If it's art it's in fashion: Jonathan Glancey on the enduring appeal of a romantic modernist

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WHEN Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Scottish architect, designer and artist died of cancer at the age of 70 in 1928, his estate was valued at pounds 88 16s 2d. Four chairs of his design were written down for pounds 1. For the next 40 years, Mackintosh was all but forgotten and his extraordinarily beautiful work appeared to have next to no influence on the development of architecture or the arts in Britain.

Last Thursday, Christie's auctioned one of Mackintosh's high, oval-backed chairs for pounds 309,500, the highest price ever paid for a 20th-century chair; the estimate was pounds 30,000- pounds 40,000. At the same auction, an anonymous British collector paid pounds 793,500 for an ebonised writing cabinet inlaid with mother-of-pearl and designed by the architect in 1904, a new record for 20th-century furniture.

Mackintosh died poor and unhappily. Until he was resurrected by the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society in 1973 and by a fashion for Art Nouveau design (typified by the fashion shop Biba), his name meant little outside a small circle of aesthetes, architects and art historians. Glasgow City Council was still demolishing his buildings as late as the mid-1970s.

Yet, in just 21 years Mackintosh has become the Van Gogh of architecture and the decorative arts, commanding massive respect and huge prices. His designs have been reproduced in countless books worldwide and adopted in dozens of new buildings and interiors (in a style Glaswegians know as 'Mockintosh'). His buildings have become places of aesthetic pilgrimage and the 'Art Lover's House' that he designed for an international competition 93 years ago is being built today in Glasgow. The best of his highly distinctive chairs are reproduced in Italy by the Milanese furniture manufacturer Cassina.

In fact, Mackintosh has become hard to escape. The bookshops and gift stores of Glasgow are awash with postcards depicting his unmistakable buildings and paintings. One of his Willow Tea Rooms was restored in 1980 (in Sauchiehall Street) and his buildings - notably Glasgow School of Art (1896-1909) - have become objects of civic pride. Mackintosh - a manic depressive and alcoholic - has become as important to Glasgow as the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi is to Barcelona.

For Thomas Howarth, who bought 143 works by Mackintosh during the 1940s and sold them for pounds 2.27m at Christie's last week, the change in reputation has been highly profitable. But what made Mackintosh so irrelevant then and so important today?

Mackintosh is special because he appeals to many different people for equally many reasons. For the great architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, Mackintosh was a pioneer of the Modern Movement; yet in last Friday's Independent, he was described, no more and no less legitimately, as a 'prophet of post-modernism'. His work appeals to fans of Art Nouveau as well as to devotees of the later Art Deco movement. His flower paintings touch the sentimentalist as well as the ascetic. His buildings are modern and ancient at the same time; their exteriors are severe and attract lovers of medieval castles and defenders of Brutalist concrete architecture. The interiors are never less than poetic. But even this broad appeal cannot quite explain Mackintosh's vast international following. Perhaps the secret of his success lies, as with so many artists, in his failure, or tragedy, as much as in the undoubted quality of his work.

A garrulous man, massively enthusiastic, Mackintosh was prone to bouts of intense depression and brooding silences. He also looked the part of the artist who suffers for his work - that loosely knotted tie, those studied moustaches, the dark and penetrating eyes. These and the years he spent in a self-imposed artistic exile make him the stuff of myth and cannot help but inflate his value.

Even so, the integrity and individuality of his work cannot be underestimated: we like Mackintosh because we can recognise his personal and distinctive style. No other British architect's work is so recognisable to a wide audience. Glasgow has produced a genius to equal him in architecture - the 19th-century neo-classicist Alexander 'Greek' Thomson - recognised after years of neglect. But Thomson did not design furniture with Mackintosh's sureness of touch, nor was he a painter.

In this sense Mackintosh was out on a creative limb. Perhaps only the brilliant and mad Augustus Northmore Welby Pugin (joint architect of the Palace of Westminster) worked with similar energy and passion across artistic disciplines. But though Pugin's Gothic designs greatly influenced the architectural thinking that spawned Mackintosh, they belong very much to a specific period, while the Scottish architect's work - like that of all truly great artists - has refused to age.

Last week's extraordinary saleroom prices prompt one last question. Professor Howarth has made himself rich on the changing fashions of art. Are there any artists, architects or designers similarly unfashionable - as Mackintosh once was - that a collector could invest in now and reap a thousand-fold profit later? The answer is probably not. More people today are interested in art as an investment than at any time in history. The eclecticism of the present age leaves very few corners of art his-

tory unturned; we are all post- modernists now, ransacking the past, uncowed by an elite that tells us what we should like.

(Photograph omitted)