History and Changing Fashion

I’m in Helensburgh this week.  It’s the town in which I spent my teenage years, and something about coming here always makes me think of the past, brushing up memories and reflecting on them through the prism of my subsequent experiences.

While there was the promise of some sunshine on Sunday morning, I walked to The Hill House, the property designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for the Blackie family at the turn of the 20th century.

It’s a tourist attraction now, administered by the National Trust for Scotland.  There are brown signs to it on the road from Glasgow, there’s a tarmac car park with lines to park between on land that used to be woodland, the street lights in the road outside were built to a Mackintosh design in 1990, and in the season there is a tea room and souvenir shop on site.

Mackintosh is fashionable; it probably started in the mid 1980s.  Between the Glasgow Garden Festival in 1988 and the year it was the European City of Culture in 1990, you couldn’t move for trinkets carrying the distinctive Mackintosh pink rose design or the uncomfortable straight, ladder-back black chairs.  Was that when his renaissance began?

The Hill House, Helensburgh

It was very different when I was at school.  I did my ‘Highers’, the Scottish school certificates in 1976. As part of my Geography exam I had to do a project; from a list of options I chose to do a land use survey of a square kilometre, because I thought it would afford me plenty of opportunity to write the blindingly obvious, without having to do too much work.

Helensburgh is a largely residential town, and in common with more famous cities, the west side of the town is regarded as more salubrious than the east and the higher up the hill you are, the larger the houses.

It would be a very dull land use survey if I picked a square in the middle of the town because then I’d have to invent activities in each of the houses, so I spent a little while studying a map and selected a area that covered the northernmost edge of the town encompassing the reservoirs, some grazing land, and pylons carrying the cables from Loch Sloy hydroelectricity generation plant.  I contacted the Electricity and Water Boards and received literature from which I ‘quoted’ extensively.

I was still short of words, however, so I took a walk around the streets within the square: huge gardens which I investigated by peering through hedges and over walls, and even larger houses the roofs of which peeped through the shielding trees and shrubbery.  Then, at the end of Kennedy Drive, there was a rather stark ugly house, covered in grey stucco with small mullioned windows.  It was different from all the other houses I could only glimpse, and it looked like it should be ‘something’, but I didn’t know what.

I had an appointment to meet Norman Glenn, a former Provost of the town and local historian, to hear stories of the history of the skating pond, built after a fatal accident at the reservoirs, so I asked him about the strange house I’d seen.

An architect ‘famous in his day’ had designed it.  He couldn’t remember the name, but the house was owned by the Architectural Institute of Scotland, so they’d be able to tell me.  So I wrote to them, and they gave me the name Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  That was all I needed.  A photograph, three sentences in my project essay, and then I forgot about it.

The Hill House gates, February

Awareness of him as a major architect, and that The Hill House is one of his major works dawned slowly.  First, only a couple of the rooms were open to visitors, and you had to imagine the furniture in place; now they have acquired some of the original pieces he designed for the house at huge expense.  In the early days of opening I could be the only one there marvelling at the brightness of the interior when from the outside the windows looked so mean and small; now there’s usually a queue.

The house hasn’t changed, just my appreciation of it.

What else will I change my opinion about when I understand it better?

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  1. margaret nickels

     /  February 23, 2011

    for all it is supposed to be very avant garde I have often thought it looks rather like a large council house !

    • Yes, the grey stucco doesn’t help any, does it? But it’s the interior which is the break through in design – all that light inside even though the exterior looks like it has no windows, and the avoidance of fuss and drapes when everything elsewhere was still covered in anti macassars and frills here the decoration is integral to the house.


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