I was working on the final edit of my book — a fictionalised account of the year Charles Rennie Mackintosh spent in Suffolk — when news came in that his most famous architectural creation, The Glasgow School of Art, was on fire. My heart lurched. This was an unimaginable tragedy, not just for Glasgow, but for Britain. Students were weeping in the street. I struggled not to cry myself. Poor old Mac (as the Suffolk locals called him). He’d had enough bad luck already.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a student at the Glasgow School of Art in 1895 when a competition to design a new art school was announced. He was also a junior assistant at the architectural firm of Honeyman and Keppie, and it was on behalf of this firm, at the age of 28, that he won the commission to create the building that would define him.
There followed three frenzied years of work. The budget, at £15,000, was impossibly small, but Mackintosh considered it his job to make sure every last detail of his vision was adhered to. Electric light was installed — the first building in Glasgow to have it — and electric clocks in every studio. By 1899 the central and eastern parts of the building were complete, but the money had run out. Rather than wait to raise the rest, it was accepted that the school should open as it was. There was much fanfare, and a dinner to which Messrs Honeyman and Keppie were invited; but of Mackintosh there was no mention. Hurt as he was, he was not daunted. ‘I hope when brighter days come I shall be able to work for myself entirely and claim my work as mine,’ he told a friend. Over the next few years, while the money was being raised for the second phase of the school, he worked tirelessly.
It was 1907 before enough was raised. But finally on 15 December 1909 the two parts of the school were officially joined. It was said in the opening speech that Mackintosh would deserve well of his generation, ‘were it only because he had made them think’. But at least this time he was acknowledged as the architect, even if in the local paper it suggested he should have his bare arse whipped for putting such an eyesore in the centre of the city.
One would have thought with this extraordinary building to his name, Mackintosh would have been inundated with work, but after its completion everything went quiet. ‘You were born too late, that’s all it is,’ a colleague told him, ‘your place was among the 15th-century lot with Leonardo and the others.’ Although this idea cheered him, it did nothing to help his predicament and eventually he fell ill, and was advised to head for Suffolk and its healing sea air. He would not have imagined it then, but he was never to build anything again; the Glasgow School of Art was to be his first and last major commission. He died in London in 1928, his entire estate valued at £88, 16s, 2d.
But slowly, over the decades, his reputation has grown, his genius acknowledged, so that when news spread of the fire there were not only tears, but pledges of money. The restoration could take years and cost tens of millions, but such is the value of this building that it is considered to be worth every penny. By the end of this decade it is hoped the school will open once again, a working art school for the most talented and innovative students, just as Mackintosh had dreamed it.
Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me is published by Bloomsbury.