Conservative Club, Helensburgh

M091 Conservative Club, Helensburgh

Address: 38–40, Sinclair Street, Helensburgh G84 8SU
Date: 1894–5
Client: Helensburgh and Gareloch Conservative Association
Authorship: Authorship category 2 (Mackintosh and Office) (Mackintosh and Office)

Photograph of billiard room fireplace at Helensburgh Conservative Club

Origins

John Honeyman had family connections with Helensburgh – his father had his principal residence there by 1861, it seems – and he worked extensively in and around the town. 1 Long before his partnership with John Keppie, he carried out commissions for members of the locally influential Kidston family, including Park Free Church and the houses Ferniegair and Glenoran. 2 The commission for the Conservative Club presumably came to John Honeyman & Keppie as a result of these established links: the Kidston family gave the site; the chairman of the building committee was William Hamilton Kidston; and other members of the family were present at the laying of the foundation stone. 3

Exterior

Situated in the town centre on a busy commercial thoroughfare, the three-storey club was designed to have rent-producing shops at street level. The ground floor is now one continuous modern shopfront (there were originally two), with the entrance to the club on the left under a round-arched hood. Above, the red sandstone ashlar facade swells into two shallow canted bays, the left one rising through two storeys, the one on the right confined to the second floor. First-floor windows are mullioned and transomed, those on the second floor are sashes, set deep in the thickness of the wall. At roof level the bays merge into an undulating, chamfered parapet, rising to a little hump in the middle where the wall is pierced by an opening filled with Gothic tracery. An arched recess between the first-floor windows encloses a carved relief of St Andrew.

Photograph of Helensburgh Conservative Club from S.W.Photograph of Helensburgh Conservative Club from N.W.Photograph of upper part of front of Helensburgh Conservative Club

At the laying of the foundation stone the Glasgow Herald described the style as 'Renaissance'. 4 Certain details do indeed appear to be derived from Scottish buildings of the late 16th century: the slender, round shafts that mark the angles of the bays and frame some of the windows recall both Maybole Castle in Ayrshire and Mar's Work in Stirling, and, as at Maybole, the shafts rest on corbels in the form of human heads. 5 John Honeyman & Keppie had already used this distinctive feature from Maybole at Dunloe, the Wemyss Bay mansion the practice designed in 1889–91. At Helensburgh, however, the shafts are given a Gothic flavour by knots of foliage at the angles, while the frame above the left-hand bay sprouts into a strikingly stylised carving of a tree. This may reflect the influence of late Gothic Revival architects in England such as Henry Wilson (1864–1934), whose design for Ladbroke Grove Free Library, published in the Architect in 1890, features the tree motif prominently. 6 At Helensburgh, however, the intricate decorative details are distributed sparsely across large areas of smooth wall in a distinctly Scottish way.

Photograph of parapet and first-floor windows at Helensburgh Conservative ClubPhotograph of Maybole Castle

The drawings submitted to Helensburgh Dean of Guild Court cannot now (2014) be traced, but they are known from photographs which appear to show annotations in Mackintosh's hand. 7 In the absence of other documentation, one can do no more than identify features of the building that point to Mackintosh's possible involvement. The consoles flanking the door, for instance, have wavy leaves carved on their flat sides, very like the built-in library armchair at Craigie Hall; decoration under the second-floor cills recalls the Glasgow Herald tower (the same carver, James Young, worked on both buildings); and the prominent mouldings along the transoms of the first-floor windows anticipate the frieze-rail that Mackintosh would later extend across the drawing room windows in his Mains Street flat. The right-hand bay is supported visually by a curious ledge, the square corners of which stick out beyond the bay's canted sides: this odd detail is similar to Mackintosh's treatment, a couple of years later, of the two-storey oriel beside the entrance to the Glasgow School of Art.

Photograph of doorway, Helensburgh Conservative ClubPhotograph of detail of doorway, Helensburgh Conservative ClubPhotograph of detail of window, Helensburgh Conservative Club

Interior

The original ground-floor shops were long and narrow, stretching back the full depth of the plot. Today the central division has been removed, and they form a single, wider space. Cast-iron columns support the cross-walls of the upper floors – the original arrangement – giving a completely open plan.

A corridor and stone staircase lead from the street to the former club on the upper floors. The 1894–5 layout here is largely preserved, but the rooms are now used for storage in connection with the ground-floor shop. The former Smoking Room and Reading Room are at the front of the first floor (originally a movable partition divided them, but this has gone). They are separated from the former Hall at the rear by a light well, which originally provided top-lighting to the deep-plan shops below. The Hall is reached from the half-landing by a top-lit passage. The caretaker's kitchen and parlour are tucked between the front rooms and the light well. The stairs continue to the top floor, where the former Billiard Room overlooks the street, with smaller rooms behind, including a committee room.

Much of the interior detailing is unusual enough to suggest the possibility that Mackintosh contributed to its design, but as with the exterior, it is impossible to be sure. Panelling in the Billiard Room is stained dark grey and divided into broad, vertical, plank-like sections. It is superficially similar to the panelling at Queen's Cross Church and the Glasgow School of Art, but the sections do not correspond to the width of individual boards, and the applied wooden strips that divide them are moulded rather than flat. On the stairs, the top of the panelled dado follows a series of elegant curves at the half landing.

Photograph of billiard room at Helensburgh Conservative ClubPhotograph of east wall of billiard room at Helensburgh Conservative ClubPhotograph of staircase dado at Helensburgh Conservative Club

The most distinctive woodwork is in the Hall, but temporary storage racks in connection with the room's present use make it difficult to see. The round-arched fireplace at the N. end is flanked by thin pilasters with scrolly, heart-shaped capitals. A band of simple, flat, horizontal mouldings at door-top height glides smoothly down in a sinuous S-curve, passing behind these pilasters before becoming horizontal again where it joins the mantel shelf.

Photograph of hall overmantel in Helensburgh Conservative ClubPhotograph of hall overmantel in Helensburgh Conservative ClubPhotograph of hall overmantel in Helensburgh Conservative ClubPhotograph of capital from hall overmantel in Helensburgh Conservative Club

The Reading Room and Smoking Room retain none of their original fittings, except the stained glass in the upper lights of the windows, its Prince of Wales feathers outlined in sinuous leading. The stairs have a wrought-iron balustrade with highly unorthodox wooden newel posts.

Photograph of stained glass in Helensburgh Conservative ClubPhotograph of staircase of Helensburgh Conservative ClubPhotograph of newel post at Helensburgh Conservative Club

The Hall roof is now obscured by a suspended ceiling, but the Billiard Room has an open timber roof with arch-braced trusses. It is of a type found in several John Honeyman & Keppie buildings of the 1890s, and it does not show the novel joinery and pierced decoration found in Mackintosh's roofs at Queen's Cross church hall and the Glasgow School of Art. More distinctive is the simpler roof of the passage leading from the half-landing to the Hall, in which the trusses incorporate round arches with the merest hint of an ogee.

Photograph of billiard room at Helensburgh Conservative ClubPhotograph of billiard room at Helensburgh Conservative ClubPhotograph of passage to hall in Helensburgh Conservative ClubPhotograph of truss in passage to hall in Helensburgh Conservative Club

Fireplaces at each end of the Billiard Room have shouldered architraves which flow upwards into sinuous ogee lintels. This is the earliest appearance of a pattern used repeatedly for door and window surrounds at other John Honeyman & Keppie projects of the 1890s with which Mackintosh was probably involved: the Queen Margaret College Anatomical Department, the Glasgow Herald building and Martyrs Public School. Here, however, the ogee retains its central point, so that its source in such medieval prototypes as the Skelmorlie aisle at Largs is more apparent.

Photograph of billiard room fireplace at Helensburgh Conservative Club

Alterations

A staircase has been introduced, giving access from the shop to the first floor. It leads to a corridor created by partitioning off the W. side of the Hall.

Critical reception

John Honeyman & Keppie showed a drawing of the club in the 1895 exhibition of the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts (278). It was probably the perspective for which there is an entry in the office cash book for a payment of £4 4s on 8 August 1894 (the project is named but not the draughtsman). 8 Reviewing it, the Glasgow Herald singled out the shopfronts for unfavourable comment: 'Perhaps it is not the fault of the architects that the Conservative Club, Helensburgh ... is supported on plate-glass shop windows, but surely a better treatment of these could have been devised.' 9 Interestingly, Mackintosh himself had spoken out a few years earlier against such large areas of glazing, when he observed in his 1892 lecture on 'Architecture' that 'the eye is distressed at huge lofty tenements resting to all appearance on nothing more stable than plate glass'. 10 As for the rest of the Helensburgh facade, the Herald recognised its novelty but did not think it would be of lasting interest: 'The upper part ... is not wanting in freshness, though we cannot believe that this kind of architecture will command any permanent admiration.' 11 Reporting its opening eight months later, the newspaper had little to say about the building, describing it simply as 'an important addition to the architectural features of the town'. 12 But the Helensburgh Year Book of 1896 was more enthusiastic, praising the new club as 'one of the most artistic in Scotland'. 13

A report on the condition of the Helensburgh Conservative Club was produced as part of the Mackintosh Buildings Survey, led by the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society and carried out between 2015 and 2016. 14

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Notes:

1: Gordon R. Urquhart, A Notable Ornament: Lansdowne Church, an Icon of Victorian Glasgow, Glasgow: Four Acres Charitable Trust and Glasgow City Heritage Trust, 2011, p. 62.

2: David Stark, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Co., Catrine, Ayrshire: Stenlake Publishing, 2004, pp. 132–3.

3: Fiona J. Sinclair, 'Some observations on No. 40 Sinclair Street, Helensburgh', Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society Newsletter, 59, Summer 1992, pp. 5–7; Glasgow Herald, 17 September 1894, p. 9.

4: Glasgow Herald, 17 September 1894, p. 9.

5: Mackintosh made sketches of Maybole Castle in 1895, but he would have known it earlier from the illustration in R. W. Billings, The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland, Edinburgh: W. Blackwood & Sons, 4 vols, 1848–52, vol. 4, pl. 3.

6: Architect, 20 June 1890; Cyndy Manton, Henry Wilson: Practical Idealist, Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2009, pp. 13–16.

7: Fiona J. Sinclair, who saw the original drawings, detected the involvement of a number of different draughtsmen. She thought the constructional notes might have been added by Mackintosh (Fiona J. Sinclair, 'Some observations on No. 40 Sinclair Street, Helensburgh', Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society Newsletter, 59, Summer 1992, pp. 5–7).

8: The Hunterian, University of Glasgow: John Honeyman & Keppie / Honeyman, Keppie & Mackintosh / Keppie Henderson cash book, 1889–1917, GLAHA 53079, p. 27.

9: Glasgow Herald, 11 April 1895, p. 4.

10: Fiona J. Sinclair, 'Some observations on No. 40 Sinclair Street, Helensburgh', Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society Newsletter, 59, Summer 1992, pp. 5–7; Charles Rennie Mackintosh, 'Untitled Paper on Architecture', in Pamela Robertson, ed., Charles Rennie Mackintosh: The Architectural Papers, Wendlebury, Oxon: White Cockade in association with the Hunterian Art Gallery, 1990, p. 186. Mackintosh nevertheless adopted this approach in his shop for Peter Macpherson at Comrie in 1903.

11: Glasgow Herald, 11 April 1895, p. 4.

12: Glasgow Herald, 10 December 1895, p. 7.

13: Quoted in Fiona J. Sinclair, 'Some observations on No. 40 Sinclair Street, Helensburgh', Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society Newsletter, 59, Summer 1992, pp. 5–7.

14: A copy of the report (MBS08) is held by the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, Mackintosh Queen's Cross, 870 Garscube Road, Glasgow G20 7EL. The Mackintosh Buildings Survey was funded by The Monument Trust.