Frances Macdonald

Artist and designer

Photograph of Frances McNair from "Das Eigenkleid der Frau" by Anna Muthesius, 1903, published by Druck und Verlag Von Kramer & Baum, Krefeld;  [ill. 2]

Frances Macdonald McNair (1873–1921), watercolour painter and designer, was the younger sister of Margaret Macdonald. 1 Together with Mackintosh and James Herbert McNair they formed the informal creative alliance which became known as 'The Four', following an initial introduction by Francis H. ('Fra') Newbery when they were students at the Glasgow School of Art. The group created a distinctive decorative style founded on androgynous, anorexic human forms, stylised plant forms, idiosyncratic lettering, and symbolic references, which earned them the nickname the 'Spook School'. Their work was disseminated internationally through exhibitions, in particular the fifth exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, London (1896), the eighth exhibition of the Vienna Secession (1900) and the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art, Turin (1902), as well as through periodicals, notably the Studio,Dekorative Kunst, Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration and Ver Sacrum. In this way, though they had few imitators, they provided substantial impetus for the development and recognition in Britain and on the Continent of a distinctive 'Glasgow Style'.

Little is known of Macdonald's early life. She was born in Kidsgrove, near Stafford, the youngest of five children of a Scottish engineer, John Macdonald. There is no record of any formal education. The family moved frequently with their father's changing career. John Macdonald is successively recorded as colliery manager, estate manager/agent, and consulting engineer. Between the early 1860s and late 1880s, the family is known to have been in Congreaves, Tipton, Kidsgrove and Chesterton. 2 Though the family of her mother Frances Grove Hardeman belonged to Staffordshire, her father came from Glasgow where his family had been partners in the long-established law practice, Wilson's, which by 1888 had become Macdonald, Son & Smith. These Scottish connections were maintained. From 1882 to 1888, her brother Charles studied law at the University of Glasgow, before joining the family practice, and by 1890 the rest of the family had followed him to Glasgow.

Once there Frances and her sister, Margaret (1864–1933) registered as art students at the Glasgow School of Art. They are mentioned for the first time as day students in the Annual Report for the session 1890–1. Given the maturity in style and execution of their work in the early 1890s, it is probable they had received some previous training in England, though there is only partial documentation for Margaret Macdonald having received art tuition. 3

During the 1890s, Macdonald produced wide-ranging and innovative work in watercolours, graphics, and metalwork, much of this carried out in collaboration with Margaret Macdonald and McNair. The designs are characterised by distinctive stylisations of human and plant forms, creating linear, often symmetrical patterns from interlocking limbs, swirling hair and tendrils. Such stylisations show an awareness of contemporaries Jan Toorop, Aubrey Beardsley and Carlos Schwabe, whose work had been published in the Studio. Its most public face was the poster designs from the mid 1890s, notably for the Glasgow-based Drooko umbrella manufacturer and the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts. 4 Work was exhibited in Glasgow, London, Paris, and published in the Studio, Dekorative Kunst, the Yellow Book and elsewhere. Often it was ridiculed, but more reflective critics such as Gleeson White, editor of the Studio, found the Glasgow designers' work worth supporting: 'Eccentricity is often enough the first title given to efforts, which, later on, are accepted as proof of serious advance.' 5 The work of the later 1890s, notably The Four Seasons and the illustrations to the Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems by William Morris – both in collaboration with Margaret Macdonald – is more overtly decorative. 6

Photograph of Watercolour by Frances Macdonald McNair, "Prudence and Desire", c. 1912– 15

In 1899 Macdonald and McNair married and she joined her new husband in Liverpool where he was by then teaching at the School of Architecture and Applied Art. The McNairs set up home at 54 Oxford Street. Its interiors were furnished and decorated to their design and published under their joint names in a special 1901 edition of the Studio devoted to modern domestic architecture and design. 7 These were arguably the most avant-garde domestic interiors of that date in Liverpool. Their only child Sylvan was born in 1900. Macdonald taught embroidery at the School of Architecture and Applied Art, University College, until 1909; arts and crafts teaching was then housed in makeshift studios known as the Art Sheds. 8 During these years, the couple was actively involved in the social life of the School, particularly in the production of plays and tableaux for which they designed sets and costumes. Macdonald continued to concentrate on watercolour painting, and also designed and executed jewellery and embroidered panels. The McNairs exhibited with the Mackintoshes in the Scottish Room at the eighth exhibition of the Vienna Secession in 1900. With McNair she presented a 'Writing Room' at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art, Turin in 1902, for which she designed and made textile and metalwork panels, and jewellery. In 1903 Macdonald made four appliqué panels for the music room in Fritz Waerndorfer's Vienna town house. 9 .

In 1905 the applied art department was detached from the School of Architecture and merged with the municipal School of Art and Design. The McNairs transferred not to the new organisation but to the newly set up Sandon Studios, founded by former staff and students of the Art Sheds. By 1908 they were back in Glasgow. These years were troubled by difficulties in their personal lives and in re-establishing their careers. Macdonald taught embroidery and metalwork at the School of Art between 1908 and 1911. An exhibition of their watercolours was staged at the Bailie Gallery, London in 1911. This was to be the last significant presentation of their work. A lead frame dated 1921 and known as The Dreamboat is the only securely dated work by Macdonald after 1911. 10 Among her late watercolours is a group of undated symbolist works which includes The Choice and Tis a long path which wanders to desire. 11 These can be read as a meditation on a woman's spiritual and physical being, and the choices she faces, and are amongst the most powerful symbolist works by a British woman artist during the early 20th century.

After Macdonald's death in 1921, McNair destroyed much of her work. The most important holdings of her surviving work are at The Hunterian and Glasgow Museums.


1: See Janice Helland, The Studios of Frances and Margaret Macdonald, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996, and Pamela Robertson, ed., Doves and Dreams: The Art of Frances Macdonald and James Herbert McNair, London: Lund Humphries, 2006.

2: Janice Helland, The Studios of Frances and Margaret Macdonald, Manchester University Press, 1995, pp. 13–18.

3: Janice Helland, The Studios of Frances and Margaret Macdonald, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995, p. 20.

4: The Drooko poster is untraced. For a photograph see The Hunterian, University of Glasgow: GLAHA 52932. An example of the Institute poster is held by The Hunterian: GLAHA 41056.

5: Studio, 11, 1897, pp. 86–100.

6: See Pamela Robertson, ed., Doves and Dreams: The Art of Frances Macdonald and James Herbert McNair, London: Lund Humphries, 2006.

7: Charles Holme, ed., Modern British Domestic Architecture, Studio Special Summer Number, 1901, pp. 116–19.

8: Mary Bennett, The Art Sheds 1894–1905, Liverpool: Walker Art Gallery, 1981.

9: Original panels untraced; designs for two are held in a private collection.

10: Coll. The Hunterian, University of Glasgow: GLAHA 41313.

11: Coll. The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, GLAHA 41970 and 41969.