Visionary architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s restored tearoom is a living, breathing (and eating and drinking) work of art, writes Jimmy Thomson.
When Robert Burns wrote the immortal lines ‘the best-laid plans o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley’ – or “often go awry’, if you must – he was penning an ode to an 18th Century Scottish mouse.
However, those words echoed down a couple of hundred years when it came to celebrating the 150th birthday of Scotland’s best-loved architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
To mark the event, his Sauchiehall St, Glasgow, tearoom building, designed meticulously by Mackintosh from the front door to the furniture, from the curtains to the cutlery, had been rescued from retail purgatory by the Willow Tea Room Trust.
Restored and renovated in an $18 million project, it reopened in June last year (2018) as a working 200-seat restaurant.
Then disaster struck. That very week, Mackintosh’s iconic Glasgow School of Art, under renovation from a blaze four years previously, was consumed by a second fire, damaging it beyond repair.
As a result, the reopening of Mackintosh at the Willow tearooms on nearby Sauchiehall Street became a footnote rather than headline news.
However, now that the smoke has cleared, it’s worth revisiting a building described as the finest example in the world of a complete Art Nouveau project.
It all started with Kate Cranston who had opened a series of highly popular tearooms in Glasgow at the very end of the 1800s. Miss Cranston, as she was known, wanted a place where men could meet to discuss the issues of the day, free from alcohol. And where ladies could also socialise and network, without causing a scandal.
Mackintosh and his wife and creative partner, Margaret Macdonald, had previously designed interiors for Miss Cranston. But in 1903 she commissioned them to tackle an entire building, inside and out, from top to bottom, carpet to cutlery.
The result was the Willow, interlinked tearooms on three floors, including the famous ladies-only ultra-chic Salon de Luxe, and a men-only billiard room.
Today, they have all been painstakingly restored, turning back the clock on the ravages of time and a century of insensitive owners. Even those unfamiliar with Mackintosh’s name will recognise the style, which has been cloned a thousand times over.
In all, the Trust commissioned over 420 pieces of furniture plus glassware, wrought iron metal work, textiles, carpeting and more, to repair or recreate the fittings as closely as possible to the originals.
Mackintosh, seen as an essential link between Art Nouvea and Deco, was all about light and decoration, so there are lots of intricate panels of coloured glass. One frieze was restored with the help of the great-grandson of the original glazier who found samples of the original glass in his workshop.
The result, when you walk into the Mackintosh at the Willow, is stepping into a work of art.
The Salon De Luxe is beautifully restored in lilacs and silver, with Mackintosh’s signature high-backed chairs, overlooked by reproductions of Margaret’s delicate gesso wall panels.
You can almost hear the hushed plotting of the ladies of Glasgow, discussing how and when they will get the vote.
There are other Willow Tearooms in Glasgow that have nothing to do with this project. But Mackintosh at the Willow, at 217 Sauchiehall Street, is the only surviving tearoom building designed by Mackintosh in its entirety.
In order to make this a fully functioning modern restaurant without wrecking the very project that they were trying to save, the Trust also took over the building next door, where they installed lifts with cut-throughs providing level access to every floor.
The ground floor of the adjoining building is a visitor centre and gift shop. This is entirely in keeping with ‘Tosh’ and Margaret’s vision; they were more than happy to sell ‘merch’ based on their designs.
But go next door to the tearooms and you step back in time, to an era of elegance and style, where anything seemed possible … before the Great War and another set of best-laid plans went seriously agley.
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Book Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society tours of the tearooms and other Mackintosh sites, through the tearoom’s website.
Jimmy Thomson was a guest of People Make Glasgow.