Five Must See Exhibits Within The Mackintosh House
Born in England in 1957, Nigel moved to Scotland at the age of six. He studied Archaeology, History and History of Art at the University of Glasgow in the 1970s and after a short spell as a photographic cataloguer in the McLean Museum in Greenock, he worked in local government for the next 30 years. He then returned to the University of Glasgow to work for The Hunterian as a tour guide at Mackintosh House.
The Hunterian Art Gallery houses one of the most important collections of the work of world-renowned Glaswegian architect, designer and artist, Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) and his artist-wife, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh (1864-1933).
The Mackintosh House is a meticulous recreation of the principal interiors from the Mackintoshes’ Glasgow home in the city’s West End which they shared from 1906 to 1914.
The original house was demolished in the early 1960s but the original fixtures and contents were preserved and put back together in 1981 as an integral part of The Hunterian Art Gallery – Scotland’s oldest public museum.
Here Nigel tells us about his favourite pieces in the House.
1. ARGYLL CHAIR
The Argyll Chair was Mackintosh’s first commercial design for Kate Cranston’s original Argyle Street tea-room and represented his first significant commission too.
While it’s plainly finished in stained oak, it’s very elaborate when you look at its structure, the straight lines and right angles disappear into an oval section and finally it’s circular at the top where it has this elegant cut-out head-rest, which is thought to depict a bird in flight. Although, with Mackintosh’s symbolism we’re never quite sure because he never put any explanation in writing.
The great thing about these chairs is that when you put them around a table, it’s almost like having a wall behind you and it creates a space inside a space for a private conversation within the confines of a very busy and noisy tea room – so they’re incredibly functional.
These chairs have actually appeared on the big screen in Star Wars, Dr Who, Babylon 5 and Blade. It’s nice to think that whenever TV and film directors are depicting futuristic furniture they draw their inspiration from 1898 and the Argyle Street tea room in Glasgow.
2. ROWAT CABINET
In 1902, Mackintosh was commissioned to produce a pair of showpiece cabinets for his friends who lived in Glasgow’s affluent West End. The cabinets were designed to be situated either side of the fireplace and Mackintosh liked them so much that he had duplicates made for his own home.
While demure when closed, they open to reveal a highly decorative interior with stylised female glass figures and Mackintosh’s iconic Glasgow Rose motif set into beautiful silvered panels.
It’s a truly stunning piece of furniture, the sort of thing you would open in front of your guests to impress them.
3. WRITING DESK
When Mackintosh left Glasgow in 1914 to go and live in London, his writing desk was one of the very few items that he took with him and we presume that’s because he thought when people saw it they would appreciate his talents as a designer.
It’s made of very fine materials and that in itself is quite unusual because Mackintosh was generally using oak, which wasn’t as expensive then as it is today. He was also covering a lot of his furniture designs with white paint so that it looked very sculptural and people wouldn’t necessarily notice that he had used a relatively cheaper wood, however, with his writing desk he used the very best.
It’s one of only two in the world – the other having been made originally for Glasgow publisher Walter Blackie and his family when they moved into The Hill House in Helensburgh in 1904.
4. CHEVAL MIRROR
This beautiful mirror is part of a wider suite of painted oak furniture which Mackintosh is thought to have given to Margaret as a wedding gift when they married in 1900.
While many of Mackintosh’s other pieces of furniture were commissions, this is something that was designed purely for Margaret and some people say that this represents, more than anything else, their personal taste.
We know that Margaret was about 5ft 6in, and the Cheval Mirror is perfect for a woman of that height. She would often decorate her hair with jewellery and presumably she would keep this jewellery and other trinkets in the bespoke drawers that furnish either side of the mirror.
From the front it’s perfectly linear but side on it becomes curved and it’s been suggested that this is deliberately intended to reflect the female form.
5. 78 DERNGATE GUEST BEDROOM
78 Derngate is a Grade II listed Georgian house in Northampton, built in 1815 and extensively remodelled by Mackintosh in 1916. The original furniture from the guest bedroom was bought by the University of Glasgow for display in Mackintosh House.
As his sole commission during his eight years in London, it’s completely different from anything he did in Glasgow. It looks very much like something from the Art Deco style yet this was almost a decade before the term Art Deco was invented in Paris.
One of the most notable stories of this bedroom is that renowned Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once slept in one of these beds and when asked if the decoration might affect his sleep he replied, somewhat dryly, that fortunately he slept with his eyes closed.
More recently I accompanied a large group of visitors on a tour of Mackintosh House and they were extremely eager to see our Derngate bedroom exhibition. When I asked them why, they explained that as designers with IKEA they all found it incredibly inspiring!