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Memories of Scotland's Prophetic Architect


Colin Baxter Photography Ltd., 160 pp., 17.50

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``TEA with the Mackintoshes was exquisite rather than lavish.'' It is a telling comment. But tea - featuring a ``rather beautiful, pale, dryish cake'' and doubtless taken while perched on extraordinarily high-backed, slender chairs - was not the only thing remembered by Mary Newbery Sturrock, who knew the Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) and his wife Margaret well, as a little girl, a student, and a young woman.

Her detailed, affectionate, and percipient memories, spoken to author-compiler Alistair Moffat in 1985, run like a strong thread through this elegant, and rather touching book, ``Remembering Charles Rennie Mackintosh: An Illustrated Biography.''

Mary was the daughter of Fra Newbery, director of the Glasgow School of Art. Newbery was friend and vigorous promoter of Mackintosh; indeed their special relationship centered around the art school. Another recently published book, a detailed study of the school - which is something of a mecca for architecture students and enthusiasts - justly calls it ``Mackintosh's Masterwork'' (published by Richard Drew, Glasgow).

Mary was there in 1899 when the first phase of this awkwardly sited building was ceremoniously opened. The school has come to be considered a seminal work. It broke out of what Nikolaus Pevsner called ``the jungle of Art Nouveau.'' With tremendous originality and a passion for the strictly geometrical in counterpoint to a nature-inspired love of the curvingly decorative, it proved to be a startling prophecy of mainstream modern architecture. Mary says, ``I don't remember Mackintosh being present at the ceremony but I'm sure he must have been there somewhere in the building.''

If this today seems strangely back-seatish, given the burgeoning international reputation of Mackintosh (Toshie to his friends and relations), we are reminded that he was, at the time, ``only a draughtsman'' in the firm of Honeyman and Keppie. Mary balances this impression of reticence, though, by affirming that the building ``is very much his.'' She adds: ``If anyone else touched his work, he'd have literally torn them apart.'' Nobody but Mackintosh was responsible, and he watched over every last detail as the work took shape. It wasn't that he was ``fussy,'' she argues - contrary to his reputation - but ``... to get things right he had to design them.''

The second phase of the school (1906) ``alarmed people'' and, Mary reckons, after that ``he never really got work.''

Mackintosh's career is, in hindsight, maddeningly unfulfilled. He left Glasgow a disappointed man, and even then there were very few his buildings in or near the city. There are even fewer today - all but one (re-created) tea room out of several he designed for the wealthy Mrs. Cranston have gone. There's a church, a school, a couple of dwelling houses, one particularly beautiful. That is Hill House in Helensburgh, designed for the publisher Walter Blackie, whose daughters contribute their childhood memories to this book.

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Today, however, appreciation of him in his home city at long last seems to be keenly felt. The interiors of his own house in Glasgow - the immaculate scene of Mary's ``exquisite'' afternoon tea-times - have been superbly reconstructed inside Glasgow University's art gallery. This year his 1901 design for the ``House of an Art Lover''is being built in a park in the south of the city.

This biography is an attractive fleshing-out of a complex man. Moffat found 10 people who recalled Mackintosh, in Britain, and in France, where he lived in the `20s no longer even attempting to be an architect but painting watercolors instead. Each person gives testimony, shorter or longer, vague or precise, and in addition there are some written memoirs by the three men for whom he designed houses, and there are letters - notably affectionate ones to Mackintosh's wife, when she went home to Britain for medical treatment and he felt his loneliness acutely.

But over it all preside the recollections of Mary Newbery Sturrock, so right when she contrasts his work with the prevailing ``ugly wood, ugly furniture, hideous flock wallpaper'' of Edwardian Britain - ``so foggy and sooty.'' Mackintosh, instead, ``liked simplicity, whitewash and light.'' And it is these qualities that the excellent photographs of Colin Baxter capture exquisitely,giving this book a visual distinction on top of its biographical usefulness and insight.

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