Like Pierre de Courbertin’s oft quoted Olympic adage, “The most important thing is…not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well” – artists and designers often derive most pleasure from the act of making and not the finished product.
Being the enquiring type, I often find equal if not greater pleasure in seeing a skilled designer at work than in looking at their completed work. Understanding how something is made, having an insight to the way in which a person perceives and thus gaining some appreciation of how they develop a design fascinates me. Seeing how a particular effect or technique is enacted gives me, if only for a moment, the hope that perhaps “I too could do that”. Small steps understood create sometimes an ambition to emulate. This is how I learn.
It is sometimes difficult to unpick the many elements of a finished work. Many of us can, I am sure, identify with the experience of standing in front of a painting, pondering how it was done and trying to get inside the mind of the artist. With complex works this can be challenging. Deconstruction requires us to hold ideas of context, motivation, emotion, perception and many other things in our minds at the same moment. Seeing the work as it is being made or having access to the materials of its making can help us to see beyond its surface and appreciate it in a new and deeper way.
One of the enduring joys ( and exquisite frustrations ) of looking at original work by Charles Rennie Mackintosh is that I can never quite understand how he did it. I have learned to just enjoy being in the presence of something which, if I see it often enough, may reveal some of its maker’s intentions. After fourteen years of giving tours to visitors at 78 Derngate I am still seeing new things in Mackintosh’s work there. I am sure that there is more to come too. A few years ago I was at a Mackintosh symposium in Glasgow and was interested to hear that he was known to be a “quick worker” at the drawing board. Mary Sturrock ( 1892 – 1985 ), who knew Mackintosh personally, described how he was not like other people. “With one or two lines, with a pencil… he could make you almost tremble…he had this special extra power”. I have been privileged to see many original drawings by Mackintosh including working drawings. They do attest to his speed of draftsmanship and his extraordinary ability to convey, often with just a suggestion of a line or detail, his vision for the finished piece.
Printed greetings card for Mr and Mrs Bassett-Lowke. Charles Rennie Mackintosh. c.1922 (lithograph)
Image: The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery
In 1922 W.J Bassett-Lowke, the owner of 78 Derngate which was remodelled to Mackintosh’s designs in 1916-17, commissioned a Christmas card design from him. Christmas – themed works from Mackintosh are rare – ( here is an earlier one ). The 1922 design is not an obvious seasonal subject but may, in its origins, be a reference to a well known Christmas carol. It featured a stylised land and seascape featuring the trains and ships which formed the mainstay of Bassett-Lowke’s model engineering business in Northampton.
This Christmas card design drew upon another work by Mackintosh, “Sailing Ships” made around the same time. Now in the Hunterian collection it shows, again in a heavily stylised seascape, three ships. The dominance of the horizontal stripes used to represent the sea is broken by the rhythmic waves which are drawn at sharp contrasting angles. Perspective is conveyed through the ever narrower stripes as the scene recedes and with the arc of abstracted green sea foam disappearing into a sharp point. Using just two colours with a tiny square of red for the ship’s flag, an exciting and dynamic composition has been made. The work is rightly regarded as being amongst the most avant-garde British graphics of the time. It is a delightful piece of great style.
What adds to this delight for me is that a clear developmental thread can be seen from a third work, the preparatory drawing of a ship; the same one which was eventually used in the forefront of “Sailing Ships”. This ship, however, does not appear in the Christmas card where its dominant place has been sacrificed to the client’s greetings inscription. The other two more distant ships are retained. The arc form has now been greatly developed into sea cliffs, an undulating landscape and four railway lines complete with little trains making deco smoke puffs as they speed into the distance. The latter, no doubt, a reference to Bassett-Lowke’s interests.
“Sailing ship”. Charles Rennie Mackintosh. c.1922 (pencil drawing)
Image: The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery
This collection of works shows the evolution of a polished and original commercial work which, for its time was at the cutting edge of British graphic design. Mackintosh re-used stylised striped motifs seen in his other works from this period – ( such as numerous textile designs, the wall treatment of the Guest Bedroom at 78 Derngate 1917 and for The Dugout at The Willow Tearooms of the same year ). Here the stripes become the seascape. These have been combined with the drawing of the schooner to make “Sailing Ships” and has then been further developed into Bassett-Lowke’s card. A design of great sophistication and visual appeal which we are told became one of Bassett-Lowke’s favourite works from the master.