Charles Rennie Mackintosh — A Liverpool Review

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From one fab four to another…

Being a huge fan of the Art Nouveau movement, when the opportunity arose to see an exhibition of works by designer extraordinaire Charles Rennie Mackintosh at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, I couldn’t resist a visit and I was not disappointed.

Regarded as one of Glasgow’s most famous sons, this artist, designer and architectural genius is responsible for transforming the arts and cultural scene as a leading, if not arguably, the star who birthed the Art Nouveau movement in the UK. Mackintosh’s creative outlook and innovative approach to design is more than 150 years old this year and it is as fresh and innovative today as it was back at the turn of the 20th Century.

Similar in many ways to its exhibit host city, Glasgow at the turn of the 20th century was thriving with a wealth of opportunities available for those who sought and embraced them out and Mackintosh worked hard to achieve his dream. Training at an architects practice alongside his friend James Herbert McNair, he studied at the Glasgow School of Art in art and design. It was while they were at the school that the two friends met sisters Frances and Margaret Macdonald and became known as ‘The Four’ who together made the ‘Glasgow Style’ which is the name of the latest exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery.

Running until the end of August and possibly being the last time it is on display in the UK for the foreseeable future before it goes on its travels to the USA, the exhibit features a host of works by Mackintosh and other members of the Glasgow foursome including designs, stained glass, books, stencils, furniture and embroidery to name just a few of the 250 objects on display.

A tour of the exhibition starts with the incredibly high impact designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, breathtaking in its beauty and apparent simplicity, a closer investigation into the artwork is merited. As a marketeer, Mackintoshes designs for the Glasgow School of Art are not only creatively inspiring but also offer an insight into an era long gone, when the physical nature of the artwork was given such careful attention to detail on often overlooked areas like promotional advertisements, book covers and programmes.

What on first look appears to be a relatively simple colour palette, minimalist lines and random font work is actually extremely carefully designed. The bold use of a restricted colour palette and lack of fear alongside the severe positioning and sharp lines of font work is accompanied by flowing lines, soft positioning of text alongside intricately made designs with an attention to detail that, in a mass consumerist world, may be overlooked in such designs.

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The exhibition highlights the changing themes of Mackintoshes works — from his pieces designing the Glasgow School of Art to his works embodying nature in both art and sculpture and his role as as a creative genius in providing the inspiration and creativity to others in ‘The Four’ who would develop this even further.

Slightly Enid Blyton-esque, this fabulous foursome weren’t just creative comrades but romance had blossomed at school as Frances and McNair married in 1899 and Margaret and Mackintosh in 1900. Still referred to as “The Four” the work of this incredible foursome fits seamlessly into the exhibition as their styles inspired and support the themes of each other which together make up this famous “Glasgow style”.

The different works of the artists themselves is showcased throughout the exhibition and, with similar styles and seamless movement across the different artists as you follow the displays it is all too easy to lose time and land yourself in the art nouveau movement. This is made even easier with the showcases on display featuring light fittings, furniture, panelling, mirrors and doors from the original tea rooms. Setting the scene, the displays are accompanied by full photographic and sometimes original design sketches by Mackintosh of furniture and room layouts which bring the experience to life.

A personal favourite from the exhibition is the feature on Ms Cranston’s tea room — the only design that Mackintosh did for both inside and outside the tea room (as a big supporter of Mackintosh, Ms Cranston commissioned him to design other elements of her other tea rooms over time). The architectural beauty, intricate detail and ability to make it look simplistic allied with a perfect servicescape made this attendee feel they could just pull up a perfectly designed chair, stare at the intricate floral wall displays and enjoy a tea room scone and tea from 20th century Glasgow at the start of a movement that would shake the arts scene for millenia.

Including a never displayed outside of Scotland Chinese Room of the Ingram Street Tearooms, local links to Liverpool (I never knew Mackintosh put forward a design for Liverpool Cathedral) and a story of one of the greatest designers, artists and architects of the century, this exhibition is a must see for any fan of the art nouveau movement.

Even if you’re not, this dashing young man with an eye for the quirky, a talent for questioning the norm and a natural gift for merging the angular requirements of constructive design with the evolving flowing natural world, worked to embrace his love of design and inspired a creative legacy that will outlive this exhibitions short time in Liverpool but just may inspire another fabulous foursome, after all, our city does have a reputation for fab fours.

Jennifer Caine, Marketing Manager, Culture Liverpool

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Telling stories. Delivering events. Championing creativity. Inspiring audiences. Thinking forward. — Culture: the rocket fuel for regeneration.

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