Charles Rennie Mackintosh is known world wide as the designer from Glasgow who rejected the Revival and Beau Arts style of architecture and decorative arts and developed his own distinctive style. What is less well now is the influence he had on the arts and crafts movement in Vienna and the inspiration he drew from them.
Mackintosh started his artistic training in 1883 at the Glasgow School of Art, containing his training as a draughtsman with John Hutchison before finally moving to the firm of Honeyman and Keppie. By the age of thirty-three he had been made a partner in Honeyman and Keppie where he met Hubert James McNair and Frances and Margaret MacDonald. The group became known as the Glasgow Four.
In 1900, the Glasgow Four were invited to create an interior for the Viennese Secession. The exhibit they created was a simple tearoom, with three walls painted white. (The fourth was was missing to allow the public to view the room.) Furniture was placed along the walls and the centre of the room contained a tall geometric standing vase filled with twigs and branches. The furniture in the room was dark, standing out against the white of the walls. The chairs displayed sharp geometric lines and flowing curves. Decoration was kept to a minimum including a mirror and the ‘May Queen’ a panel with green and pink bubbles of colour.
The room was a sensation with over 20,000 visitors competing to see the work of the Glasgow artists. The Viennese called the work one of the ‘most striking achievements that modern art has created.’ The Glasgow Four were hailed as the new leaders in the arts movement and were mobbed wherever they went in the city. Commissions flooded in with Mackintosh designing rooms for Fritz Waerndorfer, a rich fabric merchant and art connoisseur. Josef Hoffmann, an Austrian contemporary of Mackintosh’s, designed a silver tea-set for Waerndorfer entirely in the Glasgow style. Hoffmann went on to establish the Wiener Werkstätte, a guild for craftsmen and artisans, and turned to Makintosh for advice. Mackintosh wrote to Hoffmann, ‘If I were in Vienna I would assist you with a great, big strong shovel.’
Mackintosh made several more visits of Vienna and Hoffmann visited Glasgow on at least three occasions. The two men shared ideas and inspiration and, influence flowed in both directions. By the time Mackintosh was designing Hill house in 1902 he was incorporating artistic elements and designs originating from the Wiener Werkstätte. The curves of Mackintosh’s early work were replaced with straight lines a linear precision more common in Vienna. The house is the first instance of Mackintosh’s use of incised circles, a feature developed earlier by artists from the Wiener Werkstätte. This minimalist feature in Mackintosh’s work grew until 1914 when the Great War broke out and correspondence between Britain and Austria became impossible.
In the spring of 1914 Mackintosh had moved to Walberswick on the Suffolk coast where it has been suggested that he intended to move to Vienna to continue working with the artists of the Wiener Werkstätte. In 1915, while living in Walberswick he was suspected of being a German spy, a victim of the ‘spy mania’ that swept Britain, and was arrested. His house was searched and several letters from Hoffmann and several other Austrian artists were confiscated. As their content was shown to be purely artistic in nature no further action was taken and Mackintosh lived out the rest of the war quietly. After the war few people could afford Mackintosh’s designs and his design work reduced while his main focus moved to watercolours. Hoffmann and Mackintosh never met again.