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26 Nov 2020

The Great Eight at the Hill House

Written by Rachel Thompson, Visitor Services Manager
The white bedroom in the Hill House, with a white double bed seen in the centre. Two silk hangings are displayed either side of the headboard, featuring two thin ladies in purple and pinks.
The main bedroom in the Hill House
Rachel Thompson, Visitor Services Manager at the Hill House, tells us about her favourite parts of the property.

The Hill House in Helensburgh is considered to be the finest example of domestic architecture by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. He was commissioned by Walter Blackie, a successful Glasgow publisher, in 1902.

In the summer of 2019, to protect the Hill House from the rain, the entire building and its priceless interiors were encased in a chainmail ‘box’. I take a look here at some of my favourite things that will be protected by this ground-breaking conservation project!

A very tall-backed  wooden chair stands against a wall that has pretty rose stencils on it, beside a window. The back of the chair resembles a ladder with many horizontal rungs. The seat is cushioned in a light fabric.
One of the Hill House ladder back chairs

Ladder back chair

The Hill House boasts two ladder back chairs, designed by Mackintosh himself specifically for the White Bedroom in 1903. The chairs are made from ebonised oak and are two of several examples throughout the Hill House of the Japanese style that inspired Mackintosh. The Japanese influence can be seen in the repetition of the horizontal bars that run the full length of the back of the chair, highlighting the height and delicacy of the piece, as well as in the geometric design at the top. The chairs were never intended to be functional and were designed purely for decorative purposes; the slender legs and miniature seat pad emphasise this.

A view of an old library inside a house. A wooden desk and chair stand in the foreground, and the desk is covered in papers. In the background is a dark fireplace, with an easy chair in front. The walls are lined with dark wooden book cases, filled with books.
The library in the Hill House

The library

Mackintosh is said to have designed the Hill House from the inside out, placing lifestyle and practicality at the forefront of his design. The Blackie family owned an extremely successful publishing business, Blackie & Son, that ran from 1809 until 1991. Due to business demands, Walter Blackie regularly held meetings at his home, so Mackintosh designed a library, tucked away in the south-west corner of the house, where Walter could carry out his business deals in private.

Dark oak-stained bookshelves line three out of the four walls in this room, which today houses over 1,000 books, many of which were published by Blackie & Son. The late-Victorian writing desk that sits at the window belonged to Walter Blackie. The desk was gifted back to the Hill House in 2019 and helps to bring the library to life for our visitors.

Read more about the library

A close-up view of a square light fitting, hanging from the ceiling in a dark panelled hall. The shade is made from glass panels.
The light fitting in the hallway

Hallway light

The entrance hall in the Hill House is often greeted with amazement from our visitors. The stained dark uprights on the walls and staircase almost immediately draw you up the four shallow stairs to the main hall. This area was commonly used by the Blackie family for entertaining and high teas.

The light fittings in the entrance hall were designed by Mackintosh’s wife, Margaret Macdonald, and are made from brass and glass panels. Originally, these lights were lit by gas mantles, and you can actually still see the pipes running along the ceiling in the hall. The small round glass panel in the light fitting symbolises the seedpod of the honesty flower. Honesty flowers are linked to the story of Judas accepting money to betray Jesus, and his subsequent realisation of what he had done. Margaret’s work often included symbolism, and a lot of her drawings and paintings had religious leanings.

A view of a decorative painted panel, featuring a sleeping princess. She wears a green dress and appears to be almost wrapped in pink roses.
The gesso panel in the Hill House drawing room

Gesso panel

The gesso panel that sits above the fireplace in the drawing room was designed and hand-made by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh for Mrs Blackie, who commissioned the piece in 1908. The gesso is painted and inset with coloured beads and was given the title of The Sleeping Princess. Margaret took her inspiration for this particular panel from the fairytale of the same name.

I love that when visitors come to the Hill House they’re able to stand in the exact area in front of the fireplace where Margaret Macdonald would have stood while making this beautiful piece. The youngest child of the Blackie family, Agnes, recalls watching Margaret at work: ‘I remember I sat and watched her do it. She used a piping bag, like you would if you were icing a cake, and then stuck things onto the plaster. It was very beautiful.’

Read more about the panel

A view of the Hill House, surrounded by a very large metal, chainmail structure. The view is from the garden and it is a sunny day.
The Hill House Box

The Box

“An amazing 165 tonnes of steel and 8.3 tonnes of chainmail mesh make up the box that now surrounds the Hill House! Our most frequently asked question from visitors is simply ‘why?’”
Rachel Thompson
A young woman with long dark hair stands on a metal walkway, overlooking the Hill House. She smiles at the camera.

The Hill House is located in one of the wettest parts of Scotland. Situated on a hill overlooking the Clyde estuary means two things: stunning views ... and a constant battle against the elements. The house’s geographical location, paired with Mackintosh’s decision to use a new type of harling mixture known as Portland cement, has meant that since its construction in 1904 there have been major issues with the house. Most alarming was the constant moisture penetrating the walls and engrossing into the internal structure of the property. Over the years, there have been several attempts to remedy the problems, but none have been quite as revolutionary as the construction of the Box.

Designed by award-winning architects Carmody Groarke, the Box marks the start of a pioneering conservation programme embarked upon by the National Trust for Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland. An astounding 32.4 million chainmail rings make up the walls of the Box, allowing natural light to flood into the house, whilst encouraging the walls to dry out after years of water damage.

Read more about our ground-breaking conservation project

A sofa with a high back and sides stands inside a white drawing room, on a Mackintosh-style rug. The sofa has a dark wooden frame with pale fabric on the padded sections. Over the back hangs a decorative cover, with Mackintosh designs in green and purple. Two books lie open on the seat.
The settle in the drawing room of the Hill House


An antimacassar is a piece of cloth that is designed to be placed over the back of a chair as protection from dust, dirt or simply for decorative purposes. Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, who studied embroidery at the Glasgow School of Art, created three antimacassars for the Drawing Room in the Hill House. The pieces were designed for the settle (a long bench with high arms and a high back) and for two individual chairs.

For the settle, Margaret used silk and cloth to create the pieces and delicately interwove the bold coloured fabric to create a multi-layered effect. For the chairs, the antimacassars are designed in the shape of a rose, in a beautiful vibrant green colour with blue beads that symbolise morning dew. The original antimacassars can still be seen by our visitors in the Hill House as they’re currently being conserved in a display cabinet on the first floor.

Read more about the antimacassars

A view of part of the white bedroom at the Hill House. A ladder back chair rests in front of a wall, in between two white cupboard doors. The doors are decorated with pink Glasgow roses. A small white table stands in the foreground with a vase of white flowers on it.
The White Bedroom in the Hill House

The White Bedroom

The White Bedroom was Mrs Blackie’s pride and joy and was often used by Mrs Blackie for entertaining. Visitors were often invited up to admire its beauty. The settle that’s tucked in the corner of the room, creating a cosy reading nook, was designed by Mackintosh, and its appliqué embroidery was designed and applied by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh. The fireplace in the bedroom was also designed by Mackintosh and is inlaid with beautiful coloured mosaic panels.

Just around the corner from the entrance to the White Bedroom stands a magnificent bed, designed by Mackintosh. Its location under a lower, barrel-vaulted ceiling creates a feeling of privacy. The beautiful wall hangings on either side of the bed were designed by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh. The hangings are made from linen embroidered with silk braid, ribbon and silk appliqué shapes, and decorated with glass beads. The original panels are now owned by The Glasgow School of Art and these reproductions were commissioned to be displayed in the Hill House. The panels were fondly referred to by the Blackie children as the ‘Skinny Ladies’.⠀⠀

A close-up of a stencilled wall decoration, showing stylised pink roses in the Mackintosh form. A small wall light fitting can be seen on the right, also featuring a rose motif.
Roses galore!

Rose motif

The Glasgow Four (an influential group of artists made up of Charles, Margaret, her sister Frances Macdonald and Herbert MacNair, who later married Frances!) adopted the rose as what would become their iconic symbol of nature, and Mackintosh used it a lot in his work.

At the Hill House, the rose motif can been seen throughout: on light fittings, upholstery and wall stencils. In the drawing room, the original wallpaper with rose stencilling can still be seen. We’ve exposed small areas of the original alongside the reproduced wallpaper to allow our visitors to experience what the wallpaper would have looked like in its prime, and to see what it actually looks like after almost 120 years. It’s fascinating to see how vibrant the soft pink colour of the rose is after all this time.

This story first appeared in The Scots Magazine.

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