the interior of the building in 1916. Bassett-Lowke then asked him to redecorate a number of the rooms. The results were startling, and revealed Mackintosh had embraced the age of jazz. The bold designs relied heavily on the use of primary colours. The lounge, in particular, wowed with its chequerwork black and white layout, with the addition of coloured stencils and overlapping geometric motifs picked out in scarlet, blue, green, white, and buttercup yellow.

Rebecca Colcott, house manager of the 78 Derngate Northampton Trust, an independent charitable trust which looks after the Georgian property, said it represented a "great full-stop" in Mackintosh's interior design work. "After 78 Derngate, Mackintosh moved towards textile designs and watercolours, and embraced his love of the outdoor life," she said. "I wonder whether he knew it was going to be his last commission. He had struggled financially, and the property has nods to all that he had done before - the motifs from Scotland Street School, for example. It's a fitting end to that part of his career."

The plaque in Chelsea, she adds, was a "wonderful mark of approval for Mackintosh. In England, he's well known. It's taken a long time, but he is esteemed, and is still very, very relevant. He's not overly commercialised here, and people love getting a taste of his designs."

Throughout his London years, Mackintosh supplemented his dwindling income by designing textile patterns. Between 1915 and 1923, he produced no fewer than 120 different designs, ranging from patterns based on stylised flowers and natural forms to more abstract motifs that anticipated the Art Deco movement. "He designed textiles for a number of companies, and it shows just how creative he was," Mr Robertson recalled.

A keen painter and drawer since his student days, Mackintosh also used his time in Chelsea to create a succession of watercolours which have won admirers and display the diversity of Mackintosh's talents. One, entitled Yellow Tulips, which sold for 160,000 at auction in 1994, was painted just before he left London for France. It depicts a blue vase of vibrant flowers in the Glebe Street studio. With no photographs of the building's interior, it remains the best record available of the creative space.

Such works may not have the international reputation of Mackintosh's architectural designs, but they shoot down the theory that his skills waned upon leaving Glasgow.

Indeed, for Professor Pamela Robertson, professor of Mackintosh studies at the University of Glasgow's Hunterian Art Gallery and Museum, the London years produced much praiseworthy work. "Mackintosh was still a relatively young man in London, and still a very creative force, even though there weren't many commissions, in large part due to war. But the period acknowledges the next phase in his work, the textiles and watercolours," she said. "The external factors impacted on his core career as an architect, which opened up his other ways of working. It's a different period for him; you can see a scaling down in terms of output, with no major buildings, and a gradual shift towards full-time painting."

Nonetheless, Prof Robertson said questions remain over what Mackintosh would have been capable of had he been allowed to continue his architectural work. "It's hugely impressive that he had such a diversity of skill, and his achievements in watercolour painting are significant in their own right," she added. "But, at the same time, you regret that his last major building was completed in 1909. What if he had another 20 years of architectural work, what would he have done?"

Stuart McKnight, a partner with London-based Mclnnes Usher Mcknight Architects (MUMA), described Mackintosh as a "fundamentally important" influence, and agreed he was the victim of circumstance.

"There's talk about Mackintosh's decline during his time in London, but it's an odd thing to focus upon as it was during the war, and there was just no work," he said. McKnight, a former Glasgow School of Art student, said the plaque represents much-deserved recognition for Mackintosh beyond his home country. "I think it is absolutely fantastic that a plaque is being unveiled to Mackintosh in London," he added. "He doesn't get the same kind of recognition he deserves outside of Scotland."

• Glasgow School of Art is hosting a series of celebrations next week as part of its centenary year. On Monday, a Mackintosh Symposium is taking place at Glasgow Film Theatre to discuss his work, while the next day marks an official ceremony in the Mackintosh Gallery to mark the 100th anniversary of the building.

• The study in Chelsea where he was based

HIS LIFE & TIMES

• BORN in Glasgow in 1868, Charles Rennie Mackintosh was apprenticed to a local architect, but, at the age of 21, transferred to the larger, more established city practice of Honeyman and Keppie.

• He enrolled for evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art where he pursued various drawing programmes, and flourished, winning numerous competitions.

• By the 1890s, his architectural projects, such as the Glasgow Herald building, showed an increasing maturity, and four years before the turn of the century, he won his most substantial commission, to design a new building for the Glasgow School of Art. Completed in 1909, it was to be his masterwork.

• In Europe, Mackintosh's style was quickly appreciated and in Germany, and particularly in Austria, he received the acclaim and recognition for his designs that he was never truly to gain at home.

• Despite the support of small handful of patrons, Mackintosh's work met with indifference. By 1914, he left for England with his wife, Margaret, and spent eight years working in London.

• A move to the South of France in 1923 signalled the end of Mackintosh's architectural career and the last years of his life were spent painting.

• He died in London in 1928.