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 Derngate, an introduction Essay

As an early nineteenth century, terraced Victorian house, 78 Derngate proved almost to be the end of Mackintosh’s career in interior design. It was the smallest of all the domestic commissions that Mackintosh ever undertook. This terraced, and extremely modest house sloped steeply from front to back and so there were three storeys at the front of the house but an additional storey on ground level at the back. The house was simply a stack of rooms on a steep slanting slope. This house was a small and limited space and so it was Mackintosh’s job to create a more spacious home for the Bassett-Lowkes. Mackintosh made architectural alterations that enhanced the amount space in the home. He substituted the existing sash window in the front room for a bay window instead. This gave the room a lighter feel in contrast to the dark colours Mackintosh used, which were mostly black and deep greys until a later date when Mackintosh returned to the home to lighten the front room.

At 78 Derngate Mackintosh achieved an entirely new direction in his interior design. He tried out new ideas with a huge amount of confidence and he decided to abandon the organic and vernacular motifs from his early work. At 78 Derngate he uses bold, geometric patterning and a modern handling of architectural form. Mackintosh also designed a small extension at the back of the house, which entailed balconies both open and closed, and horizontal openings shielded with awnings that proved to be a very modern approach to architectural design.

Image: front door of 781 (Fig.1)


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Mackintosh added extensions to the back of 78 Derngate both open and closed to add to the space inside the home. The extensions were a modern idea and gave the house another interesting feature.2

Mackintosh’s career and style before 78 Derngate:

Largely under-rated in his homeland during his lifetime, Charles Rennie Mackintosh was an architect, designer and painter who influenced European design, particularly in Austria and Germany, in the early 1900s. Recently he has achieved the recognition his work deserves, both in Scotland, and worldwide.

Mackintosh’s ethos was that each building should be a total work of art, with each carefully contrived detail contributing to the whole. Thus many of his designs are for interiors and furniture.

At the age of sixteen he was apprenticed to the firm of John Hutchison, and studied at Glasgow School of Art in the evenings. Whilst still attending the School of Art, Mackintosh won several prizes. In 1889 he joined Honeyman and Keppie as an architectural assistant. The following year Mackintosh won a travelling scholarship, and toured Italy, France and Belgium, before settling into his work.

Whilst at Glasgow School of Art he met Margaret Macdonald, herself a talented designer, who he would later marry. Together with her sister, Frances and Herbert McNair, they were known as “The Four”, and exhibited their designs in Glasgow, London, Vienna and Turin. The “Glasgow Style” became a recognised trend.

In 1893, Mackintosh designed his first major work, the Glasgow Herald building – The Lighthouse. This building has recently been turned into a museum and features some of his work. Over the next few years he designed several buildings including Glasgow School of Art and Queen’s Cross Church, now home to The Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society.

In 1900 Margaret Macdonald and Mackintosh were married and they continued to work together, both in Scotland and abroad. They found success in competitions in Germany and at exhibitions in Vienna and Turin. Together they designed the Warndorfer Music Salon in Vienna and the Exhibition Room in Moscow. Margaret’s contribution to Mackintosh’s work should never be underestimated.

The early 1900s were a very productive time for the Mackintoshes. During this period designs were produced for House for an Art Lover (built recently in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park), The Hill House in Helensburgh, Scotland Street School and the Willow Tea Rooms in Sauchiehall Street, both in Glasgow.

In 1904, Mackintosh became a partner in Honeyman and Keppie, and over the next nine years worked on various commissions throughout Central Scotland. His work took him to places such as Comrie, Lennoxtown, Bowling, Bridge of Allan, Kilmacolm and Dumgoyne.

In 1914 the Mackintoshes moved to Walberswick in Suffolk and then onto London in the following year. During the next nine years, he undertook commissions for fabrics, furniture and book covers. It was during this period, in 1916, that Mackintosh designed the interior of the house at 78 Derngate, Northampton.

From 1923-27, they lived in Port Vendres in the South of France, where Mackintosh concentrated on landscape painting. He returned to London for cancer treatment in 1927 and died the following year. Margaret died in 1933.

78 Derngate represents almost the end of Mackintosh’s career as an interior designer and illustrates the progression of his creativity from the curvilinear to the rectilinear – from his earlier Glasgow style work relating to the Art Nouveau period, to this strikingly innovative work reflecting European modernism.

This, in itself, is important and fortunate for scholars and laymen alike, and in WJ Bassett-Lowke Mackintosh found a patron who, although having very definite views and differing tastes, was sympathetic to his ideas. Thus he was able to leave a legacy that exemplified the work of his later years at a time when he had few commissions in London, although he was creating textile designs, which explored quite futuristic images. In Northampton, there are not only the dramatic remodelled interiors and facades of 78 Derngate but smaller commissions as well – The Drive for Basset-Lowke’s brother-in-law and Candida Cottage, his country retreat.

The commission of Mackintosh at 78 Derngate:

Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke (1877-1953) began as an apprentice in his father’s engineering firm in Kingswell Street, having initially spent 18 months in an architect’s office. He discovered he like working on scale models and fittings, which eventually became his business.

He said of his home, 78 Derngate “When I married in 1917, I had purchased one row of narrow Georgian houses in Derngate in the centre of Northampton. I wanted the house reconstructed and having heard of the Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh through a friend, I got in touch with him. Thus it was to Mackintosh’s ideas that I eventually made the reconstruction”.3

78 Derngate cost Bassett-Lowke �250, and was re-modelled in time for Bassett-Lowke and his bride, Florence Jane Jones, to be in residence by March 21st 1917. Later they asked Mackintosh to re-design the hall-lounge in 1919-20 from its predominantly ‘black’ walls to a grey finish. The remaining tour de force was through the guest bedroom decoration of bold ultramarine, black and white stripes. Of the guest bedroom Basset-Lowke said “In the bedroom the general effect is striking in the extreme and the furniture is of a severe design in light oak with narrow edging and black matone which is stencilled with ultramarine blue squares, affecting thus an ensemble with the other decoration arrangements”.4

When W.J. Bassett-Lowke commissioned Mackintosh to work at 78 Derngate, the Mackintoshes were living in London. Mackintosh went up to Northampton to reshape the Bassett-Lowke’s home. Mackintosh created an overall effect of “mystery and spaciousness” even though almost every surface, including the ceiling, was black. Although this effect could have been anticipated as gloomy and dingy, this was apparently not the case. The Bassett-Lowkes, however, did eventually decide to lighten the interior and so asked Mackintosh to come back to 78 Derngate. Mackintosh kept the bold furniture all in black, but he inserted brightly coloured shapes in early plastics. The Bassett-Lowkes were extremely fond of their new home. The dark colours all around the home were not a problem until later. The constant living in black rooms began to take its toll and so Mackintosh returned to 78 Derngate to create a lighter atmosphere in the home.

Mackintosh’s designs:

Mackintosh remodelled the Bassett-Lowke’s home in such a way that it was extraordinarily modern and ‘up-to-date’. Bassett-Lowke described 78 Derngate as “distinctly futurist in character”. The decorations in the hall represent the result of taking away the partition that previously existed at the entrance passage, and adding the whole of this space to the original front room on the ground floor. This also adds to the spaciousness of the hall. A projecting bay window, known as ‘The Willow’, with heating coils under the window-seat has also further extended the floor space. The general colour scheme is black, but would later have inserts of yellow and petunia.

When Mackintosh first designed the interior of the house, the floors at 78 Derngate were stained black and wax polished and partially covered with horsehair carpet, black centre with broad black and grey chequered border. The stair carpet was grey of the same material.

The walls and ceiling were painted a dull, velvety black, and all the woodwork and furniture were stained ebony black and polished. The walls of the room and stairway are divided into panels by bands of stencilled white chequer work, which return on the ceiling and terminate in square panels of stencilled chequer. A later addition to the room was that all around the room on the walls became decorated with a frieze of a rich, heraldic design of V-shaped leaves stencilled in rich golden yellow and outlined with silver grey and enriched at regular intervals by subsidiary V-shaped leaves stencilled in rich, bright colours- emerald green, vermilion, cobalt blue, and petunia purple. This, with the previous black background showing through, gives an effect that is plentiful yet quiet and peaceful.

Image: front room (Fig 3)5

All these colours in the front room are echoed throughout 78 Derngate in various fitments. The black and yellow are used in the smoker’s cabinet, the green and blue and petunia are in the silk shade of the standard lamp, and the petunia cushions of the window settee. The door screen, which is made of ebonised wood, is panelled in petunia tapestry with triangles in golden yellow at the top of each fold. The mantelpiece is of a special design, and at the side of the fireplace and in the stairway screen are semi-circular niches for flowers lined at the back with leaded silver lights enriched with squares of gold and yellow. The borrowed light for the kitchen stairs is leaded lights in mirror and yellow and these help to give effect by transmitting artificial light from the staircase. One particular feature is a pair of wardrobe cupboards for hats and coats with a clock in the centre with face of astronomical design. The doors of this wardrobe are latticed with mirror back.

In using the black on walls and ceilings the idea was to get a sense of mystery and spaciousness, and it has been claimed that this result has been achieved. The hall is artificially lit by a central circular candelabra, made of antique brass and decorated wood-work, with eight electric candles and one centre electric light. On the ceiling over this is a square decorative piece of special design, finished in white matone.

Mackintosh materially improved the dining room at the back of the house by adding an extension to it. The extension has added considerably to the size and appearance of the room. Another structural alteration has been made by building into recesses on each side of the fireplace cabinets, the upper part of which are glazed and are for the reception of silver and china, the lower part being fitted with drawers, and also special pivoted boxes to hold wood and coal. The artificial lighting consists of a large semi-direct centre light of a very novel design consisting of two hardwood rings joined together by spacing lengths of similar wood; the rim is lined with fabric, and an opal bowl forms the bottom, the whole being suspended by a series a short lengths of chain. The effect of this fitting when illuminated was most pleasant.

On each side of the mantelpiece can be seen a form of lantern cupboard with three faces divided into small squares and glazed with ground glass; these unique fittings contain concealed lights and when in use radiate a pleasing glow and a particularly attractive appearance. With the exception of these two projections the whole of the wall is finished flush across the fireplace with walnut woodwork, including a large mirror in the centre of the mantelpiece. The fireplace is finished in cream Dutch tiles throughout, with armour-bright grate. A deep dead-white frieze runs right round the walls, below which there are flat vertical strips of walnut, forming panels, which are papered with tapestry design.

The first floor bedroom is papered in light grey narrow-figured mauve edging. The carpet is mauve, and the furniture is all in grey sycamore of severe design, quartered and relieved by black inlay, twin bedsteads are also in same wood and finish. The dressing table and bedside pedestal cupboards use plate glass, which adds to the life of the furniture considerably. The lighting is a semi-direct electric light, and the general effect of the room, especially when the French doors are open, is delightfully cool and refreshing. Opposite this bedroom there is a bathroom, finished in white enamel and papered with grey mosaic paper. On the left hand of the pedestal basin is a drying cupboard, and the whole equipment of the room is most modern in character, including as it does the Kohler bath, all fittings nickel-plated, glass shelves etc. The floor of the bathroom and landing is covered with blue-grey Jaspe lino.

The guest bedroom faces south, and is situated immediately over the first floor bedroom, and from point of view of decoration is perhaps the most daring in the house. The general finish of the ceiling and walls in this room is white, and from the back of the twin-bedsteads a design of corresponding width in black and white vertical striped paper has been carried up to the ceiling, and thus over the beds in the form of a canopy, terminating with a transverse piece of the same design exactly above the foot of the bedsteads. The design is edged with ultramarine blue harness braid, fastened with black drawing pins. The curtains are made of black and white striped cotton material, also edged with the same braid, and decorated transversely at the bottom. The bedspreads are of black and white striped cotton silk, the centre ultramarine blue, and both the curtains and bedspreads have an addition in the shape of square patches of blue silk, edged with bright emerald green. The furniture is of simple design in light-waxed oak with narrow edging in black, on which is stencilled ultramarine blue squares, affecting thus an ensemble with the other arrangements.

Image: guest bedroom (Fig 4)6

Other designs of the Derngate period:

Mackintosh’s artwork changed dramatically shortly before and during his life in Northampton. He turned to painting bunches of cultivated flowers arranged in vases. He painted Anemones, Begonias, Peonies and White Roses in similar arrangements. Mackintosh loved the natural shape of the plant, although his private ideals were soon replaced with those demanded by public taste. Popular tastes were lying in the hands of artists that followed trends such as the Art Deco or the International Style. Mackintosh found himself in no position to go against the desires of the public and so he succumbed to this and began to paint in a way that would satisfy the majority. Mackintosh displayed traces of the Art deco ideals in some of his White Roses paintings. His backgrounds reflect the public’s tastes and expectations of modern artists.

Image: White Roses 1920 (Fig. 5)7

The earliest of Mackintosh’s Anemones and Begonias were painted around 1916, the same time that he began work at 78 Derngate. These paintings reflect Mackintosh’s concern for strongly coloured, formalised patterns. The images show the flowers arranged boldly in vases, they are usually placed on tables and placed in front of a realistic background such as a part of a room, painting or mirror. Mackintosh accepted the public’s liking of large-scale watercolours and also began to paint this way. In 1915, before Mackintosh underwent the remodelling of 78 Derngate, he created some fabric designs for Foxton and Sefton.

Mackintosh’s choice of flowers is such that he appreciates their depth, grandeur and structure. The tulip had been used a lot in Mackintosh’s furniture design and he also used the shape of the tulip in his fabric design. With these paintings, Mackintosh established himself as a fine watercolourist. He had a good eye for the shapes and forms of the flowers and soon rejected his earlier spontaneous approach to painting.

Image: Begonias 1916 (Fig.6)8

Mackintosh’s use of the flower image can be seen particularly at The Hill House, a building he remodelled between 1905 and 1910. Walter Blackie had seen the aesthetic that Mackintosh created at the Glasgow School of Art and was very impressed by it. The Hill House was Mackintosh’s largest and grandest project. The flower motif is predominantly present in the ‘summer end’ of the drawing room; this compromises a light-filled bay fitted with a window seat that overlooks the garden. The drawing room wall features stain glass panels, which echo the stencilled rose and trellis design. The room was originally lit up with four pendant fittings but Mrs Blackie later requested that they be removed.

Image: pendant fitting, Hill House (Fig.7)9

Mackintosh’s fascination of the form and shape of flowers can be seen in his work throughout his career. His approach was to involve the outside with the inside. He decided to bring the natural forms of the plant inside and develop their forms into the interiors that he worked on. At 78 Derngate Mackintosh created specific places in the front room where plants were to be set either side of the fireplace. The motif of the flower is not as apparent at 78 Derngate as it is in some of Mackintosh’s other interiors. However, there are details such as the niches either side of the fireplace that give an idea as to what Mackintosh was trying to create and how he sought to involve natural forms in his interiors.

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