Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Art of The Four

Thursday 07 June 2018

In dealing with a group of artists – Mackintosh, Margaret and Frances Macdonald, and Herbert MacNair regarded as the initiators of ‘the Glasgow Style’ – Billcliffe set himself the complex task of disentangling individual contributions to collaborative works made in shifting partnerships of pairs and threes. He lays out clearly how Mackintosh’s reputation as the ‘leader’ of the group arose and how the vital refocusing of attention on the Macdonalds by feminist art historians has led to new myths which are now often stated as fact in popular culture.

A major strength here is his close attention to chronology of the artists’ works, especially in the 1890s when they developed from their ‘Spook School’ imagery to more literary and romantic subjects, and after 1910 when disappointments in their lives produced some remarkably expressive works. He writes evocatively about the qualities of the watercolours in particular.

For the DAS a weakness might be the emphasis on two-dimensional work. The graphic designs and beaten metalwork are very well treated, but there are no illustrations and virtually no discussion of jewellery and silverwork by the MacNairs, the textile designs of Margaret Macdonald, and the distinctive clothing of all four.

As with any serious study this book raises many more questions, but it offers a definite point of view on the work of The Four and is an excellent addition to the huge literature on Mackintosh. It is a large, handsome, well-designed volume with 341 fine illustrations, often full-page, and at £40 is very good value.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Art of The Four

Roger Billcliffe. Frances Lincoln, 2017, £40 hb

Condensed from a review by Annette Carruthers in DAS Newsletter No. 113