Charles Renee Mackintosh - Glasgow's architectural genius
PUBLISHED: 14:12 27 September 2012 | UPDATED: 22:40 31 May 2013
Karen Bowerman visited Glasgow on the trail of art nouveau architecture and discovered a lavish Victorian mansion and a special tearoom on the way...
I join the queue and my ticket is stamped with a moustache as a nod, I presume, to one of the most celebrated architects/designers of the 19th century Charles Renee Mackintosh, born in Glasgow in 1868.
The stamp is a hint too, of the quirkiness to come. Im on a group tour of Glasgows School of Art, which Mackintosh designed after winning a competition at just 27. The building, the earliest example of art Nouveau in Britain, is considered his architectural masterpiece.
Callum Rice, a present student with a look a bit like a young Van Gogh, is our guide. His great aunts knew Mackintosh: their sisters were his neighbours. Apparently the young Renee was good fun to play games with.
He promises to show us a building thats eccentric, frivolous and inspiring.
At the top of a flight of stairs we come across what students have named the dungeon an 8 foot, iron grail standing in darkness, its edges curling into leaves, its function unknown. Later, we cut through a corridor of blackened bricks, giving the impression youre in a mineshaft when youre actually several storeys high.
We emerge into an exceptionally bright, glazed walkway dubbed the hen run, where only one window opens - to frame a rooftop sculpture of a robin in a spherical wrought-iron tree.
The tour takes on the feeling of discovery, where the entertainments provided entirely by the building, not the guide. Wherever we go, in stairwells, basements, open spaces and corridors, Mackintosh plays with light - depriving or flooding us with it - forcing us to move on or pause and admire an archway, finial or door inlaid with coloured glass
In 1896, Francis Newbery, the headmaster of Glasgow School of Art, was looking for new premises.
His brief was simple, Callum says, nothing fruity or extreme.
Mackintosh ignored it. He submitted plans for an austere yet fanciful building inspired by a Scottish baronial home, with turret-like features, large windows and huge stone steps. There was even a dovecot, but with no door its purpose, purely decorative.
Newbury loved the design. The governors thought it absurd. Work began but Mackintoshs thorough, some say obsessive, approach which included fireplaces, door knobs, signs (and their fonts) meant the project rapidly ran out of money. The school ended up being built in two phases - with eight years in between.
The highlight is the library with its two-storey windows, dark wooden pillars, spindle-legged chairs and central skyscraper style light fittings.
Students are only allowed to study here for an hour at a time. Callum says, as he shows us inside. The librarians are really strict. They know its a working room but they also want to preserve it.
The work of Charles Renee Mackintoshs can be seen across Glasgow, in public buildings, business premises, houses and schools. There are displays of his furniture in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, and at a design centre called the Lighthouse. I visit both on my self-styled Mackintosh tour.
In keeping with the Art Nouveau theme I have lunch one day in the Willow Tea Rooms where waitresses wearing black dresses with white collars, their hair in top knots, serve traditional afternoon tea and typical Scottish savouries such as haggis and Arbroath smokie (smoked haddock).
From 1887-1917, Mackintosh worked for Kate Cranston, an eccentric socialite who owned several tearooms in Glasgow. Cranston wore massive skirts (Mackintosh designed a large, semi-circular chair to accommodate them) under which she hid her takings.
With Cranston as his patron, Mackintosh could indulge in what he loved best: designing both buildings and interiors, right down to the fixtures, furniture and cutlery.
I sit in a replica of one of his high-backed chairs (every table is adorned with them) and try Scottish Cullen skink (haddock soup), which is thick and piping hot.
I finish with a rather elaborate banana split (didnt they have those in the 1800s?) then (full of cream and sprinkles) head to the Lighthouse, once the offices of the Glasgow Herald newspaper.
The buildings former water tower, built in case fire broke out in the printing press, has a small viewing deck. Theres no lift and several hundred steps but the challenge justified my tearoom indulgence and the top offered far-reaching views of the city.
The towers curved, pagoda-style roof, credited to Mackintosh, is said to resemble a poppy. A later, additional tower, built from yellow brick, continued the theme, with a row of windows representing an empty seed pod.
After a day admiring the clean, geometric designs of Art Nouveau, I choose the opulence of a former Victorian mansion (now the Corinthian Club) for dinner.
The restaurants immense glass dome, elaborate plasterwork and gold leaf is staggering. Yet it was all boarded up in the 1920s when the building became the citys High Court.
Its lavish interior was discovered only a decade ago. Since then nearly 8 million pounds have been spent restoring it.I order calves liver (delicious) and chat to my server, Kat. She tells me the club only shuts between 6 and 6.20am when hordes of super-fast, super-efficient cleaners turn the place around.
The Corinthian has five storeys, a massive restaurant, a bar in the former cells and a casino. A polite notice requests that if party-goers in the private function rooms must dance on the tables, then could they please remove their shoes!
I refrain from dancing - finding ample enjoyment in a beautiful bottle of rioja. Ive barely finished my glass when Kat appears, like a genie, from nowhere.
Would you like a refill? she asks.
Well if you insist.
Its Friday night we always insist!
She pours the rioja with a flourish then disappears among countless tables.
For more information: Glasgow Tourism Bureau: www.seeglasgow.com
Stay at: The Carlton George hotel www.carltonhotels.co.uk/george a friendly, boutique hotel just round the corner from St Georges Square and within walking distance of many local attractions.
Glasgow School of Art www.gsa.ac.uk
Willow Tea rooms www.crmsociety.com
The Corinthian Club www.thecorinthianclub.co.uk