78 Derngate

A couple of weeks ago I had to drive down to Hertfordshire on a Sunday as zi was working down there on the Monday. An 8 o’clock start meant a stay over on Sunday evening. Rather than just belt all the way down the Motorway I decided to break the journey, pulling off the M1 at Northampton, with a view to visiting 78 Derngate, a house where the interior had been designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

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The house was owned by a local industrialist, W J Bassett-Lowke a man of Progressive ideals, Fabian politics (he knew G B Shaw who visited the house and stayed in the guest bedroom), had, for the time (the early 20th Century), rather modern tastes.

One of a row of Georgian houses in the centre of Northampton, Bassett-Lowke’s father  bought the relatively small house for him in 1916 when he got married. Being right in the middle of WWI it wasn’t possible to build a new house (which I guess he would have preferred) so he set about getting it modified so it would be more in line with his Modernist inclinations and he hired Mackintosh, who was living in Chelsea at the time, to help with the interior design.

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The Bassett-Lowkes lived in the house 1926 when they moved to a newly built Modernist home designed by Peter Behrens. It passed through several owners until 1964 when it was bought by Northampton High School for Girls who initially used it for offices and then later as classrooms.   When the school decided to sell off the house it was bought by Northampton Borough Council. A Trust was formed who restored the house and it was opened to the public at the end of 2003. The house itself is quite small so the Trust has also bought No’s 80 and 82 which houses the reception desk,  gift shop, museum, restaurant, art galleries, meeting rooms and offices.

Although visitors can explore the house and garden on their own, there are regular guided tours, which take just over an hour, and it’s well worth joining one. I arrived about 45 minutes before the next tour was due to start so I spent some time looking around the small garden (it was a fine, sunny, autumn afternoon), the museum and the galleries where there were exhibitions of works by a local artist, Roy Holding, and the Northamptonshire Guild of Designer Craftsmen. The guided tour, which started with a short video, was led by a knowledgeable volunteer and was excellent. After the tour I had about 45 minutes left to have a quick look round on my own to take a closer look at the rooms and furnishings.

Bassett-Lowke had a number of structural changes made to the house. A rectangular extension was added at the back to enlarge the kitchen and the dining room and creating balconies for the two bedrooms. It isn’t clear how much of these changes (and, indeed the décor) Mackintosh designed.

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Mackintosh was hired during a period when his architectural and design work had largely dried up, so he must have welcomed the commission.  Bassett-Lowke must have been a difficult client to work for, though. He had had some architectural training and had his own definite ideas about what he wanted and certainly didn’t leave mackintosh to get on with it, organising the work himself. His wife, who it seems had more conventional tastes, didn’t get much of a look in! But  Mackintosh’s touch is clearly evident throughout the house. The décor is a little different  to his earlier work, being more angular and almost prefiguring what became known as “Art Deco” style.

After watching the video which covered the history of the house and an overview of the interior,  the tour started in the garden. We could see the rear elevation which looked very Modernist and nothing like a Georgian property.

This planter looks very “Mackintosh”, but it’s not certain he designed it.

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Moving inside the house, first stop was the kitchen. No Mackintosh touches here but quite modern for the early 20th century. Bassett-Lowke was very keen on having all the latest electrical gadgets including an electric kettle and other appliances, many which had to be specially imported.

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The kitchen would have been the domain of Lotte, the Bassett-Lowkes’ servant. She was Austrian so an “enemy alien” during the war, so I don’t know how they managed to keep her employed.

Moving upstairs to the dining room

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Mackintosh’s main contribution to this room was the walnut cabinets to either side of the fireplace.

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Across the stairwell and we were in the living room (the house is only two rooms wide)

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This screen beside the staircase is probably Mackintosh’s “tour de force”.

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He designed the décor, an angular pattern representing trees, which is predominantly black, making the room rather dark.

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Mrs Bassett-Lowke did not like it so it was changed to a much lighter design, which was shown in a display on one of the rooms on the top floor of the house

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Up another floor and into the main bedroom. There wasn’t much furnishing in here.

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but the guest bedroom on the next floor has been recreated.  This is where G B slept when he stayed in the house. The striped décor is very striking and must have looked so radically different in 1917. It could easily have been designed in modern times.

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Mrs Bassett-Lowke did not like it at all.

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Across the corridor the bathroom had all the mod cons for the time

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I spent almost 3 hours in the house, much longer than I expected. It was certainly well worth the diversion!

The Martyr’s School

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I’d spotted that the hotel where I was staying in Glasgow was about a 20 minute walk away from one of the earliest buildings associated with Charles Rennie Mackintosh, so I decided to wander over and take a look.

The red sandstone Martyrs’ School on Parson Street in Townhead, to the north of Glasgow city centre, in the same street where Mackintosh was born. It was designed in 1895, around the same time as the Glasgow Herald Building (today known as the Lighthouse). The architects were Honeyman and Keppie, Mackintosh’s employers, who were commissioned by the Glasgow School Board. At the time, Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a senior assistant in the practice and his influence can be seen in the building, especially in the details.

When it was built it was surrounded by working class tenement buildings but today they have been demolished.

Interestingly the last of his Glasgow buildings was another school – the Scotland Street School to the south of the Clyde.

Apparently, the inside of the building has a number of features designed by Mackintosh, but it isn’t open to the public so I couldn’t get inside so had to be content with looking around the outside. The late afternoon light wasn’t brilliant and my photos aren’t so great, unfortunately.

The front and rear entrances certainly bear the hallmarks of Mackintosh

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as well as the upper floor on the west side of the building

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To the Lighthouse

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No, not a review of the novel by Virginia Woolf, but a report of my visit to the Lighthouse centre in Glasgow last Sunday. I was up there for a Conference that started on Monday but had to travel up the day before. Arriving and checking into my hotel around 2 p.m., I had a few hours to explore the city centre.

I’m an admirer of the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and have visited most of the main buildings he designed in the city. The Lighthouse

Scotland’s Centre for Design and Architecture, is a visitor centre, exhibition space and events venue situated in the heart of Glasgow, just off the Style Mile. The Lighthouse acts as a beacon for the creative industries in Scotland and promotes design and architecture through a vibrant programme of exhibitions and events.

It’s located in the former Glasgow Herald building the first public commission worked on by Mackintosh. At the time (1895) he worked as a draughtsman in the architectural practice of Honeyman and Keppie . They were responsible for designing a warehouse at the back of the printing office of the paper in Mitchell Street. He is unlikely to have been responsible for the whole of the building, but probably designed the tower – a prominent feature – which originally contained a water tank holding 8,000-gallons of water to be used in the event of a fire. A little ironic, perhaps, given the major damage caused to his most important building, the iconic Glasgow School of Art, which was very badly damaged in May 2014 when a fire broke out.

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It’s a tall, narrow building with office and exhibition space. There’s a shop selling Mackintosh related merchandise on the ground floor with the main exhibition spaces being on the next couple of floors.

I started by making my way up to the Mackintosh Interpretation Centre or ‘Mack’ Centre, which “celebrates Glasgow’s most famous architect and explores his life and work”  which is located on the third floor.

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It’s a relatively small, but informative and interesting, exhibition that tells the story of Mackintosh’s work with examples of furniture and other objects he designed and photographs, drawings and models of his buildings around Glasgow and it’s environs.

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After looking around I made my way up the stairs to the top of the tower which is now a viewing platform. It was a serious climb up a long spiral staircase. This what it looked like from the top

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From the narrow outdoor balcony there was a view out over the rooftops of Glasgow. It’s not exactly Paris, though.

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In the other part of the building there’s an indoor viewing gallery, only accessible by lift. So I made my way down the spiral staircase (easier than going up!) and took the lift up to here. There was a similar view over Glasgow but I was also able to get a good look at the water tower.

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Mackintosh type style and ornamentation were certainly discernible in its design.

Then I went to have a look in the exhibition galleries. The main exhibition showing at the moment is Weather Forms which

presents art and architectural works that challenge the popular idea that ‘people make places’ by demonstrating that they, in fact, make us.

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There was also a small exhibition on one of the landings, Weaving DNA

an immersive textile exhibition borne from a collaboration between Icelandic product designer Hanna Dís Whitehead and Scottish textile designer Claire Anderson. Together they re-appropriate traditional Nordic and Scottish textiles, examining the ways in which these represent and shape aspects of national identity.

I thought it was interesting with the exhibits imaginatively displayed, even if the space was a little cramped

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Blackwell, Arts and Crafts House

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It’s been a busy week. On Wednesday we went up to Cumbria. In the morning we went to see the latest exhibition at the Abbot Hall Gallery and the, in the afternoon, drove the few miles over to Blackwell, the Arts and Crafts house near to Bowness that’s also owned by the Lakelands Art Trust.

Built at the turn of the 20th Century as a holiday home for the Mancunian Brewery tycoon, Edward Holt,  on a hill overlooking Lake Windermere, its a superb example of a house built in the English Arts and Crafts Movement style. The architect was Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott and, according to the Blackwell website

Blackwell offered him the opportunity to put his ideas on the use of space, light and texture into practice on a grand scale and, perhaps, to experiment in ways which might not have been possible had the property been intended as the client’s main home, rather than a holiday home.

The house is orientated east west with the main windows on the south side to capture the light, although the best views are to the west, towards Lake Windermere and the fells.

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I guess the holidaying occupants were not too interested in sitting staring at the views when they were inside the house. The priority seems to have been to get the light in. However, the opportunity to sit and admire the view is available in the Drawing room at the south end of the house. They could also enjoy the view while sitting on the terrace.

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The exterior of the house is not particularly exceptional. I guess the best description of it’s style is “vernacular” with it’s stuccoed walls and steep pitched roof. There is certainly no symmetry or deliberate, harmonious Palladian proportions. Baillie Scott’s primary concern seems to have been designing a house that worked – a case of “form following function” and this has determined the shape of the building and the size and positioning of windows which from outside appear to be placed almost at random.

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Although the exterior is relatively plain, but looking closely, the application of philosophy of the Art and Crafts Movement to create beautiful objects can be seen in the intricate decoration of the drainpipes.

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and the Gothic style front door

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The main priority of the design of the house was the interior, which has been exceptionally well restored by the Trust. They were lucky in that many of the original features have been preserved and the Trust have acquired furniture, objects and fine art consistent with Baillie Scott’s original designs and ideas about the layout so that the interior (downstairs at least) probably looks very much as the architect intended.

It wasn’t permitted to take photographs inside – although you can download some photographs from the Trust’s website here. But one Blogger, who’s an architect, has managed to get away with it and there are some good pictures and commentary here. He also visited and photographed another Arts and Crafts house, Broad Leys, designed by Charles Voysey which is nearby. It’s interesting to see how they compare.

The centrepiece of the house is the Medieval inspired great hall. Although the medieval and Elizabethan influence is clear to see – half timbered, it even has a small “minstrel’s gallery”- there are many “Art Nouveau” style features – the peacock frieze on the upper part of the wall at the end nearest the dining room, the copper lampshades, stained glass and the magnificent fireplace in it’s  “inglenook”. Inglenooks are recessed fireplaces almost forming a small room within a room. These must have been a speciality of Baillie Scott as these are exceptional features in all the main downstairs rooms. He incorporates windows and seating and they must have been very cosy places to sit and read or talk on a cold damp Lakeland day.

The design of the fireplace in the hall and in the dining room is a blend of modern and traditional. The surround is very modern with interlocking dark and light stones which slot together like pieces of a jigsaw, but he has used Delft style tiles to surround the grate.

The dining room has a very dark decor, which reminded me very much of those in Rennie Mackintosh’s reconstructed house at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow and his “House for an Art Lover”. Besides the fireplace, the other outstanding feature was the hand printed hessian wall covering. It’s amazing that it is still in such wonderful condition after all these years.

My favourite room was the white drawing room at the west end of the house. This is a very “modern” rather than traditional room – very “Art Nouveau”. Light floods in and there is a magnificent view over Lake Windermere and the Coniston fells. There’s another beautiful recessed fireplace and I particularly liked the ceiling and the spindly columns with the decorated capitals, which all seemed to be different.

I found the following picture of the fireplace in the drawing room on Wikipedia.

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Picture source: geograph.org.uk via Wikipedia (The copyright on this image is owned by Rob Farrow and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

I thought there were many similarities with Rennie Mackintosh’s House for an Art Lover which we visited last year

and also his Hill House (now owned by the National Trust for Scotland)

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with the vernacular style exteriors and with a very similar approach to interior design.

Scotland Street School

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Today, Glasgow makes the most of it’s association with Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It was a different story during his lifetime. His modern style of architecture wasn’t appreciated and there was a distinct lack of commissions. Consequently, there are only a small number of buildings that he designed, or contributed to, in the city. His last major commission before he left Glasgow was the Scotland Road School. A functioning school up until 1979, it’s been preserved and today houses the Scotland Street School Museum.

During our day trip to Glasgow last week we had a couple of hours left before our train home. The Scotland Street School is almost directly opposite the Shields Road subway station, so we took the opportunity to go and have a look. The museum had closed at 5 o’clock so we couldn’t go inside, but we were able to have a reasonably good look at the exterior.

Mackintosh must have had a number of constraints placed upon him. He had to work to a standard School Board symmetrical layout, with a separate entrances for boys and girls. And there would have been financial constraints – the Board would have wanted a functional building and wouldn’t want much in the way of ornamentation and fancy design features. In that case they picked the wrong architect! Despite the constraints Mackintosh was able to incorporate design elements – at a cost though, the project went 25% over budget.

It was a particularly grey day, so the building didn’t look it’s best. It’s constructed of the red brown sandstone characteristic of Glasgow which looks attractive in bright sunlight. However when the light is poor and flat,it can look dull and details can be hard to make out. Nevertheless even a quick look suggests that this isn’t an ordinary school building.

The most striking feature is the two circular towers,  which, from the front, almost appear to be made completely of glass, and the large windows on the frontage. 

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The top floor facade is almost completely glass, reminiscent of his most famous building, the Glasgow School of Art.

No doubt against the wishes of the School Board he managed to include a number of design elements into the structure,

  • towards the top of the towers

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  • around the entrances

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  • at the top of the gable end

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  • on top of the chimneys

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  • on the otherwise very austere rear of the building

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He even managed to incorporate some of his signature squares into the railings

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There are some excellent photographs of the school, including the interior, here. Much better than my rushed, amateur shots.

House for an Art Lover

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On Wednesday we took the train up to Glasgow for a day out. It was our second day trip there this year, a city we’ve never visited before (although I’d been there on business before). It’s only 2 1/2 hours away on the train so we took advantage of some cheap tickets and the regular train service which made a day trip feasible.

One of the places we decided to visit was the “House for an Art Lover” in Bellahouston Park, a 10 minute walk from the Ibrox Underground station (next to the Rangers football stadium).

The house is a realisation of a 1901 design by Rennie Mackintosh in conjunction with his wife, the artist Margaret MacDonald, which was submitted an entry for a competition for a design for a house suitable for an art lover held by the German magazine Zeitschrift für Innendekoration. They didn’t win the competition as their entry was disqualified as they didn’t submit the required number of drawings. However, their design impressed the judges who awarded them a special prize for ‘their pronounced personal quality, their novel and austere form and the uniform configuration of interior and exterior’.

The design was finally realised at the end of the 20th Century under the direction of the Glasgow civil engineer Graham Roxburgh. Originally planned to be opened in 1990, construction was delayed due to the economic recession. Building restarted in 1994, supported by Glasgow City Council and the Glasgow School of Art and it was opened to the public in 1996. Today it is a venue for meetings, conferences, weddings and other events  and is also used by the Glasgow School of Art . It is open for visits by the public on days when it isn’t being used for other purposes. Anyone thinking of visiting is advised to ring ahead (we did!) or may be disappointed when they arrive to find they can’t go inside (except for the café and shop).

As Mackintosh and MacDonald had produced the design for a competition the plans were incomplete. More work was needed to finalise the design and to produce proper architectural drawings if the house was to become a reality. The design would have been refined and, no doubt, significant changes would have been made. So quite a lot of educated guesswork was needed by the architects and builders when the concept house was realised. Various artists were engaged to produce the decorative elements inside and outside the building. As they had to work from very limited initial sketches (sometimes very small) they conducted detailed research of other works by Mackintosh and MacDonald to try to ensure that the finished works were  consistent with their style.

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The exterior of the house would have appeared very radical if it been built at the beginning of the 20th Century. It has many similarities to traditional Scottish architecture, but in a more simple form without the Gothic towers and pinnacles often seen on grand houses in this part of the world. There are a number of Art Nouveau elements – curved lines, the decorative panels on both sides of the house and the pillars on the corners of the balcony on the south side. To me, despite the pitched roof and the ornamentation, the overall impression is very Modernist – clean lines, simple and functional – even though it was a number of years before the  “white box” was popularised by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.

The exterior surface is finished with harling – a lime render covered with chips of stone, which is meant to provide a waterproof coating to protect the stonework from the ravages of the Scottish climate. From pictures I’ve seen on the net the surface appears white on sunny days, enhancing the Modernist look. It was a very rainy grey day when we visited, and the surface had taken on a very grey tint from the sky.

The ground floor, is mainly taken up by the shop and café and the second floor and some of the rooms on the first floor are used for offices and meeting rooms. However, most of the rooms on first floor are an interpretation of the original designs. Furniture and decorative features including stencils, gesso panels, glass and textile hangings, have been created by artists and craftsmen to be representative of Mackintosh and MacDonald’s style, based on the design drawings and examples of their work.

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The Oval Room

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The Music Room – looking towards the piano

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The Music Room – looking towards the fireplace

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The Dining Room

The rooms were very impressive, and I though that the artists and craftsmen had done a sterling job in creating interiors, furniture and decor that was very typical of the Mackintosh style. Unlike many other similar “attractions” you are allowed to take photographs and even to touch the furniture. You can even sit on the high backed chairs. I guess this is because the rooms are used for functions so it’s a working building rather than a museum. I wouldn’t like to be responsible for having to keep the carpets, furniture and fittings in the Music and Oval Rooms clean, though!

If the house had been built under Mackintosh’s direction, no doubt there would have been differences. However, he wasn’t very successful as an architect. His style didn’t resonate with the wealthy individuals in Scotland who had the money to build large houses and who were in control of local councils and other bodies who commissioned buildings at the beginning of the 20th Century. So, ironically, although he is feted today, his work was not popular during his lifetime and he struggled to make a living in Britain.

House of an Art Lover video produced by Catswhiskerstours.co.uk

Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art

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Glasgow School of Art

This year marks the centenary of the opening of the Glasgow school of art – the first commission of the Glasgow architect, designer and artist, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. To celebrate “the Culture Show” on BBC2 this week included a major feature on this iconic building. As I’d recently spent some time touring Art nouveau buildings in Brussels, and Mackintosh is associated with Art Nouveau style, I was particularly interested to watch this programme, especially as I went to have a look at the School of Art during a visit to Glasgow in April 2007.

Mackintosh was born in Glasgow and was a major architect and designer whose work combined the Art Nouveau style with influences from the Arts and Crafts movement and traditional Scottish architecture. The Glasgow school of art was his first major commission, granted when he was only 28. It was built on a sloping site, but his design made the most of this.

The school is an imposing building, constructed of granite, and the influence of the Scottish “baronial” style can clearly be seen. There is little evidence of the “flowery” organic elements normally associated with Art Nouveau buildings, although there are some restrained ornamental touches in the ironwork.  Given its function as a building for teaching art, there are windows on all sides to let in the light – particularly important, I guess, given Glasgow’s northern latitude. Those on the main elevation on Renshaw Street are very large and take up a large proportion of the front structure. The windows on the side of the building are particularly distinctive – tall and thin,  made up of smaller panels.

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Side elevation

Mackintosh believed that a building should be an organic whole with every detail in harmony and this is reflected in the interior which he designed in collaboration with Margaret Macdonald, who he married in 1900. Although it’s still very much a working building – it’s still used for classes by the Art School – it is possible to take a guided tour to see the inside. Unfortunately as my main reason for visiting Glasgow was to attend a conference, I didn’t have much time available during the day and so, unfortunately, I couldn’t take up the opportunity of a tour. There are some pictures of the interior on the web, including here, where it is also possible to view some of Mackintosh’s plans and drawings. Many of the fittings and features inside have a much more clear-cut Art Nouveau style.