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Uncovering the forgotten works of Mackintosh

Lesser-known projects question the legacy of Charles Rennie Mackintosh; was he really a lone misunderstood genius, or just a great late Victorian architect?

The defining image of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh industry might not be any of his buildings, nor those ludicrous high-backed chairs, not even the typeface which adorns almost anything ‘Mockintash’. No, the primary image must be the man himself, as captured by the photographs taken by James Craig Annan in 1893, when Mackintosh was about 25. Darkly handsome, in the most famous image looking forcefully off to the side, and with his prominent bowed scarf and curled moustache, he is the perfect image of the bohemian dreams of the turn of the 20th century.

The Mackintosh exhibition currently at the RIBA, and previously at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow (which has its own permanent exhibition of Mackintosh interiors) has the Annan photo on show, but it is given nowhere near its usual prominence. Instead, the Mackintosh we are meant to see is presented in the 1914 portrait painted by Francis Newbery, head of painting at the Glasgow School of Art. Here, Mackintosh, 46, is a far wearier prospect. Filling out his large coat, his silvering hair and now-jowly face showing the decades, he clutches plans for the Art School, looking uncannily like Jim Stirling.

Where the earlier photo depicts a singular artistic genius, the later painting shows Mackintosh the architect, and the rest of the exhibition does its damnedest to stress the fact that for much of his career he was a partner in the practice Honeyman, Keppie & Mackintosh, that he went on site, had meetings with contractors, stayed late working on competitions, and generally lived an architect’s life, before his disgruntled early retirement and agonising early death.

Throughout the exhibition, which marks the culmination of the creation of a complete Mackintosh archive, are spread the connections between Mackintosh and his immediate world. Cash books from the office, office letters, the buildings of his mentors and colleagues, are all there to stress that the miraculous creative history can only ever be part of the picture.

After the fire last year, Gavin Stamp wrote in the London Review of Books that Mackintosh’s work was ill-served by historiographical attempts to depict him as a proto-Modernist, as Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Nikolaus Pevsner had done, and that in his years teaching at the GSA, Stamp ‘became increasingly exasperated by the Mackintosh myth: that he was a lone misunderstood genius, Scotland’s answer to Van Gogh, a progressive, forward-looking artist who was not appreciated by his contemporaries in Britain and who died, unsung, in exile’.

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A young Charles Rennie Mackintosh aged about 25, as photographed in 1893 by James Craig Annan

Instead, Stamp would prefer that we saw Mackintosh as a great late Victorian architect. This new exhibition would suggest as much.

Not only do we see one of Mackintosh’s entirely Beaux-Arts student projects, which is nice enough but nothing special, but we also see designs by his employers upon which he had no influence, and others in which he had only a little hand. These go to show that in the rich and confident Glasgow scene of the time there was plenty of experimentation, perhaps not to Mackintosh’s level, but certainly enough to show that he was not an outlandish maverick in his context.

The four villas on display also show Mackintosh as being far more tied to his creative context than we might expect. The Hill House and Windyhill do indeed appear proto-Modernist, but this is partly due to the depiction of their harled exterior as pure surface in their drawings. The opposite is true for Auchinibert, which despite the glorious doominess of its drawings, could have been by almost any talented architect of the time. More intriguing however is Mossyde, a semi-vernacular house whose thick walls, punctured by irregularly set deep windows within the oddest of reveals, gives a squinting hint at some kind of Mackintosh Brutalism.

The oddest, but perhaps boldest curatorial decision is that the Glasgow School of Art building is downplayed, with just a few images, drawings and a model of the library on show. On the one hand, this deprives the exhibition of Mackintosh’s boldest and most inventive designs, but it also puts more emphasis on other less familiar works, such as his tantalising last attempt to build a series of artists’ studios in Chelsea. The elevations show a sea of glass, a development from the Art School Library, but by 1920 they are already way off the cutting edge.

The curatorial approach of contextualising architectural works is similar to that of the recent exhibition of Denys Lasdun’s Royal College of Physicians, and is generally admirable. It is enriching to see the letters from clients or the bills of quantities that accompanied the work of ‘geniuses’, and they leave us feeling closer to their lives, and that things don’t really change so much after all. But the fact of the matter is that we need work whose starry reputation is indeed deserved, as Mackintosh’s is, before we can let it sit proudly within its original milieu.

Mackintosh Architecture

Where: RIBA, London
When: Until 23 May 2015 

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