Margaret MacDonald is my spirit key. My other half. She is more than half – she is three quarters – of all I’ve done. We chose each other and each gave to the other what the other lacked. Her hand was always in mine. If I had the heart, she had the head. Oh, I had the talent but she had the genius. We made a pair. (Charles Rennie Mackintosh)
Here, at the end of the jetty of Port-Vendres and under the sunny skies of one of the nicest regions of France, in a last and tearing adieu to the beloved companion with whom she had shared a lifelong passion for art, Margaret MacDonald dispersed the ashes of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Here, in Roussillon, both artists had probably shared some of their happiest days, five years only but full of life and creativity.
Strangely enough, Mackintosh’s very nice watercolours painted there, which testify to his talent as a painter, did not always get the recognition they deserve, his architectural and design masterpieces being generally better known than his paintings. But things are changing…
What has been done in Glasgow in memoriam of Charles Rennie Mackintosh is now being done in Roussillon where the Scottish artist spent the last years of his life. In 2004, an association was formed ” initially to organize an exhibition for the celebration of the centenary of the ‘Entente Cordiale in Roussillon’. Subsequently it has engaged in a programme to increase awareness of the life and work of CRM and in the spirit of Mackintosh to encourage and to pioneer cross-cultural exchange initiatives. The association is administered by an elected committee and has a French and a Scottish president. It is affiliated with the CRM Society in Glasgow.”
The ‘Chemin de Mackintosh’ was also inaugurated in 2004 with the Lord Provost of Glasgow, Liz Cameron, and Lord Steel. In 2006, Monsieur Mackintosh, a very interesting biographical book, written by Robin Crichton, was published. I’ve just finished it and I’m eager to follow the Mackintosh trail , hoping to do it one day with a pocket version of the book in my hand
In the introduction of his book, published in a bilingual form, Robin Crichton explains that the aim of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh project is to create a permanent exhibition of Mackintosh’s work in the Pyrénées Orientales, to establish a programme of Franco-Scottish cultural exchange and to draw up a Mackintosh Trail placing reproductions of Mackintosh’s paintings in situ and a permanent exhibition in three episodes recounting the story of his life :
- in the valley of the Tech
- on the Côte Vermeille
- in the valley of the Têt
This book literally carries the reader along Mackintosh Trail. It can be read as a lively biographical story, as a book about Mackintosh’s art and also as a fascinating travel book. It’s remarkably well documented and illustrated. I’ve learned a lot of things in it, not only about the Mackintoshes but also about my own country. It contains many pictures, black and white and colour ones, as well as the reproductions of most Mackintosh’s watercolours, about 40 of them having been listed to this day. The quotations by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and by Margaret MacDonald are particularly appropriate and very moving. I like this book very much.
The subject of my last post was the building of The House for an Art Lover in Glasgow, seventy years after the artist’s death. This magnificent house had been designed towards 1900, when Mackintosh’s popularity was at its peak. Ten years later, however, the tide turned. Mackintosh’s art began to be considered as old-fashioned and commissions declined. As life was becoming more and more difficult for them in their own country, the Mackintoshes decided to move to England and, in 1914, they settled in Walberswick, a popular sea-side resort in Suffolk, where they rented a fisherman’s hut for a studio. There, Mackintosh devoted most of his time to painting, a mode of creative expression he had always dreamed to indulge in. ‘During the day’ writes Robin Crichton, ‘he concentrated on his painting but when the light began to fail he would don his deerstalker hat and Inverness cape and stride off, pipe in mouth, across the dunes to gaze out to sea’.
But only three weeks after the Mackintoshes’ arrival in Walberswick, war broke out with Germany and, in such a context, the pre-war German and Austrian connections of the Mackintoshes, the letters written to them and the daily walks along the coast soon became suspect. Accused of being a spy Mackintosh was asked to go away. The couple moved to London, settling in the artistic community of Chelsea but their financial difficulties increased. The pressure on them only diminished when Margaret’s mother died, in 1923, leaving them a small inheritance. Following their friends’ advice, Charles and Margaret decided to take a holiday in the south of France. This was to be a new start for them….
Charles and Margaret were at once very enthusiastic about their French journey, exploring every area of this very nice region during the following months, from Perpignan up the river valleys of the Tech and of the Têt. All the places which enchanted them during this first journey are very well described in Robin Crichton’s book. For example, the Mackintoshes stopped at Amelie-les-Bains, the ‘Pearl of the Pyrénées’ which stands in the shadow of Mount Canigou. Here they rented a tiny old toll house with only two rooms one on top the other for studios, living at a nearby hotel. The place offered them a great variety of beautiful landscapes, luxurious vegetation, picturesque towns and villages rich in history and architecture. The ideal place for them to spend holidays and find inspiration.
‘The mild micro-climate’, writes Robin Crichton, ‘with hot sunshine, little wind and pure mountain air, creates a natural garden with a profusion of plants and flowers, which delighted Mackintosh. He and Margaret made expeditions into the surrounding countryside, collecting flowers. Mackintosh had always painted studies of flowers which he gathered in his walks and a picture of Mymosa dated January 1924 is one of the few which survive from this time. ‘Art is the flower – Life is the green leaf,’ he said in a lecture. ‘You must offer… flowers that grow from but above the green leaf… the flowers of the art that is in you’ … And of course Mackintosh could never resist visiting old churches in the surrounding villages. They went up to Montbolo, which clings to the heights on the north side of the town, where they marvelled at the ‘simple stone structure’ of the massive fortified tenth century church complete with slit windows.”
In the winter of 1925, after their long journey which had led them up and down the Pyrénées and, beyond the French frontiers, up to Spain and Italy, the Mackintoshes finally chose to settle in the nice little fishing village of Port Vendres, not far from Collioure which was one of their favourite places and where some of their best friends were staying.
But ‘Toshie’, as Margaret used to call her husband, was more and more anxious to find tranquillity and time to concentrate on his painting, far from mundane life. He had already made a lot of beautiful watercolours in the previous months, drawing inspiration from all the places where they had stopped. In Amélie-les-Bains, Ille-sur-Têt, Fetges near Montlouis and Collioure, Mackintosh had painted some of his most beautiful watercolours.
But Port Vendres was to become his main source of inspiration for the last two years of his life. Charles and Margaret rented rooms at the Hotel du Commerce. They were much appreciated by the local people. Charles spent hours and hours walking in the neighbourhood and painting the town.
Apart from the harbour and the beach, one of his favourite places was Fort Mailly, a ruined 16th fortification on the outskirts of Port Vendres. ‘Fort Mailly’, writes Robin Crichton, ‘was one of his favourite subjects. Apart from The Fort, it also features in Le Fort Mailly, The Road Through The Rocks and Port-Vendres. The actual road through the rocks is partly an open cutting and partly a tunnel. When he was working up there Margaret would go and meet him at the other end’.
On 28 may ‘I got up at 6.30 and was down soon after 7.00. The air was clear and perfect and hardly any wind – I was at work well before 8 o’clock at our castle [Fort Mailly], not at the ‘Rock’. It seemed to be the thing I was ready to do – I got on very well and worked till 12 o’clock. This drawing is now practically finished and I think it is very good of its kind – I shall give it another short morning as there are one or two things that might still be done – little points of closer observation – I find that each of my drawings has something but none of them have everything. (Charles Rennie Mackintosh)
Not a happy end:
Mackintosh left France in the autumn of 1927. In 1928 the Leicester Gallery finally agreed to show some of his paintings in a forthcoming exhibition. Several were still unsigned. He was sitting up in bed signing one of them when he died with the pencil in his hand. Shortly afterwards an invitation arrived from Vienna asking him to be Guest of Honour at a dinner to mark ‘his influence upon the art and architecture of his time.’ He was cremated on 11 December. (Monsieur Mackintosh – Robin Crichton)
In May 1929 Margaret returned to the Hotel du Commerce. It is said she fulfilled his wish and walked through the tunnel to Fort Mailly and on along the road through the rocks, to the mole at the entrance to the harbour, from where she scattered his ashes on the waters. (Monsieur Mackintosh – Robin Crichton)
I hope to have made you want to read Robin Crichton’s book or, still better, to come and walk on the Mackintosh Trail, in Roussillon.
A bientôt. Mairiuna