Pamela Robertson, Senior Curator at the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, Professor of Mackintosh Studies and an internationally recognised authority on the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, gave an evening talk in December 2007 to Friends and Volunteers of 78 Derngate. Her talk, which was very well attended and much enjoyed, concentrated on the years when Mackintosh lived in Chelsea, the period of time which, of course, included the re-modelling of 78 Derngate.
In 1914 Mackintosh, having become quite withdrawn and depressed, left Glasgow and moved to Walberswick where he concentrated on painting, in particular flowers. Soon, however, he was forced to move to London in order to clear his name after being accused of being a spy. He lived there for the next eight years.
The Mackintoshes found lodgings and adjoining studios in Glebe Place, Chelsea, where they mixed with a like-minded collection of friends who patronised the Blue Cockatoo restaurant. The First World War and its after-effects had quite an impact on his and other architects’ careers. There was no new building during it, and afterwards the changed world looked away from the nostalgia of arts and crafts and the kind of creative individuality Mackintosh stood for.
The war also determined the decisions of W. J. Bassett-Lowke, who, unable to build a new house on his marriage, looked to re-model 78 Derngate. He was given Mackintosh’s name as a suitable architect while on holiday and the rest of this bit of the Mackintosh story is, of course. well known to us. Several of the letters from Bassett-Lowke (B-L) to Mackintosh still exist and give a good insight into B-L’s interest in the evolution of much of the detail of 78’s designs. But there is still an element of uncertainty as to the influence each of them had on the design of the rear elevation.
As well as the designs for the house and furniture at 78, Mackintosh, while working from his studios in Chelsea, was commissioned to design one Christmas and several business cards for WBL, but not to design his new house. In letters written to Thomas Howarth in response to a request for information, BL wrote in 1945 that he found Mackintosh rather fussy in his later days, and revealed a year later that, Mackintosh made me a sketch for a house on this site [New Ways], but his ideas were so elaborate and expensive that I could not face the cost. I have this sketch somewhere about, although it is only post-card size. Wouldn’t it be fabulous to find this!
During his time in Chelsea, Mackintosh also continued to paint watercolours. Yellow Tulips being my own personal favourite, and he designed some vibrant coloured textiles.
“Yellow Tulips” – Charles Rennie Mackintosh. c.1920. Image: Lyon & Turnbull
Mackintosh spent several weeks in London working with Patrick Geddes who ran a Summer Meeting entitled ‘The War: Its Social Tasks and Problems.’ Architectural projects that probably date from this time include the designs of ‘A Warehouse Block in an Arcaded Street’ and ‘Shop and Office Block in an Arcaded Street’. These were never built, and Mackintosh’s original sketches for these projects were being used until fairly recently as drawer liners! At this time there was also a suggestion of a tentative offer from the Indian Government to do some work in reconstruction schemes.
After the war Mackintosh hoped to resurrect his architectural career and was commissioned to design three studio houses in Glebe Place. This was followed by designs for a block of studios and studio-flats. The Hunterian has many of Mackintosh’s working drawings for these buildings but his original designs were never built. The last Chelsea commission recorded in Mackintosh’s diary was for a small theatre, still in Glebe Place, for Margaret Morris, a pioneer of avant-garde dance. But, like much else, the theatre went unbuilt. I
In 1923 the Mackintoshes went on an extended holiday to southern France. There they found a new serenity, focusing on watercolour painting. They stayed there until shortly before Mackintosh’s death in 1928.
(Thanks to Pamela Robertson for her lecture notes)