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The Oak Room: Restoring a Mackintosh masterpiece

A jewel of a tearoom interior by Charles Rennie Mackintosh has now been restored, with Art Fund support, writes Rachel Mapplebeck.

In 1971 a small team of Charles Rennie Mackintosh enthusiasts rapidly dismantled his Ingram Street tearoom interior in Glasgow on the eve of the hotel developers moving in. They quickly but carefully numbered the 800 wooden components, and it was then packed away in the city council’s stores, not to see the light of day for almost 50 years.

Though out of vogue at the time, those people understood the huge importance of this interior. Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) is arguably Scotland’s most celebrated designer, architect and artist. He is known worldwide as the leading exponent of the ‘Glasgow style’ – the only response from Britain to the more fluid and florid international Art Nouveau style, but pared down and imbued with centuries of Scottish design heritage.

When designing the tearoom interior in 1907, Mackintosh was at the peak of his powers. Known as the Oak Room, it is the largest of the Ingram Street Tearooms built for the enterprising Miss Catherine Cranston (1849-1934). Alongside her Willow Tea Rooms on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street, they were the public’s prime experience of Mackintosh, whose other designs were for educational institutions, churches or private homes.

The Oak Room design develops the ideas that soon found fruition in his masterwork: the library of the Glasgow School of Art. Tragically, the library was destroyed by fire in 2014 and, at the time of writing, the building’s fate once again hangs in the balance after a second devastating blaze this June gutted it to the extent that any restoration would involve rebuilding virtually from scratch. Given this, and that 2018 is the 150th anniversary of Mackintosh’s birth, the restoration of the Oak Room is timely.

Bringing the Oak Room back to life

The conservation process started 14 years ago when a team led by Alison Brown, a curator at Glasgow Museums, began identifying and logging each element, conducting condition surveys, and exploring the potential for the Oak Room to be able to become an exhibit.

The panelling was horribly damaged, due to it having been painted around the 1950s. However, the paint did at least prove helpful to Charles Taylor, who oversaw the woodwork conservation – it gave him accurate positions for each of the panels. He could now piece the Oak Room back together at his Edinburgh workshop.

‘The only way to achieve this,’ says Taylor, ‘was on a softwood superstructure. It enabled careful consideration of the whole room… some of the pieces were lost, but miraculously few.’

Progressively the 13.5m-long Oak Room was then taken apart again and, following analysis, the careful removal of the paint could begin. The original marks, scratches and patination were revealed, as well as damage made by electricians and rats. A eureka moment came when, hidden under a single light switch, the original oiled wood finish was discovered which, following chemical analysis, was replicated.

Taylor, who worked on the project for five years, said, ‘It was a fantastic privilege being in a Mackintosh interior for so long – to have “the Oak Room experience” – it’s a very wonderful interior with sophisticated use of space, light and shadow. The whole Oak Room is a theatre set – a foil for the lighting scheme.’

"Like velvety purple jewels"

The lighting was where the expertise of Moira Malcolm from Rainbow Glass came in. Luckily, of the three different types of glass-light fittings used there were surviving examples of each. The first job was to make replacement lights for those lost, and they commissioned specialist glass blowers in Germany to recreate one of the two types of glass used in the scheme: a gold, pink and purple streaky glass. Malcolm said, ‘It was challenging for them to recreate another glass blower’s style, and with two colours, but it was a huge success.’

The original leaded glass windows which would have glazed the building were gone, but Malcolm did have photographs of the room. She says, ‘As the blue enamel opaque glass does not need natural light we deduced it was the pink, purple streaky glass that was used on the windows. A century ago it would have been the most opulent colour so only small amounts were used – they’re like velvety purple jewels in the dark oak.’

The Oak Room, now restored thanks to an Art Fund grant of £200,000 as well as support from the Scottish Government and National Lottery, promises to be one of the star attractions in the new V&A Dundee’s Scottish Design Galleries.

Brown says, ‘Visitors will walk into the interior and have a powerful experience of how Mackintosh treats space. He conducts you to look around in a very particular way by using repeated vertical lines to create an orchestrated rhythm. He embraces the potential of the electric light, using pink glass shades and lime-green blown-glass teardrops, while in the centre is the ‘glade’ where stylised oak trees seemingly support the room from floor to ceiling.’

Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Oak Room is at V&A Dundee, free to all

Find out more about recent conservation projects we've supported, and how you can help by donating to our current conservation appeal.

This feature was originally published in the autumn 2018 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

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