Making The Most Of Mackintosh

The architect, designer, and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) is someone whose work may not be known to you. Perhaps his relative unknown on this side of the pond, as compared to, say, the earlier William Morris (1834-1896), comes from the fact that Mackintosh’s style evolved greatly over time, and bears the hallmarks of various styles from Historicism to Art Nouveau to Art Deco. His comparative obscurity in the U.S. may also be because the bulk of his output has remained in the UK, particularly in his native Scotland, making it somewhat physically inaccessible to the average museum-goer.

Mackintosh

Fortunately for us all, to mark the 150th anniversary of Mackintosh’s birth, a number of exhibitions, books, and articles are on tap for those who want to learn more about this highly inventive figure. For example, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow is hosting “Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style” through August 14th of this year, while the Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow, which were designed and decorated by Mackintosh himself, will be reopening to the public on July 2nd, following an extensive renovation. An accompanying visitor center which will be used for exhibitions and events related to Mackintosh and his work will be opening in September. A site listing these and many other events associated with the celebrations surrounding the designer is also worth a click through.

Willow

Mackintosh is really difficult to pin down, when it comes to his designs, since they are both historical and a-historical at the same time. As Douglas Murphy points out in this overview of Mackintosh’s career, when designing the Glasgow School of Art, “Mackintosh was somehow able to weave together a work of incredible richness and sophistication, partly through composition and decoration, partly through allusion and reference, and partly through groundbreaking spatial imagination.” The school evolved in form as Mackintosh continued to work on it for almost 30 years, mixing Scottish baronial with industrial elements, using the typical heavy stone of the area mixed with enormous, multi-paneled windows that were highly unusual in such a northern, cold, and damp climate.

Glasgow

Just this month the National Trust for Scotland, which preserves many of Scotland’s historic sites for future generations, began a major restoration program at Hill House, one of Mackintosh’s most important buildings. Located on the Firth of Clyde, an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean near Glasgow that has a relatively warm year-round climate thanks to the Gulf Stream, the house was built for a Scottish publishing magnate between 1902-1904. Like his American contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), Mackintosh was somewhat obsessive-compulsive about the house, not only designing the building and everything inside it, but even specifying the color of flowers which Mrs. Blackie ought to place in the living room.

Hill House

Because of Mackintosh’s innovative building techniques and the residence’s location, Hill House has been falling into disrepair for some time now. Like Wright’s most famous house “Fallingwater”, built three decades later, the building is located in a beautiful spot, but the materials used for its construction were not ideal for such a damp environment. To stabilize the deterioration and reduce moisture penetration while preservation is underway, a temporary, giant glass box is currently being built around the structure, which will better protect it from the elements while still allowing workers and visitors access to the structure. It’s a terrific idea, and one that, while not inexpensive, allows for potential lighting effects at night through the clear covering, much as occurred in DC during the renovation of the Washington Monument.

In addition to buildings and furniture however, Mackintosh was also an artist, something that often gets lost in the shuffle when his work is reviewed and considered. Earlier in his career he produced images such as these, which were much appreciated internationally, particularly by the Vienna Seccessionists. Not quite Art Nouveau, not quite Art Deco, works such as “The Wassail” (1900) are more akin to the work of the Catalan Modernista movement than to what was going on in the fluffy, flowery drawing rooms of Paris and Prague at the same time.

Wassail

Later in life, as his interest in and commissions for architectural projects began to dry up, Mackintosh turned increasingly to landscape painting, particularly in watercolors. It is here that we can really see how his understanding of and appreciation for architectural massing was turned from the design of buildings to the painterly observation of them. He spent a good amount of time in French Catalonia, visiting small fishing towns and castellated villages of the interior, so much so that you can organize tours of the places he visited and painted.

Take this view of Collioure for example, painted in 1924; note how he stacks horizontal planes, one on top of each other, as he builds the strata that form the city, from the shoreline right up to the roof of the fortress.

Collioure

A similar horizontal theme predominates in his depiction of the town of Bouleternère, painted sometime between 1925-1927, but is radically altered by the vertical thrust of the church on the top of the hill:

Boule

And finally this piece, with its strikingly odd yet almost hyperreal representation of the buildings reflected in the water, depicting the Rue de Soleil (“Street of the Sun”) in the town of Port Vendres around 1926.

Rue

When you consider that, right around the same time, Joan Miró is showing the slightly younger Salvador Dalí around the concepts of Surrealism, it’s remarkable to consider that an artist-designer who began by building classical, Beaux Arts office buildings ended up his career by painting works which would have looked just as much at home in an exhibition of the early work of the two great Catalan Surrealists.

So if unknown to you prior to today, take some time to seek out information on this fascinating talent, who is lesser-known in this country than he really ought to be.

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Sargent’s Silk: The Fabric Connecting Two Beautiful Portraits

One of the fun things about being an art nerd is when you get the chance to make new discoveries regarding old friends. Such is the case with my favorite American artist, John Singer Sargent, whom I have written about for years (such as in my first piece for The Federalist almost three years ago.) One of his best-known portraits and indeed one of my favorites as well has always been his mesmerizing portrait “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw” (1892), now in the National Gallery of Scotland. So it was quite a surprise this past weekend while visiting the excellent Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey to come across another wonderful Sargent portrait previously unknown to me, but which appears to have a visual connection to this more famous portrait of Lady Agnew.

Lady Agnew

I had gone up to Newark to see the new exhibition, “The Rockies & The Alps”, which I will be reviewing soon, but while at the museum I was astounded by the breadth of the permanent collection. The Newark Museum is the largest museum in New Jersey, with over 200,000 objects, and includes holdings in the areas of the Ancient Mediterranean, Asia, decorative arts, American painting and sculpture, science, Modern and Contemporary Art, and much more. There was no way to see it all in the new hours I spent there, but you can see an extensive sampling of some of the pieces in their holdings over on my Instagram account.

At the far end of a corridor in the American Wing, I spotted a full-length portrait of a seated lady, and I knew immediately that it was a Sargent even though it was some distance away. When you become familiar with the work of a particular artist, after awhile it becomes something akin to being in a sea of people on a metro platform or airport terminal and suddenly spotting an old friend amidst all of the distraction. I had a similar experience on another floor in the American Wing at the Newark Museum a bit later, when I saw a work some distance down a corridor and thought, “That looks like an Edward Hopper,” and it was: another terrific piece in the museum’s permanent collection.

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The portrait of “Mrs. Charles Thursby” (1897) depicts a good friend of the artist, Alice Brisbane Thursby (1859-1953). Her father, Albert Brisbane (1809-1890), was a utopian Christian socialist who led a somewhat peripatetic and occasionally scandalous personal life. Papa Brisbane popularized Fourierism in the United States in the mid-19th century, and his writings were adopted at proto-communes such as Brook Farm near Boston. (If you’re familiar with Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan”, you’re probably saying to yourself right now, “You’re a Fourierist?”)

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As she was growing up, Mrs. Thursby’s family dragged her all over the US and Europe, and it was while she was studying art in Paris that she met Sargent, who was living there at the time; they became lifelong friends. She later married a British Naval Officer and civil engineer, Lt. Charles Radcliffe Thursby, whose work and land holdings took the couple back and forth between England, America, and Argentina. Having spent most of her childhood moving about every few years, it’s not surprising that these two were very well-suited.

There are many wonderful details about the portrait that give us an indication of the personality of the sitter. Mrs. Thursby looks at us with a mixture of determination and intellectual curiosity. She is curious to find out exactly who we are, and to find out why we’ve come to see her. Note how Mrs. Thursby appears to be about to get up out of her chair to greet us, which suggests that she is a somewhat restless, lively figure who does not like to sit still. This a lady who is always on the move, always out and about doing something.

Notice, too, the wonderful detail of her hand, and those fingers. In Sargent’s unforgettable, bolt-upright portrait of “Mrs. Adrian Iselin” (1888), now in the National Gallery here in Washington, we are told everything we need to know about the subject by the way she seems to balance her entire weight on the outstretched pinky finger of her right hand, suggesting that this is not a woman whom you want to cross. In the Newark Museum’s picture we see a similar strength of will in Mrs. Thursby’s fingers, but the splayed, open hand suggests to us that the woman whom we see here is more open to the world around her than was the rather dour and imposing Mrs. Iselin.

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But here, for my money, is the *really* interesting bit.

The portrait of Lady Agnew shows the subject seated in a chair covered in a floral upholstery, while Mrs. Thursby is seated in a chair whose fabric is completely white. Yet if you look closely, you’ll see that the two women share the same backdrop: a piece of pale blue silk embroidered with gold figures. In the portrait of Lady Agnew, these figures are more clearly meant to represent characters, since the fabric in question was a large piece of Chinese drapery.

Lady Agnew

By the time he paints the portrait of Mrs. Thursby several years later however, Sargent has become even more impressionistic. He is still using that wonderfully loose brushwork which is indicative of his love and study of Velázquez’ technique, but the transcription from real life to canvas has become more hazy. Even the color is less of a direct copy of the original, since it now appears to be made up of just as much brown and gray as blue.

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Like many artists, Sargent kept a number of objects in his studio which he used and reused in his paintings. If you’ve seen the live-action Disney film of “Cinderella” for example, you’ll recall that in the scene in which the artist is painting the portrait of Kit on horseback, there is a pre-painted backdrop of putti tumbling out of heaven which is hung behind the prince to help center the composition. This Chinese panel in Sargent’s work was one such object, which is why it appears in both the portraits of Lady Agnew and Thursby. No doubt those of my readers who are more expert in Sargent’s work than I am would be able to identify other pictures where the same silk appears – and by all means, please do so in the comments below.

This is just a recent, personal example of one of the things I love about studying art history. The more art you see and know, the more you come to recognize and appreciate connections between works of art, just as one piece of music or film can immediately recall another that you’re already familiar with. More to the point, should you happen to find yourself in the Newark area – only 9 miles from New York City – go visit Mrs. Thursby for yourself, and see the rest of the collection at her very fascinating permanent residence.

Scientists Discover A Saint’s Cell

I haven’t seen this story widely reported in the Catholic press, but it’s definitely worth sharing: scientists believe that they have found the scriptorium or “writing room” of St. Columba, one of the most significant figures in the history of Christianity.

St. Columba (521-597 A.D.) is known as one of the “Apostles of Ireland”, and you can read a more thorough biography of him by following this link. He lived the second half of his life on the Scottish island of Iona, where he founded a hugely influential monastic community in which he served as Abbott. He spent a great deal of time during the day writing and praying in his scriptorium, which was really just a little wooden hut that he built on a rocky mound overlooking the Abbey.

Not everything on Iona was contemplative, however. St. Columba and his companions also worked actively to expand their community to become a training center for missionaries to the many pagan tribes that dominated much of the British Isles during this period. In addition, the monks at Iona not only chronicled much of early Irish history, and preserved ancient texts for their library that would otherwise have been lost to us, but they are believed by many historians to have created the famous Book of Kells, with its lavish and strange Celtic decorations.

After St. Columba’s death, the spot where his scriptorium was located was given the name “Tòrr an Aba” (“Abbot’s Mound”), but at some point the wooden building itself burned down. The aforementioned Vikings pillaged Iona multiple times in the late 8th and early 9th centuries, so it is probable that the humble hut was torched during one of those raids. Eventually the site was covered with pebbles taken from the beach, most likely as a way to deliberately mark the location.

As noted in this (very thorough) explanation of the discovery, while there is no way to be 100% sure that the archaeological remains are in fact those of St. Columba’s hut, this is just about as close to certainty as you can get. The combination of tradition, documentation, and now, carbon dating, all point to this being where St. Columba did his work. It may well be that some of the hymns written by or attributed to him, some of which are still sung today, were written here.

One such hymn with which you may be familiar comes from composer Benjamin Britten. For the 1400th anniversary of St. Columba’s arrival on Iona, Britten was commissioned to set one of the saint’s hymns to new music. While more commonly known as “A Hymn to Saint Columba”, the proper title of St. Columba’s composition is its first line in Latin, “Regis regum rectissimi”. You can read the text in both Latin and in an English translation of it by following this link – although with all due respect to St. John’s Cambridge, I find this translation slightly unsatisfactory in that it downplays the key phrase which is also the title of the hymn.

Be that as it may, given that we now know where St. Columba sat and wrote hymns such as these, I suspect that many choir directors and choral groups are going to want to perform some of these works, including Britten’s, at the very spot where they were first written, nearly 15 centuries ago.