Did images of the occult inspire Mackintosh's masterpieces?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

He is one of the most revered artists in British history, a resounding success in architecture and design. Arch-disciple of "pure white space", Charles Rennie Mackintosh, it seems, may have had been guided by altogether darker forces.

New research into the inspiration behind the work of Mackintosh and his wife, Margaret Macdonald, has revealed surprising evidence that the couple incorporated into their work secret emblems, signs, and allusions from a variety of spiritual beliefs, including the occult. Among the best-known "occult" works are the much-reproduced watercolour The Wassail and his architectural masterpiece, the Buchanan Street Tea Room in Glasgow, as well as the Queen's Cross Church, now the headquarters of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society.

The reasons for the predominance of mystical influences in sketches and designs such as the sinister Eye of Horus – the eye within a square – emerged after more than 14 years of research into the lives, loves, and early influences of the couple by Dai Vaughan, an artist, and his wife, Jenny. They began their investigation after being commissioned to produce decorative panels for the Mackintosh-designed House for an Art Lover in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow.

"When we first came up with our findings nobody wanted to know," Mr Vaughan said. "The standard belief is that Margaret influenced Charles and she has always had a bad press. She believed in fairies and seemed to be into metaphysics and spiritual matters. But the more research we did the more we realised that Mackintosh was himself equally into it before he met her."

In a paper on their research for the latest journal of the Mackintosh Society, Mr Vaughan said that from an early age both the artist and his wife had had an interest in nature and ancient symbolism.

From the age of 12 until just before her 25th birthday, Macdonald lived at Chesterton Hall in Staffordshire, which local legend claims was built on the site of a Celtic stone circle. Mackintosh was brought up on the edge of Glasgow's Necropolis, a monument-packed cemetery whose summit is a pre-Christian place of worship and which is located right next to the city's Church of Scotland cathedral.

Later, Mackintosh fell under the spell of Fra Newbery, the director of the Glasgow School of Art, whose progressive and enlightened teaching embraced both the Spiritualist and the Celtic revivals that were so fashionable in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It was Newbery who introduced Mackintosh and Macdonald to the work of Maurice Maeterlinck, the Belgian philosopher and playwright, who, along with the spiritualist Max Muller, was to have such an influence on their work as it began to resemble an amalgam of Celtic, Egyptian and Far Eastern themes.

"I have discovered a lot of symbols in his work but it is only the tip of the iceberg," Mr Vaughan said. "There is an awful lot to find, but a lot of Mackintosh fans don't want to know about it. I have no doubt Mackintosh deliberately used this symbolism to create a kind of sympathetic magic."

Throughout his career, Mackintosh often quoted from the work of WR Lethaby, whose book Architecture, Mysticism and Myth relates the planet Venus to love and propounds an elemental building system of cosmic symbolism, using trees, squares and circles.

Mr Vaughan claims that a classic example of Mackintosh's hidden symbolism can be found in the artist's 1896 stencil wall painting on the walls of the Buchanan Street Tea Room.

"Here we can see what is almost certainly a stylised portrait of Margaret Macdonald," Mr Vaughan said. "Above her head are seven lotus flowers and in the centre of the figure is a rose, which is an illustration of an alchemical rose in the watercolour study but becomes more personal and stylised in the finished picture, where it has transformed into what we now know as 'The Mackintosh Rose'.

"She seems to be growing like a tree, or within a tree as the spirit of the tree. The central motif of the wall is a huge bud-like shape that appears to be growing up into the sun. It is, however, more a beam of energy growing up towards the light of the sun and personified by a pair of eyes sharply staring out into the room.

"As the the beam or stem rises up there are a number of flower/mandala symbols at various spaces. These bear a strong resemblance to Eastern diagrams illustrating the various states of awareness as consciousness rises towards enlightenment.

"My belief is that we can see illustrated the chakras as wheels of vital energy situated along the spinal column. They are driving a flow of physiological and spiritual energy from the base of the spine upwards to open the thousand-petalled lotus at the crown of the head."

In The Wassail, which has been reproduced on posters and prints around the world, the shape of a scarab beetle, which was held by Egyptians to be a mystic sign of renewal, is clearly evident.

"At the centre of The Wassail, which is the name given to the feasting and celebration after the harvest in autumn, is a hidden scarab beetle," Mr Vaughan said. "It's very obvious once you've seen it and is such a structural element of the whole design it can hardly have appeared by accident.

"He put these signs in deliberately and his friends and peers would have recognised them."

Similarly, in Queen's Cross Church in Maryhill, Glasgow, designed in 1896, Mackintosh makes use of the bee to symbolise immortality and rebirth, as the ancients believed bees to be winged messengers carrying news to the spirit world.

"There are many symbols in the Mackintoshs' work which add extra dimension, fascination and interpretation," Mr Vaughan said. "Nothing was done for purely decorative effect alone."

However, not everybody is as convinced. Anne Ellis, a member of the Mackintosh Society and the former curator of Hill House, the home Mackintosh designed in Helensburgh which is now owned by the National Trust, said it was unlikely anybody would ever know exactly what Mackintosh meant.

"There are certainly signs and symbols, but we cannot say what they meant to Mackintosh as he did not write much down," she argued.


By Suzy Strong

Scarab Beetle: An ancient Egyptian symbol for regeneration and resurrection, to believers the scarab beetle's ability to roll its ball of dung represented the sun's heavenly circuit. Associated with the deity Khepri, stone-carved scarabs were used as magical amulets, supposedly aiding its wearer with the power of eternal life. Scarabs were also employed as talismans and royal seals.

Evil eye: The Eye of Horus (or 'udjat') was first worn as an amulet to ensure good health. Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris who lost his eye during a battle with his evil uncle Seth over his father's murder. Thoth (god of wisdom and magic) found the eye and returned it to Horus, who in turn gave it to his murdered father Osiris, thereby bringing him back to life.

Circle of Life: Symbol of unity, wholeness and infinity. It represents the feminine spirit, the cosmos or a spiritualised Mother Earth.