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7 Jun 2021

A celebration of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s birthday: the colours of Collioure

Written by Philip Long, Chief Executive
A watercolour painting, ‘Summer Palace of the Queens of Aragon’  by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, in a brown frame
We take a look at one of Mackintosh’s watercolours, ‘Summer Palace of the Queens of Aragon’, painted while he was living in the south of France and now on display at the Hill House.

Of all Scotland’s treasures the Trust is responsible for, Mackintosh’s Hill House in Helensburgh must count as one of the most precious. Designed in 1902 for the publisher Walter Blackie and his family, who lived there until 1953, the Hill House is one of Mackintosh’s great works. It’s widely acknowledged as his domestic masterpiece and the only original home by him that can be publicly visited. At the time of its creation, Mackintosh’s architectural and design career was at its height, attracting attention from around the world. The Hill House exemplifies why. Described by the architect not as an ‘English Mansion House, a Swiss Chalet, or a Scotch Castle. It is a Dwelling House’, its relatively plain, harled exterior gives little clue to the exquisitely crafted interior. Inside, Mackintosh orchestrates colour, finish, stencilling, textiles, lighting, furniture and decoration, to his own and his wife Margaret Macdonald’s designs (her superb gesso panel is above the fireplace in the Drawing Room), into a complete and harmonious whole, every element playing its part.

Only a few years after the Hill House was completed in 1904, Mackintosh’s architectural commissions began to dry up. He and Margaret moved away from Scotland, living in England through the war years and then eventually in France, where the couple spent an extended time in the 1920s. There, Mackintosh dedicated himself exclusively to painting, producing an outstanding group of watercolours, few in number for the time spent there and largely unknown until after his death, when they were a revelation at his memorial exhibition held in Glasgow in 1933. Visitors to the Hill House today have the added good fortune of being able to see one of these rare late works – showing a scene in the French Mediterranean village of Collioure. The painting was owned by the Blackie family, acquired at the time of the memorial show (where the exhibition label remaining on its back tells us it was priced £40). Descendants of the Blackie family kindly allowed the work to remain on loan at the Hill House until the Trust was able to acquire it in 1988, securing its future and place in the story of Mackintosh and the Blackies.

The back of a framed painting, with several labels in different colours and sizes attached to it.
The back of the painting, with several labels attached, including one which tells us that it cost £40

While known primarily as an architect and designer, Mackintosh drew and painted throughout his career, producing architectural studies, graphic designs, botanical drawings and paintings, textile designs, and perhaps most notably landscape watercolours. In 1923 the Mackintoshes had gone to the south of France on holiday, but with little in the way of design work to demand a return, that stay turned into one of several years until Mackintosh’s ill health required their move back to London in 1927, where he died the following year. But in those years in France, Mackintosh produced 44 watercolours, fastidiously executed and demonstrating his brilliant eye for pattern, colour and form in nature and design, that can be counted among his finest works.

The paintings document the travels the couple made there, at first in the mountainous Pyrenees and then on the southern French coast. Their base came to be the busy fishing village of Port-Vendres, close to the Spanish border. A short coastal walk to the north is picturesque Collioure (where Matisse and Derain had painted in the years before 1910), and it was the architecture and landscape-setting of those two places that became this brilliant Scottish creative talent’s principal inspiration in his final years. The loving letters Mackintosh wrote back to Margaret (while she was briefly in London in 1927, and which he dubbed ‘The Chronycle’), give a glimpse into the contentment of his life there. He describes long days spent out-of-doors, finding a sheltered spot to paint a carefully chosen subject over a long period, or simply observing the bustling life of his surroundings.

A watercolour landscape painting by Charles Rennie Mackintosh - ‘Summer Palace of the Queens of Aragon’.

In the Trust’s painting, set in Collioure, Mackintosh depicts the massive Chateau des Templiers, which dominates the village and from medieval times was occupied by the Kings of Majorca. The plain towering façade (which it has been suggested must have reminded Mackintosh of the south elevation of his Glasgow School of Art seen from Sauchiehall Street) is viewed from across the bay and set against the foreshortened hills beyond. Here, as throughout these beautiful watercolours, Mackintosh’s genius is in bringing together human-made forms with landscape, interplaying the pattern and design in both. While Mackintosh’s career as an architect so brilliantly exemplified by the Hill House was relatively short-lived, the paintings he made in France, of which the Trust is fortunate to have this one, tell us that his world-renowned creativity continued until the end of his life.

A watercolour landscape painting in a brown frame hangs on a wall. There is a large wooden cupboard next to it.
The painting on display in the Hill House, next to a cupboard which Charles Rennie Mackintosh also designed

Further reading

Roger Billcliffe, Mackintosh Watercolours, London (3rd ed) 1992

Pamela Robertson (ed.), The Chronycle: The Letters of Charles Rennie Mackintosh to Margaret McDonald Mackintosh 1927, Glasgow 2001

Pamela Robertson and Philip Long, Charles Rennie Mackintosh in France, Edinburgh 2006

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