1. Column index

Japan for Mackintosh 2012.07.25

It is widely known that Japanese culture such as Ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock paint) had a great impact on impressionist artists. However, I would say it had a great impact on modern European architects as well.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) was a leading architect who lived in an important transition period between Art Nouveau and Art Deco that paved the way for Modernism. The style of his interior design and decorations shows that he was influenced by Japanese culture.
The esthetic movement, which started around 1860s or 1870s, has brought Japanese culture to Europe. It was eventually passed down to new generation, including Mackintosh in 1900s. Mackintosh understood and admired E.W. Godwin and J.M. Whistler interpretation of Japanese culture and was obviously influenced by them directly and indirectly.

England and the Esthetic Movement

After the great exhibition in London in 1862, Japan attracted attention of European artists and influenced them greatly. Japanese products were sold even in general market.
Arthur Lasenby Liberty who was the founder of Liberty & Co, on Regent Street in London, also a manager of the Oriental Warehouse, purchased Japanese products and gained a large amount of profit after the great exhibition in 1862. He soon gained important clients such as Rossetti, Albert Moore, and Whistler. Later he became independent and employed a Japanese boy in order to import Japanese products.
In Japan, under the enforcement of the decree abolishing the wearing of swords in 1867, sword-smiths and chasers have lost many customers. Consequently, they went looking for potential customers in European market. Thus, export of industrial arts such as teapots became especially popular (1). This eventually caused the reaction that resulted in the Aesthetic Movement.
In 1887, the Liberties paid a visit to Japan and stayed there for approximately three months. It is said that Alfred East, the painter and Charles Holme, the founder of “The Studio” art magazine accompanied them. Mrs. Liberty later published a photo book called “Japan, a pictorial record” in 1910.
Architect Godwin built his own house adorned with Ukiyo-e in 1862. In 1877, he designed Whistler’s house, also known as “the White House”, adorned with Japanese paintings. Its outward appearance was not of traditional Japanese style but it was a simple, white, and humble house. In the same year, Godwin released a series of Anglo-Japanese furniture for William Watt, which was a reproduction of traditional Japanese furniture painted in black. In the following year, he designed the Butterfly Cabinet to which Whistler added Japanese style decorations.
The Peacock room was designed by Thomas Jeckyll for F. R. Leyland in 1877. Whistler painted mural painting on its wall in Japanese style. It is considered a masterpiece of aesthetic movement architecture, which was a mixture of Gothic revival and Japanese design. Their interpretation was rather faithful to the original. Therefore, it is clear that they were influenced by Japanese design. Later in 1884, Godwin was appointed as a director and designer of costume department at Liberty & Co.

Glasgow and Japan

The relationship between Glasgow and Japan began when a group of diplomatic representatives called Iwakura Mission, including Hirobumi Ito who later became the first Prime Minister of Japan, visited Glasgow to see the shipyards and machine factories in 1872. From early on, they have imported battleships, commercial ships and steam locomotives. Perhaps they saw Glasgow as the ideal city since Japan was aiming to become an industrial country in the future. At that time, Glasgow was the second largest city in UK and also the center of technological innovation. The city became very rich thanks to processing trade. Every day and night, technologies for electricity, building materials and such continued to evolve. Population and the city center continued to swell. Japan has sent many students to UK between late Edo period (1603-1867) and early Meiji period (1868-1912) in order to let them learn the highly advanced technology. For example, Yozo Yamao was one of the students who came to Glasgow to learn shipbuilding from 1866. Upon his return to Japan in 1968, he invited Henry Dyer (BSc.) who was a pupil of Prof. W. J. M. Rankine in civil and mechanical engineering at the University of Glasgow, as the principal of a newly established educational institution called Kogakuryo (Imperial College of Engineering), which was the predecessor of Faculty of Engineering at the University of Tokyo (2).
Japan participated in the Glasgow international exhibition in 1901. The Japan pavilion was located near the main hall (3). It did not look Japanese on the outside, but it had a modern look similar to the Whistler’s White House. Some of the industrial arts shown at the exhibition appeared in “The Studio” art magazine. A few of them are still preserved at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum today. Mackintosh designed an exhibition stand, and also participated in the competition for the major exhibition hall, where he made a radical proposition. Could he have visited the Japan pavilion and seen those industrial arts?
There were also many artists who came to visit Japan. Glasgow born aesthete designer Christopher Dresser stayed in Japan from February 1876 to April 1877 to collect industrial art. The Japanese industrial art preserved at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum today is said to be part of his collection. His son Luis was in trading business. He moved to Japan and later was naturalized as a Japanese citizen. Christopher Dresser gave a lecture on Japanese art at an art gallery in Glasgow in 1882. Liberty became the investor for Art Furnishers' Alliance established by Dresser.
Alexander Reid (1853-1928) was an art dealer who opened an art gallery named “La Sociète des Beaux-Arts” in 1889. He introduced some superior impressionist artists to Glasgow (4). He was a friend of Vincent van Gogh. They even shared lodgings and van Gogh painted a portrait of Alexander Reid in 1887.
George Henry (1858-1943) and E.A. Hornel (1864-1933), both graduates of Glasgow School of Art, went on a trip funded by Reid to Japan from 1893 to 1894. Upon their return, they held a lecture and exhibition about the paintings produced as a result of their visit to Japan at the Art Club. The Art Club had just been renovated by Mackintosh in 1893 and had become an important social space for artists in Glasgow.
Hornel was a good friend of John Keppie who was a partner of Mackintosh. They were also colleagues at the Glasgow School of Art. Mackintosh must have attended this exhibition and lecture. There is a portrait photograph of Hornel with Ukiyo-e on the back wall, just like the self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh. Apparently, decorating rooms with Ukiyo-e was popular among architects and artists at that time. A considerable number of examples and publications of such cultural influence can be found in UK alone. It may safely be said that Europe was significantly influenced by Japanese culture around that time, in the similar way Japan was influenced by western culture during the Meiji Restoration. There were many architects in UK besides Mackintosh, whose works have been clearly influenced by Japanese culture.

Mackintosh and Japan

One could best understand the relationship between Mackintosh and Japan from the interior design of the120 Mains Street flat completed in 1900. This house was designed for Mackintosh himself and his wife Margaret McDonald (1864-1933) who was also the most influential member of “The Four”. The building was originally built in Victorian style. They have made a unique renovation inside. Their style was different from their former works, because they were trying to part with the Art Nouveau movement at that time. As a matter of fact, they were already recognized as Avant Garde artists in Europe and were invited for an exhibition at the Vienna Secession in the same year. The interior design of their house appeared in “The Studio” magazine (6). The influence of Japanese architecture can be observed in the photographs especially around the fireplace where they put a lot of emphasis on its design. Above the fireplace is the Japanese woodblock print put in white square frame, next to which Japanese style teacup was placed. There was also Ukiyo-e hanging on the wall and Ikebana flower arrangement in the same room. Moreover, walls were painted in white and pilasters and the beams were projecting from walls in a similar way as Japanese style rooms. The style of furniture was different from the Victorian style with thick carved cabriole legs. It was rather similar to the works of Godwin that were composed of thin planes and sticks. It had openwork in the motif of family crest, which reminds one of traditional Japanese furniture and equipments.
They moved out of this house to live in a terrace house on South Park Avenue in 1906, but they also relocated the fireplace and the furniture to the new house. They also designed non-penetrating tie beams round the two connecting rooms, which is also quite Japanesque. The terrace house was demolished later, but the original fireplace, furniture and parts of interior have been preserved in Hunterian Art Gallery at the Glasgow School of Art, where some of his Japanese style furniture have also been reproduced and preserved.
Even before the 120 Mains Street flat, Mackintosh and Margaret was obviously interested in Japanese design. Mackintosh had Ukiyo-e on the wall of his bedroom above the fireplace. He even had art print of a lady in Kimono on the wall. Margaret had Uchiwa (Japanese style round fan) in her living room when she was living in Dumbarton Castle. Mackintosh often drew a picture of a woman in “Kimono” himself. Moreover, the cabinet Mackintosh designed for children of Windyhill was in the shape of an unfolded Kimono. He designed more cabinets in the same shape afterwards. The symbolic disk-like ornaments on the steel fence at the main entrance of the Glasgow School of Art look like the hand-guard of a Japanese sword as well as family crest. Round or square shaped objects that often appear in the design of Mackintosh’s evoke the image of Japanese family crest. Geometric shapes are used to represent nature such as flower, leaf, butterfly and bird. They are commonly used in Architecture, equipments, clothes, and so on.
This type of ornaments can also be found in the design of fireplace of Thomas Jeckyll, wallpaper of Godwin and the artist’s signature of Whistler. In the case of Mackintosh, he did not simply reproduce the Japanese motif like other aesthetists would have done. He used more abstract method to interpret it in his own unique way.
It is certain that Japan for Mackintosh was a great source of design inspiration. In his later years, though, its influence seems to have waned. However, Japan has played an important role in triggering ideas of modernism, when he attracted most attention in 1900s.

(1) Victor Arwas, The Liberty, 1983, Academy Editions, pp17-23
(2) Hiroyuki Suzuki “From Glasgow to Japan”, 1968, C. R. Mackintosh
(3) On the official guidebook of Glasgow international exhibition map, Japan pavilion can be found. At the Japan pavilion, approximately a hundred goods such as ceramics, metal-works, inlaying, woodworks, furniture, textiles, adornments, as well as Sushi and soy source were exhibited.
(4) Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of the Art Dealer Alexander Reid, 1886/7(painted when Reid came to work at his brother Theo’s gallery), oil painting, collection of Glasgow Museum, Glasgow
(5) Hiroaki Kimura, The influence of Japan, 1948, Process Architecture Charles Rennie Mackintosh 50th issue, pp113-127
(6) Thomas Annan, Photograph of C.R. Mackintosh 120 Mains St. Flat, 1900, The Studio