Perhaps no other name is more entwined with the Glasgow Style than Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Born in Glasgow in 1868, he apprenticed as a young man with local architect John Hutchison before transferring to the larger city practice of Honeyman & Keppie. At the same time, Mackintosh also enrolled in evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art, pursuing various drawing programs and honing his skills by studying all the latest architectural and design journals in the school’s library. A talented and diligent student, he won numerous prizes including the prestigious Alexander Thomson Travelling Studentship in 1890, which afforded him the opportunity to take an architectural tour of Italy. Mackintosh proved to be quite the rising star at Honeyman & Keppie, designing the Glasgow Herald Building in 1894 and the Martyr’s Public School in 1895. In 1896, he won the commission that would become his masterwork: designing a new building for the Glasgow School of Art.
Mackintosh was a fierce believer in artistic freedom and independence, and his work exhibited an eclectic mix of styles and influences. This is not altogether surprising given where he lived. Glasgow was a prosperous production center of heavy engineering and shipbuilding, and like so many cosmopolitan European cities at the time, it teemed with a fertile combination of industrialization, emerging modernist ideas, as well as Asian style. Toward the late 19th century, Japan’s isolationist regime loosened its reins slightly, opening themselves to globalization and leading to a Japanese influence in decorative arts around the world. Mackintosh was particularly fond of the developing Japoniste style and its simple forms, natural elements, and its tendency toward restraint over ostentation. He combined this simplicity with the innovative ideas and new technologies of modernism, references to Scottish architecture, and sometimes even the subtle curves of Art Nouveau (as seen in his famous Mackintosh Rose motif) into a unique visual language all his own.
The originality of Mackintosh’s style was well-received in much of Europe, especially in Austria and Germany. He participated in the 8th Vienna Secession as well as international exhibitions in Turin and Moscow. Despite his success abroad, his work was not nearly as popular in his home country and he relied primarily on a small handful of patrons and supporters for most of his commissions, among them Walter Blackie and Catherine Cranston. His career soon declined and around 1914 he and his wife moved to London, where his efforts to continue his work were curtailed by the first World War and related restrictions on building work. Mackintosh then moved to the South of France in 1923 where he spent the remaining years of his life painting until his death in 1928.