Glasgow is a wonderful city. I’m biased, as my seven Scottish cousins were born there. I love Scotland. Edinburgh is beautiful, and we visit it often; but Glasgow has that combination of grit and grace that speaks of its historic struggles, and the triumph of the artistic spirit over the industrial landscape.
One of Glasgow’s most famous sons is the architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who very much epitomised the spirit of the age as the 19th century came to an end. That spirit of art rising from the ashes of industry was the driving force behind an artistic movement known as Art Nouveau.
Mackintosh was one of those polymaths who could do anything. He was an architect, designer, artist and, some would say, philosopher. His works ranged from iconic chairs to buildings, to… tea rooms.
In Glasgow, what are now known as the ‘Willow Tea Rooms’ are one of Mackintosh’s most famous legacies. There were four of them, and they provided Glasgow’s hard- working folk with a touch of class, transporting them from girders to a world of curves, colours and strange yet practical fantasy. Tea-rooms were, traditionally, the province of the middle-classes, but I could always imagine a working-class mum and dad dressing up their family after church on Sunday and taking them out for a high tea in the city centre.
The grandest of the Willow Tearooms, at 217 Sauchiehall Street, has recently been restored. Created by Mackintosh in the early years of the 20th century, it originally opened its doors in October 1903. It was the third in the Willow series of tea rooms commissioned by Catherine Cranston (known as ‘Miss’ Cranston), a wealthy hotelier and a leading figure in the Scottish Temperance movement. Her photograph, taken from Wikipedia, is below. (Attribution)
For the Sauchiehall Street (pronounced suck-e-hall) Willow Tea Room, Miss Cranston gave Mackintosh control of its design and construction – both outside and inside. It is therefore a rare example of the full spectrum of the architect’s talents.
As a result, the building reflected Mackintosh’s skill at its height, and, today, gives us a living example of turn of the century sophistication and art. The original building, prior to becoming the tea room, had been an 1860s tenement. One look at both the interior and the exterior shows the depths of the architect’s vision.
Tea drinking was seen as an alternative to the male-only pub and the city was keen to encourage it. By the 1880s, tea had become affordable and a new wave of tea rooms was sweeping Britain. Miss Cranston was eager to participate. She created an aspiring environment where there were separate rooms for women, men, and mixed groups. In that way, everyone was welcome – and no one needed to feel threatened. Very soon, everyone wanted to see and be seen in one of the Willows.
Art Nouveau developed first in Britain, then spread across mainland Europe. It had its origins in the Arts and Crafts movement, but also was heavily influenced – especially in the Glasgow School – by the influx of Japanese minimal forms in art. Japan had recently opened its doors to foreign trade in its art, and, because of engineering and shipbuilding links, Glasgow was one of the first cities to benefit.
The Arts and Crafts movement developed from the desire to bring beauty – and the skills of the individual craftsman – back into the lives of ordinary people. The middle classes were a growing economic force, and they were the ‘ordinary people’. The working classes were unlikely to be able to afford what it offered, but I like to think that the tea room offered a chance, occasionally, to bridge that gap. The inspiration of youngsters was one of Mackintosh’s passion, possibly because he and his wife, Margaret Macdonald, had no children of their own…
The Sauchiehall Street Willow Tea Rooms has an interesting history. Catherine Cranston was happily married, though also childless. When her husband died in 1917, she felt heavy with grief and unable to continue in her public life. She sold off her tea rooms and her other businesses. When she died in 1934, she left two-thirds of the money in her will to the poor of Glasgow.
Mackintosh carried out his last work for Catherine in 1917 with the extension of the Willow Tea Rooms into the basement of the building next door; to create what was known as the ‘Dug Out’. Later generations observed that the style of this extension (below) was very close to that adopted, later, by the Art Deco movement. (Picture Wikkiepdia)
The Sauchihalle Street Willow Tea Rooms building closed in 1928. The furniture was sold off and the building was converted for use by Daly’s department store. Daly’s moved to new premises in 1978 and various attempts were made to restore the surviving parts of the original interior. The building was and is greatly loved by the people of Glasgow, and, in 2014 the Willow Tea Rooms Trust was established as a charity, with the aim of acquiring Miss Cranston’s foremost Tea Rooms in Suchiehall Street and restoring it to its former glory as a working restaurant.
The other Willow Tea Rooms in the city, though at least partly designed by Mackintosh, are a separate commercial undertaking, and not part of this charitable trust.
Every attempt has been made to restore the working atmosphere of the original tea rooms, including the training and uniforms of the friendly staff. We had tea and cakes during our visit to Glasgow and can vouch for the excellent food and service.
If you’re in the city, pay it a visit. It’s a wonderful tribute to both Miss Cranston and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
The latter had a less than happy end to his life. Disillusioned with the world of architecture, the couple had moved to Port-Vendres, a Mediterranean coastal town in southern France with a warm climate that was a cheaper place to live for the now poorer couple.
Mackintosh and his wife were content to paint landscapes and flowers, though he continued to explore the relationship between industry and the landscape. Sadly, they had to return to London in 1928 when the architect was diagnosed with cancer of the throat and tongue. He died on the 10 December, 1928. He was sixty years old.
The inner life of the man lives on in his works – and Miss Cranston’s Tea Room is one of the best. If you’re visiting Glasgow, go to Sauchiehall Street and take some tea… and possible a cake… or two.
In case anyone wonders, I’m not on commission; I just love Art Nouveau…and that cake!
Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find the reality and essence of their existence via home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised.
His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.
You’ll find friends, poetry, literature and photography there…and some great guest posts on related topics.