The social context
The Magazine was produced by a loose group of friends and relations many of whom had met at the Glasgow School of Art in the late 1880s and early ‘90s. They were mostly women from a common social background, almost all of them living in the fashionable West End of Glasgow.
Lucy Raeburn, The Magazine’s editor, was not a student when she took on her role in 1893, and would only attend in the 1894-5 session, but her sister Agnes was on the School’s register from 1887 to 1902. Agnes was one of a group of female students who attended the Headmaster, Francis Newbery’s, women’s figure class in the 1890-91 session. [illustration 1] There she worked alongside most of the students who would become loyal supporters of The Magazine, Janet Aitken, Katharine Cameron, Jessie Keppie, the sisters Margaret and Frances Macdonald, together with another artist, Ethel Goodrich, whose work only appears in the 1896 volume.
These women were day students and had the opportunity of meeting with professional male evening students through the Glasgow School of Art Club. This had been inaugurated by Newbery in 1885 as a ‘Vacation Sketching Scheme’ open to day and evening, past and present, students, with the intention of encouraging more personal work which was not required to conform to the strictures of the curriculum, imposed externally by the government Department of Science and Art. By the 1890s the Club was holding annual exhibitions each Autumn, and its members attended monthly criticisms of their work run by Newbery. It was here, probably in the 1893-4 session, that Newbery pointed out the similarity of the work of the Macdonald sisters to that of the evening school architecture students Charles Rennie Mackintosh and James Herbert McNair, and encouraged the four artists to collaborate.
Although McNair’s work would not appear in The Magazine, he and Mackintosh became part of a larger group of students based around another non-contributor, the architect, John Keppie. Keppie was the brother of Jessie Keppie, a member of Newbery’s 1890-1 figure class whose older sister Jane, another important writer for The Magazine, had attended Glasgow School of Art in 1880. Keppie, also an ex-student, was a partner in the architectural firm, John Honeyman and Keppie which employed Mackintosh and McNair. The three colleagues frequently met at weekends at Keppie’s house in the seaside town of Prestwick in Ayrshire, to work on architectural projects. On some of these occasions Keppie also rented two cottages at Dunure, further down the coast, where many of the female students would stay. This came to be known as ‘the Roaring Camp’ and the group, Jessie and John Keppie, Mackintosh, McNair, the Macdonald sisters, Janet Aitken, Agnes Raeburn and Katharine Cameron, christened themselves ‘the Immortals’. [illustration 2] Other contributors to The Magazine came from the families or friends of this core group. Amongst these were Lucy and Agnes Raeburn’s brother Charles, Katharine Cameron’s brother, D. Y. Cameron, his close friend the photographer James Craig Annan and Annan’s sister Agnes. The Camerons were the children of a Free Church of Scotland minister and John Wilson, a contributor, for whom Katharine provided illustrations, was a minister of the same church. Henry Mitchell was a contemporary of Mackintosh as an architectural student and also worked for Honeyman and Keppie. No close connection has been established between Leonard Rome Guthrie and any of the other contributors, although he was a student at the School from 1893. The only other contributions to The Magazine are a group of drawings attributed to Jack B. Yeats an artist who has no known links with any of the other participants. There is some conjecture, based on the unusual signatures and the poor quality of their draftsmanship, whether these are by Yeats at all.
The artistic context
Many of the illustrations, especially the head and tail pieces and the contributions by Mackintosh and the Macdonald sisters, exhibit strong evidence of the influence of the teaching provided by Glasgow School of Art. Its curriculum, the centrally imposed National Course of Instruction, had been devised in the 1850s with the primary purpose of training designers. It had 23 stages, not all of which were compulsory, beginning with a drawing course at Stages 1-5 most of which students were expected to master. This involved the accurate copying of engravings of ornament ‘from the flat’; then casts of ornament and geometrical solids ‘from the round’, first in outline, then in light and shade. In conjunction with this, in good art schools, of which Glasgow was one, ‘the Principles of Ornament’ were also taught. The course involved a study of the development of ornamental styles and the analysis of their underlying geometrical structure in order to establish what constituted good ornament. Plant form was also studied intensively at Stages 8 and 10as it was seen as one of the principal bases of ornament. In this context it was argued that although ornament had almost always been derived from natural sources, for any ornamental form to be to be ‘fit for purpose’ the natural source on which it was based must not be copied slavishly but should be adapted to the object it decorated, respecting the limitations imposed by the materials from which the object was made, the process of its manufacture, and the purpose for which it was intended. This process of adaptation was known as ‘conventionalisation’.
A feature of British design during this period was the insistence that a good design would also be symmetrical, asymmetry being a characteristic of the Rococo and Baroque styles preferred by decorators earlier in the 19th century, which were regarded as exhibiting poor taste. Students instead were urged to study principally Classical and Renaissance styles. Particularly admired was a species of ornament known as ‘the arabesque’, exemplified by the work of Raphael and his assistants in the loggia of the Vatican which were derived ultimately from ancient Roman models. An example is the arabesque by Aston Nicholas, Glasgow School of Art’s Design Master. [Illustration 3] The arabesque particularly informed student work at Stages 22b and 22c which involved them in the exercise of ‘space filling’, populating given spaces such as circles, squares, and rectangles with symmetrical designs. Many of the designs in The Magazine exemplify this training. What makes the work of the most adventurous Glasgow students stand out from that of all other Schools of Art, however, is their willingness to take ‘conventionalisation’ to new extremes, not only adapting plant form to the purposes of ornament but also daring to distort the human figure. In taking this step the Macdonald sisters, and to a certain extent Charles Rennie Mackintosh, were inspired by the work of the Dutch artist Jan Toorop which they had seen in the first number of the Studio in 1893. Their work was also influenced by that of Aubrey Beardsley, also encountered in the Studio.
The daring distortion of the female figure by the Macdonald sisters caused contemporaries to associate them with the growing feminist movement, encapsulated in the term ‘the new woman’. Newbery, the School’s Headmaster, in contradistinction to several other art school principals sought to encourage his women students as artists, in every way equal to men; however, there is no strong evidence of an overtly feminist agenda among the writings of the female majority of the contributors to The Magazine. The heroines of their stories are generally passive creatures whose aspirations lie in the conventional achievement of the dream of a happy marriage. Nevertheless the woman’s point of view is well expressed in two essays on Shakespeare’s character Ophelia, and the existence of the women’s movement is at least acknowledged in one of the pieces which takes ‘the modern stage’ as its subject.
Billcliffe, Roger, Mackintosh Watercolours (London: John Murray, 1984)
Brett, David, C.R. Mackintosh: the Poetics of Workmanship (London: Reaktion Books, 1992)
Buchanan, William, The Art of the photographer J. Craig Annan (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 1992)
Burkhauser, Jude, editor, ‘Glasgow Girls’: Women in Art and Design 1880-1920 (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1990)
Edinburgh Festival Society, Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928): Architecture, Design, Painting (Edinburgh: 1968)
Helland, Janice, The Studios of Frances and Margaret Macdonald (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996)
Howarth, Thomas, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Modern Movement (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952)
Neat, Timothy, Part Seen, Part Imagined: Meaning and Symbolism in the Work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1994)
Robertson, Pamela, Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Art is the Flower (London: Pavilion, 1995)
Smith, Bill, D. Y. Cameron: the Visions of the Hills (Edinburgh: Atelier, 1992)