It’s an unusual affliction, but some architects’ reputations have suffered from simply being too popular. Charles Rennie Mackintosh is a name now likely to make you nauseous with visions of swirling stained-glass roses and geometric black grids, slatted high-back chairs and fussy fireplace surrounds. His trademark motifs are plastered on everything from bags and bookmarks to tapestries and tea towels, the chintzy staples of many a Past Times catalogue. If Mackintosh had received a cut from the slew of merchandise sold under his name, he would have died a wealthy man – rather than in poverty-stricken obscurity in self-imposed exile in the south of France.
So the news that the Royal Institute of British Architects is putting on a definitive Mackintosh exhibition might well make you want to run for the hills and hide from the resurgent tide of Mackmania, stoked once again since the tragic fire that destroyed his seminal library at the Glasgow School of Art last year.
But you shouldn’t. Because what lies in store at 66 Portland Place is a brilliant show that ditches the doilies and the tearoom tat, and exposes the raw talent of Mackintosh the architect, through the original drawings of his buildings alone. It is, incredibly, the first exhibition to take in his entire architectural oeuvre, the result of a four-year AHRC-funded research project led by the Hunterian museum in Glasgow, where the show first opened last year.
There aren’t many architects whose drawings would make for a compelling three-room exhibition to the uninitiated, but Mackintosh shines through as draughtsman extraordinaire. As a junior architect in established Glasgow firm Honeyman and Keppie, he was the only employee known to be trusted with producing perspective drawings, bringing their schemes to life with boldly hewn masonry walls thrusting out of the page. A prodigious talent, he was soon put in charge of all competition entries. Two unrealised schemes here show his diversity, using the competition process as a platform for experimenting with different styles – a skill that would win them the School of Art project, the commission of his life.