A skilled watercolourist, embroiderer and metal-worker, Frances Macdonald MacNair belonged to a middle-class family that had moved to Glasgow from Staffordshire in the late 1880s. In 1891, when she was still only seventeen, she and her nine-year-older sister Margaret registered as students at the Glasgow School of Art. The sophistication of their work even at this date suggests that they may have received some training earlier, but the four years they spent at the School were certainly vital for their development. Since 1885 the School had had a charismatic headmaster in Francis (Fra) Newbery, and under his enlightened tutelage the sisters blossomed. Not only did he encourage women students, treating them as creative equals with the men; he believed passionately in the importance of design and decorative art, areas in which Margaret and Frances excelled.
If Newbery was an invaluable mentor, two fellow students provided an emotional element that was of even greater significance for the evolution of the so-called Glasgow Style. It was probably in 1893 that the sisters first met two young architects, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and James Herbert MacNair, who were attending evening classes. Frances and MacNair married in 1899, Margaret and Mackintosh a year later. Meanwhile the intensely creative interaction of 'The Four', as the quartet became known, was initiating a distinctly Glaswegian form of Art Nouveau. There was little the group could not turn their hands to: broad architectural planning, furniture, textile and poster design, the making of beaten metal and gesso reliefs, embroidery, stained glass and so on. The idiom they developed was nothing if not stylised and mannered. Owing much to the Pre-Raphaelites, Beardsley and the Dutch Symbolist Jan Toorop, it made great play with elongated organic forms and constantly juggled with a few favourite motifs: the rose head, the sinuously growing plant, the bird in flight, and a female figure so attenuated and disembodied as to earn its creators the derisive name of the Spook School.
Nor did all this remain a local phenomenon. Although the group were never prolific, their work soon became widely known and made a crucial contribution to international Art Nouveau, particularly in Austria, Germany and France. Promoted by Newbery and art dealers thriving on Glasgow's industrial and commercial wealth, it gained maximum exposure in the more advanced art journals of the day. At home it featured in the Studio and the celebrated Yellow Book, abroad it was covered by Ver Sacrum, Deutsche Kunst and others. It was also seen in the flesh at major exhibitions, those organised by the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in London, and in Europe most notably at the eighth exhibition of the Vienna Secession (1900) and the great International Exhibition of Decorative Art at Turin (1902). The collaborative schemes that 'The Four' showed on such occasions epitomised the ideal of gesamtkunstwerk, an interior conceived as the product of integrated and mutually dependent parts.
Although Mackintosh was the acknowledged genius of the group, a world-class architect who had produced his masterpiece, the new Glasgow School of Art, by the turn of the century, the work of the Macdonald sisters was equally important in defining the Glasgow Style. Indeed in many ways they were even more radical than their male colleagues, pushing mannerism to ever more adventurous extremes and exploring a fairytale imagery that plays with the emotions and places their work in the context of European Symbolism. For some, indeed, their work was almost too daring. In 1893 their fellow student Lucy Raeburn, while claiming that 'the brilliant sisters Macdonald' had 'ravished her artistic soul', had to admit that some of their productions were 'too original for me to get the hang of.' She was referring particularly to a design by Frances, and it was generally acknowledged that the younger sister's vision was more moody and angst-laden than that of her sibling. If the 'spooks' were painfully emaciated in Margaret's work, they had a greater intensity in that of Frances. An example is The Sleeping Princess, which was sold in these Rooms, in June last year (fig. 2). While the main concept owes an innocent enough debt to Millais' Ophelia, the child that crouches on the princess's bosom makes the watercolour yet another of the many images that look back to Fuseli's most famous essay in Gothick horror, The Nightmare.
By 1896 the sisters had opened a studio at 128 Hope Street in Glasgow for the manufacture of embroideries, jewellery, metalwork and gesso panels. They worked closely together for the next three years, often in collaboration with MacNair. Sometimes, as the critic Gleeson White noted in an article in the Studio in 1897, they would even sign their work jointly. But during the late 1890s their work also diverged, Margaret's becoming more formal and romantic, Frances's, if anything, more anguished. As Gerald and Celia Larner put it in their book The Glasgow Style (1979), 'if it is possible to make a distinction between them, it could be that Frances was the more original, the more likely to create a new image, while Margaret had the more compelling decorative vision and the more developed sense of style'.
In 1900 Frances and MacNair, by now married and with a baby son, moved to Liverpool, where MacNair was taking up the post of Instructor of Design in the School of Architecture and Applied Art at University College. He was a popular teacher and the couple had a considerable influence on local artists, particularly in such decorative areas as the Della Robbia pottery at Birkenhead. Their house, too, made a great impression. According to Augustus John, who joined the staff of University College in 1901, its salient features included 'staircases encrusted in sheet lead, lamps of fancifully twisted wrought iron, symbolic watercolours on vellum, (and) embroideries depicting bulbous gnomes and fairies'. There were also 'a multitude of spooks', a 'very creepy' drawing-room, and a dinner-table 'illuminated with two rows of nightlights in a lantern of the "MacNair" pattern'.
But these years in Liverpool were also difficult. MacNair was drinking heavily and money was in short supply as his private income dwindled. In 1905 he lost his job when the University closed its art school. The MacNairs stayed on in Liverpool for another three years, supporting themselves by teaching and the occasional commission, but by 1908 their private resources had finally run out and they returned to Glasgow.
This, however, did not solve their problems. Taste had changed, and the Glasgow Style with which they were so closely associated was no longer in fashion. In 1911 they managed to find thirty-four watercolours between them for a joint exhibition at the Baillie Gallery in London, but after his return to Glasgow MacNair seems to have more or less given up painting, becoming totally dependent on Frances who had found work teaching at her brother-in-law's maginificent new art school. At one point the Macdonalds became so worried about Frances that they shipped Herbert off to Canada with a one-way ticket, but he returned and we hear of him working as a postman and doing other menial jobs. Frances's death from a cerebral haemorrage in 1921 was a bitter blow from which he never recovered. In 1943 he destroyed a trunkful of their drawings, and he died in an old people's home twelve years later.
Frances's later watercolours often reflect these travails. Bearing such titles as Man makes the Beads of Life, but Woman must thread them, or 'Tis a long Path that wanders to Desire (both circa 1909-15), they hint obscurely at the frustrations and disappointments of her married life, MacNair's 'lack of success', Roger Bilcliffe has written, 'greatly affected Frances,... and the hardships of her life, both material and emotional, are mirrored in the totally original watercolours she produced from about 1905. McLaren Young described these later pictures as retaining some of the earlier whimsy of the 1890s combined with a toughness akin to northern European Expressionism. The figures in the watercolours of the 1890s are distorted as much to create a pattern on the page as to convey emotion, but the inhabitants of her genuinely stark landscapes of circa 1910-15 are suffering more tangible pain. The MacNairs' later life together in Liverpool and Glasgow, struggling against poverty and Herbert's excesses, is surely represented in these anguished figures' (Mackintosh Watercolours, London, 1978, p. 12).
Bows, Beads and Birds belongs to this later period, and has something of the autobiographical character that Bilcliffe describes. When the watercolour was included in the exhibition Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style circulated in Japan in 2000-1, Bilcliffe himself observed that it 'exhibits Frances's fascination with states of mind and life. The central and left figures seem happy with their lot, with its materialistic bows and beads. The figure on the right, painted in muted greys and blues, perhaps suggestive of death, is surrounded by birds; and birds, in the iconography of The Four, are harbingers of evil and sadness'.
The drawing's exact date is unclear, although it is comparable in style and theme to A Paradox (private collection), a watercolour seen in both the Last Romatics exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, in 1989 and in the show held in Japan in 2000-01 which is generally dated to about 1905. If this is also the date of Bows, Beads and Birds, it would mean that it was executed when the MacNairs were living in Liverpool, at just about the moment when Herbert lost his job at the University and their fortunes really took a turn for the worse.
All we can say for certain is that both pictures were executed before November 1911, when they were included in the artists' joint exhibition at the Baillie Gallery in London. MacNair contributed twenty-three watercolours and Frances eleven, asking 20 guineas for A Paradox and 15 guineas for Bows, Beads and Birds. Situated at 13 Bruton Street, between Bond Street and Berkeley Square, the Baillie Gallery was sympathetic to Scottish artists; S.J. Peploe, F.C.B. Cadell, James Pryde and J. Waterson Herald also had shows there at about this time. English artists whom the gallery was currently supporting included Frederick Carter, A.O. Spare, Alfred Woolmark, Henry Ospovat, Charles Simpson, Martin Hardie and F.L. Griggs.