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March 26, 2021

The Immortals: Funny Photographs of a Group of Glasgow Students Having a Wonderful Weekend Together in the 1890s

Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s designs are so modern that it’s easy to forget that he was active at the turn of the 20th century. These group photos show Mackintosh and his fellow Glasgow School of Art friends, they came to be know as The Immortals.

The album is part of a collection of Jessie Keppie’s papers held at Glasgow School of Art’s Archives and Collections. Jessie Keppie’s brother, John Keppie also appears in the photographs. Keppie was a partner in Honeyman and Keppie, the architectural firm at which Mackintosh and Herbert McNair worked.

Back Row: Frances Macdonald. Middle row (L-R): Margaret Macdonald, Katherine Cameron, Janet Aitken, Agnes Raeburn, Jessie Keppie, John Keppie. Front row (L-R): Herbert McNair, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

L-R: Frances Macdonald, Agnes Raeburn, Janet Aitken, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Katherine Cameron, Jessie Keppie, Margaret Macdonald.

L-R: Frances MacDonald, Agnes Raeburn, Janet Aitken, Katherine Cameron, Jessie Keppie and Margaret Macdonald.

L-R: Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Jessie Keppie, Agnes Raeburn, Janet Aitken, Katherine Cameron, Frances Macdonald, John Keppie (head and shoulders), Herbert McNair and Margaret Macdonald.

L-R: Katherine Cameron, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Janet Aitken, John Keppie, Agnes Raeburn, Jessie Keppie, Frances Macdonald, Herbert McNair, Margaret Macdonald.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Herbert McNair, with Agnes Raeburn (?), and Jessie Keppie (?) and her sister (?).

Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928) was a Scottish architect, designer, water colorist and artist. His artistic approach had much in common with European Symbolism. His work, alongside that of his wife Margaret Macdonald, was influential on European design movements such as Art Nouveau and Secessionism and praised by great modernists such as Josef Hoffmann.

From 1889 he worked as a draughtsman with Honeyman and Keppie, one of the leading architectural firms in Glasgow, where he remained for most of his architectural career. It was in the office of Honeyman and Keppie, at first as a draughtsman and from 1901 as a partner, that he designed his finest buildings for sites in and around Glasgow and much of his remarkable decorative work. He was extraordinarily creative but his career was uneventful, at least until it started to go wrong. For many years it was simply the story of his work.

While training as an architect in professional offices, Mackintosh also attended Glasgow School of Art between 1883 and 1894. He was one of a group of talented students there, mainly young middle-class women, who called themselves The Immortals. Herbert McNair, a colleague from Honeyman and Keppie, was also part of the group and in the mid-1890s he and Mackintosh worked closely with the sisters Margaret and Frances Macdonald, painting complex watercolors and designing posters and works of decorative art. Symbolism, the arts and crafts movement, and art nouveau are all influences on this work.

Mackintosh’s experiences at Glasgow School of Art and the friendships he made there seemed to settle the shape of his career, with its interplay of architecture, decorative art, and painting, and he learned a good deal about himself and his abilities. Hard-working, voluble, kind, sometimes moody, and above all talented, he moved easily among these women despite his working-class origins.

In 1896 a competition was held for the design of a new building for Glasgow School of Art, to be built in the center of the city. Honeyman and Keppie won the competition with a design by Mackintosh, which laid out studios and workshops in two ranges of equal length on either side of a centerpiece with tall wings at either end. For lack of funds, only the eastern part and the centerpiece were built in 1897–9, with the rest left to be completed later.

Glasgow School of Art is an enigmatic and endearing building. It looks bare, as if the design had been generated only by its functions. But careful contemplation reveals Mackintosh’s purely compositional skill. He handled parts of the building, bays, wings, whole façades, with a freedom and expressiveness most architects achieve only in their handling of detail. The freedom of eclecticism, which amounted to little more than playfulness in the hands of Mackintosh’s British contemporaries, is here taken to an extreme, suggesting ambiguities and dislocations between the different parts, between inside and outside, between what seems to be the case and what is. The self-consciousness would be mannerist if Mackintosh had been working with rules that could be seen to be broken, but he was not. His design engages not with a stylistic code but with his own activity as a designer and with the perceptions of those who use and look at the building: it is a commentary upon itself.

(Images: Glasgow School of Art_ Archives & Collections)

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