Roger Billcliffe, a world renowned expert on Mackintosh and the Glasgow School, writes about The Taffner Collection.
There have been a couple of collections of work by Mackintosh and The Four on the market in recent years, the last being the 2002 sale of a major collection of Mackintosh’s furniture and watercolours and the largest being the sale of Thomas Howarth’s collection in 1994. At that sale Donald and Eleanor Taffner bought wisely – and generously, purchasing at the sale the washstand for Mr Blackie’s dressing room at The Hill House that they later donated to the National Trust for Scotland. They had been collecting work by Mackintosh and his Glasgow contemporaries since the mid-1980s when they were introduced to the then Director of Glasgow School of Art, Tony Jones. He nurtured in them an interest in Glasgow and its art school, and which they acknowledged with the creation of the Taffner Mackintosh Curatorship at GSA, their support of the 1996 Mackintosh exhibition, particularly its tour of the USA, and by providing funding to allow Mackintosh’s White Room from the Ingram Street Tea Rooms (restored for the 1996 exhibition) to be shown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
As collectors the Taffners were blessed with a good eye and a decisive attitude. They took advice and made sure that each addition to their collection complemented the whole and brought something new to it. They rarely prevaricated over acquisitions and had great confidence in each other’s taste. Once they set their mind on something it was a rare occasion when they let it go elsewhere. Mackintosh was the core of their collection and they bought well and selectively – at the Howarth sale they could have indulged themselves easily but their eye and self-restraint ensured that they only chose pieces that would fit with their growing collection. When, or after, the Taffners left their spacious Upper East Side house in New York for an 1822 wooden town house in Greenwich Village, they sold some of their larger works of art and furniture. This left a concentration on works on paper, including many of the masterpieces of The Four and their Glasgow contemporaries such as Annie French and Jessie King.
Mackintosh is represented at almost every stage of his career, from the School of Art Club Diploma of Honour (1894/5) to the late watercolour, Bouleternère, from his period in France. Their choice of flower drawings was typical, eschewing the more finished studies for less well-known examples that concentrate on line and composition, with Tacsonia being a particularly fine example. Other ‘botanical’ works illustrate their eye for the unusual – At the Edge of the Wood and Winter Rose are untypical watercolours that extend our knowledge and appreciation of the artist, and both are unique in his oeuvre. These flower studies prepared the way for Mackintosh’s move towards more naturalistic paintings of cut flowers, made between 1915 and 1922 and sent to various exhibitions, at home and abroad, in an attempt to create a new career and new source of income – as an artist. White Tulips and Yellow Tulips are at opposite ends of the spectrum of these flower paintings, the former being perhaps early in the sequence and most straightforward while the latter is unique in its depiction of the interior of Mackintosh’s Chelsea studio. Bouleternère represents the final phase of his career, with one of the finest of his studies of the villages of the Pyrenées-Orientales, painted about 1925-27.
Frances Macdonald is particularly well represented in the collection with three major watercolours from 1898 and one of her later melancholic studies. Girl with Blue Butterflies is perhaps the largest of all of the symbolist watercolours of the 1890s by Frances and her sister, Margaret, and is certainly larger than any similar watercolour by Mackintosh. The Frog Prince is one of her most accomplished and complex watercolours from any period of her life, choosing a rather dark episode from the well-known fairy tale. The Rose Child explores themes which appear regularly in Frances’s work, and that of her future husband, Herbert MacNair, who is represented by his earliest known watercolour, The Lovers of 1893.
Beyond the Glasgow Style, Don and Eleanor, had an eye for the Scottish Colourists and the Glasgow Boys, rounding off their purchases with a painting that united Scottish art with their own world of the American entertainment business. In 1936 John Lavery, one of the Glasgow Boys who had become a pillar of the artistic, and social, establishment, set off for Hollywood to revitalise his career (at the age of eighty) by painting movie sets and portraits of the stars. It did not prove to be a successful venture but out of it came one iconic painting of the artist meeting the child star, Shirley Temple.
Quality and individuality are at the heart of the works that the Taffners sought out. This is a collection that also reflects the character and values of its makers as well as the artists it contains. Don and Eleanor Taffner enjoyed putting this collection together; they enjoyed their continuing association with Scotland, with Glasgow and with the Glasgow School of Art. “It’s an extraordinary collection put together over many years by my parents,” comments their son Donald Taffner Jr., “My sister Karen and I hope that the future owners of these works will get as much pleasure from them as our parents certainly did.”
The Taffner Collection was sold by Lyon & Turnbull, at their Edinburgh salerooms, in September 2012.