Myths about Mackintosh

Happy birthday Toshie! In honour of his 150th, take a look at some of the Mackintosh myths and misconceptions that still do the rounds…


First thing’s first: HAPPY BIRTHDAY TOSHIE! Today is his 150th, as anyone reading this probably already knows.

In honour of that, I thought I’d put together a very quick little post addressing some of the most popular misconceptions (and at times, myths) about our Toshie. Many have simply arisen from hearsay or misunderstandings of history. Almost all have roots in the earliest scholarship on CRM, namely Thomas Howarth‘s book Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Modern Movement, 1952/77. Not to disparage this work – it is the foundation text for any serious research in the field. But it is also written through a particular Modernist (and male-biased) lens, and from accounts told to Howarth by people who knew Mackintosh – fascinating, but also second hand, and often unsubstantiated.

It is also the case that as ‘dead artists’ go, we’ve very little factual information left behind, and only a very small amount in Mackintosh’s own words.

What is somewhat baffling, though, is that these myths yet persist despite scholarship having debunked many of these decades ago. Writing in 1996, Alan Crawford spoke of what he called the ‘Mackintosh Myth’:

‘Howarth’s book and the popular image of Mackintosh are both informed by stereotypes of the genius, rooted in 19th-century Romanticism, and of the pioneer, rooted in 20th-century progressivism. Howarth’s Modernist version of Mackintosh may have lost academic credibility, but it lives on in the popular imagination.’

Over 20 years later, we still hear these same myths repeated even in the most recent articles and tv programmes, which Crawford and other authorities since have tried to clarify. Here is a sampling of the most common:

Mackintosh was a ‘(misunderstood, neglected, lone) genius’.

I (and I’m sure other CRM scholars) often get asked ‘Why was he so neglected? Why was he forgotten? Why was he so popular in Europe and not Glasgow?’ I’m not sure any of these notions are entirely true.

I suppose this misconception is a matter of perspective. It is true that for some time in the early-to-mid 20th-century, his name was not as famous in Glasgow as it has been for the last several decades. During his life, some press reports were derisive of his work, leaving behind the impression that he was a ‘misunderstood genius’. His critical success in international art & design exhibitions (such as the 8th Vienna Secession in 1900 and Turin 1902) have likewise been interpreted as his being valued and wildly successful on the continent, while Britain rejected him.

I feel this does not necessarily equate to neglected, or even genius. On the latter point, I’m going to borrow from Crawford: ‘I have not called him a genius because I am not sure what that means.’ He was very well-received in Europe in certain circles, and the handful of press articles (mostly in niche art and design journals like Decorative Kunst) lauded his work alongside others artists and designers associated with The Glasgow School of Art. And perhaps there is a nugget of truth in the notion that these designs were more palatable to European tastes, in their relationship to the Art Nouveau/Secession styles that were emerging at the time. The reality is, though acclaimed in press, Mackintosh received very few continental commissions from this exposure.

The original Willow Tea Rooms building, post-conservation, fresh and glorious in the rarified sun. Image courtesy the Willow Tea Rooms Trust, 2018.

I also think these assumptions do a disservice to Glaswegian art and design of the period, which was flowering both metaphorically and in decorative motif. To say that Mackintosh was misunderstood or even seen as bizarre, simply based on the comments of a few perhaps backwards journalists, is an over-simplification. After all, it was a savvy businesswoman, Catherine Cranston, who gave him some of his best visibility in her popular tearooms. And alongside the innovative architecture of the late Victorian ‘Second City’ (think Thompson, Leiper, Salmon, Burnett), Mackintosh was unique but certainly not out of place in radical inventiveness. Perhaps most importantly, he was part of a wider art movement which we now like to call ‘Glasgow Style’, and was certainly not alone in the production of such work, nor was Cranston the sole consumer.

Again, I must point to Crawford’s excellent 1996 biography, which successfully debunks this idea throughout. In any case – look around today. We certainly have rectified any neglect he may have experienced!

Verdict: Misconstrued.


Mackintosh is an internationally famous architect/design icon.

You wouldn’t believe it in Glasgow today, but unless you are really into architecture or design, Mackintosh is actually still little-known in large parts of the world. Maybe this is where the ‘neglected’ notion comes in, but by that argument we might say the majority of architects, and virtually all designers, are neglected. Perhaps we can get him a ‘Simpsons’ guest spot like Frank Ghery had?

Verdict: Aspirational

The Immortals: Frances Macdonald, Agnes Raeburn, Janet Aitken, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Katherine Cameron, Jessie Keppie, Margaret Macdonald, ca. 1893. Collection: GSA DC004/9
Mackintosh was engaged to Jessie Keppie. He then jilted her and married Macdonald, which ultimately ruined his career.

There is literally no factual evidence to support any of this.

I’ve recently written another post that talks about this supposed ‘love triangle’ in more detail, particularly as it relates to the misinterpretation of a group photo of ‘The Immortals’ now in the GSA collection. In brief, this image is often portrayed as depicting a ‘frission’ between Keppie and Macdonald, at far right. I don’t see it – they look like pals sharing a cheeky laugh to me, and to many others I’ve asked. People have read into this based on the aforementioned myth.

Roger Billcliffe most recently wrote that this bit of gossip may have initially been told to Howarth by Francis Newbury’s daughter Mary Newbury Sturrock. But as Billcliffe points out in his recent book The Art of the Four, she was ‘not yet born when these events took place and… would have been quoting, or making deductions, from later family discussions.’ He continues: ‘Many years later, in discussions with [me], she modified the word “engagement” to “an understanding”, as close perhaps to a withdrawal of the original suggestion as she was able to make.’ Billcliffe also points to discrepancies in Timothy Neat’s account of events in his book Part Seen, Part Imagined (1994), showing convincingly that the timeline of events, alongside the fact that no formal engagement was announced as would have been appropriate for the social rank of the Keppies, made such an arrangement rather dubious.

It also doesn’t make any sense to say he left Jessie Keppie, OR that it ruined his career, since he made partner in Honeyman & Keppie a few years after the supposed jilting took place.

Verdict: Possible but unsubstantiated, and unlikely.

Margaret Macdonald was a massive influence on Mackintosh. Mackintosh said, ‘I just have talent, Margaret has genius.’ Mackintosh said that Margaret was ‘half if not three-quarters’ in all his work.

Or some version of these.

In fact, as someone who entered this field by researching Margaret Macdonald, I often do get asked if she influenced him, how she influenced him, etc. I’ve always been happy to answer affirmatively as she was so unfairly marginalised in the past. However it is more accurate to say that their relationship was of mutual influence and import.

Did Mackintosh say, ‘I just have talent, Margaret has genius’? Maybe. It is another second-hand comment reported by his friend Major Desmond Chapman-Huston (in the Major’s own reminiscences). In fact Chapman-Huston goes on to say he disagrees with this, as he doesn’t see the same level of inventiveness in her work (to paraphrase).

Mackintosh DID say, in a letter to Margaret, ‘You are half if not three-quarters in all my architectural work.’ This does seem to indicate he felt her to be an inspiration, if not an influence, in this area.

I’ve written an article about their collaborations in the most recent issue of the Mackintosh Society Journal, but you can also get a little more insight at this post.

Verdict: Mostly true, but often overstated or taken out of context.

Macdonald’s ‘The Heart of the Rose’ (1902) from the GSA collection, on the conservator Graciela Ainsworth’s easel back in November 2015.
Mackintosh designed Macdonald’s gesso panels.

This one is a matter of critical debate, with some believing that because these works are so precise and architectural, and/or because Macdonald wasn’t as inventive; that the gessoes were likely designed by Mackintosh and executed by Macdonald.

I confess that my initial outrage at this theory kept me from thinking critically about it for some years. But I’ve taken a step back to consider whether this has merit. I will allow that it is certainly true that Macdonald often repeated subjects and motifs in her work; and that also she didn’t necessarily show a great deal of long-term ambition in her design practice (meaning her extant body of work is relatively small, all considered). But I do not feel that she was incapable of intricate or complex design work, particularly when she hit her stride with the gessoes after 1900.

What interests me is this thorny issue of collaboration, and how we can’t necessarily pick apart how their creative partnership worked. As above, Mackintosh considered Macdonald to be a massive part of his creative process, including his architectural work. He also said, when working on the Ingram Street panels, ‘Miss Margaret Macdonald is doing one and I am doing the other. We are working them together and that makes the work very pleasant.’ But this is the only word we have on this subject – what does ‘working them together’ mean? Perhaps he managed to help flesh out her ideas in sketches that were then executed by her hand, we simply don’t know. And we simply never shall.

Verdict: Unprovable. Unlikely.

Mackintosh was an alcoholic.

Again I am going to borrow from Billcliffe, and I shall have to paraphrase as it was in a recent talk given at Queen’s Cross Church where I heard him say that in his view, Mackintosh didn’t drink any more than anyone else in the office (or in Glasgow on any given day). And Keppie probably drank a lot more!

Mackintosh struggled with his career in Glasgow after he parted company with Honeyman and Keppie. Again from reports of friends, he certainly seemed despondent, and of course the Mackintoshes ended up quitting Scotland altogether. Because the latter part of his life seems to our mind a melancholy struggle, I think we tend to assume it was either due to drink, or perhaps he drank as a consequence.

In contrast, we know for a fact that it was McNair that was the alcoholic, even to the extent that he was sent of to Canada for a time to ‘dry out’. This is substantiated in a letter by close friend Jessie Newbery, and other reports.

Ultimately it was tobacco (via cancer), not drink, that did Mackintosh in.

Verdict: Perhaps, but we don’t really know for certain.

Mackintosh was into the occult.
1-2 MC_G_8
‘The Tree of Personal Effort, The Sun of Indifference’, January 1895 (from The Magazine, Spring 1896). Pencil and watercolour on paper, 213 x 173 mm. Collection: Glasgow School of Art (MC/G/8)

My favourite! Because I really want it to be true!

However, there is absolutely no evidence to support this prospect. What he definitely was into was Symbolism. And Symbolist Art was influenced by all sorts of esoteric fin-de-siecle philosophies and ideas, including Theosophy, which explored religions and spiritual practices of all kinds. And he certainly had friends in Glasgow who were Theosophists. Spiritualism and interest in the metaphysical were all part of the ‘cultural soup’ in this period, and these notions go hand-in-hand with the interest in Celtic/Nordic mythology, and a romanticised vision of Scotland’s past, which is evident across Glasgow Style art & design.

But there is zero evidence that he was an Occultist, a Theosophist, a Rosicrucian, a member of the Golden Dawn, or part of the Order of the Phoenix. Or a Timelord (although another famous GSA graduate was).

If there IS missing evidence though, I hope I’m the one to find it!

Verdict: If only!

Mackintosh was Steampunk

Full confession – I’m the culprit in this one! Every time I give an interview, either it slips out in chat, or I’m even asked if I think there is something Steampunk about him – and it seems to be the one thing I get quoted on now, every time! That and that he shows up in science fiction, something that fascinates me. In fact you can read the latest quote in today’s EXCELLENT article by Olly Wainright – in which no (other) myths appear, hurrah!

The truth here, expressed somewhat more intelligently I hope, is that there is something rather retro-futuristic about his work that is difficult to quantify. It looks back at the same time it looks forward, giving it a timeless quality. I often do explain this in interviews, but it usually doesn’t make the edit, heh. Ah well. I need a pair of brassy Mackintosh goggles to turn up, to prove my theory.

Verdict: Apologies – but kind of true if you think about it!

Mackintosh invented the Glasgow Style

Despite the title of the current exhibition at the Kelvingrove, Mackintosh did not ‘make’ or ‘invent’ the Glasgow Style on his own. And in fact this exhibition does an fantastic job of showing precisely how many amazing artists, designers, and architects – many friends of his – were involved. The accompanying text by Alison Brown is also excellent, and here’s hoping she can make an expanded version of this! Don’t miss this wonderful exhibit!

Verdict: Untrue, as you can see for yourself at the Kelvingrove!

There is just SO MUCH to celebrate about Mackintosh – so much he has given to the city, and the world. No need to romanticise him, or make him overly tragic – we can appreciate him in truth and beauty, as he would want.

Author: Robyne Calvert

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

One thought on “Myths about Mackintosh”

  1. I greatly enjoyed this Mackintosh/Macdonald writing of yours!
    As a child I was innately drawn towards Rennie and Margaret’s works, as well as the similar works within the American Arts&Crafts/Roycroft/Craftsman. I refer to their time as “the all too brief moment between Art Nouveau and Art Deco, in which the flowing natural lines of the prior period was combined with the hardness of the scientific lines, of the following period”. As one who is both innate artist and science nerd, I was immediately drawn to their works.

    Over the years, I’ve found myself having to constantly explain the ‘Glasgow Four‘ to others… much to my amazement. I still find it hard to believe they are as little known as it appears to be.


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