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Charles Rennie Mackintosh And Snake’s Head Fritillaries


Snakes-Head Fritilliaries: Close-Up

Before We Get To Mackintosh

To set the scene, let me explain where we were and what we were doing.

We went to see the Hunterian Collection of paintings that is housed in Glasgow University.

We went yesterday and we went specifically to see the exhibition of the work of the Scottish ‘colourist’ John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961).

The Colourists

We happen to have seen an exhibition of the work of another ‘colourist’ – Francis Cadell – here in Edinburgh, and I hope to get the opportunity to see the work of a third colourist – Samuel Peploe.

That’s because one of his paintings was shown at the Fergusson exhibition and I liked it best of all the paintings on show.

The Colourists were a loose collection of Scottish artists who were influenced by the French Impressionists. They seem to have liked Manet and Cezanne.

Their exposure to the sunlight in the South of France is what ‘made’ them Colourists, and once the light was found, they adopted colour in their paintings in a more dramatic way than hitherto.

It reminds me of Van Gogh, who said the same of the light after his journey south.

The thing that marks Cadell and Fergusson for me is that they went through several gestations of style as artists. But while Cadell found his feet and became better and better as an artist, Fergusson never found his muse, and seemed to play around the edges of various styles.

I think he needed to get a sense of perspective – in the way that artists such as Cezanne and Manet mastered.

The Mackintosh House

The Mackintosh House was an unexpected ‘extra’.

The orignal house in which Charles Rennie Mackintosh lived has poor foundations.

So it was demolished and all the interior fittings and furniture were carried over to a reproduction of the building that was purpose-built as an addition to the building that houses the Hunterian Collection.

The kitchen of the original house was not carried over. That is probably a pity because from the things we saw it seems that Mackintosh could not leave any item of furniture alone, no matter how mundane its function.

The hat, coat, and umbrella stand in the hallway had received as much design devotion as the chairs in the living room.

The house is on several floors. The dining room on the ground floor is dark. The walls are dark and the furniture is dark.

The walls were topped with small, stylised metal leaves that grew out of a stylised forest reed-thin forest of dark trees.

The dining table was large and almost black, as were the high-backed dining chairs.

I was surprised, taken aback, bemused, and slightly concerned. How and why would Mackintosh have designed a ground floor room that was so dark when any room struggles for light in the Scottish winter?

The hallway was dark and the stairs leading to the next floor were dark.

Then one turns the corner on the landing and the room ahead is bathed in light. More or less everything in the room is painted a pale ivory.

There was so much furniture – little tables and chairs – there that I thought Mackintosh and his wife must have had lots of friends round to play bridge.

It turns out that Mackintosh didn’t have a showroom, so his home was his showroom and his catalogue of furniture available for sale.

So now it made perfect sense to construct a ‘drama’ out of the transition from dark to light – all the better to bring out an emotional response in potential buyers.

Snake’s Head Fritilliaries

And now to the title of this piece. In the shop there was a range of beautiful botanic drawings.

I think that what marks out a really good botanic illustration is the way the leaves and flowers are made to look organic while still showing off their details.

I casually turned over one of the cards and found that they were drawn by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I was so surprised.

I was happy. I was so pleased to find that this maker of world-famously unique and beautiful furniture had a completely different side to him.

I learned that he took up drawing botanic specimens in later life – as a hobby for himself.

I was attracted to two cards in particular. One of yellow Willow catkins, and this one of fritillaries. I discovered fritillaries when I was at university. I could not get over the fact that a wild plant could be laid out with a chequer-board pattern.

Snakes-Head-Fritilliaries - Drawn by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Snakes-Head-Fritilliaries - Drawn by Charles Rennie Mackintosh


  1. Teresa Silverthorn

    Fascinating. Even more so when I looked up photographs of these checkerboard flowers.

    The designer of this flora, must have been having a very good day.


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