By 1914, Mackintosh’s professional fortunes were dwindling and life in Glasgow became unbearably oppressive. Following the completion of the Glasgow School of Art in 1909, Honeyman, Keppie & Mackintosh’s business received very little work, much like their competitors, as the city was grappling with a recession. Mackintosh resigned as partner of the firm in December 1913, supposedly with the intention of setting up his own company, yet sadly nothing came of this. Clearly requiring some rest and recuperation from this drastic turn of events, the Mackintoshes left Glasgow for a summer break to Walberswick in June 1914, but the uncertainty of the First World War and a rather unstable economic climate persuaded them to remain in the village for fifteen months.
Like a number of coastal villages across the UK, Walberswick became a hub of artistic creativity in the summer months. Bright blue skies, endless coastal cliffs and colourful fields as far as the horizon brought the likes of Philip Wilson Steer, E. A. Walton and Mary Newbery Sturrock to this charming fishing and boatyard community. Mary Newbery was the daughter of Frances Newbery, Headmaster of the Glasgow School of Art at the time Mackintosh designed its new premises. The two men had formed a very close friendship during their time in Glasgow. Mary was convalescing in Walberswick while the Mackintoshes were staying in the village, close to her family’s villa there. Every day they would venture over to her studio and it is thought that Mackintosh was encouraged by the Newberys to turn to painting during this time, in his search for solace and seclusion.
Over the next ten months or so, Mackintosh made over forty botanical watercolour studies using a variety of species: from wild plants such as willow catkins and kingcups to garden favourites fuchsias and petunia, as well as flowers from local fields and hedgerows such as sorrel and chicory. From 1901 Mackintosh had been sketching similar plants and flowers whilst on holiday within Britain, and further afield in Italy and Portugal. These earlier studies are more technical in composition; the background is almost completely abstract as alternating and overlapping perspectives of botanical cross-sections are illustrated. The focus of these sketches was analytical: investigating ways in which certain plant forms could be stylised to create abstract patterns on the page.
At Walberswick, the studies are decorative depictions, delicately drawn in a naturalistic manner. It is likely that Mackintosh worked with pressed specimens, perhaps picked on his walks to Sturrock’s studio, giving him an already flattened section to work from. In Ivy Seed, the plant is positioned off-centre as the coloured leaves pointing towards the cartouche draw the eye into the complex structure of the branch itself. Mackintosh was clearly meticulous in his approach: connected stems and foliage are interwoven and overlaid in a beautiful display; there is a careful balance of tension, and delicacy in the delineation of the leaves. The vibrancy of colour, subtly deployed across the page, breathes life into the work and helps capture the decorative beauty of his peaceful new environment.
The initials of Margaret Mackintosh appear frequently on many of these watercolours, and it was previously suggested that she contributed to the studies in some way. However, there is no stylistic evidence that correlates with Margaret’s own watercolour techniques. Mary Newbury Sturrock has stated that her initials merely indicate that she was there when the studies were made, thereby highlighting her constant presence in Charles’ life and art.
Mackintosh’s time spent studying the coastline and nature in and around Walberswick subsequently led to his arrest in 1915 when he was mistaken for a German spy. After a thorough search of their home led to discoveries of their artistic endeavours in Germany and Austria, Charles and Margaret were forced to leave the area with immediate effect. They eventually settled in London, where his deeply personal connections with nature formed the basis for further watercolours and some innovative textile commissions.
The spectacular series of Walberswick studies marks an interesting point in Mackintosh’s career. His intense personal and professional struggles prompted a search for solace in nature: these careful, naturalistic renderings of his surroundings are captivating in their simple beauty, evoking the serenity and contemplation he longed for.
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