Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh

Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh photographed by James Craig Annan, around 1901
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The painter, illustrator and craftswoman Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh was among the most important women artists of Scottish Art Nouveau, known as the Glasgow Style. She often worked together with her husband Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and is renowned especially for her metal works, embroideries and designs for textiles and friezes.

Margaret MacDonald was born on 5 November 1864 in Tipton, Staffordshire, into a wealthy family. Early on, she received art lessons at Orme Girls’ School in North Staffordshire. She likely also attended an art school in Germany, before moving to Glasgow with her family in the late 1880s. There, she enrolled together with her younger sister Frances at the Glasgow School of Art. Influenced by the ideas of the Arts and Crafts Movement, aimed at a renewal of artisan craftwork and the estheticization of everyday life through design, she developed a decidedly decorative style. Alongside her classical training in nude drawing, she also attended classes for applied arts, and experimented with a variety of materials and techniques, especially metal and textiles.

At the art school, she met James Herbert MacNair and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Together with her sister Frances, they founded the artists’ group The Four, initially creating watercolors, posters and craftwork. In 1899, MacNair and Frances married, followed by Mackintosh and Margaret in 1900. While she had run a studio with her sister after her graduation, primarily creating posters and metal works, Margaret cooperated mostly with her husband after 1900, executing gesso and metal panels for his furnishings and interior decorations. Standing out among them are several panels for the tearooms of their client Catherine Cranston in the center of Glasgow on Ingram Street (1900–1901), and the Willow Tearooms on Sauchiehall Street (1903).

The motif repertoire of the panels is dominated by floral ornaments and stylized female figures. Her friezes even made it to the Vienna Secession: In November 1900, The Four exhibited their works alongside internationally renowned artists at the “VIII. Ausstellung” [8th Secession Exhibition], which was dedicated to artisan craftwork. Ludwig Hevesi reported:

“That entire rooms have been placed at the disposal of famous, first-rate artists, such as Ashbee and Van de Velde, to a double delicacy like the Mackintoshs and an enterprise like the Paris ‘Maison moderne,’ demonstrates how unafraid our talents are of competition, and to what an extent they wish to open the eyes of their compatriots.”

The exhibits presented in room 10 included two decorative, three-part gesso panels featuring glass beads and tin leaf. Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh had designed The May Queen and her husband the counterpart The Wassail (both 1900, Glasgow Museums). Intended for the Ingram Street Tearooms, the works were shipped back to Glasgow after the end of the exhibition.

The reduced interiors of the Scottish artists made a lasting impact on the work of the Secessionists and the designers of the Wiener Werkstätte, founded in 1903. In the magazine Ver Sacrum’s 4th year in 1901, the Secession even devoted an entire issue, with numerous illustrations, to works by the group. Thus, their art was disseminated internationally not only through exhibition participations but also via the most important art journals of the time, such as The Studio, Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration and Dekorative Kunst. Especially the portfolio Haus eines Kunst-Freundes [The House of an Art Lover], which came out in 1901 in the periodical Innendekoration as part of Alexander Koch’s series Meister der Innen-Kunst [Masters of Interior Art], had a ground-breaking effect.

Another important presentation was the 1902 “Prima Esposizione internazionale d’Arte decorativa moderna” [First International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art] in Turin, in which the Mackintoshs participated with a room titled The Rose Boudoir. The presentation was attended by the entrepreneur, art patron and co-founder of the Wiener Werkstätte, Fritz Waerndorfer, who asked Kolo Moser in a telegram from Turin to send photos of the “Klimt Frieze” – Gustav Klimt’s The Beethoven Frieze (1901/02, Belvedere, Vienna) – as Olbrich and the Mackintoshs requested them.

Already during the Secession exhibition, the married couple had stayed for six weeks in Waerndorfer’s villa in Vienna’s Cottageviertel. According to Hevesi, it was then that the idea was born for the couple to decorate Waerndorfer’s music salon. When the house was refurbished by Moser and Josef Hoffmann, Waerndorfer commissioned the artist couple Mackintosh to create the decoration. Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh realized a three-winged frieze with the motif The Seven Princesses (1906, MAK Vienna), based on the play of the same name by Maurice Maeterlinck. The draft for the nearly six-meter-long frieze resembled the works exhibited at the Secession and in Turin, and was completed around 1902. The finished work, which was completed in 1906, was only transferred to the music salon in 1907. Hevesi described the room as “a first-rate artistic curiosity but at the same time a place of intellectual indulgence.”

From 1914, Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh greatly reduced her artistic activities. Like her husband, she focused more on watercolor painting, and the couple moved to England and the South of France. She died on 7 January 1933 in London. Despite her oeuvre being appreciated during her lifetime, it was often overshadowed by her husband’s in later appraisals. Today, her contribution to the Glasgow Style, which around 1900 enthused and influenced artists all across Europe, is undisputed.

Literature and sources

  • Ludwig Hevesi: Aus der Sezession. Achte Ausstellung der „Vereinigung“, in: Acht Jahre Sezession (März 1897–Juni 1905). Kritik – Polemik – Chronik, Vienna 1906, S. 282-288.
  • N. N.: Charles Rennie Mackintosh Glasgow, in: Innendekoration, 13. Jg. (1902), S. 133-136.
  • Peter Vergo: Fritz Waerndorfer as Collector, in: Alte und moderne Kunst. Österreichische Zeitschrift für Kunst, Kunsthandwerk und Wohnkultur, 26. Jg., Heft 177 (1981), S. 33-38.
  • MAK Blog. (03/31/2020).
  • Georg Fuchs: Mackintosh und die Schule von Glasgow in Turin, in: Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration, Band 10 (1902), S. 575-598.
  • Vereinigung bildender KünstlerInnen Wiener Secession (Hg.): Ver Sacrum. Mitteilungen der Vereinigung bildender Künstler Österreichs, 4. Jg., Heft 23 (1901).
  • Telegramm von Fritz Waerndorfer in Turin an Kolo Moser in Wien (05/08/1902)., Secession Wien (Archiv).
  • Brief von Fritz Waerndorfer in Wien an Hermann Muthesius (05/26/1903). D 102-6650.
  • Ludwig Hevesi: Haus Wärndorfer, in: Altkunst – Neukunst, Vienna 1909, S. 221–227.
  • N. N.: Ein Mackintosh-Teehaus in Glasgow, in: Dekorative Kunst. Illustrierte Zeitschrift für angewandte Kunst, Band 13 (1905), S. 257-273.
  • Peter Vergo: Fritz Waerndorfer and Josef Hoffmann, in: The Burlington Magazine, 125. Jg., Heft 964 (1983), S. 402-410.
  • Elana Shapira: Modernism and Jewish Identity in Early Twentieth-Century Vienna: Fritz Waerndorfer and His House for an Art Lover, in: Studies in the Decorative Arts, Band 13 (2006), S. 52-92.
  • Peter Noever (Hg.): Ein moderner Nachmittag. Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh und der Salon Waerndorfer in Wien, Vienna 2000.