Tam's Tales

- Glasgow School of Art - Mackintosh's Living Legacy

Glasgow School of Art - Mackintosh's Living Legacy
The influence of Charles Rennie Mackintosh remains with us. At its worst, there are the slightly schlocky gifts, ranging from jewellery 'in the style' of Mackintosh (he designed very few pieces) to gift wrapping and greetings cards with the familiar Art Nouveau typeface. At the other end of the scale are the fabulous, and quite rare, CRM buildings. The Glasgow School of Art is at the apex of that graph.

I am just back from a tour of that grand building, which is situated in Garnethill, north of Sauchiehall Street in central Glasgow. The guided tour is necessary to ensure the smooth working of the building as a base for the prestigious art school. It also adds a huge amount to the appreciation of the man whose career in Scottish architecture spanned a relatively brief period.

There are currently but a handful of Mackintosh buildings open to the public. The Scotland Street School - now a museum - is in Glasgow. Hill House in Helensburgh, about 25 miles west of Glasgow, is a fine mansion which is now in National Trust ownership. But Glasgow School of Art earns its reputation as Mackintosh's masterwork.

Mackintosh's International Reputation

Our tour guide, an art school student, explained that Mackintosh's remit was to design a building which was to be simple, functional and beautiful. Today it is recognised that he hit the mark but during his lifetime Mackintosh got only lukewarm support from his fellow countrymen. However his talent was widely recognised on the Continent and his reputation continued abroad long after his death in 1928. The Scottish poet Liz Lochhead, who studied at the Glasgow School of Art in the late 1960's, said that it was quite common for students to look up to see a visiting group of Japanese tourists recording on the Super 8 home movie cameras. There was a dearth of interest from Scots at that time.

Now Mackintosh draws in people from home and abroad. Our tour, which is limited to twenty people, was a sell-out. And we were rewarded by a series of visual treats. There is a certain richness about Mackintosh's work - so many layers of meaning. The bright light of the studio areas contrasts with the darkness of the corridors, where students were to be discouraged from lingering. The large and imposing exhibition area contrasts with the small recesses where even today students sketch the cityscape to the south of the school. But the icing on the cake is in the details.

Exquisite To The Last Detail

Not only did Mackintosh design an array of furniture, beautifully displayed in the stunning library, but the lampshades, brass door fittings and enamel plaques are all testimony to the man's vast talent. Even the janitor's small cabin seems to be based on a Japanese lantern.

Doors decorated with small pieces of stained glass are charming and delicious. The motif on the fireplace might be a jokey reference to the architect's moustache and there is the possibility that a small area to the side of the fire was designed to be an area for a cat to snooze in warm comfort. The building abounds with delights from both the inside and the exterior.

A Working Building

Katie, our enthusiastic guide, said that even today the building instructs the students about the use of art. There are dozens of metaphors and messages in the design, which meant that the hour of the tour flew by. The group, drawn from several countries, agreed that it had been a wonderful experience. The richness of the building was complemented by the enthusiasm and knowledge of our young guide who brought the place to life. The duality of its place as a landmark building as well as a working educational institution was demonstrated as the tourists rubbed shoulders with art students who were practising their art.

There is a bittersweet element to the tour. Only some of the current crop of students work in Mackintosh's building. Many are exiled to the more modern horror across the road, dubbed as 'the ugly building.' It is an eloquent demonstration, and a sad one, of how the lessons that Mackintosh demonstrated, with sympathetic use of local materials and attention to details, have largely fallen on deaf ears.

I don't want to end on a sombre note. The tour is quite outstanding and well worth the 7.00 fee. The enjoyment of the building is enhanced by the small exhibition in the entrance area to the side of the school and plans are in hand to invest several million pounds into the building so that its future will be safe for the future generations. The Glasgow School of Art is a shining gem and a lasting tribute to a towering talent.

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Tam O' Ranter
March 2010

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