Experiencing the Replica Library Bay

[Written by Rachael Purse]

Dr Robyne Calvert now has two Mackintosh Research PhD students under her wing, Rachael Purse, and now Carolyn Alexander who will begin her studies this month and introduce herself below. Their first educational outing as a trio was to the replica Mackintosh Library bay in Edinburgh at the workshops of the aptly named Laurence MacIntosh. Here are Rachael and Carolyn’s reflections on experiencing this prototype, along with photographs taken by Carolyn of this exciting structure.

Rachael Purse: I had seen photographs of the replica bay prior to our visit, so I was very excited to see it in the flesh; touch it, smell it, and even walk on it. I knew that beeswax was used to seal the paint used to stain the fresh new timbers, and was hoping to smell some remnants of the scent in the air. I couldn’t detect any, but the smell of cut wood in the workshop was inviting. Beside the library bay itself there was a vast trunk of American Tulipwood, bark still on, sliced lengthwise and ready to be used in the construction of the Library, a reminder of Glasgow’s history as an international centre for shipping.

tulipwood log
An impressive Tulipwood trunk, ready for use in the Mackintosh Library. Photograph by Carolyn Alexander.

The coloured ovals adorning the balconies spindles were almost shockingly bright against the caramel brown of the stained timber. The lightness of the stain emphasised both the natural wood grain as well as allowing the details of the carpentry and craftsmanship to be seen more clearly. Years of repainting and nicotine stains had left their marks on the original library, darkening the timbers over time.

rep spindles
Rachael Purse examining the spindles and getting to grips with the balcony timer. Photograph by Carolyn Alexander.

The wood was smooth to the touch, the lack of a glossy modern varnish allowing the silky feel of the well-sanded timber to be enjoyed by the visitor. I couldn’t keep my hands off a bowed piece of timber adorning the balcony, curved within the natural boundaries the Tulipwood allows. The maple wood flooring was almost slippery underfoot, perfect and unscathed in appearance, this material will gradually gain a patina as the original flooring did.

Horsehair is still being used underneath the balcony floor as insulation, but the main floor of the library contains modern materials which will be installed alongside an underfloor heating system. The juxtaposition of old and new working perfectly together sums up how I feel about this Restoration Project. Both the modern and traditional materials guarantee the comfort of the library’s users and allow the removal of the bulky radiators which were in place before the fire. Mackintosh himself was against installing these as they blocked the bay windows of the library and muddied his design.

Underfloor heating calls for modern insulation materials. Photograph by Carolyn Alexander.

Carolyn Alexander: I’ll be joining the Restoration project this month, starting a practice-based PhD in collaboration with Historic Environment Scotland, very generously funded by SCHC and AHRC.  The focus of my research is the experience of authenticity and aura in replicated or restored material culture, assessing the impact of these experiences on engagement with material and historical narratives.   With the Mackintosh Restoration Project as a case study, I will be examining approaches taken to preserve, restore or create facsimiles of vulnerable or lost artefacts and structures, and how contemporary art practice can be employed to facilitate the experience of aura within heritage sites.

The aura of a ‘thing’ can be broadly defined as that something special you often feel when viewing an artwork, artefact or structure.  The experience of authenticity is often not only affected by the literal realness of a thing, but also your perception and understanding of it’s life story.  This life story, often referred to as an object biography, includes the physical journey of a thing’s material qualities, but is also shaped those who have interacted with it since its creation.

New views of an old friend. Photograph by Carolyn Alexander.

With this in mind, I was extremely excited to come face to face with the prototype library bay at Laurence MacIntosh.  Like Rachael, I had seen tantalising photos and presentations but was yet to experience it first hand.  As a former student at GSA, I was intrigued and a little anxious to see how this incarnation would differ to my recollection of the original library.  With strong memories of the black paint, matt lacquered surfaces and creaky floors – and an understanding that Restoration Project seeks to reconstruct the library to its original state when it first opened – I was quietly nervous that it might seem ‘too new,’ or perhaps even alien to me.

On entering the warehouse however my nerves evaporated instantly and I was overcome with the satisfying aroma of freshly worked wood.  The exposed grain was not jarring as I had feared, but rather, I felt it unmasked details of the design in a wonderfully sensitive manner.  The subtle finish of the wood was particularly beneficial to appreciating the properties of the hand-carved banners hanging from the balcony.

Mackintosh’s mysterious seeds. Photograph by Carolyn Alexander.

Getting the chance to chat to the specialist carvers and woodworkers at Laurence MacIntosh allowed for a fascinating insight into the way that these elements of the design may have been manufactured in 1910.  Even more captivating for me, was hearing about the ways in which they had discovered these techniques that can be quite different to production methods in the modern-day workshop.  Handling the jigs and test pieces was especially enlightening and highlighted the progression of investigation and technique.  Through a combination of consultation with the research and design teams at GSA and by experimenting with materials, they are continuing to uncover the subtle elegance Mackintosh’s design.

spindle tests
Trial and error, test spindles. Photograph by Carolyn Alexander.

Author: Robyne Calvert

Cultural Historian... art, design, architecture, fashion, etc.

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