Places to Visit in Scotland
- Hill House, Helensburgh
Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh
By the time Charles Rennie Mackintosh was appointed by a wealthy Glasgow businessman, Walter Blackie, to design a new house for him in Helensburgh, the young architect (he was 34) had already been responsible for the Glasgow School of Art, the Glasgow Herald newspaper office (now the Lighthouse centre for art and design), Queen's Cross Church, Scotland Street School, The Martyr's Public School, the Daily Record newspaper building, Miss Cranston's Willow Tearooms in Sauchiehall Street and Windyhill (another private house) in Renfrewshire. His characteristic design style was well developed - though even so, Mr Blackie gave a number of specific instructions to his architect, including a preference for grey roughcast on the exterior walls.
In many of Mackintosh's projects, the artistry and design flair of his wife is very much in evidence and this is particularly the case inside the Hill House. She was an established artist before she met Mackintosh and influenced his work after they met. She was adventurous, with avant-garde ideas and sophistication. Though she is overshadowed by her husband, Mackintosh was adamant (if perhaps over-modest) when he wrote "Margaret has genius, I only have talent."
Helensburgh is about 22 miles west from the centre of Glasgow, on the northern bank of the river Clyde, as it broadens out into the Firth of Clyde and turns south. As its name implies, Hill House was on a hill, high above the town, with views over the water. Despite the growth of Helensburgh over the last 100 years, Hill House is still near the edge of the town. Helensburgh is also the birthplace of John Logie Baird, the inventor of the first commercial television system and both of these famous men are well remembered by the town. Some of the street lights in the centre have Mackintosh (or is it Mockintosh) design elements incorporated into them.
Walter Blackie was a director of a book publishing firm in Glasgow. The family had lived in Dunblane for seven years but an expanding family of four children (five by the time they arrived at Hill House) and the availability of the prime site at Helensburgh induced the Blackies to build there. They already knew of Mackintosh (Mrs Blackie's sister had attended the Glasgow School of Art at the same time as the architect). The Blackie family had already utilised the talents of another Glasgow architect, Alexander "Greek" Thomson, so were no strangers to using eminent architects.
Blackie certainly knew what he wanted - and rejected Mackintosh's initial designs - mainly on grounds of cost. He also deleted any "adventitious ornament" and brought their own furniture for the dining room. But they gave the Mackintoshes free reign to design the decor and furniture for rooms such as the drawing room and bedroom and there are many Mackintosh features throughout.
You know that you have arrived at a Mackintosh designed house as soon as you walk through the front door. The hallway is full of light and shadow, dark wood and elegantly stencilled friezes. Mackintosh "Arts and Crafts" furniture line the walls and the doors, light-fittings and windows are peppered with variations on his squares and rectangles.
If the hallway has touches of gloom, the drawing room, facing south, is full of light from large windows and pastel shades on the walls, carpets and upholstery, highlighted by the black woodwork of some of the furniture. From old photographs and careful research, the National Trust for Scotland (who now own and care for the building) have recreated the wall coverings and stencils - leaving one wall with the faded original decoration.
Upstairs, the main bedroom, which was mainly used by Mrs Blackie, is predominantly white, with pink and rose-coloured decorations. The bathroom had state-of-the-art plumbing, including an early 20th century innovation - a shower.
While there is quite a lot of Mackintosh furniture in Hill House, clearly the National Trust could not have afforded to fill all the rooms with original designs - even if they had been available. However, one of the rooms have been given over to a display of the architectural drawings for Hill House and others have an exhibition of modern designs under the title "New Perceptions: New Directions." This exhibition is in the East wing of the house which were originally the children's bedrooms and did not contain Mackintosh furniture even when the house was first occupied. The exhibition is certainly not just to fill up the rooms and is well worth viewing.
Unfortunately, the National Trust do not allow photography inside any of their properties so I cannot illustrate the wonderful effects that Mackintosh achieves.
Mackintosh was dismissive of the standard, symmetrical, square boxes which passed for "design" in his day (and are still being built). His underlying theme is of a Scottish baronial keep or castle, in an L-plan shape. It even has a tower in the corner, some narrow arrow-slit windows, a parapet, a gardeners hut which looks like a dovecot and, above a narrow window-slit, an arrow-shape which is carved from contrasting sandstone.
Although there is a wall around the premises, Mackintosh wanted people to be able to see his handiwork so they are punctuated by horse-shoe shaped openings.
Walking round the exterior, no two views are the same and there are always interesting Mackintosh details to delight the eye. While the master's bedroom faces west and the setting sun, the children's bedrooms face east, looking over the orchard.
There is, of course, a substantial garden. While the overall layout was designed by Mackintosh it was Walter Blackie who developed it. When the National Trust acquired Hill House (in 1982) the garden was overgrown. But using photographs and articles published in the early days of the house and plants which were available in the early 20th century, there has been a programme of gradual renovation. I visited Hill House in the spring, when the daffodils were in bloom and this catkin was in full "flower".
A recent addition has been a "mobile" sculpture, reminiscent of a wild windmill, which turns and twists in the wind. Its title is "Five Rectangles in Space" (echoing the rectangular windows of the building) and it was made by the sculptor George Ricky. The illustration would really need to be in video rather than this still picture to convey the effect.
Although I have visited Helensburgh many times over the years, last year was the first time that I had called in at the National Trust property Hill House. I must say that I was most impressed, not just by the Mackintosh designs, inside and out, but by the way in which the Trust is adding to the visitor experience. Writing this article has brought home the fact that it is not possible to take in everything in one visit so it will not be long before I am back there again.
Return to Index of Places to Visit
Where else would you like to go in Scotland?
News & Views>
All Features Index>
Search This Site>
Scottish Pictorial Calendar>
Places to Visit>