The Glasgow Four & The Emergence of Glasgow Style 

Through the 1890’s  the Scottish city of Glasgow was enjoying the position of being a major metropolis of industry. While the city was growing rapidly, the side effects were a city struggling with social problems,including alcoholism and prostitution and the development of places such as ‘Gorbal’s’- a slum considered to be the worst in Europe.

Jamaica Bridge, Glasgow 1890's
Jamaica Bridge, Glasgow 1890’s

Little wonder the wealthy citizens of Glasgow were looking for the creation of an atmosphere of cultural development. The city was ripe for the development of what came to be known as the Glasgow Style, the Scottish derivative of the Art Nouveau movement.

Art school students Charles Rennie Mackintosh, sisters Margaret and Frances Macdonald and Herbert MacNair formed an artistic alliance, that eventually led ,amongst other outcomes, to the marriage of Charles and Margaret and Frances and Herbert.Their collaboration set the scene for the development of the Glasgow Four, a group who took the ideas of Art Nouveau as it moved from mainland Europe and developed it into its own unique aesthetic.

The hallmarks of the Glasgow style were the long & rectangular lines, subtle lattice curves and natures based designs such as the now famous Mackintosh rose.


Curves and colours are sparsely applied against the geometric backdrop and so seem accentuated. The lines hold back the flamboyance of the curves, creating a visual tension of sorts.

The Four were joined more broadly for a time by two other groups of painters; The Glasgow Girls and the Glasgow Boys however, it was these four foundation members that drove the major regional imperatives of the movement, principally because they worked across both art and design. The group became part of the cultural driving force of new Glasgow, living for a time a high celebrity life as key figures in the artistic, industrial and social communities.
Margaret Macdonald (1864 – 1933) Born in Tipton England, Margaret  was the daughter of a wealthy Engineer. With her sister Frances, Margaret attended Glasgow Art School  and it was there she and Frances met Charles Rennie Macintosh and Herbert Nair.

Embroidered panels 1902 Margaret

Margaret’s work included metal work, textiles and watercolours and graphics ,but her most famous works were her gesso’s that grace Macintosh’s designed Glasgow Tea Rooms. It has only been in recent times that the true giftedness of Macdonald has become apparent. Margaret spent many years being considered  the add-on to Charles Rennie Mackintosh-a man who would through 19th and 20th centuries has become a folkloric romantic hero. Even when Jessie Newberry’s 1933 essay confirmed Margaret’s place as ‘partner and collaborator’, she, along with Frances…appear as add-ons to Mackintosh. Little effort was made to understand how and why Frances and Margret produced work together until Pamela Reekie Robertson made her 1983 Interventionist work.

Willow Tea Rooms
Rose Boudoir
Glasgow Tea Rooms Glass panel

It could be said that it was Margaret’s collaboration with Macintosh was where her best works were created; through application of design panels to Charles furniture designs including the House for an Art Lover, the Rose Boudoir, Turin and the Willow Tea Rooms. There is no doubt of Charles Rennie’s admiration for Macdonald’s work as he wrote of her “Margaret has genius, I have only talent.” .


Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

By the end of the 19th century Glasgow School of Art was one of the leading art schools in Europe and after early success in the fine arts, the late 1890’s saw Glasgow’s reputation in architecture and the decorative arts reach an all-time high. At the heart of this success was the talented young architect and designer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh whose reputation was to quickly spread beyond his native city and who, over a century later, is still regarded as the father of Glasgow Style. Born in Glasgow on 7 June 1868, Mackintosh was apprenticed to a local architect, but he transferred to the larger, more established city practice of Honeyman and Keppie.

To complement his architectural apprenticeship, Mackintosh enrolled for evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art where he pursued various drawing programmes. Here under the watchful eye of the headmaster Francis Newbery, his simple style developed and the dynamic visual impact of his designs was achieved with symmetric/ asymmetric arrangements.

Rennie Macintoshchair

In 1896 Mackintosh gained his most substantial commission, to design a new building for the Glasgow School of Art. This was to be his masterwork. Stylistically, the substantial delay in completion offered Mackintosh the opportunity to amend and fully integrate his original design (of 1896) which owed much to Scotland’s earlier baronial tradition with a second half to the building that looked very much to the 20th century through its use of materials and technology. Most dramatic of all the interiors was the new Library (completed in 1909), which was a complex space of timber posts and beams. Its construction owed much to traditional Japanese domestic interiors but ultimately the building was an eclectic mix of styles and influences.

Herbert McNair

Herbert McNair (1868 – 1955) Scottish born Herbert was an innovative designer and talented teacher. He made an important contribution in the early 1890s to the development of Mackintosh’s creative imagination, and his paintings and furniture designs were among some of the most individual of the Glasgow Style of the 1890s. The promise of his early career was not fulfilled however, largely because of external factors, and no work after 1911 is known. McNair trained as an architect with Honeyman and Keppie, Glasgow from 1888 to 1895, where he met Mackintosh. He subsequently set up an independent studio as an artist and designer in the city centre.. McNair had early success with a one-man show of his pastels in London in 1898. Frances Macdonald and he married the following year, and their only child, Sylvan, was born in 1900. The couple exhibited work in Vienna (1900),

Fountain Herbert McNair

and elsewhere, as well as regularly exhibiting watercolours in Liverpool and London in the early 1900s


Frances Macdonald

The achievements of Frances Macdonald (1873 – 1921) are less well known than those of her sister, Margaret.. There is no doubt that she produced some of the most powerful imagery of the Glasgow Style, and her late symbolist watercolours are moving meditations on the choices facing women. It was her work that coined the term the ”Spook School” for the group.

Frances McNair Pond   francesmacnairchoice

The sisters set up an independent studio in the city centre in the mid-1890s. Together they collaborated on metalwork, graphics, textile designs and book illustrations, exhibiting in London, Liverpool and Venice.. The couple designed the interiors of their home at 54 Oxford Street and exhibited a Writing Room at the International Exhibition of Modern Art, Turin. Macdonald also started teaching, and developed skills in jewellery, enamelwork and embroidery.



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