he memory of James Herbert MacNair hides under to overshadowing legend of his close friend and affiliated designer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. MacNair and Mackintosh attended Glasgow School of Art together where they met Margaret and Frances Macdonald. These four artists' successful alliance in subject matter and style earned them the nickname of the "Glasgow Four". In addition to their artistic interests, "The Four's" romantic interests, resulting in the marriages of MacNair to Frances and Mackintosh to Margaret, heightened the alliance and created such close working conditions that their ideas and art became firmly intertwined. As a group of talent and originality, "The Four" drew on a wide variety of artistic sources to create a new style that would greatly influence the aesthetic ideals of 20th-century arts, furniture and architectural designs. Even in the 21st century, the artistry and designs of "The Four" captivate the viewer with their simple yet powerful lines and forms and their mystical and eccentric designs infused with Celtic symbolism and natural elements.
MacNair trained for one year in France with a watercolor artist and then returned to his birthplace of Glasgow where he apprenticed for an architect. Once he completed his education at the Glasgow School of Art, he opened an office where he worked doing a variety of things including furniture, book-illustrations, watercolors and posters. MacNair left Glasgow to take a job as the Instructor in Design at the School of Architecture and Applied Art at University College in Liverpool. Unlike Mackintosh, MacNair focused a lot of his attention on teaching his art rather than producing it. MacNair's life was also filled with many setbacks and tragedies that limited and even destroyed his artistic output. A fire at his office destroyed a large number of his works in 1897. The death (possibly suicide) of his wife in 1921 led him to burn a large amount of his and his wife's drawings and watercolors. MacNair also stopped painting and designing after the death of his wife, further limiting his artistic output and our study of him today. Upon close inspection of the watercolors and furniture designs of MacNair, one recognizes the encoded symbolism and often perverse subject matter to be an untapped resource of artistic originality.
MacNair's eclectic influences are manifest in his silver Tea Caddy. Japanese furniture design inspired the plain boxy shape. The sharp clean lines and edges of MacNair's designs reflect both the Japanese influence and "The Four's" departure from over-ornamentation. A schematic vine runs from the back of the caddy to the top. At each end of the vine, two symmetric flowers bend in towards each other. The flowers show influences of John Ruskin and William Morris. In MacNair's rather simple designs, natural elements take on a prominent role, especially roses. On the side of the Tea Caddy, there is a design set into a small square frame. This design features two small figures touching hands and feet. The outline of the figures is in the shape of a heart, which could be an outgrowth of Celtic symbolic designs. The furniture designs MacNair infused a moderated Art Nouveau design with Japanese simplistic forms and Celtic symbolism to create original and influential works of art.
1. The voluptuously cushioned and ornamented examples from the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 appear to be oversized yet welcoming to a sitter. Could one imagine resting comfortably in MacNair's Settle? Is the design of the Settle focused on the form and designs so much that he has forgotten to consider rest and comfort as a priority in his work?
2. The simple cold lines of MacNair's Settle compare closer with the design of a church pew than with the Victorian Furniture displayed at the Exhibition of 1851. The boxy style and schematic designs of MacNair's Settle resemble the architectural design painted by Sir Edward Burne-Jones in King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. The work of Burne-Jones appears to have the most stylist similarities of a PRB artist to MacNair's furniture designs. Could Burne-Jones's art inspired MacNair or are their similar architectural styles reflective of a shared influence?
3. Decorative and patterned boxes and circles of stained class occupy the upper portion of MacNair's Wardrobe, Revolving Bookcase and Settle. What does the use of stained glass add to MacNair's works? How does MacNair's use stained glass differ -- if it does -- from Mackintosh?
4. Almost every source on MacNair states that William Morris heavily influenced his him. Compare MacNair's Tea Caddy to William Morris's textile design African Marigold. What elements of Morris's design does MacNair adopt? What does MacNair not adopt?
Left: Guest bedroom at Hill House by Mackintosh. Right: Bedroom by MacNair
5. MacNair and Mackintosh worked closely together in Glasgow for some of the most prominent years of their artistic career. Compare MacNair's personal Bedroom to Mackintosh's Guest Bedroom of the Hillhouse. What stylistic similarities and differences does one detect? Can one detect any differences between the two artists' furniture designs that would suggest Mackintosh's design has matured or developed past MacNair's?
Last modified 22 November 2004