Why Charles Rennie Mackintosh's legacy is grander than designing the Glasgow School of Art

The Mackintosh Building at the Glasgow School of Art. Image: John A.S./Wikimedia Commons.

To many in Scotland, the life of Charles Rennie Mackintosh amounted to little more than attending an art school, designing a modernised Glasgow School of Art, having it named in his honour, and before dying designing a few tea rooms and art traps in Glasgow.

But this limited understanding does a disservice to one of Scotland's most influential, innovative and enigmatic sons. Mackintosh was one of four students who helped usher in an era of bold artistic flair, a legacy that inspired “The Glasgow Style” – an entirely new art movement, and a movement that still inspires worldwide to this very day.

Art lovers from across the world continue to arrive in Glasgow paying homage to Mackintosh’s timeless legacy, from The Lighthouse in Mitchell Lane, to House for an Art Lover in Bellahouston Park. The depth of Mackintosh’s portfolio even extends far beyond the walls of Glasgow. It was no secret that Mackintosh and a lot of his contemporaries derived inspiration from Japanese culture of the time (Japonisme). Today he has a strong reputation in the Asian country, and it’s said that the Hida Takayama Museum of Art in Japan, boasts the largest collection of Mackintosh’s work outside the UK.

Little is known of Mackintosh during his time outside or prior to the School of Art. No journals or diaries have ever been discovered which outline his thoughts as a student, or even what his ambitions for the future might have been. What is known during his time is that he met his future wife Margaret McDonald, and along with her sister Frances and Mackintosh’s close friend Herbert MacNair, they became known as “The Four”, or more disparagingly “The Spook School”. Together they forever changed the face of art in Scotland.

It’s thought that Mackintosh as a child suffered from regular bouts of ill health, and as a result developed a keen sense of drawing and an affinity for nature. His family home in Parson Street in the Townhead area of the city looked onto Glasgow’s Necropolis, which one could surmise as being one of the founding influences of his gothic laced inspiration.

It could only be a sense of heightened irony that Mackintosh’s first commissioned piece was to design the tombstone of Glasgow’s recently deceased chief constable. It remains standing in the Necropolis to this day.

It was his time at the School of Art that helped cement Mackintosh’s beliefs regarding architectural process, embracing the concept that the entire structure from shell to interior to wall fittings was the work of art. The technique is one reason his work has an heir of timeless quality.

His individual style is another. In 1890 and on the back of his burgeoning talent and reputation as an architect and interior designer, Mackintosh was awarded the Alexander Thomson Travelling Studentship. (Thompson is another architectural icon that Glasgow under-appreciates even to this current day.)

This provided Mackintosh with the opportunity to travel extensively throughout Europe, absorbing and sketching his experiences – to use, one presumes, as inspiration during the creative process of his many future projects.

In 1900, thanks to his time spent travelling, Mackintosh designed and unveiled art work in Vienna (Warndofer Music Salon). He followed this up by displaying art exhibitions in Turin, Moscow and Berlin, offering Mackintosh a level of adulation that far exceeded any he had received in Glasgow.

It’s hard to confirm some of the more spectacular rumours that surrounded the iconic architectural icons, such was the aura of Mackintosh and his wife Margaret McDonald; but according to legend, during their time in Vienna, the duo were carried aloft along the street, above the heads of worshipping crowds, such was the brilliance of their exhibition at the Vienna Secession Exhibition in 1900.

Forever tasting greater success beyond Scotland’s borders, Mackintosh and his wife Margaret – considered his creative equal if not a greater talent – left Glasgow for Sussex seeking grander acclaim. The outbreak of war in 1914 caused problems, however, due to the German and Austrian friends he had collected on his travels. He pleaded his innocence, but matters grew worse when the military raided his home and discovered letters address to German and Austrian addresses. Apparently unable to decipher his Glaswegian accent, he was thrown in jail.

After being released, Mackintosh sought new beginnings. In 1915 the couple effectively fled to London, and began pitching for projects. Although never reaching the same levels of excellence, his time and work in London is still heralded as genius. A plaque commemorating his incredible achievements and talent is located in Chelsea’s Glebe Place.

Leaving London for France in 1924, Mackintosh turned his back on architecture and spent the last four years of his life devoted to painting in watercolour.

Returning from his time in France in 1928, aged 60, Scotland’s greatest architect died penniless in London, succumbing to cancer of the tongue.

Mackintosh’s exhibitions are regularly showcased across the world, from New York to Moscow, his architectural creations are considered some of the greatest ever conceived during the Art Nouveau movement. His influences stretched far beyond the borders of Glasgow and Scotland, and if anything he was defiant in his determination to enlighten the reserved artistic minds of the stubborn Scottish elite.

It’s only through the prism of time that someone such as Mackintosh could be truly appreciated. How many individuals have been inspired by his unique beautifully constructed designs? Have sat and continue to marvel at his architecture worldwide? How many people in the last 80 years have passed through the doors of the Glasgow School of Art, using Mackintosh as inspiration, and aspired onto greatness?

Mackintosh is quoted to have said during his lecture on Seemliness in Glasgow 1902.

“Art is the Flower. Life is the Green Leaf. Let every artist strive to make his flower a beautiful living thing, something that will convince the world that there may be, there are, things more precious more beautiful more lasting than life itself.”

A never more fitting quote for a remarkable man, with an incredible legacy.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh the man, the myth, the Mackintosh.



The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.

Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.