History of the Panels

Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh LogoTwelve of the 24 gesso panels by Dai and Jenny Vaughan in the Dining Room of the House for an Art Lover, have now been published as cards and prints.

The house was completed in 1996 and is based on the competition drawings of 1901 by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh.

The panels which are interpretations of the designs in the original perspective drawing are set at frieze height into dark oak panelling.

Each panel measures 600mm x 320mm (23.5x12.5in) which is the size of the large gesso prints.


It very soon became clear to Jenny and myself that there were two very different, and yet complementary, sides to this commission. First there was the medium, then there was the message. The physical and the metaphysical. The one without the other would just result in a series of pretty pictures, and that would do no justice to Margaret MacDonald or Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Firstly the material side.....gesso.

Now, gesso we discovered was an extremely ancient medium. It was used by the Egyptians to prepare for painting the mummy cases and ritual panels in the pyramids........and that was interesting for a start, as the MacDonald sisters were described as being 'Egyptian crazy' when they were students at Glasgow School of Art in the early 1890¹s.

Again it was widely used by Renaissance artists, in very much the same way........as a base on which to paint., due to it's bright white consistency which glowed through the paint pigment, and also for it's ability to adhere to any surface.

From the 1860's the Arts and Crafts Movement gradually led a revival of the use of gesso and Walter Crane became well known as a skilled artist and craftsman in the medium.

This led to him running classes in gesso work at the summer school for art teachers at the South Kensington Institute. One of these teachers was Fra Newbery, who was appointed as head master of Glasgow School of Art in 1885.

Newbery then started classes in gesso at Glasgow School of Art, but sadly there are no records of the names of his students, but I think we can say with certainty that one of them was Margaret MacDonald. She would then of course go on to develop her own totally unique and wonderful technique.......which is what we, somehow, had to rediscover and learn.

This was made all the more difficult by the fact that she never kept any notes, or wrote down any recipes or methods at all........nothing.

Finally we found a recipe and way of working in The Craftsmans Handbook by Cennino D'Andrea Cennini, written in 1437. So we started to experiment, but still couldn't work out how she had drawn the lines of gesso with such freedom and fluidity.

Then, to our delight, we found the answer in a book called Remembering Charles Rennie Mackintosh by Alistair Moffat. On page 48 he records a conversation he had with Agnes Blackie in 1985 in which she says that she saw Margaret MacDonald working on the panel at Hill House. She says ........."I remember I sat and watched her do it. She used a piping bag, like you would if you were icing a cake, and then stuck things onto the plaster. It was very beautiful".

That was it. We were off.

First we completed four panels, which were sponsored by Glasgow quantity surveyors Banks, Wood and Partners, and then two more that were sponsored by the late Patricia Thomson of Kemback in Fife. It was now 1991 and all work stopped on the house, which was soon boarded up and abandoned.

We didn't stop though, and between commissions of various kinds we would continue our researches.

Finally, in 1994 Glasgow City Council purchased the house and, after an interminable 18 months of negotiations gave us the go ahead to complete a further 18 panels...........which leaves just 6 more to do .....hopefully in the not too distant future.

The frieze will then be finished. The circle will be complete.

And now, equally briefly, I will try to describe the other side, the metaphysical side. While studying the technique of Margaret MacDonald's panels we began to wonder more and more about their meaning. What was their subject? What was it that she was trying to say?

Her first panel the May Queen, completed in 1900 is a depiction of a pre Christian ceremony. .....The crowning of the May Queen, heralding the coming of Spring, the awakening of the earth.

Her next panel was The Heart of the Rose. This portrays the birth of life within the centre of a rose.

Her third panel is entitled The White Rose and the Red Rose.

Her next two panels were the Dreaming Rose and the Awakened Rose. The figure is the flower.

Looking again at the perspective of the Dining Room, it was full of roses. They were in all the gesso panels, they were the subject of the stencil pattern, they were on the carpet, in vases on the table and side board, even the side board drawers seemed to have handles like rose petals, they were everywhere.

Quite obviously the rose had a very significant meaning for the Mackintoshes.

We looked hard and long at the figures depicted in the nine panels that we could see. They seemed to be dressed in medieval costumes.....in long flowing robes.

Dressing up in medieval costume was something that was very popular at that time. There were pageants performed in the school. Indeed in one of the very few portrait photographs we have of Margaret MacDonald she is dressed in a costume for a pageant.

There were similarities to the pre Raphelite paintings of Rossetti and Burne Jones. But what was the meaning? We knew that each of her panels was saying something. They weren't just decorative additions to interiors.

Also bear in mind that there was very much a vogue for the spiritual and mystical at the turn of the century, not just in painting, but in literature and music. The Mackintosh's favourite writer at that time was Maeterlinck, whose work is deeply spiritual and full of symbolism.

The more we looked at the design the more it seemed as though the figures were in some kind of rose garden, and that the single figures seemed to be making a progression towards the far wall, where we could see four panels of couples.

It was all a mystery. So, we decided to find out more about the meaning of the rose, and the connection with these figures that seemed to be floating in some kind of dream world outside time.

The image of the rose is universal and occurs everywhere in all ages.It parallels the lotus and the Golden Flower of the east, the lily of the Egyptians. The great sufi poet Rumi wrote "What do we care for the Empyrean and the skies, our journey is to the rose garden of union."

"The rose garden of union"....that was the key..... union....the union of opposites....the union of opposing forces....heaven and earth, birth and death, man and woman.....which when united achieve a return to the spiritual centre, to that original paradise for which the rose is a symbol......and the rose garden itself is a symbol of the mystic marriage.

So there is the theme.

A symbolic journey towards unity portrayed through the personification of the rose.

The rose which is androgynous, and so contains both male and female parts.

We have therefore personified the rose into its two opposite parts....the female is shown on the left hand side of the room and the male on the right...........culminating in the union of the two in the mystic marriage. These develop from the seed separately, dualistically towards the end wall where they unite and attain that primordial, non dualistic state.......... and attain the rose.

It is this pre cosmic state that will be the subject of the six remaining panels, on the walls on either side of the doorway. This will then complete the circle and the story.