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Argyll & The Isles

The Hill House

Mackintosh and the Hill House

The architecture and designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh are loved throughout the world, and the Hill House is celebrated as his ‘domestic masterpiece’. Before you visit, here’s a brief history of ‘Toshie’ and this iconic property.

Mackintosh’s early life and career

Born in Glasgow on 7 June 1868, Charles Rennie Mackintosh was one of eleven children. All of his brothers either died in infancy or left to live overseas, so Charles grew up alongside his five sisters as the only boy in his family. Even as a student and young adult, he would spend most of his time around women. His close-knit group of friends at art school, known as ‘The Immortals’, were almost entirely female. One of these artists, Margaret Macdonald, would marry Charles in 1900.

Charles was born with club foot that left him with a limp for the rest of his life. As a boy he was self-conscious and sometimes hot-tempered; he often spent whole days drawing flowers and vegetables on his father’s allotment, which he thought of as the ‘Garden of Eden’. The family home was always filled with flowers, especially roses. It’s clear from the iconic rose motif used throughout the Hill House that Charles was greatly inspired by nature.

Mackintosh enrolled at Glasgow School of Art at the age of 15, at his father’s suggestion. He then joined the architectural practice of Honeyman & Keppie as a draughtsman six years later. During his first private commission the clients were so horrified by the initial designs that Mackintosh had to draw up a second, duller set that would be more acceptable. As a parting ‘gift’, he had all of the house’s interior doors painted in the brightest colours he could find.

“His wonderful delight in all things beautiful, large or small, and the charm of his enthusiasm are beyond words.”
‘Bertie’ McNair, one of Mackintosh’s closest friends (and the first to call him ‘Toshie’)

Walter Blackie and the Hill House

In the spring of 1902, the publisher Walter Blackie was looking for an architect to build a modern ‘villa house’ on a plot of land in Helensburgh, outside Glasgow. By this time, Mackintosh had become a partner at Honeyman & Keppie, and Blackie was an admirer of Charles' work at the Glasgow School of Art.

When they met, Blackie was ‘astonished at the youthfulness of this distinguished architect’. Mackintosh was keen to know more about his clients, and insisted on staying with the Blackie family to get to know them. He paid close attention to how the family and their staff would use the house, and Blackie believed that the beauty of Mackintosh’s designs ‘sprang from him striving to service the practical needs of the occupants’.

Mackintosh’s vision and his work with Margaret Macdonald

Blackie wrote about Charles’s approach in his diary, saying that ‘every detail, inside as well as outside, received his careful, loving attention’. When you visit the Hill House, almost everything you see was designed by Mackintosh, but Blackie was involved in the project. Walter specified that he wanted a slate roof and roughcast exterior, and also rejected some of Charles's ideas.

The interior design of the house was a collaboration between Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald. Margaret was an established artist before they met, and helped to define the Mackintosh style. From the embroidered hangings in the main bedroom to the ‘Sleeping Princess’ panel above the fireplace in the drawing room, Margaret was responsible for some of the house’s most famous features. Mackintosh always gave his wife the credit she deserved: ‘Oh, I had the talent,’ he said, ‘but she had the genius.’

Visiting the house, you’ll see that different rooms use distinctly different tones – the hall and dining room feel dark and imposing, while the main bedroom is delicate and light. Charles and Margaret’s style was avant-garde, and some people criticised the lack of colour. Walter Blackie's daughter, Ruth, preferred to describe it as ‘an unfussiness’.

‘Margaret is more than half – she is three quarters – of all I’ve done.’– Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Life after the Hill House

Mackintosh was frustrated at the lack of recognition of his work in Britain during his lifetime, for in some ways he was ahead of his time. He would go on to be greatly admired in Europe, but the Hill House never received the glowing reviews that would help Mackintosh continue his ground-breaking work. After it was completed, he undertook a few more commissions in Glasgow but these soon petered out. He moved to London, where he designed book covers for Walter Blackie, and then spent some time in the south of France, painting a series of watercolours. It was not until the late 1920s and 30s that the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh began to be appreciated more widely. But for Charles it was too late. After years of ill health, he died in London in December 1928, aged 60.

Of course, Mackintosh always intended for the Hill House to be lived in rather than revered, and the Blackie family cherished their unique home. Unfortunately, problems with water ingress meant that later generations of the Blackies struggled to care for the property. Now it’s in the care of the National Trust for Scotland, we’re taking a bold approach to conserving the house, for future generations to admire and enjoy.