In 1916-17 Mackintosh was involved in recasting 78 Derngate, a somewhat pokey early 19th-century terraced house in Northampton, for an interesting and exacting client, W. J. Bassett-Lowke of model railway fame. Research which I have begun for the 78 Derngate Trust in connection with the Heritage Lottery funded project to restore the house is building a picture of the relationship between the two men, and their individual contributions to the project, which I hope will later be published in full. For the time being I would like to take the opportunity to set out a revised account of the furnishing of the guest bedroom.
The view accepted since Roger Billcliffe’s Charles Rennie Mackintosh: The Complete Furniture, Furniture Drawings and Interior Designs, first published in 1979, is that the guest bedroom at 78 Derngate was originally furnished with a mahogany suite inlaid with mother-of-pearl squares, designed by Mackintosh. There are designs for this furniture, one dated September 1917; and four sets of the furniture itself. The well-known suite of oak furniture decorated with strings of blue squares on black now in the Hunterian Art Gallery, and the striking decorative scheme using black and white stripes recreated there, allegedly replaced the first arrangements in 1919/20 (in time to appear in the August 1920 issue of Ideal Home). This was the room that George Bernard Shaw famously slept in with his eyes shut (thus confident that he would be undisturbed by its dazzling decor).
It now seems certain that the oak furniture and stripey decorative scheme were installed in 1917 along with the rest of the alterations which transformed the house before W.J. Bassett-Lowke’s marriage on 21 March 1917; and that the mahogany suite, while certainly designed for Bassett-Lowke, was not for 78 Derngate.
The wholesale redecoration and refurnishing of the room after no more than a couple of years is inherently unlikely. Bassett-Lowke was careful with his money, and materials and skilled labour were in very short supply during and immediately after the First World War. He evidently exercised all his business ingenuity and contacts to get the job done in the first place. Standing in the empty bedroom on the second floor of the house one realises too that the mahogany furniture is just too bulky and existed in too many pieces to be suitably designed for what is not a large room. If you look at the Hunterian suite you see that it is really quite dainty, and compressed in clever ways (for instance there is no dressing table as such – the washstand and a small chest of drawers double as dressing surfaces). This impression is born out by a detailed comparison of the items of furniture in the two suites and their relative dimensions.
The only evidence for such a change in the room was in fact a recollection of Mrs Bassett-Lowke’s niece Doris Cutting (b.1904), in conversation with Roger Billcliffe in the late 1970s, ie almost 60 years after she used to visit the house. Her daughter Jane Preston attests that her mother’s memory was failing by that time and that there were many instances of her muddling things or contradicting herself. Neither Jane Preston nor her sister recalls Mrs Cutting ever mentioning such a change in the guest bedroom furnishing when she spoke about 78 Derngate. She did speak of the well-attested change in the decorative scheme of the hall-lounge and might perhaps have been prompted to think confusedly of this when she spoke to Roger Billcliffe. A final point is that no photographs are known of the mahogany suite at 78 Derngate, although Bassett-Lowke, a keen and accomplished photographer, recorded the house in detail and on several occasions, with more shots of the two rooms which represented Mackintosh’s main work on the house – the striking hall-lounge and the guest bedroom – than of any others.
In addition to these general objections to the ‘mahogany first’ theory there are positive indications that the oak suite (for which incidentally no designs survive) was Mackintosh’s original and only work for the room. Five fascinating letters from Bassett-Lowke to Mackintosh on the subject of 78 Derngate survive, letters which supplemented frequent meetings in London with queries and comments. The one dated 11 January 1917 has a scribbled PS asking ‘What do you suggest for the Bed Spreads of the Oak Bedroom’, suggesting that the oak furniture and decorative scheme for the guest bedroom were already in hand. The bedspreads that resulted from this prod, in blue silk with green insets and black and white stripes echoing the walls and ceiling, were an important contributor to the powerful effect of the whole scheme.
The clinching argument is the dating of an article featuring the stripey oak bedroom pulled out of something mysteriously called Berger’s Mercury (presented to the Hunterian Art Gallery by Janet Dicks, Bassett-Lowke”s niece, in 1999) and of a manuscript related to it with corrections by Bassett-Lowke (HAG). Both these allude more than once to the war: and indeed the British Library holds an incomplete set of what turns out to be the trade magazine of Berger”s paints. This reveals that the text and photographs were ready to be published In the May/June 1918 issue, proving surely that the oak furniture and stnpey decor was part of the original scheme for the house.
So where does the mahogany and mother-of-pearl bedroom suite fit in? In the catalogue for the Mackintosh Centenary Exhibition in 1968 Andrew McLaren Young states (p.43) ‘About 1915 W.J. Bassett-Lowke … was put in touch with Mackintosh … Mackintosh designed a bedroom tor him in his parents’ house. This met with approval and was followed by an invitation to design a room for Bassett-Lowke’s friend, F. Jones [Mrs Bassett-Lowke’s brother]’; and subsequently the remodelling and refurnishing of 78 Derngate on the marriage of the Bassett-Lowkes. There are small inaccuracies in the entry, which obviously derives from information given to McLaren Young by Mrs Bassett-Lowke, who was one of the lenders to the exhibition. However there is no reason to doubt the essentials, and on the face of it we should try to account for Mrs Bassett-Lowke’s testimony.
W.J. Bassett-Lowke’s parents. Mr & Mrs J.T. Lowke, lived at this time in 13 Kingswell Street, very close to the family’s extensive engineering works premises in the street, where W.J.’s model engineering business also had space. The house has unfortunately since been demolished. Gillian Cave remembers her father, a Northampton furniture dealer, telling her mother with excitement, ‘I have bought Wynne Bassett-Lowke’s Bedroom Suite. You are going to love it.’ She dates this to around 1927 when she was 7. She assumes like everyone else that the furniture came from 78 Derngate, but it must have been somewhere else in Bassett-Lowke possession (and apparently not the Bassett-Lowkes’ country cottage at Roade, Candida Cottage, which had simple white-painted bedroom furniture) before this.
The actual pieces of furniture sold by Gillian Cave at Sotheby’s in 1988 might be taken to support Mrs Bassett-Lowke’s story, that the commission dated to a time when W.J. was still living at Kingswell Street. Unlike other sets of the furniture which are full guest bedroom suites, the Bassett-Lowke provenanced set seems not to have included a full washstand, a towel rail or luggage stool, perhaps implying that it was made for use by a member of the family with access to a family bathroom. It includes instead a piece of furniture not reproduced in the later sets – a simple cupboard fitted with sliding trays like a linen press, in design equivalent to the bottom part of the washstand appearing in other sets, which would serve as a dressing surface.
There exists a Mackintosh pencil drawing with designs for a bedside table, with two bed ends shown flanking it in outline, a wardrobe and a ladderback armchair, with the note ‘2 chais & 1 without arms’ (Billcliffe D1917.23). There is also an undated pencil and watercolour drawing of a high and low version of the dressing table with alterations on the high version and notes from Bassett-Lowke – ‘Should prefer it 3’6” wide’ (Billcliffe D1917.22); and another dated September 1917 for ‘W J Bassett-Lowke Esqr. Northampton’ which shows a towel rail, a washstand, the high version of the dressing table with the alterations requested by Bassett-Lowke, a dressing stool and a luggage stool (Billcliffe D1917.21 ). (The assumption that this design was connected with 78 Derngate would have entailed the Bassett-Lowkes having to wait until say early 1918 for a presentable guest bedroom, another unlikelihood in the story).
Various suppositions are possible, but perhaps the most likely is that the pencil drawing relates to the original furniture first commissioned by Bassett-Lowke for his bachelor bedroom. Having left the family home in March 1917 and settled into 78 Derngate, Bassett-Lowke apparently came back to Mackintosh for designs for supplementary pieces of furniture a) on behalf of business contacts who were interested in copies of the furniture (see below), and perhaps b) to convert his old room into a guest bedroom: on the doorstep of the company’s head office it would have been convenient for business visitors, and a stylish advertisement for his firm’s commitment to progressive design. The dressing table and stool sold by Miss Cave, which Bassett-Lowke would probably not have commissioned for himself, might date from this time, and this may explain why there is a separate drawing of the dressing table. The recessed handles of the dressing table are a dark green, as in the Franklin set, not backed in aluminium as on the cupboard and wardrobe (and in the Horstmann set: see n.2) – perhaps another indication that the dressing table was not part of the original suite, but dated from the time that Bassett-Lowke started encouraging Mackintosh to use coloured plastic inlay in furniture design. The towel rail and luggage stool were probably not commissioned for Kingswell Street: if they were they have been separated from the suite and lost.
Two full guest bedroom sets of this mahogany furniture, with slight variations, were made for two business friends of Bassett-Lowke: his partner Harry Franklin, and Sidney Horstmann of Bath (see n.2). Bassett-Lowke seems to have proselytised actively on behalf of Mackintosh’s furniture and acted as an agent in replicating for other people suites designed originally for him (though interestingly not the 78 Derngate furniture). Mackintosh’s drawings for the decorative scheme to set off the furniture at Horstmann’s house in Bath, for instance, are addressed to Bassett-Lowke as client. It was certainly he who arranged for this mahogany guest bedroom suite to be made by German internees on the Isle of Man, along with the dining furniture designed for Candida Cottage, of which both Harry Franklin and Frank Jones, Mrs Bassett-Lowke’s brother, took a set. This interesting subject needs more research: it’s not clear what Mackintosh got out of these deals.
The sale of the Bassett-Lowke mahogany furniture to Mr Cave c. 1927 was presumably prompted not as his daughter Gillian assumed by the Bassett-Lowkes’ move to their new Behrens house, New Ways, in June 1926, but by the death of W.J.’s father J.T. Lowke on 1 August 1926 and the subsequent dispersal of the contents of 13 Kingswell Street.
To sum up then: it seems certain that the mahogany bedroom suite was not intended for 78 Derngate, but that the core of it represents Bassett-Lowke’s earliest commission to Mackintosh, c.1915. The startling light oak furniture and decorative scheme for the guest bedroom at 78 Derngate, together with the furnishing and decoration of the hall-lounge, were Bassett-Lowke’s major commissions to Mackintosh at the time of the transformation of the house in 1916-17, showing the particular importance he attached to the design of these daring ‘display areas’ – though Mackintosh also contributed in other areas of the house.
It is just possible of course that if for some reason the completion of the oak furniture for the guest bedroom at 78 Derngate had been delayed at the time of the Bassett-Lowkes’ move to the house in March 1917, pieces of the mahogany suite at Kingswell Street could have been brought over temporarily to make a functioning guest room. This would allow Doris Cutting’s memory to be correct, without undermining Mrs Bassett-Lowke’s assertion about the furniture, which is on the whole more likely to be reliable. But this is probably a refinement too far.
First published in Spring 2002 in The Journal of The Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society and then in July 2002 in The Friends of 78 Derngate Newsletter Issue 19.
Author: Perilla Kinchin
Transcribed 2018: Barbara Floyer