Musings on Mackintosh

I was in Moscow in November 2014 where I was giving a lecture on the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, one of the events accompanying the exhibition of his work in the Kremlin Museums, for which I acted as consultant. This was first time Mackintosh’s work had been seen in Moscow since a revelatory display in a design exhibition in 1903.kremlin 1

The exhibition has been a great success – a relief for the organisers and the British Council as its very existence was put in jeopardy by the fire at Glasgow School of Art in May this year. Many promised loans from the School had to be cancelled but museums in Edinburgh and Japan came to the rescue, as did Glasgow Life and the National Trust for Scotland.

2014 was a turbulent year for the fortunes of Mackintosh, with new highs and lows. Despite Mackintosh’s vital role in the promotion of Glasgow as a world class tourist destination there has been a certain feeling of déja vu in public attitudes towards the man and his work, particularly in Glasgow but even further afield. Glasgow is once again in the spotlight for standing by while some of the best of his work has suffered from decay and neglect, but recent events have seen a turn in that slow decline.

The stellar prices achieved for furniture and paintings in the 1980s and 1990s undoubtedly focussed attention on his genius, but recently there has been something of a falling off in the market’s voracity for his work. One of the first sales I made after I opened the Gallery in Glasgow in 1992 was his exquisite watercolour, probably the last he ever made, The Rocks, painted in France in 1927. Arguably the best in that series, it would undoubtedly sell at a premium today, but other works recently have not lived up to the promise of that early sale.

The Rocks 72dpiSimilarly, prices for his furniture have been well below the norms achieved twenty years ago, when buyers from around the world fought for quite ordinary tea room chairs at the sale of the Howarth collection in 1994. In the last decade you could have bought a ladder back chair designed for the Willow Tea Rooms in 1903 for well under £15,000. So it was indeed a surprise when a pair of chairs recently sold for over £100,000 and some relatively ordinary kitchen fittings also fetched good five-figure prices.

Could the market have woken up to the increasing rarity of Mackintosh’s work? Perhaps it is driven by the losses incurred in the Art School fire.

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Despite the heroic efforts of the Fire Service in saving the bulk of the building and ’70% of the contents’, over 150 pieces of Mackintosh furniture – several of them unique – were lost in the fire. The official report on the fire appeared at the end of November 2014 and, if nothing else, should ensure that action will be taken to prevent future disasters at the School – and perhaps elsewhere. But its account of the fire  and the reasons for its rapid spread which ensured so much destruction in the west wing made for depressing reading.

The fire was a wake-up call not just to the School’s administration but to museums and the owners of historic buildings in Britain and around the world. There are many questions about this fire that need to be answered but, if nothing else, it has focussed attention on Mackintosh’s achievements as architect, designer and artist.

Although the fire was about as low as one would ever hope to go, there have been some recent highs in the Mackintosh story.

The Hunterian has launched its Mackintosh Architecture website – answers to all the questions one might ever have about Mackintosh’s role at Honeyman & Keppie. Very well organised and indexed, easy to navigate and an incredible store of photographs, drawings and other data – and accompanied by a great exhibition which will also be shown at the RIBA in London.

Glasgow Art Club has successfully restored the gallery which Mackintosh designed as a young man of 25 in 1893. The painted frieze he designed there and the striking decorative scheme he devised have both been reinstated and will be open to the public from the end of November.

And around the corner in Sauchiehall Street the Willow Tea Rooms are under new ownership. Since they were extensively restored in 1980-81 the Willow has suffered from several changes of ownership, each one bringing a new round of neglect until the building descended into even worse condition than it had been before the earlier restoration. It was a commission that depended for its considerable impact on Mackintosh’s design and layout of tables, chairs and other furniture but that has been very much lost through the use of the ground floor as a shop and other changes in the upper floors.
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The new Willow Tea Rooms Trust has acquired the entire building and is now working with architects to produce a plan for the repair and rescue of the fabric with the aim of ensuring the long-term stability of the building. It is the first step on a long journey to see the full restoration of the Willow. A veritable good news story! You never know, perhaps Mackintosh’s Ingram Street Tea Rooms – dismantled almost 45 years ago – might soon emerge in their fully restored glory…but I’m not holding my breath.

Roger Billcliffe