Glasgow School of Art: Art artefacts in the ruins

The salvage operation in the fire-stricken Mackintosh Library has transformed into an archaeological dig for priceless artistic artefacts, writes Susan Mansfield

The salvage operation in the fire-stricken Mackintosh Library has transformed into an archaeological dig for priceless artistic artefacts, writes Susan Mansfield

IT IS eerily quiet walking up the central staircase in Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building. One is braced for scenes of devastation, after the fire which ripped through the building last May, but there is only stillness. The door to the Registry sits open, revealing empty in-trays on bare desks. Student posters advertise gigs that happened eight months ago.

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Traces of fire damage become evident on the first floor corridor in the west wing: paint is puckered by heat, panes of glass are cracked and blackened, but the wooden booths where generations of students have gossiped, dreamed and etched their initials remain intact.

In the Mackintosh Library, however, the full extent of the devastation becomes apparent. The doors stand open revealing a blackened shell, a tower-like space into which long Mackintosh windows – their broken glass open to the elements – shed faint rectangles of light. Of the interior fittings, there is nothing left save a few charred pillars which once supported the mezzanine floor, and the blackened shell of a wall cabinet.

When archaeologist Gordon Ewart visited the building, three days after the fire on 23 May, this room was filled with a pile of debris in places two metres deep, where shelves had collapsed and the ceiling fallen in causing a cascade of objects from the furniture store above. He describes it as “a great shelf, a dune of debris, a hot, smelly, smoky heap”.

Once the building was stabilised, a temporary roof fitted and basic services restored, Ewart’s company, Edinburgh-based Kirkdale Archaeology, working in partnership with conservators from AOC Archaeology, was engaged to lead a “dig” in the library, excavating the debris in exactly the same way as one would a medieval castle, or a discovery of buried Roman remains. It was hoped they would recover furniture, fittings and even books that had escaped the blaze. After six weeks of painstaking sifting, recording, drawing and photographing, that process is now complete.

The story which has emerged is bittersweet. The loss of the Mackintosh ­Library, the jewel in the crown of the Grade A listed building, and most of its contents, is undeniable. However, at the same time, the archaeologists have recovered thousands of fragments of furniture and ­fittings, as well as invaluable information about the construction of the library itself which can be used to inform the restoration work.

There are a few iconic finds: the backing panel and mechanism for the Mackintosh clock which hung in the library have been recovered, as have more than 600 pieces of the complex metal light fittings which hung in the centre of the room. In the way that a fire can leave an object intact, while destroying everything around it, the team were delighted to find a rare book of early photographs, Sights And Scenes In Fair Japan, published in around 1910 (when the library was built) by Japan’s Imperial Government Railways. A further 80 books have been sent to Harwell’s, a specialist paper restoring company in Oxfordshire, for their condition to be assessed.

“When we went into the Mack building after the fire and looked at the pile of rubble that was left on the floor of the library, it was very hard to imagine that there would be things that we’d want to keep,” says Alison Stevenson, head of learning resources at GSA. “But when we spoke to experts in field like the archaeologists they said they would expect to find some things in there. It has been great to absorb some of their enthusiasm. For us to see things rendered to little pieces is very upsetting, but they’re used to working with fragments – if they find a chair leg, that’s fantastic.”

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At 2pm every day during the dig, academic liaison librarians David Buri and Duncan Chappell crossed the road from the modern main library and donned hard hats and safety goggles to look at the day’s findings. “It was tough at times,” says Buri. “Sometimes, day after day, very little salvageable came out, and that was really quite disheartening. But every so often the archaeologists would come across an area which had been better preserved and there were more substantial fragments that came out. They were always very positive and optimistic, even about finding small amounts of material; they kept us quite cheerful.”

At the time of my visit, Ewart’s team was hard at work on the last stages of their work. In their operational centre – the Mackintosh Gallery, normally used as an exhibition space – there was a sense of quiet busyness as they worked, overshadowed by the huge, somewhat blackened, plaster cast figure of Nike of Samothrace. One was completing a technical drawing of part of a Mackintosh chair, another filled in a “context sheet” recording every nail on a spar of wood, others were working on digitised records. More than 3,000 separate objects have been recorded.

Ewart praised his team for “working wonders” in the library, following the exacting principles of an archaeological dig in a room open to the elements on some of the coldest days of winter. Working closely with contractors Taylor and Fraser, who have been making the building safe, they divided the space into a precise mathematical grid, and sifted its contents one block at a time so that the location of each find could be accurately recorded.

After it has been recorded by them, each item is then handed over to the AOC team where it is looked at by restoration specialists. A detailed triage system drawn up in advance by GSA staff in consultation with other experts, has been used to determine what should be retained and what can be disposed of.

AOC’s base in the McLellan Galleries is full of storage boxes, bubble wrap and packing tape as they pack away and label the fragments which will be retained. Charred remains of furniture, some of it carried out of the library by firemen on the day of the fire, is arranged around them: the shell of an armchair, its unholstery charred; a baptismal font designed by Mackintosh for a now demolished church in Paisley almost intact. Natalie Mitchell, a conservator with AOC, points out the incongruous survivals: a complete drawer, although the piece which contained it has been destroyed; a bunch of keys which no longer open any doors.

“It’s really promising what came out,” she says. “It has been a puzzle. Experts from GSA have been helping identify what furniture was in the library and what came from the furniture store – it gets really confusing, especially when you’ve only got small fragments to go on. The whole point of this exercise was to see what survived, and all of this has survived, which is amazing. Everything has been looked at really thoroughly by GSA, so they can decide what is significant, what to focus their efforts on.”

In a neighbouring room are book fragments: pages with designs from illuminated manuscripts, a stained cover from the Burlington Magazine. Mitchell points out the poignantly charred cover of a book called Remembering Charles Rennie Mackintosh. From a box labelled “broken lamp glass, fragile” she unwraps a complete piece of glass from the original Mackintosh light fitting, glinting deep blue in the light.

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She believes that the fragments of furniture which survive have much to tell us. “In many cases, we don’t really know what wood he was using, but we can do analysis of the charcoal. There is so much information we might not have been able to get to otherwise, because you can’t take things apart to see how they were put together. It’s very sad that this happened, but hopefully there a lot of positive things that we can draw out of it.”

Kirkdale’s Ewart said he was determined from the outset to take an even longer view. “When I first visited, there was an air of shock, and ‘what on earth happens now?’. There was a focus on salvage – can we get things out of that heap of burned debris which can be restored?

“From day one, I tried to pull back from that, so rather than just say, ‘We’re going to look through every stick’ there is also the wider picture, the biggest arte­fact of all, which is the building.”

The fire has laid bare invaluable insights into the library’s construction which would otherwise never have been seen. Here are the bare bones of the library, the practical ways in which Mackintosh’s design was translated into a living, working space. Ewart and his team have been working on a detailed Standing Building Record, a scientific, evidence-based approach the records of which can be archived, and used to inform any reconstruction.

“Everything here is valid,” Ewart says. “You can look at it in terms of the theory of architectural history but to me that’s no more valid than the man who wants to know about bricks, or toilet fittings. We are simply presenting the evidence without speculation. We don’t prejudice that which was added in the 1980s, or 2000s, as opposed to what was in 1910, it’s all evidence. This is a unique and wondrous building, by one of the most luminous geniuses that walked the planet, as far as I can see. The very least we can do is honour it, and make a belt and braces record.”

His involvement in the project has led him to think deeply about the “strange and unusual” building, built on a tricky site on the edge of a hill, with industrial proportions but medieval overtones, meticulously finished down to the very last clock face and light fitting. “The thing that came across to me personally was a sense of the personality of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, someone I had written off along with the tea rooms and the frou-frou and the silly jewellery. It’s all obviously hugely considered, but it’s so odd. It was made to be beautiful. He turned this space into a very interesting, theatrical experience for people.”

He wonders if Mackintosh thought more than we realise about fire safety. “Look at what we’re standing on,” he says, pointing to the library floor. “Solid timber. We came up stone stairs. The room collapsed in on itself and smouldered, rather than burned. All the people who were working here were saved. Mackintosh was working in the industrial heartland of late Victorian Britain, they knew a great deal about furnaces, heat and what would happen. Did it happen like this by accident or design? I would like to think that somebody of as peerless genius as he, would have thought about that.”

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Meanwhile, the GSA library team are looking to the future. “We feel that’s the end of that part of the process now,” says David Buri. “We’ve said our goodbyes to the space. Now we need to spend the next few years focusing on rebuilding that collection, not necessarily replacing like for like, but deciding, in discussion with the academic team here, what we want to have, so we are ready with a really super collection to place back into a reconstructed library.”

Paradoxically, seeing the room as an empty shell has brought not despair but a sense of possibility. “When it was full of debris it felt still and fixed and dead,” says Alison Stevenson. “Now it’s an empty space, it’s very much easier for me to picture it coming back as a library. I can imagine in two or three years’ time going through those doors and there being students studying at tables, enjoying the light coming in through the windows, accessing the collections on the shelves. I feel like we can now go on and rebuild a really great library space again.”