frontline 14

The Macdonald Sisters and The Glasgow Girls

Kenny McEwan looks at a little known but important group of Scottish women artists.

By around the 1890s William Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement had developed through out Europe into Art Nouveau*. In Barcelona, Paris, Prague, and Vienna the exponents of this movement were creating new designs, architecture, and art based on Art Nouveau concepts. Closer to home, however, a group of artists in Glasgow were also at the forefront of this movement in fact they were pivotal in the development of the art in Europe. The best known of this group is Charles Rennie Mackintosh, however a large proportion of the ‘Scotto-Continental’ or ‘Glasgow Style’ movement was made up of women. Known collectively now as the ‘Glasgow Girls’, the name is derived from the ‘Glasgow Boys’ a group of internationally renowned Glasgow artists, they were almost forgotten particularly in their native country.

Throughout history women were either discouraged from taking up art or unacknowledged as artists. Those women who did paint were generally related to an artist or had access to a studio in order to learn how to paint. The development of government schools did little to change this until about the mid to late 19ch, even then they were put off entering fine art classes and never attended life classes, which used nude models. In Glasgow, however, under the enlightened Headmastership of Francis (Fra) Newbery, women were encouraged to enter the school and take up the arts. Alongside Fra Newbery was his wife Jessie Newbery who was instrumental in bringing about a revolution in textiles and embroidery. As head of the Embroidery Department she achieved international recognition for her designs, patterns and motifs particularly in Germany and Austria.

It was into this inspirational school that two of the best known of the Glasgow Girls, Margaret and Frances MacDonald enrolled in 1890. Both had come to Glasgow already talented designers and under the tutelage of Fra Newbery, who was committed to design and the decorative arts, became world renowned for such works as ‘Summer’ (1894) a stain glass window, ‘Honesty’ (1896) a mirror frame, as well as poster designs such as the Drooko Umbrella Poster (1898) and watercolours like ‘A Pond’ (1894). It was through designs like the latter that the Glasgow School Of Art was coined ‘The Spook School’. Both designs use the now familiar long rectilinear, sinewy designs, which often incorporate items from nature like roses and rose stems. Also in a move away from the Pre-Raphaelite portrayal of women as often either passive or predatory the Macdonald women are much more androgynous and sexually strong. This did not go down well with the critics who attacked their work, once describing the women in ‘November 5th’(1894) as gorillas. Here Frances and Margaret met Mackintosh and another student James Herbert MacNair. Together they became known as the Glasgow Four or just the Four due to there small but significant contribution to the Glasgow style. Whilst both Frances MacDonald and James MacNair went on to produce excellent art of there own, it is the partnership between Margaret Macdonald and Mackintosh that that would create a lasting legacy that is still felt today.

The modern day appreciation of the works of these artists was not always the case at the time, not only that but Margaret Macdonald’s important and vital contribution to the work of Mackintosh is still not fully appreciated even today.

In his designs for Mrs Cranston’s Tea Rooms one of Mackintosh’s most famous commissions, Margaret was responsible for much of the internal design including the famous panelling like ‘O Ye that Walk in the Willow Wood’ now a popular print. By this time the ‘Four’ and ‘Glasgow Style’ was coming to the attention of the Secessionists of Austria and Germany, in particular the Vienna’s secessionists. This movement away from the traditional Academy art, hence secession, is based in part on the ideas of Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement particularly on the idea of art education and social improvements.

The main protagonist in Vienna was Gustav Kilmt who was the group’s first president. The Glasgow Style of rectilinear designs and muted colours was preferred over the Continental Art Nouveau Style; in fact there is some evidence to show that Klimt incorporated aspects of Glasgow Style in to his own paintings for example ‘Poetry’ from the Beethoven Frieze (1902) shows a group of women painted in a very similar style to that of Frances Macdonald’s. The Vienna Secession Exhibition of 1900 provided an opportunity for the ‘Four’ to exhibit their work this time both Frances and Margaret collaborated with Mackintosh to produce a room. This room is now referred to as ‘The Mackintosh Room’ despite this collaboration, including another of Margaret’s most famous panels ‘The May Queen’ being one of the most prominent features of the room. Again in 1902 the Four exhibited in the Turin International Exhibition. Margaret and Charles produced ‘The Rose Boudoir’ a collaboration of both artists but again it is more closely associated with C R Mackintosh than a collaborative effort. At the time, however, the two where seen as the perfect example of how the talents of both the architect and the designer can be combined to outstanding effect. Even worse for Margaret Macdonald, was the criticism she receives when she is recognised as working along with Macintosh. In 1933 P Morton Strand the architectural critic in a letter to the executor of Mackintosh’s estate heavily criticises Margaret Macdonald’s work and her influence on CR Mackintosh. Even in the late 1960 when Mackintosh’s work was finally beginning to be recognised in this country Margaret Macdonald’s role is undermined and not fully appreciated.

This is not to diminish Mackintosh’s work or his talent; however, he fully understood the role that Margaret played in his life and work. He himself said that he possessed talent but Margaret had genius.

The Glasgow School of Art, however, did not just produce Margaret and Frances Macdonald, as the title of this article suggests, a whole group of talented women attended the school and produced outstanding works, now, fortunately many of these women are being recognised. Among the designers along side the Macdonald sisters, were women like Jessie King an individual and talented designer. She produced work as varied as, screens. metal work, pottery, and mirrors as well a book cover designs for which she won a gold medal at the Turin International Exhibition of Decorative arts in 1902. Whilst achieving international renown as a designer she also taught book illustration and ceramic decoration at the GSA and in 1917 she also produced menu designs for Mrs Cranston. Many of her works illustrated German and Austrian journals.

Another designer and illustrator was Annie French, she was more fortunate than some as her father was happy for her to attend Art School and become an artist, she also became a tutor at the GSA and was best known for her black and white illustrations many of which appeared in ‘The Studio’. The Studio was an avant-garde international art journal that had followed the progress of the Glasgow Style, often producing photographs of their works like those exhibited at Turin and Vienna. It also paid particular attention to the works of the women artists. Like most of the Glasgow Girls she also produced excellent watercolours which is interesting as women were still discouraged or dissuaded from using oils, though as we will see later this did not stop a whole group of the women from using this medium.

Unlike Anne French, Ann Macbeth’s path into the artistic world was more in line with that of most women. Her parents objected to her becoming an artist, despite this, however, she went on to become Jessie Newbery’s most talented pupil. Soon she had a reputation both in the UK and abroad as not only a highly talented embroiderer but as an educationalist devising new courses and teaching methods that attracted attention from as far a field as the US and South Africa. At the same time her own work was lauded everywhere as supreme examples of the art of embroidery.

Another feature of the output of women artists from the GSA was the setting up of Sister Studios in the city for example Margaret & Mary Gilmour and the Carleton Smyth sisters. These studios taught and sold a wide variety of arts and crafts including; metalwork, leatherwork, embroidery, ceramic decoration, and painting. The Carleton Smyth’s also produced costume designs for the theatre. In 1933 Dorothy Carleton Smyth was appointed Director of the Glasgow School of Art, a vindication of the work of Fra and Jessie Newbery. Tragically she died before she could take up the post.

Along side the designers who in effect produced a wide variety of works in different mediums and rivalling the more famous ‘Glasgow Boys’ were a group of painters that worked almost solely in oil. Key among this group is Bessie MacNicol who produced work equalling the finest of the male painters and is regarded as the most significant woman painter of her time. Among the best of her work is the portrait of EA Hornel (1896) ‘A Girl of the ‘Sixties’ (1899) and a self-portrait (1894). Another wonderful painter was Nora Neilson Gray, again producing exceptional work easily as good as her male counterparts with works including ‘The Belgian Refugee’(1916) and ‘The Scottish Woman’s Hospital’ (1920).

These two women represent only a small percentage of women painters that worked and lived in Scotland but who are missing from most art history books and most retrospective exhibitions covering that period. This, unfortunately, is true of women artists’ worldwide, for example, only 8 paintings in the National Gallery in London out of 2,000 are by female artists, whilst only 946 out of 14,000 in the Tate are by females. In 1984 due to this imbalance a group of female artists set up a political, agitation group known as the ‘Guerrilla Girls’ to raise awareness of this situation. Their aim is not to get quotas for female artists but to “cultivate an awareness” of the role of woman artists now and in the past. This has met with some success as Art History books are now starting to list female artists.

* For a wider look at William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, see Frontline issue no 11.