Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh: ‘The White Rose and the Red Rose’

A close up image showing the detail of a cream coloured gesso panel. Two female figures can be seen in the centre of the image, the one on the left dressed in a green garment, the one on the right in pink. The panel is decorated with different coloured glass beads and shells.

Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh’s beautiful gesso panel ‘The White Rose and the Red Rose’ is back on show at the Hunterian Art Gallery after a long absence. Now seems a good time to take a closer look at the history of this masterpiece of the Glasgow Style.

Joseph Sharples, Curator of Mackintosh and Applied Art and Design Collection at The Hunterian, tells us more about this much-loved artwork.

An art gallery, with two small paintings on the wall in the background, and a large gesso panel artwork by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh on the wall to the right in the foreground of the image.
‘The White Rose and the Red Rose’ is back on display in The Hunterian Art Gallery after a lengthy absence.

Until a few years ago, this fragile, delicate work was displayed in the Studio-Drawing Room of the Mackintosh House, the Hunterian’s reconstruction of the last Glasgow home of Macdonald and her husband, the architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It was temporarily removed for safekeeping during building work in 2015.

Since then, it has been cleaned and conserved. It was given a specially designed frame with low-reflective glazing, to protect its vulnerable surface. Hanging in the Art Gallery, it can now be seen in a fresh context. It sits alongside works by other women makers and other Scottish artists with ties to continental Europe.

The panel shows two female figures in mysterious, dream-like communion. Their faces emerge from a cloud of billowing drapery scattered with roses, red and white. It’s a ravishing image, but did the artist intend it to be more than just beautiful? Was it meant to tell a story or convey a specific meaning? Sadly, it’s impossible to say. There’s no record of Macdonald’s intentions, and the title of the work offers no clues.

Gesso work by Margaret Macdonald

Gesso (pronounced jesso) is a kind of soft, semi-liquid plaster made from chalk, animal glue and white pigment. It’s a material that lends itself to modelling in low relief. Macdonald manipulated it with great skill to produce a range of different textures and effects. In The White Rose and the Red Rose, she applied it over a base-layer of burlap. This is a type of rough canvas, and Macdonald’s technique allowed the coarse weave of the fabric to show through in places.

Elsewhere, the strokes of the brush she used to spread the liquid gesso are clearly visible. For the faces of the two figures, however, she gave it a finish of porcelain smoothness. The garments that envelope the figures are suggested by sinuous, trailing lines of gesso. It has been piped onto the surface of the panel like icing on a cake. The whole design is subtly coloured with touches of pink and green, enriched with glass beads and iridescent slivers of mother of pearl.

Macdonald’s work in gesso took various forms. She produced small panels to decorate items of furniture designed by her husband. Much larger ones also became focal points for entire rooms.

The Turin Exhibition, 1902

A different version of The White Rose and the Red Rose formed part of a remarkable room-setting that the Mackintoshes designed for the Scottish Section of the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art held in Turin between 10 May and 11 November 1902.

The room was called the Rose Boudoir because stylised roses (a favourite motif of Glasgow designers around 1900) were its unifying theme. They were stencilled onto the upholstery of the chairs, inlaid into the surface of the table, and blossoming on the walls in panels of stained glass and beaten metal. Facing each other from opposite ends of the room were a pair of gesso panels: The Heart of the Rose, and The White Rose and the Red Rose.

The Heart of the Rose is similar in composition to The White Rose and the Red Rose. Again, it features two female figures cocooned in voluminous gowns that conceal their bodies. However, here one of the women holds a baby enfolded in the petals of a giant rose.

As with The White Rose and the Red Rose, the meaning of the image is a mystery. Could it be an allusion to the recent birth of a son to Macdonald’s younger sister Frances?  Again, we don’t know.

Buying and selling

Most of the works shown in Turin were for sale. There’s even a list in Mackintosh’s handwriting giving the price of each piece. The White Rose and the Red Rose is number 12 on the list, priced at £36 15s. Beside it, Mackintosh has added a note which reads “Duplicates only”. The same note also appears beside The Heart of the Rose, number 27 on the list. The implication is that Macdonald was only willing to sell copies of the panels, not the originals.

A list of artworks for sale written by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh.
Details of price list for items in the Rose Boudoir (Glasgow School of Art, GSAA/EPH/8).
A list of artworks for sale written by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh.
Details of price list for items in the Rose Boudoir (Glasgow School of Art, GSAA/EPH/8).

After the exhibition closed, the Turin panels were sent to Vienna. They came to a certain Herr Schmidt, who was probably an agent of the Viennese collector Fritz Waerndorfer.

A list of artworks sent from Turin to Vienna.
List of works sent from Turin to Vienna (Glasgow School of Art, GSAA/EPH/8).

Waerndorfer is known to have been in Turin with the Mackintoshes just before the exhibition opened. Photographs of the two panels were published “By permission of Fritz Waerndorfer” in the Studio magazine in July 1902.

A page from 'The Studio Magazine' published in July 1902. It describes artworks by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh displayed at the Turin Exhibition.
The Studio, July 1902 (The Hunterian).

If the Turin panels had already been sold to Waerndorfer before the exhibition opened, Macdonald’s “Duplicates only” stipulation makes perfect sense. However, it appears that the panels shown in Turin and sold to Waerndorfer were themselves duplicates, and the originals on which they were based had never left Glasgow.

One of these originals was the version of The Heart of the Rose made for R. Wylie Hill of 3 Lilybank Terrace, which is now in the collection of the Glasgow School of Art. The other was the version of The White Rose and the Red Rose now in the Hunterian.

Making duplicates

In time, Waerndorfer’s two panels found their way to America and were sold at auction in New York in 1991. Comparing a photograph of the New York version of The White Rose and the Red Rose with the Hunterian version, it can be seen that here and there the random pattern of the burlap on both panels matches exactly. This can’t be a coincidence. The only possible explanation is that a mould was taken from the first panel and used to make the second.

The mould would probably have been made of gelatine. This is flexible and can be pulled away from intricate areas of undercutting. Doing so would limit damage to originals, but exactly how Macdonald used the mould to make the duplicate isn’t clear. It seems likely that she made the mould before she had added all the surface details to the original panel. She probably added extra details to the cast after removing it from the mould, so there are many small variations between the two panels.

Some of these variations can be seen from photographs, but it would be fascinating to examine both versions of The White Rose and the Red Rose side by side properly. This would allow us to see how they differ, and to gain a better understanding of Macdonald’s technique.

A cream coloured gesso panel decorated with touches of pink and green and enriched with glass beads and slivers of mother of pearl. Two female figures can be seen in the centre of the image, the one on the left dressed in a green garment, the one on the right in pink.A cream coloured gesso panel decorated with touches of pink and green and enriched with glass beads and slivers of mother of pearl. Two female figures can be seen in the centre of the image, the one on the left dressed in a green garment, the one on the right in pink.
Move the slider to the right to view Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, ‘The White Rose and the Red Rose’ (The Hunterian, GLAHA:41259). Move the slider to the left to view ‘The White Rose and the Red Rose’: version owned by Fritz Waerndorfer, sold in 1991 (Courtesy of Sotheby’s, New York).

From Glasgow to Chelsea

Retained in Glasgow in 1902, the Hunterian’s version of The White Rose and the Red Rose was presumably displayed in the Mackintoshes’ flat at 120 Mains Street. In 1906, the couple moved from Mains Street to 6 Florentine Terrace (the house whose interiors are now reassembled in the Hunterian Art Gallery as the Mackintosh House).

The panel seems to have moved with them. There is a design by Mackintosh for built-in bookshelves at the new house, which includes space for a “plaster panel” of the right dimensions directly above the drawing room fireplace.

Image of a sketch design for a fireplace and a set of bookshelves.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh, design for bookshelves and fireplace at 6 Florentine Terrace, 1906 (The Hunterian, GLAHA 41838).

This is probably where the Mackintoshes intended to install The White Rose and the Red Rose. Since there are no contemporary photographs or detailed descriptions of the interior of 6 Florentine Terrace, we cannot be absolutely certain that the intention was carried out.

By 1914, Mackintosh’s architectural career in Glasgow had come to an end. He and Macdonald then left the city for good. They settled in London the following year, in Chelsea, and at some point the gesso panel followed them there.

They spent the years from 1923 to 1928 in the south of France, but kept a foothold in Chelsea. It was there that Macdonald died, a widow, in 1933, the gesso panel still among her possessions.

Her loyal friend William Davidson, who helped with the sad task of sorting out her belongings after her death, described the panel as hanging “above the fireplace at 10 Chelsea Manor Studios”.

In his correspondence with the removal firm when the studio was being cleared, Davidson stressed the need to treat it with special care, “as the least bit of jolting or knocking against any hard substance, would almost certainly chip it, or might crack or damage it”.

The Mackintosh Memorial Exhibition, 1933

Thanks to his careful supervision, the panel was brought safely to Glasgow. It was included in the Mackintosh Memorial Exhibition that Davidson co-organised at the Maclellan Galleries in Sauchiehall Street later that year.

A black and white photograph of a wall displaying several artworks by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh as part of a Mackintosh Memorial exhibition.
Photograph of the Mackintosh Memorial Exhibition by Annan, 1933 (The Hunterian, GLAHA:52461, © Annan).

Although he recognised straight away the artistic importance of the panel, Davidson was unaware of its history. He didn’t know the title under which it had been exhibited in Turin thirty-one years earlier, so he wrote for guidance to another of the Mackintoshes’ friends, Major Desmond Chapman-Huston.

Unfortunately, Chapman-Huston mistook the work in question. He gave Davidson the wrong title, Dreamers in the Moon, which was duly printed in the exhibition catalogue. It carried this misleading tag for the next fifty years.

The Memorial Exhibition was an important posthumous showcase for the Mackintoshes. It made them known again in the city they had left almost twenty years before, and it helped lay the foundation for their growing reputations in the later 20th century.

The critic Morton Shand objected to the inclusion of Macdonald’s work alongside her husband’s. In his view, Mackintosh was an innovator whose work looked forward to the Modernism of the 1930s, while Macdonald belonged firmly in the outdated Art Nouveau world of the 1890s. But friends who had known the couple personally recognised their work as complementary and were glad to see them celebrated as partners in art as well as life.

Later exhibitions

After the exhibition, The White Rose and the Red Rose seems to have passed to the artist’s brother, the Glasgow solicitor Charles Macdonald. By 1968 it was in Southsea, Hampshire, in the possession of Charles Macdonald’s niece, Miss Maureen Jubb, who lent it to the important exhibition held that year at the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh to mark the centenary of Mackintosh’s birth.

The artwork appeared at two exhibitions in Glasgow in 1983 . The first of these was a recreation by the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society of the 1933 Memorial Exhibition. The second (where, at long last, the panel was displayed with its correct title) was a pioneering exhibition of Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh’s work organised by Pamela Robertson at the Hunterian.

For the first time, the Hunterian show gave a complete overview of Macdonald’s work, presenting her as an artist whose significance wasn’t dependent on her more famous husband and who was worthy of attention in her own right.

A black and white image of an art gallery exhibition.
Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, 1864-1933, exhibition at the Hunterian Art Gallery, 1983-4 (The Hunterian).

Margaret Macdonald: Back in Glasgow

And so, we come to the final stop in the roundabout journey of this much-travelled work of art.

Acknowledging its exceptional importance, Miss Jubb generously decided to bequeath it to the Hunterian. It joined a group of important works by Macdonald’s sister Frances and Frances’s husband James Herbert McNair. Finally, in 1995, The White Rose and the Red Rose had returned permanently to Glasgow.

At the Hunterian, it has joined drawings, watercolours, metalwork, textile designs and graphics by Macdonald. As well as these, personal letters and other archival material are also present.

Together, these make up what is probably the largest and most representative collection anywhere of work by this outstanding artist.

The White Rose and the Red Rose by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh is back on display at The Hunterian Art Gallery. This comes as part of the recent reframing of our collections. Plan your visit through The Hunterian website!

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