James Herbert McNair
Artist and designer; JHKM employee
James Herbert McNair (1868–1955), designer, artist and teacher, was a close associate of Mackintosh during the 1890s. Together with the sisters Margaret Macdonald and Frances Macdonald, they formed an informal creative alliance, the Group of Four, which played a key role in the development and recognition of the Glasgow Style. From 1898 to 1908 he taught in Liverpool before returning to Glasgow. What survives of McNair's work shows him to have been highly inventive and experimental, with a keen interest in symbolic content, often derived from literary sources and possibly his own writings. 1
McNair was a member of a wealthy Scottish family whose fortune was founded on property and coalmining interests around Glasgow and Falkirk. He was raised in Birchbank, a large mansion in Skelmorlie on the Clyde coast. McNair studied for a year in Rouen in 1885, with the painter Léon Hodebert, before joining John Honeyman's architectural practice in 1888, possibly just before John Keppie was taken on as partner. McNair attended evening classes at the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College from 1888 to 1889, before registering at the Glasgow School of Art in 1889. He attended the School until 1895. While there, he won a prize in 1892 for a design for a village library, but no student work survives.
Equally little is known of his work at John Honeyman & Keppie. Intermittent payments are recorded in the cash book from December 1889 to March 1894, when he left to set up as an 'architect and designer' at 227 West George Street. It may be that Honeyman engaged him out of loyalty to his father, a former neighbour and family friend. In 1894 McNair exhibited a design for an English church at the Glasgow Fine Art Institute and in 1895 a proposed cottage at a seaside town. These are his only recorded architectural projects.
McNair, Mackintosh and the Macdonald sisters were brought together in the early 1890s by Francis H. ('Fra') Newbery, who had recognised the similarities in the young students' work. McNair and the Macdonalds subsequently collaborated on bold and innovative designs, particularly for posters. During the 1890s, McNair produced a wide range of glasswork, metalwork, furniture, and jewellery, as well as watercolours, pastels and graphics. His work was featured alongside that of other Glasgow designers in the Studio, Yellow Book, and Dekorative Kunst, and exhibited in Paris at the first exhibition of the Salon de l'Art Nouveau (1895), and in London at an international exhibition of posters at the Royal Aquarium and the fifth exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society (both 1896). In 1898 he held a one-man show of his pastels at the Gutekunst Gallery, London, and took up the position of Instructor in Decorative Design at the School of Architecture and Applied Art, University College, Liverpool. The following year McNair and Frances Macdonald married and set up home at 54 Oxford Street.
The interiors of their new house in Liverpool were furnished and decorated to the McNairs' design and were published under their joint names in a special 1901 edition of the Studio devoted to modern domestic architecture and design. 2 These were arguably the most avant-garde domestic interiors of that date in Liverpool. The couple's only child Sylvan was born in 1900. McNair taught decorative design, including wallpapers, fabrics, stained glass, tiles, posters and book illustration. The School's arts and crafts teaching was then housed in makeshift studios known as the Art Sheds. 3 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. The McNairs exhibited with the Mackintoshes in the Scottish Room at the eighth exhibition of the Vienna Secession in 1900. In 1902 they presented a 'Lady's Writing Room' at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art, Turin, for which McNair designed furniture, leaded glass and metalwork panels, and contributed watercolours and graphic designs.
In 1905 the applied art department was detached from the School of Architecture and merged with the municipal School of Art and Design. McNair transferred briefly to the new organisation but soon left for the newly set up Sandon Studios, founded by former staff and students of the Art Sheds. McNair's career and personal stability declined sharply. By 1908 the couple was back in Glasgow, re-engaging in a minor way with the Glasgow School of Art. The subsequent years are poorly documented and were troubled by difficulties in their personal lives and in re-establishing their careers. In 1909 the McNair family was declared bankrupt. The last significant presentation of the couple's work was an exhibition of their watercolours at the Bailie Gallery, London in 1911. In 1913 McNair was in Canada, on his own, working in a chocolate factory and subsequently a railway company. By 1914 he was back in Scotland.
After Macdonald's sudden death in 1921, McNair destroyed much of her, and probably his, work. He disappeared into obscurity, initially running a car-hire business with his son in Linlithgow. After a few years the business was closed in advance of Sylvan's departure for South Africa. McNair's final years were spent in seclusion in Argyllshire, Scotland, where he died in 1955. Brief contact was made by Thomas Howarth in the 1940s as part of his researches into Mackintosh. 4
1: See Pamela Robertson, ed., Doves and Dreams: The Art of Frances Macdonald and James Herbert McNair, London: Lund Humphries, 2006.
2: Charles Holme, ed., Modern British Domestic Architecture, Studio Special Summer Number, 1901, pp. 116–19.
3: Mary Bennett, The Art Sheds 1894–1905, Liverpool: Walker Art Gallery, 1981.
4: Correspondence between Howarth and McNair dating between May 1944 and September 1947 is held at The Hunterian, University of Glasgow: GLAHA 53901–53919. This contains some brief comments by McNair on Mackintosh and the work of the Four.