The second pair of designers in our “Women Behind the Designs” mini-series are sisters Margaret and Frances MacDonald. Two of the famous “Glasgow Four,” these sisters are sometimes overshadowed by their husbands, but were incredible, influential modern designers in their own right.
Frances on the far left; Margaret on the far right; Margaret’s future husband, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, in the middle.
Early Hints of Modernism
The MacDonald sisters were born in Scotland at the end of the nineteenth century. They enrolled together at the prestigious Glasgow School of Art where their work was alternately described as “brilliant,” “too original,” “ravishing,” and “out of tune.” What a fabulous way to be described!
Frances and Margaret studied painting, enamel, metalwork, and other material arts. After they opened their own studio at the turn-of-the-century, their work was hard for contemporaries to categorize. They and their husbands, classmates Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Albert Herbert MacNair, experimented with strange, elongated forms, abstract topics like “time” or “wind,” and earned the nickname “The Spook School.”
In Glasgow, and soon after in Vienna in the company of the legendary Gustav Klimt, they began to develop a new, organic art form. The fluid, swooping forms of ghosts and clouds was true Scottish Art Nouveau, soon to be called simply, the Glasgow School. But the long, geometric shapes of their collaborative Hill House project and Mackintosh’s iconic rose, upon which Margaret MacDonald had significant influence, preview the repetitive harmony of Modern art in the middle of the century.
Courtesy of National Trust for Scotland
An Eccentric, Unique Woman’s Vision
While all Four worked as equals in their experimentation and collaboration, Frances was arguably the most controversial of the group. She challenged the boundaries of female representation and being a female artist. While Margaret collaborated on major projects with her husband, Frances and MacNair struggled to find a space for their work in contemporary society.
‘Tis a Long path Which Wanders to Desire. Frances MacDonald, 1909-15. Watercolor and pencil on vellum. Private Collection.
Forgotten Sisters, Lasting Art
Frances died tragically at 45. Upon her death, MacNair destroyed almost all her work. Margaret, perhaps as tragically, faded into obscurity. Her husband received all the credit until quite recently.
Today, the MacDonald sisters represent a moment of profound, exciting experimentation by women in the arts at the dawn of Modernism. They pushed the limits of Art Nouveau, they refused to be influenced by other artists, and they worked together to perfect a woman-centric, woman-imagined new art.
The flowing lines of their “spooks,” allegories, flowers, and landscapes foreshadow the same elemental modern forms that we capture in the Graymoor Lane Juniper Collection. They set us on the path towards a Modern interest in organic forms that hang gracefully and naturally. The MacDonalds inspire us to forge our own path as female designers with a unique and special art to share.
Spring. Frances MacDonald. 1900-1905.