It seems ironic that Charles Rennie Mackintosh should have to leave the relative peace and calm of the beautiful coastal town of Walberswick in Suffolk to go to war-ravaged London in order to find some inner tranquillity and respite from persecution.
In 1901 Mackintosh became a partner in the Glasgow architectural practice of John Honeyman and Keppie, effectively becoming Honeyman, Keppie and Mackintosh. The partnership was drawn up for a period of ten years and by the time of its expiration in 1910, Mackintosh’s career had started to falter. This was, in part, because his work was at odds with the popular, more traditional styles of architecture prevailing at the time and the fact that his potential clients were not necessarily au fait or comfortable with the new and exciting movements in architectural design and art sweeping across Europe.1 Another factor was the introduction of the Finance Act of 1909, where the increment tax on new development affected the number of new commissions and with it a dramatic decline in income.2 This decline in revenues affected architectural practices across the board, of course, and Mackintosh continued working until July 1914, when his wife, Margaret Macdonald, persuaded him to take a break, for the sake of his health, to Walberswick in Suffolk.
Whilst Mackintosh’s health improved considerably, matters were taken out of their hands: the outbreak of war had spread an atmosphere of suspicion and when letters from Germany and Austria were found in Mackintosh’s possession, doubt was cast on his patriotism with rumours of his being a spy and the couple were forced to leave the Suffolk town.3 So what should have been a restorative sojourn turned into a flight to a city where bombs and air raids were to become part of the fabric of their existence.
Around August 1915, Mackintosh and his wife found two studios located next to each other in Glebe Place, Chelsea. The studio used by Mackintosh was known as 43A Hans Studio and was entered from a small high-walled courtyard; Margaret’s studio was accessed separately though a doorway linking the two spaces. As with most studios the ceilings were high, in order, most probably, to capture as much as light as possible and although they were fairly austere, with the furniture, artefacts and decorative panels originally housed in their Glasgow home, the place would soon have become an extension of their artistic lives.4 Van Gogh once wrote when describing his own home: “I want to make it into a real artist’s house, nothing contrived, but everything – from the chairs to the pictures – should have character”.5 You could imagine the Mackintoshes adopting this philosophy in their own environment. Internal photos show the light and general space within.
The couple were to remain here until 1923, working on various projects in the studios and renting living accommodation nearby in Oakley Street. As the 1921 Census will not be available until 2022 (the rule which prohibits disclosure for 100 years) a search was carried out of the Register of Voters for Chelsea and indeed Mackintosh is recorded as renting 43A Hans Studio, Glebe Place from 1918-1919. Although we know that the Mackintoshes left for France in 1923, Margaret’s name appears in the records up to and including 1927. No electoral rolls records could be found for the war years; this could be explained by the vast numbers of people displaced by the war and therefore records unavailable or incomplete.
This essay will concentrate on the war years whilst Mackintosh and Margaret were in London, from August 1915 until the end of the war in November 1918, and attempt to give some sense of what their lives were like, how Mackintosh filled his days, where leisure time was spent and the colleagues and friends who were to be part of their lives during this time of living in a strange city, a different country even, with new surroundings, unfamiliar faces and fresh challenges.
The Mackintoshes were helped to settle into their new life by the Scottish theorist and town planner, Patrick Geddes. In a letter to his old patron, William Davidson, Mackintosh describes ”a tentative offer from the Indian Government to go there for some six months starting in October to do some work in reconstruction schemes where they want me to do the architecture”. Nothing came of this proposed work. 6
We have no documented evidence of what exactly the Mackintoshes thought of their new surroundings in London but since they had a Scottish, Presbyterian background and the prevailing atmosphere was one of a more liberal approach, it follows that some adjustments, to say the least, were needed.
George Bernard Shaw’s adventurous plays with their daring subject matter, new ballets by Diaghilev, music composed by Igor Stravinsky and the frank novels of D. H. Lawrence were some of the offerings in this new era. The Royal Court on Sloane Square, Chelsea opened on 24th September, 1888, and Heartbreak House by Shaw was shown there.7
Many distinguished people lived in Chelsea around the time that the Mackintoshes lived there. Bertrand Russell first moved to Chelsea in the early part of the twentieth century, returning to this part of London later on in his life.8 Principia Mathematica, composed jointly by Russell and Alfred North Whitehead (also a Chelsea resident) is recognised as a monumental work and was partly written in Chelsea. It has to be mentioned that Russell, a Pacifist, spent the summer of 1918 in Brixton prison for publishing unpatriotic material about the war. After the war, in 1922 and 1923, he stood as the Chelsea Labour parliamentary candidate, which prompted George Bernard Shaw to write “I suppose it is too late to urge you not to waste any of your money on Chelsea, where no Progressive has a dog’s chance”.9 He was unsuccessful at both attempts.
Other Chelsea residents living in Cheyne Walk included Ralph Vaughan Williams who lived at number 13 from 1905 until 1929;10 Henry James lived at number 21 from 1913; Jacob Epstein was resident at number 72 before the First World War and the painter Philip Wilson Steer could be found at number 109 from 1898 until his death in 1942.11 In 1914, Augustus John moved to Chelsea at 28 Mallord Street, living in a house built by Robert van Hoff. Later in 1935 he moved just a few doors from where the Mackintoshes had their studios, to number 49 Glebe Place.12
John Betjeman could be found at 53 Old Church Street from 1917 to 1924 and Katherine Mansfield lived for a while in 1917 at number 141a in the same street. A little earlier in the twentieth century, a balcony in Glebe Place was the setting for Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst to rally supporters for the Suffragette movement.13
Mackintosh and his wife gradually became acquainted with the new avant-garde society, and with the prospect of new work and commissions coming their way, they began to settle into the daily routine of this period of their lives.14
One of the places they frequented was a restaurant or café called the Blue Cockatoo. This was situated on the Embankment on Cheyne Walk. Apparently the food “was often unappetizing and the service erratic” but the restaurant had an upper room frequented by the artistic community, including such well known personalities in the arts as Augustus John, Randolph Schwabe, J. D. Fergusson and Margaret Morris.15 The walls are described as “ugly yellow and black” and this colour scheme seemed to insinuate itself into many aspects of Mackintosh’s work in his years in London appearing again and again in paintings, furniture, designs for wallpaper and fabric and other articles.
One of the most significant pieces of work carried out by Mackintosh during the war years in London was the re-design of the interiors of a small terraced house in Northampton, known as 78 Derngate. This commission was for the model maker, Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke, to whom Mackintosh was introduced, it is thought, by the head of the Glasgow School of Art, Francis Newbery. Bassett-Lowke himself provides the best clue for this assumption when he wrote, “during a holiday in Cornwall I met a friend from Glasgow who held forth to me on the merits of the artist architect Chas. Rennie Mackintosh”. Mrs. Newbery Sturrock (daughter of Francis Newbery) remembers Bassett-Lowke visiting or staying with the Newberys in Glasgow and it seems likely that the recommendation came from that source.16 The house was a wedding present from Bassett-Lowke’s father and it is interesting to note the wedding gift Mackintosh and his wife gave to the Bassett-Lowkes: a “little book of plays” by George Bernard Shaw.17 Mackintosh had certainly embraced the contemporary, cultural scene of war-time London.
The striking designs for the walls in the Hall Lounge are predominately yellow and black. The leaded glass screen in the Hall Lounge is another example of the use of yellow and black in combination. Work on 78 Derngate, including furniture designs, and schemes for walls and fabric, was carried out in 1916 and 1917 (with some later additions) and is a real departure from Mackintosh’s earlier style, known as the original Glasgow style, with its sinuous curves, pastel colours and organic motifs more associated with the Art Nouveau movement. The designs for 78 Derngate, particularly the Hall Lounge, have been variously described as jazzy and having an art deco feel (bearing in mind that this particular art movement did not evolve until later) with the use of primary colours and geometric motifs and recalls recent design work in Glasgow, in the showy Chinese Room and also the Cloister Room at the Ingram Street Tea Rooms. As the only significant work in England, this proved to be one of his last executed commissions.
Another of Mackintosh’s commissions in 1916 in Scotland was the Dug Out, a basement extension to the Willow Tea Room. Again, the design for a settle for this extension is striking – constructed of wood, it is painted in a vibrant yellow.
Mackintosh undertook all manner of commissions and as Bassett-Lowke was particularly fond of clocks he commissioned the architect and designer to come up with original versions for his home. This watercolour and pencil sketch, c1917 (Plate 5) shows just how inventive Mackintosh was; another of his exquisite designs was a stunning Ebonized clock with inlaid decoration, also 1917 (Plate 6). A mahogany table with mother of pearl inlay (1918) illustrates beautifully the intricate detailing that made Mackintosh a past master when it came to the attention he paid to every part of the design (Plate 7).
However, one source of income came from the cache of flower drawings Mackintosh had made in Walberswick. Mackintosh developed a “botanical style” where the flowers were drawn and painted in isolation against a plain background. He showed a great flair and it is suggested that his love of nature went back to his childhood. His father, William, even whilst living in a tenement, kept a garden or allotment, spending time before and after work tending his beloved plants.18 When the family moved to 2 Firpark Street, Dennistoun when Mackintosh was ten years old, the surroundings were more pleasing than the views the tenement had to offer, and here William was able to obtain a portion of the garden of a house known as Golf Hill House. Flowers were William’s passion and it was this passion that would translate into Mackintosh’s life-long interest in botany and his brilliant gift for rendering the physical blooms into depictions of drawn and painted specimens and floral studies. The flower drawings provided material for designs for textiles, although this source of income did not really materialise until after the war had ended when the demand for soft furnishings grew, particularly in London.
One painting of particular interest is the still life of Anemones first exhibited in 1916.
This is a departure from the usual botanical study and contextualises a vase of anemones in a room that uses the device of a mirror to reflect one of his textile designs – in black and yellow. The fabric, framed in reflection in a black bordered mirror, stands out quite dramatically as it is in complete contrast to the flowers of blue, purple, red and white flowing freely with petals dropping on to the black surface. The fabric echoes the black and yellow designs in the Hall Lounge of 78 Derngate, whilst the bold, striking stripes on the vase hint directly at the décor in the Guest Bedroom of the same building. Mackintosh had the gift of being able to mix styles, in this case, the soft flowing organic shapes of the flowers juxtaposed against the repeating triangular-like motif and the bold blue and white vertical stripes.
The profusion of anemones is glorious with the flowers competing for room in an overfilled vase; the exuberance that mirrors Mackintosh’s love of nature is filling every space of the surface of this painting with the composition held firmly in place by the bold use of the geometric shapes in the fabric and vase.
A writer named A. Pelham Webb published a book of Poetry in 1916 and one particular poem stands out: it is called “The Anemone”.19
An anemone I see
And methinks it says to me
“Any money? Any money?
Put away your parsimony.”
So I put my care away,
For the pretty flower I pay,
Then I take it home to be
Friend of my frugality.
And it tells how nature is
Prodigal, of such as this
Yet as thrifty and restrained
As my purse that is not drained.
Tragically Pelham Webb was killed in action on Easter Monday, 1917.
Let’s not forget that whilst Mackintosh was working quietly in his studio another, completely different, scenario was unfolding outside his studio door. A resident of Glebe Place wrote “Never shall I forget how suddenly Chelsea seemed to become an armed camp… Army motor lorries were rattling noisily along the normally quiet Embankment, and those hot nights we lay awake listening to the heavy rumble of laden troop-trains, all night long… It was a heart-rending sight to see the young men of all ranks going up the steps of Chelsea Town Hall to enlist”. 20
Chelsea Barracks was a British army barracks on Chelsea Bridge Road. It was originally built in the 1860s and was used until 2008, when the troops were transferred to the Royal Artillery Barracks at Woolwich. The map below shows its location in Chelsea.21
The Duke of York’s Barracks, near Sloane Square, was also not far from where Mackintosh worked and slept so there would have been frenetic activity most of the time.
Mackintosh was 46 years old at the outbreak of war. A vast volunteer army was created in Britain in 1914 and 1915, but because numbers of personnel coming forward were lower than needed, a scheme to encourage recruitment was launched: this was known as the Derby Scheme.22 When this scheme did not achieve its aim and pull in the number of volunteers necessary to enable the war effort to succeed, in January 1916, the Military Service Act was passed which made all single men of military age liable to be called up. Later that year the bill was extended to married men. Full conscription was the order of the day.
The age range for enlisting was originally set at between 18 and 41, but in April 1918 the upper age limited was raised to 50 (or to 56 if need arose). A simple calculation shows that Mackintosh would reach his fiftieth birthday in June of that year. The war ended later in 1918, much, one suspects, to the relief of the male (and female) population of Britain who would be eager to return to their former employment and resume their everyday lives.
Whilst little evidence can be found on the daily routine of the Mackintoshes’ life in London, we know that they had lodgings in Oakley Street, spent their days in the adjoining studios in Glebe Place, and many evenings were enjoyed at the Blue Cockatoo meeting friends and colleagues for dinner. From an Old Ordnance Survey Map of Chelsea 1913 it can be seen that the footsteps of the artistic couple make an intriguing triangle as indicated on the enlarged detail of the map.23
When Bassett-Lowke visited London to discuss details of the work Mackintosh was carrying out on his house in Northampton (Mackintosh never visited the Northampton site) no documented evidence exists as to where they met up: it could have been in Bassett-Lowke’s Model Shop in Holborn, the Mackintoshes’ studios in Glebe Place or any café in between! We do know that Margaret held parties, including children’s parties, at the studios,24 so it is feasible that the Mackintoshes offered hospitality to Bassett-Lowke there. The studios were made stylish with furniture and other items from their Glasgow home and would have been a very welcoming place to bring guests.
One wonders what Bassett-Lowke made of all the military activity that he encountered when he visited London. He was, of course, engaged in important work for the war effort in his Northampton workshop so was already immersed in the demands the First World War was making on the country and its citizens.
Clearly Mackintosh and Margaret embraced life in Chelsea and made the very best of their new-found circumstances. They adopted their new surroundings, making their studios an inviting, hospitable place to spend their days, often in the company of like-minded people. They certainly faced up to the challenges of living in the capital city which was the target of so many bombing raids.25 Indeed the Royal Hospital in Chelsea was damaged on more than one occasion.26 So, whilst they had to adjust their artistic output for the world and circumstances they found themselves in, the war years proved to be fulfilling in many ways producing a body of work that would add greatly to the already outstanding legacy the Mackintoshes would eventually leave behind.
Billcliffe, Roger. Charles Rennie Mackintosh: The Complete Furniture, Furniture Drawings and Interior Designs, Moffat, Dumfriesshire: Cameron & Hollis, 4th edn, 2009.
Chausseaud, Peter. Mapping the First World War. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2013. ISBN 978 0 00 794197 1.
Crawford, Alan. Charles Rennie Mackintosh. London: Thames & Hudson, 1995.
Cross, Tom. Artists and Bohemians, 100 years with the Chelsea Arts Club. London: Quiller Press, 1992. ISBN 1 870948 60 2.
Dorrell, Jane (ed). Here is Chelsea: Reflections from the Chelsea Society. London: Elliott & Thompson.
Holme, Thea. Chelsea. London: Hamish Hamilton Limited, 1972. SBN 241 01692 4.
Howarth, Thomas. Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Modern Movement. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1st edn, 1952. ISBN 0 415 05307 2
Metzger, Rainer and Walther, Ingo. Vincent Van Gogh. Cologne: Taschen, 1998. ISBN 3 8228 7225 3
Pelham Webb, A. Wandering Fires. Chelsea, London: Published by author, 1916
Richardson, John. The Chelsea Book Past and Present. London: Historical Publications Limited, 2003. ISBN 0 948667 89 3.
Swinglehurst, Edmund. Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Hoo, Nr. Rochester: Grange Books, 2001. ISBN 1 84013 415 1
Plate 1 – Letter from Charles Rennie Mackintosh to Bassett-Lowke.
Plate 2 – Mackintosh’s designs for the Hall Lounge at 78 Derngate – 78 Derngate Guide Book, Page 20.
Plate 3 – Mackintosh’s design for Screen in the Hall Lounge at 78 Derngate – 78 Derngate Guide Book, Page 5.
Plate 4 – Macintosh’s design for a settle, for the Dug-Out in Scotland – Swinglehurst Page 75.
Plate 5 – Design for a clock – Swinglehurst, Page 108.
Plate 6 – Ebonised clock with inlaid decoration – Swinglehurst, Page 80.
Plate 7 – Mahogany table with mother-of-pearl inlay – Swinglehurst, Page 80.
Plate 8 – Still Life with Anemones – Swinglehurst, Page 124.
Old Ordnance Survey Maps, Chelsea 1913: The Godfrey Edition.
Photos of Royal Hospital, Chelsea.