Laura Davis visits the Glasgow of architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh
GLASGOW is an all weather city. On a warm summer’s evening, when you’re sipping a glass of sauvignon blanc in a pavement cafe, it feels positively continental, I am assured. But even when the rain is hurling down and you’ve had to buy an extra jumper because every one of the 160 miles northwards is a step closer to freezing, is when the city truly comes into its own.
Of the three days I am there only one is sunny – a lovely crisp, autumnal day, the sort poets write about – but I almost prefer the waterlogged version, its grand Victorian terraces and ruddy sandstone edifaces lurching out of the gloom.
Named City of Architecture in 1999 (yes, it did beat Liverpool to the title), Glasgow’s streets are lined with fine buildings. Most famous of all are those designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the architect and artist whose rose patterns were fated to adorn thousands of tea towels and compact mirrors.
He has fans all over the world – there is an affliate group of the Glasgow-based Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society in Japan – and many of them have very deep pockets. In last month’s Edinburgh auction of the largest single collection of his work, owned by TV and theatre producers Donald and Eleanor Taffner, a still life of yellow tulips sold for £130,000 and a pair of mahogany card room chairs for £46,000.
Surely a perfect selling point for the city then? The sort of enticement that could draw tourists in their droves if properly promoted.
Indeed, but until recent moves to encourage the many different Mackintosh attractions to work together, one that has been sadly overlooked.
Not anymore however, as the Creative Mackintosh Festival – a two-week series of events ending on Sunday– bears testament.
Featuring everything from performances by Scotland’s National Poet Liz Lockhead to the chance to eat your way along the route of the artist’s sketching tour of Italy, it demonstrates the truth of Aristotle’s expression “a whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.
This year’s festival is only the first and there is plenty of room for expansion – more visability on the streets for example, where there are already plenty of buskers adding to the atmosphere.
Not that the opportunity to appreciate Mackintosh’s Glasgow is limited to the festival. His influence is visible in the fabric of the city. And just a brief wander around one of his buildings is enough to realise there is far more to his brilliance than accidental tea towel decoration.
Scotland Street School (built 1902-1906 and closed in 1979) is worth a visit, although the museum it now houses focuses its attention on its history as a school rather than on Mackintosh’s involvement.
Its three period classrooms, with their old-fashioned lift-up desks and stand-alone chalkboards, are rather charming, and there are plenty of the architect’s signature details to spot, such as the unmistakable lettering of the school’s name.
A more full-on Mackintosh experience is provided by House for an Art Lover, which was built in the 1990s from plans he submitted to a German-based competition. His new wife Margaret Macdonald designed the interior, which incorporated art into the decor as gesso panels, metal embellishments and fabric drapes.
The entry was disqualified on the grounds of incomplete submission and lay unused until civil engineer Graham Roxburgh decided to attempt its construction. The story of how his team pieced together the design – provided on an audio guide – is almost as interesting as walking through the completed house, now commercially run, that Mackintosh himself never expected to be built.
Many more lost designs can be found in the Unbuilt Mackintosh exhibition, held in the Lighthouse, formerly headquarters of The Herald newspaper and now home to Scotland’s Centre for Design and Architecture – and another of his buildings.
Other stops on a Mackintosh tour should include the Willow Tea Rooms on Saughiehall Street, where you can admire his handiwork in the sumptuous Room De Luxe and sample a cup of pekoe tea, served because the architect once mentioned in a letter that he enjoyed it.
The Mackintosh Church at Queen’s Cross, a short bus or taxi ride from the city centre, and home to the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society is also worth a visit.
But the highlight of the trip has to be Glasgow School of Art, in which you can really see its former pupil’s dreams for a new Scottish-influenced style realised.
Tours of the buildings are run several times per day, seven days a week, so there’s plenty of opportunity to explore his masterwork for yourself.
Students and recent graduates have expanded the programme to a series of outdoor walking tours including The Glasgow Style, which sets Mackintosh’s designs in context with other notable architecture in the city.
My visit took in the inaugural tour and the worst of the weather – but the rain added a sense of adventure rather than turning it into a wash out.
Our increasingly soggy guides kept up their enthusiasm as they pointed out interesting architectural features and related Glasgow’s history, which as Victorian a boom town runs parallel to that of Liverpool. It even also called itself “The Second City of the British Empire”.
Incidentally, Margaret Macdonald’s younger sister Francis and her husband Herbert MacNair lived and worked in Liverpool for almost a decade.
Fortified with Werther’s Originals, we trudged through the rain-soaked streets, past the site of the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901, which featured among its attractions a mock Highland village populated with real live Highlanders for the bowler-hatted visitors to gawp at.