The forgotten Glasgow friends

8th September 2006 at 01:00
As a whole city celebrates the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Hunterian turns a spotlight on two of his lesser known associates, writes Deedee Cuddihy

Doves and Dreams: The Art of Frances Macdonald and J. Herbert McNair Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow University until November 18

tel 0141 330 5431

Beautiful paintings, stunning graphics, handsome furniture and handcrafted ornaments combine to be more than an exhibition.

Doves and Dreams tells the story of Frances Macdonald and J.

Herbert McNair, who, along with Macdonald's sister Margaret and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, formed the Glasgow Four, a group acclaimed as being among the most creative and imaginative artist-designers working in Britain at the turn of the 19th century.

The exhibition at the Hunterian Art Gallery, a highlight of the Mackintosh Festival being held in Glasgow this year, also explores the similarities between Glasgow and Liverpool (where Frances and McNair moved after their marriage) and touches on the development of the art school movement in both cities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Frances and McNair met at the Glasgow School of Art, Frances attending daytime classes with her sister, and McNair going to evening classes with Mackintosh after they finished work at a nearby architects' office.

In those days, the art school was based in what is now the McLellan Galleries in Sauchiehall Street and was already known as one of the most successful and progressive in Britain. A picture taken in about 1893 shows the Macdonalds, Mackintosh and McNair as part of a group of art students who called themselves The Immortals.

By 1894, the Four had begun working together, although it was the Macdonalds who attracted the most attention at an exhibition in Glasgow that year. Their paintings of elongated figures were ridiculed in the Evening Times, a scathing reporter suggesting that anyone could paint like the sisters as long as they ate roast pork and fried liver to induce nightmares.

After leaving art school, the Macdonalds set up a studio together. McNair, who like the sisters could rely on his wealthy family for living expenses, gave up his job and also rented a studio. Mackintosh, whose background was not so privileged, remained in employment.

During this period, the Four became a major force in the development and recognition of a distinctive Glasgow style, not that they ever made much money from their art, most of it being created for family, friends and exhibition.

In 1898, McNair, then 30, accepted a teaching job at the relatively new art school in Liverpool, known as the Art Sheds because of the makeshift wooden buildings. He married Frances the following year (she was 26) and they completely furnished and decorated their rented home to their design, and in many cases their making, turning it into "the most avant-garde domestic interior of that period in Liverpool". Studio magazine featured the house in a special edition in 1901, which is reproduced at the exhibition, along with pieces of furniture.

In 1900, their son, Sylvan, was born, the only progeny of the Four.

(Margaret Macdonald and Mackintosh married the same year.) Things could not have been going better for the McNairs. He was a popular and inspirational teacher (a delightful photograph shows him judging students' work) and in 1902, he and Frances designed "A Lady's Writing Room" for a prestigious exhibition in Turin. It has been recreated for this show, with rugs and embroideries by textile historian Liz Arthur.

Tragedy struck the McNairs when his wealthy family was declared bankrupt and the Liverpool Art Sheds closed.

They returned to Glasgow in 1908 and moved into a flat owned by the Macdonalds. The new Glasgow School of Art, designed by Mackintosh, had opened by then, but McNair was unable to find work there.

Frances, who went on to produce a remarkable series of paintings on the theme of woman's spiritual and physical being, died in 1921, aged 48, possibly as a result of suicide. Her last known work, the Dreamboat mirror, completed that year, is decorated with an image of Arachne, a nymph who attempted suicide after she crossed the Roman goddess Minerva and was turned into a spider.

McNair did not work again, retreated to Argyll and died in obscurity in 1955.

Exhibition events include CPD art and design workshops for teachers on September 19 and October 3, a Doves and Dreams Week on October 16-20 for 5- to 12-year-olds, plus weekend and holiday workshops for children and families and workshops and lectures for adults

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today