Margaret Macdonald

Artist and designer

B/W Photograph of Margaret MacDonald, c. 1900

Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh (1864–1933), painter and designer, was one of the most successful of the artist-designers later called the 'Glasgow Girls'. She produced watercolours, graphics, and panels in gesso (plaster), beaten metal and textile, much of this in collaboration with her sister, Frances Macdonald (1874–1921), James Herbert McNair (1868–1955) and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. 1

Little is known of Macdonald's early life. She was born in Tipton, near Wolverhampton, where her father was manager of the local Moat Colliery. She had three brothers, Charles, Archibald Campbell, and John Stewart, and one sister, Frances Elizabeth. 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 1863 and the 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 Margaret and Frances 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 that 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 Frances Macdonald and Herbert 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 and 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 Frances Macdonald – is more overtly decorative. 6

Colour photograph of Gesso panel by Margaret MacDonald, "The White Rose and the Red Rose", 1902

By 1899 Frances Macdonald and Herbert McNair had married and were living in Liverpool, and in August 1900 Macdonald and Mackintosh married. The French painter, Blanche Ernest Kalas, writing in 1905 of a visit to the Mackintoshes' home at 120 Mains Street, described 'two visionary souls, in loving mateship … wafted still further aloft to the heavenly realms of creation'. 7 The 1900s brought collaborations with Mackintosh, work in new media – in gesso and textile, a developing career as a watercolour artist, and the impact on her life and work of the shifting fortunes in Mackintosh's career.

Married life began at 120 Mains Street. The refurbished interiors were published in 1901 under their joint names in a special edition of the Studio magazine devoted to 'Modern Domestic Architecture'. Other collaborative interiors included Miss Cranston's tea rooms in Ingram Street, the Scottish Room at the eighth exhibition of the Vienna Secession, the House for an Art Lover competition entry, the Rose Boudoir, Turin, the Room de Luxe at the Willow Tea Rooms, and the music room for Fritz Waerndorfer. For all of these Macdonald designed decorative panels, often highly accomplished works in gesso, coloured and set with shell and glass beads. She also worked in textile. The panels and antimacassars for The Hill House show a striking boldness in composition, technique and use of materials.

Macdonald's output diminished from around 1909, due in part to fragile health and to the demands of Mackintosh's faltering career. Only one work is known from the period the couple spent in Walberswick in 1914–15, the oil painting, The Little Hills. 8 The subsequent years in London saw her taking up textile designs, and continuing with watercolour painting. These late watercolours are amongst her most powerful and enigmatic, and seem to contain personal references, notably The Legend of the Blackthorns and La Mort Parfumée. 9 No work from the years in France, from 1923 to 1927, is known.

After Mackintosh's death in 1928, Macdonald appears to have been largely on her own and restless, travelling between France, Monaco and England, and moving from hotel to hotel. She worked to generate some recognition for her late husband but was troubled by recurrent bouts of ill health. By December 1932 she was back in the studio in Chelsea, where she died on 7 January 1933.

The significance of her output and the nature of her collaboration with Mackintosh have stimulated much debate. For the early modernist scholars of Mackintosh, Macdonald was seen as the source of debilitating feminine frills and ornament in her husband's work. More recent scholars have stressed her role in liberating Mackintosh's creativity, in particular in the interiors of the early 1900s, and claim for her greater recognition than just that of a maker of decorative panels. 10

Macdonald's output was remarkably small. Only around 140 works are documented, of which a half comprises watercolours and metalwork. Their quality could be uneven, and there was limited development from the visual language of roses, putti, stylised peacocks, plant forms and female figures, established in the 1890s and early 1900s. Subject matter tended to be drawn from literary sources such as the Bible, the Odyssey, the poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris, and the plays of Maurice Maeterlinck. However the modest scale of her output is counter-balanced by its impact and critical reception. Her work was exhibited in Glasgow, London, Paris, Vienna, Turin and elsewhere; and published in the Studio, Dekorative Kunst, Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration, and Ver Sacrum. Her decorative and symbolic imagery resonated with the Zeitgeist of the period, typified by the enthusiastic response in Dekorative Kunst in 1905, to her gesso panel in the Room de Luxe at the Willow Tea Rooms: 'Mrs Mackintosh is outstanding for her illustrations of mystic poetry; Maeterlinck's imaginative writing, and the visions of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, echo profoundly in her soul, and under their influence her hand creates drawings, paintings and reliefs whose unusually meticulous and delicate execution never hampers their spiritual clarity. I know no plaster relief by any living artist which can be compared to hers.' 11


1: See Jude Burkhauser, ed., Glasgow Girls: Women in Art and Design 1880–1920, Edinburgh: Canongate Publishing: 1990.

2: Janice Helland, The Studios of Frances and Margaret Macdonald, Manchester: 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: B. E. [sic] Kalas, 'The Art of Glasgow', De la Tamise à la Sprée, l'essor des industries d'art, Rheims: Michaud, 1905, reprinted in Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, Memorial Exhibition Catalogue, Glasgow: McLellan Galleries, 1933, p. 5.

8: The Hunterian, University of Glasgow: GLAHA 41962.

9: Both The Hunterian, University of Glasgow: GLAHA 41332 and 41288.

10: Janice Helland, The Studios of Frances and Margaret Macdonald, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995, pp. 1–4; Roger Billcliffe, Charles Rennie Mackintosh: The Complete Furniture, Furniture Drawings and Interior Designs, Guildford: Lutterworth Press, 1979, pp. 12–15.

11: Fernando Agnoletti, 'Ein Mackintosh Teehaus in Glasgow', Dekorative Kunst, 12, April 1905, p. 266.