Margaret MacDonald: the talented other half of Charles Rennie Mackintosh

By Patricia Panther

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Margaret MacDonald

The saying that behind every great man there must be a great woman has probably never been more appropriate than when used to describe the love story and collaboration between Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife, Margaret MacDonald.

Mackintosh is known throughout the world as Scotland's most famous architect, while history has traditionally portrayed Margaret as the supportive spouse. But Margaret MacDonald's contribution to her husband's creative output has recently shown her to be a true artist, with Mackintosh himself admitting that he owed much of his success to his wife.

Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh (1864-1933) amassed a challenging and varied portfolio of work, which showcased her range as an artist. Skilled in a variety of media such as watercolour, metalwork, embroidery and textiles, she is reputed to be one of the most talented artists of early 20th Century Britain.

Born in Tipton near Wolverhampton, her Glasgow-born father's career took the family back to the city in 1890 and it was here, at The Glasgow School of Art, that both she and her much younger sister, Frances, began their journey into the professional art world.

Frances, Margaret's sister, was her first collaborator resulting in an ambitious venture, the opening of the MacDonald Sisters Studio at 128 Hope Street, Glasgow in the 1890s. Together they produced innovative work, with both their styles drawing inspiration from Celtic imagery, literature, symbolism and folklore.

The Glasgow Girls and The Glasgow Four

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At the turn of the 20th Century a group of women were, for the first time in history, allowed to attend day classes at the Glasgow School of Art. Margaret and Frances, with Jessie Newbery, Ann Macbeth and Jessie M. King became known as The Glasgow Girls and were instrumental in the evolution of decorative and interior design, a design that became known as the 'Glasgow Style'.

In 1892 Francis (Fra) Newbery, head of Glasgow School of Art, introduced Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his friend, fellow architectural student, Herbert MacNair, to the MacDonald sisters. Newbery noticed similarities in their style of work and encouraged them to collaborate and to exhibit. They formed The Glasgow Four, whose creative output was heavily steeped in mysticism and symbolism.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

At the time they met, Charles Rennie Mackintosh was an apprentice architect at Glasgow firm Honeyman & Keppie and engaged to Jessie Keppie, his employer's sister. In choosing to marry Margaret, Mackintosh may have lost influential friends through the breaking of the engagement but he gained an inspirational partner.

Margaret worked closely with Mackintosh on interior design. Together they created futuristic interiors which, today, still feel thoroughly modern. Margaret's influence on Charles's life and work would prove to be one of the greatest partnerships in art history.


The first significant demonstration of their collaborative work came with a commission from Catherine Cranston for a tearoom interior. Tea rooms were fashionable in late-Victorian Glasgow, places where intelligent, avant-garde thinkers met. The Mackintosh décor was central to the success of Miss Cranston's White Dining Room, creating intense interest in the city.

Margaret's art would be highly influential to Mackintosh. Their roles as artist and designer blurred once they began to collaborate. But her influence was more noticeable on the interior rather than the exterior of his buildings.

In the early 1900s, the Mackintoshes worked on a series of interiors, including 120 Mains Street (1900), the couple's first marital home; the House for an Art Lover (1901), a competition entry; the 'Rose Boudoir' (1902), an exhibition setting; and the Room de Luxe at the Willow Tea Rooms, Glasgow (1903). MacDonald was unquestionably involved in the creations shaping the look and feel, producing decorative gesso panels for them all.

Genius and Talent

Between 1895 and 1924 Margaret contributed to more than 40 exhibitions throughout Europe and America and was celebrated in her time by many of her peers including her husband who, in 1927, said, "You must remember that in all my architectural efforts you have been half if not three-quarters of them." He believed that Margaret had genius, whereas he had only talent.

Margaret MacDonald was awarded numerous prizes jointly with her husband. Yet, when she died, there was only brief mention of her in the press and subsequent writings on art history have played down her significance. This was partly due to her limited output but mainly due to living in the shadow of her much celebrated and talented husband.

She survived Mackintosh by five years, dying in London on 10 January, 1933.

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