The view accepted since Roger Billcliffe’s Charles Rennie Mackintosh: The Complete Furniture published in 1979 is that the guest bedroom at 78 Derngate was originally furnished with a mahogany suite designed by Mackintosh (CRM). There exist designs, one dated September 1917, and 3 sets and a partial set of the furniture itself. The well-known suite of oak furniture now in the Hunterian Art Gallery and its striking ‘stripey’ decorative scheme allegedly replaced the first scheme in 1919.
It now seems certain that the oak furniture and the stripey decorative scheme were installed in 1917 as part of the transformation of the house before W.J. Bassett-Lowke’s (B-L) marriage on 21 March 1917, and that the mahogany suite was not designed for 78 Derngate.
- A note added to a letter from B-L to CRM dated 11 January 1917 asks, “What do you suggest for the Bed Spreads of the Oak Bedroom”, suggesting that the oak furniture and decorative scheme for the guest bedroom was already in hand.
- Most importantly the completed scheme is referred to in a manuscript description written by B-L in 1917 or early 1918 and forming the basis of an article published in the May/June 1918 issue of Berger’s Mercury, which also includes a photograph of the guest bedroom.
- The theory proposing a complete change of furniture and decoration within so short a time and in circumstance of general scarcity of materials was inherently unlikely. The only evidence for such a change was a recollection of Mrs B-L’s niece Doris Cutting, in conversation with Roger Billcliffe in the late 1970’s. Her daughter, Jane Preston, attests that her mother’s memory was failing by that time and recalls other instances of her muddling things or contradicting herself. Neither Jane Preston nor her sister recall Mrs Cutting ever mentioning such a change in the guest bedroom furnishing when she spoke of 78 Derngate. She did speak of the well-attested change in the decorative scheme of the hall, and perhaps was thinking confusedly of this when she spoke to Roger Billcliffe.
The mahogany and mother-of-pearl bedroom suite remains accounted for. Gillian Cave remembers her father, a Northampton furniture dealer, telling her mother with excitement that he had bought Wynne Bassett-Lowke’s bedroom furniture and dates this to around 1927 when she was 7 (letter 21/10/93). The suite must have been somewhere in the Bassett-Lowke possession, but obviously not 78 Derngate, and apparently not Candida Cottage, before this.
In the catalogue for the Mackintosh Centenary Exhibition in 1968 Andrew McLaren Young states (p.43 ) About 1915 WJ.Bassett-Lowke … was put in touch with Mackintosh … Mackintosh designed a bedroom for him in his parent’s house. This met with approval and was followed by a commission from F. Jones and 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 the information given to McLaren Young by Mrs Bassett-Lowke, one of the lenders to the exhibition. Further research might turn up helpful notes of the original interview. However there is no reason to doubt the essentials of the information, and indeed we should try to account for Mrs Bassett-Lowke’s testimony.
Bassett-Lowke’s parents, Mr & Mrs J.T.Lowke, lived from 1913 in 13 Kingswell Street, very close to the family’s extensive works premises in the street. The house has unfortunately since been demolished. The pieces of furniture sold to Gillian Cave at Sotheby’s in 1988 perhaps support Mrs B-L’s story, that the commission dated to a time when B-L was still living at Kingswell Street. Unlike other sets of the furniture which are full guest room suites, the B-L 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 later sets, a simple cupboard fitted with sliding trays like a linen press, in design equivalent to the bottom part of the later washstand, which would serve as a dressing surface.
Mackintosh’s drawing of the suite, dated September 1917, includes a towel rail, a washstand, a dressing table and a luggage stool. Another updated drawing shows a high and low version of the dressing table. It seems likely that having left the family home in March 1917 and settled into 78 Derngate. B-L 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 perhaps to convert his old room into a stylish guest bedroom on the doorstep of the company’s premises for the convenience of business visitors, and b) to promote his firm’s commitment to progressive design. The dressing table and stool sold by Miss Cave., which B-L would presumably not have commissioned as a bachelor, would date from this time. This may explain why there is a separate drawing of the dressing table. There is a stray washstand in circulation with a provenance of Mr Ling, Guildford, which could possibly have been likewise made at this time but sold on early by the Caves? The towel rail and luggage stool were either not commissioned for Kingswell Street or have been separated from the suite: there is no sign of a bed or beds either. The Cave furniture and Kingswell Street have not yet been fully researched.
The sale of the furniture to her father remembered by Gillian Cave c.1927 was presumably prompted by the death of B-L’s father J.T.Lowke on 1st August 1926 (his mother having died in 1922. since when Mr Lowke had been looked after by a relative) and the subsequent dispersal of the contents of 13 Kingswell Street.
Two full guest bedroom sets of the mahogany furniture, with slight variations were made for two business friends of B-L, Harry Franklin and Sidney Horstmann. (The first came onto the market most recently in 1996 and is still in a private collection. the second is complete at the V & A). Bassett-Lowke seems interestingly to have acted as an agent in replicating for other people various sets of Mackintosh furniture designed originally for him. Mackintosh’s drawings for the decorative scheme to set off the furniture at the Horstmann’s house in Bath, for instance are addressed to B-L as client. He certainly arranged for the mahogany guest suite to be made by German internees on the Isle of Man, along with the dining furniture designed for Candida Cottage, of which Frank Jones, Mr B-L’s brother, also had a set. The whole subject needs more research.
Finally it is just possible that if for some reason the oak furniture for the guest bedroom at 78 Derngate had not been finished in time for the Bassett-Lowke’s move to the house in March 1917. Pieces of the mahogany suite at Kingswell Street might have been brought over temporarily. This would allow Doris Cutting’s memory to be correct without undermining Mrs Bassett-Lowke’s assertion about the furniture, which is more likely to be reliable. However this is probably a refinement too far.
In conclusion, the core of the mahogany suite appears to represent Bassett-Lowke’s earliest commission to Mackintosh. c.1915. even if none of it was designed until late 1917 it was not intended for 78 Derngate. The oak furniture and decorative scheme for the guest bedroom at 78 Derngate, together with the furnishing and decoration of the hall-lounge, were B-L’s major commissions from 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’ of the house.
First published in June 2001 In The Friends of 78 Derngate Newsletter Issue 14.
Author: Perilla Kinchin
Transcribed 2018: Barbara Floyer