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    Charles Rennie Mackintosh Trail in Roussillon: Amélie-les-Bains


    Charles Rennie Mackintosh & Margaret Macdonald

    These photos of Margaret and Charles Rennie Mackintosh date from a time when they were young and happy, still brimming with enthusiasm and activity, working together at great projects. Portraits of the Mackintoshes at the time of their arrival in the south of France, in 1923, would certainly show the ravages of time for after a great  period of creativity and success, in the 1890s and the 1900s, the Mackintoshes went through hard times due to a loss of popularity in Glasgow, a lack of work and increasing financial difficulties.  In 1914, just before the outbreak of WWI they decided to move to England first in Walberswick, a little harbour situated in Suffolk and then in Chelsea, London. When Margaret’s mother died she let her only surviving daughter a small  heritage which allowed the couple to go and visit the south of France where they finally decided to settle in Port-Vendres. Charles Rennie Mackintosh was then aged 56 and Margaret 59.


    Charles Rennie Mackintosh rose glass panel  House for an Art Lover

    Charles Rennie Mackintosh rose glass panel House for an Art Lover © 2012 Scotiana

    Each time we go to Scotland, where the Mackintoshes’s art still makes Glasgow flourish, we try to see more of it and improve our knowledge of the famous artists. As great admirers of ‘Art Nouveau‘ we love the spirit of ‘The Glasgow Style’. This spirit is omnipresent in the big city, born in the ‘creuset’ of the famous Glasgow School of Art where ‘The Glasgow Four’ (Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Margaret and Frances Macdonald and Herbert McNair) were sharing and expressing their new vision of art.

    In and around Glasgow our favourite places are The House for an Art Lover, the Hill House and of course the Glasgow School of Art, the ‘fleuron’ of Charles Rennie Mackintosh art as  architect and  designer.

    Mackintosh Trail journey in Roussillon - Scotiana modified Google map

    Mackintosh Trail journey in Roussillon – Scotiana modified Google map 1 © 2012 Scotiana


    At the origin of our ‘Mackintosh pilgrimage’ in Roussillon is Monsieur Mackintosh, a book written by Robin Crichton, a great admirer of the Scottish artist and a lover of this beautiful French region. Like Graham Roxburgh, in Glasgow, Robin Crichton did quite  a lot in France to celebrate the memory of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

    I have a number of books about Charles Rennie Mackintosh in my library but Building the Dream by Graham Roxburgh and Monsieur Mackintosh are my favourites together with John Cairney’s  The Quest for Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Pamela Robertson’s Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Art is the Flower which was so kindly offered to us by Iain and Margaret during our unforgettable meeting at Carcassonne in April 2012. I’ve just received The Flower and the Green Leaf, edited by Ray McKenzie and published in 2009 by Luath Press. I’m eager to read this book which ‘explores for the first time the uniquely vibrant artistic and social culture that combined, in the early decades of the twentieth century, to make Glasgow School of Art one of the most outstanding institutions in the history of art education’.

    In following ‘The Mackintosh Trail in Roussillon’ we discovered a less known facet of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s art. The Scottish architect and designer had already painted watercolours (especially flowers) but under the sunny skies of the south of France he painted ‘chefs-d’oeuvres’.

    Margaret and ‘Toshie’ lived in ‘Hotel du Commerce’, Port Vendres. The  few years spent in Roussillon were probably the happiest years of their life. They visited each part of the region and though Margaret had definitively given up her artistic work, after her sister’s death,  Charles Rennie Mackintosh decided to take his easel and brushes outside to give life to the marvels he discovered each day in his magnificent surroundings. As painting was an activity to which he had always dreamed to devote his life, he was very happy to do so though, alas, the dream would not last very long. Toshie would have to leave France for England in 1927 where he died on 10 December, in the Westminster hospital, ‘sitting up in bed, signing the pictures that Chapman-Huston had brought to the bedside from the exhibition of watercolours at the Leicester Galleries’ as writes John Cairney in The Quest for Charles Rennie Mackintosh.


    The Rocks watercolour by Charles Rennie Mackintosh Port-Vendres 1927

    The Rocks watercolour by Charles Rennie Mackintosh Port-Vendres 1927

    Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s last watercolour painted in Roussillon is probably The Rocks, finished at the end of May 1927.

    The beauty of the landscape and the quality of light in Roussillon as well as the richness of the catalan culture, especially its architecture, could not be but a great source of inspiration for Charles Rennie Mackintosh. After discovering Ille-sur-Têt, Port-Vendres and Collioure on ‘The Mackintosh Trail’ in Roussillon we’re going to discover Céret, Amélie-les-Bains-Palalda and Elne.

    When we started from Prades in the morning, after a good breakfast at Castell Rose, the weather wasn’t  good and the sky desperately grey but we did found touches of colour here and there and discovered a number of treasures which make us understand why the Mackintoshes loved the place so much.


    Céret in Roussillon orange trees

    Céret in Roussillon orange trees © 2012 Scotiana

    We didn’t stay long at Céret though the ‘Mecca of cubism’ is well worth the visit. Juan Gris, Picasso, Braque, Auguste Herbin, Max Jacob and many other painters have left their marks there and there is a Museum dedicated to them.


    Céret The Devil's Bridge

    Céret The Devil’s Bridge © 2012 Scotiana

    After walking some time along the cobbled streets of this little mediaeval town, lined with picturesque old houses and gardens sheltering orange trees and a great variety of mediterranean plants, we crossed the impressive Devil’s Bridge. Legend says it was the Devil who built it long ago, for the price of the soul of the first villager who would cross the bridge. The devil should have known by experience that villagers usually send a cat to cross first 😉 Aren’t cats reputed to have seven lives?  So, I said to myself as sort of consolation, the poor cat who happened to cross first this damned bridge would have six other chances to regain his soul 😉

    Wild flowers in Roussillon

    Wild flowers in Roussillon © 2012 Scotiana


    Art is the flower – Life is the green leaf.

    (Charles Rennie Mackintosh )

    The mild micro-climate, 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 (…)

    (Robin Crichton – Monsieur Mackintosh)


    Amélie-les-Bains the river Tech

    Amélie-les-Bains the river Tech © 2012 Scotiana

    After crossing the Devil’s Bridge we drove on, following the Tech valley up to Amelie Les Bains-Palalda .

    They booked into a hotel at Amélie-les-Bains, a spa town which lies in the shadow of the Canigou – the magic mountain where dragons dwell and which can be seen from every part of the Roussillon. It has a mild and fairly constant climate, avoiding the strong winds which buffet the coast in winter. There is little rain, no mist and lots of sun. It was highly fashionable as a place to spend the winter, especially amongst the English, and it advertised itself as ‘La petite Provence’ and the ‘Pearl of the Pyrénées’ – a resort with a range of hotels, a casino, a theatre, a dance hall, sports facilities, several public halls and a cinema’.

    (Robin Crichton – Monsieur Mackintosh)


    In situ reconstruction panel of Mackintosh's painting 'Palalda'

    In situ reconstruction panel of Mackintosh’s painting ‘Palalda’ © 2012 Scotiana


    We shared our picnic by the river,  our basket being full of delicious local specialties, not far from the reproduction panel number 17 which features Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s watercolour ‘Palalda’.


    Charles Rennie Mackintosh's watercolour 'Palalda' painted in 1924

    Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s watercolour ‘Palalda’ painted in 1924

    Mackintosh’s painting of Palalda, the mediaeval hill-town which is now part of Amélie, clearly shows his delight in the jumble of architecture. In it, he combines two different viewpoints. The upper part of the picture seems to have been painted from beside the north side of the river while the lower part is a view from the south side. He altered the lower part of this painting by cutting a piece of paper to the shape of the houses he wanted to retain and sticking it over the part which he did not like.

    (Robin Crichton – Monsieur Mackintosh)

    Here’s a reproduction of the painting which, at the time of the publishing of Monsieur Mackintosh in 2006, belonged to a Private Collection and was on loan to the  Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh.


    View of Palalda  painted by Mackintosh

    View of Palalda painted by Mackintosh © 2012 Scotiana

    The village of Palalda is quite recognizable on Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s painting of it, with a few variations as explained very clearly by Robin Crichton…

    Amélie-les-Bains Roussillon

    Amélie-les-Bains Roussillon © 2012 Scotiana

    Here’s a view of Amélie-les-Bains as we can see it  from the top of the old mediaeval village of Palalda…

    Palalda St Martin church square © 2012 Scotiana

    Palalda St Martin church square © 2012 Scotiana

    ‘Not even the hottest of suns could deter that man’s energies. By the same token, the architect-builder in Mackintosh just would not die, whatever he said. Wherever he went, he made a bee-line for the nearest church. He loved pottering around the old graveyards, looking at the stones just as he did when he was a boy around the Glasgow Necropolis, but here he had the extra pleasure of having ‘so many interesting little churches lying around them.”

    (John Cairney – The Quest for Charles Rennie Mackintosh)’

    The mediaeval village of Palalda’  is one of our ‘coups-de-coeur’ in Roussillon.  This village is absolutely lovely. We visited the museum of folk art and traditions and also the very interesting Post Office museum, with its reconstruction of a 19th century post office. We could have stayed longer there but we didn’t want to miss the Mackintosh Interpretation Centre which is part of the museum complex in the château of Palalda. When you enter the Museum, the Mackintosh Interpretation Centre is on your left and there we lingered a lot of time looking at the many documents and period photographs on display there, also watching a number of very interesting videos illustrating the story of the Mackintosh’s life and career. In this Interpretation Centre, and probably in the other ones too, we can get a very good idea of the Mackintoshes’ art through the display of  drawings, paintings, models, stained glass, textiles…

    Palalda is a place not to miss in Roussillon, definitely!

    St Martin Church doors Palalda © 2012 Scotiana

    St Martin Church doors Palalda © 2012 Scotiana


    The magnificent old door of St Martin was closed  when we arrived in front of it so that we could admire it at its best.


    Palalda Interior of St Martin Church  © 2012 Scotiana

    Palalda Interior of St Martin Church © 2012 Scotiana


    Mackintosh also writes of his visit to the old church of St Martin at the top of Palalda, which lies next to Amélie. Its magnificent reredos traces the life of St Martin – “Carved and gilded wood – wood that is not carved but cut showing every mark of the tool, not gilded but clothed in gold leaf (thick) – the first brought from America to Spain. Very rococo but very beautiful.”
    (Charles Rennie Mackintosh quoted by Robin Crichton in Monsieur Mackintosh)


    We were allowed to catch a glimpse of the interior of the church but without entering it so that it was difficult to appreciate fully the reredos so marvellously described by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. This very old church was consecrated in 933 and in the olden times it was the castle chapel.

    St Martin Church Palalda detail of the door © 2012 Scotiana

    St Martin Church Palalda detail of the door © 2012 Scotiana

    Look at this old piece of craft… it certainly did not escape the expert eyes of the Mackintoshes !

    Palalda Musée Amélie-les-Bains The guardians © 2012 Scotiana

    Palalda Musée Amélie-les-Bains The guardians © 2012 Scotiana

    Without the cats these old picturesque villages would be soulless 😉

    Palalda 12th century fortified tower © 2012 Scotiana

    Palalda 12th century fortified tower © 2012 Scotiana

    The old wooden sign reads  ‘Mairie’ and we felt like climbing up the old stone stairs which lead to the door of the mysterious tower but it was high time to leave Palalda if we wanted to arrive at the abbey of Elne before closing time. Another architectural jewel not to be missed…

    Elne Abbey in Roussillon © 2012 Scotiana

    Elne Abbey in Roussillon © 2012 Scotiana

    Personally, I have been, what they say, ‘struck-dumb’ –

    Elne, Arles-sur-Tech, Prats de Mollo and many others are surprising stone structures

    and of course built to hear the spoken word and not to follow the service by the reading of the printed word.

    (Charles Rennie Mackintosh  in a letter to Newbery on 28 December 1925)


    We arrived at the abbey church of Elne at 15:30 with plenty of time to visit it…

    Elne Abbey Church sculpted columns © 2012 Scotiana

    Elne Abbey Church sculpted columns © 2012 Scotiana

    Elne Cloister quadrangular pillar with floral motifs © 2012 Scotiana

    Elne Cloister quadrangular pillar with floral motifs © 2012 Scotiana

    In the cloister, we took many pictures of the magnificent pillars and of their richly sculpted capitals which are perfect examples of the romanesque and gothic art in Roussillon in mediaeval times.

    Elne cloister a richly decorated romanesque capital © 2012 Scotiana

    Elne cloister a richly decorated romanesque capital © 2012 Scotiana

    Everywhere the eye is attracted by a stone marvel. There is a profusion of sculpted motifs, mere ornamentation or illustration of religious scenes :  there is a crowd of Biblical characters, a whole bestiary of familiar and fantastic creatures, a rich botanical register representing many different kinds of  flowers and plants, foliage (acanthus leaves), scrolling vines and so on…

    Elne cloister decorated columns © 2012 Scotiana

    Elne cloister decorated columns © 2012 Scotiana

    Each set of  columns is different and some of them are particularly beautiful,  richly decorated as they are with spirals and arabesques.

    Before going back to our lovely ‘gîte’ in Castell Rose, we came back a last time to Port-Vendres and stayed there until sunset.

    Hoping to have made you feel like going there, I give you rendezvous on my next episode on the Mackintosh Trail in Roussillon,it will be Evol, Villefranche-de-Conflent and Mont Louis with its famous and  marvellous Petit Train Jaune… toot-toot !

    A bientôt.




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