THE LEGACY OF CHARLES RENNIE Mackintosh

WHY?

Why are you going to Scotland in January, my sun-bound friends asked TheEye rather pityingly.

‘It will be cold, bleak, and miserable’ they added, in tones of no comfort. In fact, when we arrived at the glorious Fife Arms in Braemar, the snow of the previous week — making roads treacherous but providing great skiing for the hardy Scots— had gone, and we were treated to blue skies and clear bracing air in our lungs.

It was with great excitement that TheEye was able to visit The Hill House in Glasgow, which Charles Rennie Mackintosh, ‘arguably’ Scotland’s most famous architect, had been commissioned to design for his client, the publisher Walter Blackie. Hill House is a gem, a complete work of art.

Visiting it on a cold January day it was still obviously a place of pilgrimage for Mackintosh devotees like ourselves.

It was necessary to book a time slot. Once inside, the lovely guides didn’t intrude but were there to answer our questions, and were very informed and knowledgeable. Clearly, all local people are proud to be associated with this extraordinary house.

HILL HOUSE was a collaboration that offered Mackintosh an unprecedented opportunity to design a large private villa from scratch and Walter Blackie was a dream client. The plot of land he bought was in Helensborough, a quiet middle-class suburb of Glasgow. Blackie had a healthy budget for his project and a desire for a home that would be rather different from an ordinary suburban villa. In his memoirs, Blackie described it as a ‘dwelling house’ – meaning not grand like an Italian Villa, an English Mansion, a Swiss Chalet, or a Scotch Castle.

Mackintosh revered his wife, Margaret MacDonald, lavishing her with praise ‘as having genius, where I only have talent.’ The decorative items she made for the interior of Hill House include a gesso panel above the fireplace in the drawing-room, watercolors, curtain fabrics, embroidered chairs. Working hand in hand, the couple created the interiors, which developed into something tactile full of wood and jewel-coloured glass. It was a unified vision, so different from the heavy Victorian interiors of their neighbours.

Although the house is now an inspiration and a tour de force, it was not always popular with critics at the time.

Hill House is dissolving like an aspirin in a glass of water

The entrance gate (pure Rennie Mackintosh) with the steel cage offers the building protection

The drawing room in Hill House with a chair embellished by Margaret MacDonald

The Blackie’s bedroom – everything in detail in perfect unison

The bed and headboard were designed by Margaret Macdonald

Washstand

TheEye fell in love with the bath and shower in the bathroom, resembling a rather strange sculptural torture device.

Walter Blackie was a keen gardener and no doubt had his own ideas about gardening, which is probably why Mackintosh, who usually viewed the grounds as an extension of his houses, had little involvement in the Hill House garden. He did manage to include some ‘lollipop’ holly bushes and positioned a rose garden next to the servant’s quarters (to achieve a geometric balance) as well as a series of gates and screens.

And then there is the teashop – not just delicious home-cooked very tasty comfort food but jewelled ‘Frank Lloyd Wright’ cakes – how sweet is that?

The bad news, and it’s very bad: despite being a design masterpiece, Hill House has a very soggy history. Cracks that are very visible on the outside walls are not just a case of neglect but a more historic problem going back to the beginning when Mackintosh specified using Portland cement to protect the stone from the harsh weather and the protection led to further problems inside the house.

The crumbling exterior has been compared to an aspirin dissolving in water.

Mackintosh’s experiments with modern design and experimental building materials resulted in decades of damp and building decay and it’s sad to see the cracks in its walls. No one in those days realised that applying a dense brittle coating over the sandstone walls would lead to cracking, which in turn let water in.

No one or nothing is going to allow Hill House to disappear and it will be restored. The National Trust For Scotland’s Conservation Practice is embarking on a ten-year program, which involved building a ‘box’ around the house in protective steel mesh acting as a shield to allow the house to dry out slowly over many years. The steel box appears as a sculpture encasing the house. The innovative design of the architectural firm, Carmody Groarke, won an international competition and with the use of pioneering materials, they were able to cocoon the house away from the wet weather causing the building to decay. The house is now drying out whilst investigations into long-term remedies get underway.

A long time, TheEye predicts, but some people like the mystery of the mesh screen and are happy for it to remain.

But whatever the ongoing problems – Hill House is a masterpiece and TheEye couldn’t have spent a happier day looking at so much beauty and elegance.

Even the drive back was spectacular, along the ‘bonny bonny’ banks of Loch Lomond in the sunset.

AND there was a full moon.

Joyous.

P.S

The Chicago architect Frank Lloyd Wright, known for what is referred to as the Prairie style of architecture, also melded the ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement with its emphasis on nature, craftsmanship, and simplicity. Strangely, they were born within a year of one another (Mackintosh 1868 – 1928 and Frank Lloyd Wright 1867 – 1959). TheEye admires them both, and never misses a visit to the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum and the Frank Lloyd Wright Room when she is in New York.

Sadly, thanks to the double whammy of Lockdown and Covid, not for some time.

But this will change soon!

3 Comments

  1. Janice-Thanks so much for focussing on this marvellous house. So interesting to see the cross-cultural references with not only Frank Lloyd Wright but also with the Wiener Werkstatte. This is leading me to a deep dive into the work of Margaret MacDonald. Something like the collaboration William Morris had with his wife and daughter?

  2. Janice, You are marvelous bringing people around to appreciating what is near to them and often taken for granted. I adore what you do.
    I am hoping to get to London soon with great hopes of seeing you.
    Warmest,
    Rona

  3. Dear Jan, How inspiring to read about your intripid search for beauty even in these dark days! I loved learning about the Hill House and seeing details of Rennie Mackintosh’s work…whose designs I love!

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