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MARGARET MACDONALD MACKINTOSH (1864 - 1933)
In late 1901 Fra Newbery, Headmaster of the Glasgow School of Art, was invited to make a selection of contemporary Scottish design for the forthcoming International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art scheduled to open in Turin in April 1902. Newbery confined his selection largely to graduates of his own School and enlisted the help of Ferdinando Agnoletti, a lecturer in Italian at Glasgow University and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, his friend and former student. The allocated space was divided into three sections: a bay devoted to Mackintosh and his wife, Margaret Macdonald; a room-setting designed by Herbert and Frances McNair; and the rest of the area hosting a mixed exhibition of other designers with show cases and additional items designed by Mackintosh.
Mackintosh and Macdonald called their room the 'Rose Boudoir', an elegant sitting or writing room, with furniture painted white or black and with two gesso panels on the theme of the rose hung as paintings on the end walls. These panels, The White Rose and the Red Rose and The Heart of the Rose, were made by Margaret Macdonald. In his hand-written consignment note of exhibits (Glasgow School of Art), Mackintosh notes that duplicates of the panels would be available for sale; the Turin panels were themselves duplicates, probably produced using a full-sized cartoon or template. The Heart of the Rose was a variant, not quite a replica, of a panel installed over a fireplace designed by Mackintosh for a Mr Wylie Hill in Glasgow in 1901 (collection Glasgow School of Art); The White Rose and the Red Rose also exists in a slightly more elaborate version designed for an overmantel in the Mackintoshes' own home in Glasgow and may have been made before this Turin version (collection Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow). Macdonald also made other small gesso panels for the exhibition, which were incorporated in a black writing cabinet designed by Mackintosh. The cabinet and the larger gessos were acquired by Fritz Wärndorfer of Vienna who commissioned further panels from Mackintosh and Macdonald for his Music Salon, designed by Mackintosh in 1902; no other versions of the Rose Boudoir panels seem to have been made.
Commentators in recent years have chosen to highlight and emphasise the collaborative role of Macdonald and Mackintosh in the Rose Boudoir. Their main aim has been to raise the contribution made by Macdonald (and diminish that traditionally attributed to Mackintosh alone) and, by analogy, to suggest that Macdonald played a much more active role in the appearance of other spaces and pieces of furniture, nominally designed by Mackintosh, where her work was incorporated - the Ingram Street Tea Rooms, The Willow Tea Rooms, the exhibit at the Vienna Secession and The Hill House. The Rose Boudoir is undoubtedly a collaborative venture, but collaboration is a two-way process, and Macdonald here is on relatively new ground for her, but ground which Mackintosh had already trodden. These panels, in their spatial complexity, are more advanced than earlier or contemporary work in watercolour by Macdonald; but as early as 1896 Mackintosh had incorporated the trailing stems of briar roses and other vegetation in his large-scale stencils at the Buchanan Street Tea Rooms in Glasgow and similar motifs appear in his watercolours of the same or later date. Mackintosh developed these ideas by incorporating large scale decorative panels in the Ingram Street Tea Rooms in 1900. The panels, in coloured gesso, were made, one each, by Mackintosh and Macdonald, their first essay in this medium. Macdonald, in her first experience of working on such a scale, surely took her lead from Mackintosh. Certainly, the two watercolours exhibited at Turin, which relate to the Ingram Street panels, are both in Mackintosh's hand, although one is inscribed DES MARGARET MACDONALD MACKINTOSH
The Rose Boudoir panels are undoubtedly made by Margaret Macdonald, and incorporate imagery which expresses her continuing and personal iconography. But perhaps their composition should be seen as the result of the osmotic relationship between the two artists. Just as Mackintosh's furniture at Turin is widely acknowledged to adopt a more feminine silhouette, colour and handling, perhaps the architectonic structure of these gessos reflects an assimilation on Macdonald's part of her husband's own gifts. Macdonald went on to make gesso panels for Mackintosh's interiors at the Willow Tea Rooms, The Hill House, and Hous'hill, culminating in her masterpiece The Seven Princesses, completed in 1906 for Waerndorfer's house in Vienna.
Roger Billcliffe, Spring 2008
The Rose Boudoir represented the pinnacle of Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh's work and collaboration with her husband Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The architecture, furniture and decorative features of the Rose Boudoir combined to form one harmonious space, with the panels providing the pivotal focus. The roses and female forms in the panels are depicted in a lyrical and symbolist manner, conveying at once a sense of the sacred and the profane. Here are subtle evocations of maternal and sensual love, imagery vibrant in its contrasts of innocence and of sexual awakening. In handling such themes Margaret aligned herself with the sensibilities of European high Symbolist art and literature, whilst in her treatment still retaining a strong connection to the Glasgow avant-garde.
Between 1900 and 1909 Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh primarily worked in gesso, a mixture of plaster of Paris, whiting, rabbit skin glue and water. Previously she had demonstrated great versatility working in a range of media including watercolour, graphics, metalwork and embroidery following her training under Fra Newbery at Glasgow School of Art. Despite the challenges of gesso as a medium, Margaret achieved a distinctive, light sweeping elegance of line within tightly refined graphic compositions.
In many ways the use of these gesso panels within the Rose Boudoir bears parallels with the concept of Gustav Klimt's mosaic friezes for the dining room of the Palais Stoclet, created a few years later. The two projects shared close similarities of intention and of theme. In both instances the mysterious figures convey a deep yet enigmatic spirituality.