A series of posts capturing memories of the Mackintosh Library from academics, researchers and readers.
Art Historian, Writer, and Former Lecturer, Forum of Critical Inquiry
Can you remember your first visit to the Mackintosh Library and the impressions it left?
I can remember my first visit very, very clearly indeed. And that was because it was before I started working at the school. I was majoring in Art History at Glasgow University and for my undergraduate dissertation I wrote about Greek Thompson, the Glasgow architect. I don’t know how much material we’ve got in the archives on Greek Thompson, but there was at that time, whether it’s still in the collection or not, I don’t know, but we had one of his drawings of, you’ll probably have to check this because it was a long time ago, but I think it was the unexecuted design for the South Kensington Museum. And it’s about as long as this table, if not longer, and quite narrow. It’s a big, long building. And this was in the library, so I made arrangements to come down and went into the Mackintosh Library and was met by the assistant librarian at that time, whose name was Margaret Rowan, who I later came to refer to, as a colleague, as Queenie. A Lovely, lovely woman. But anyway, she was there and she very kindly got the drawing out for me, which rolled up into quite a tight cylinder. And she just gave it to me and said, well, take it over there and have a look at it. So you can imagine, with those little square tables, and a big drawing that long… So I was actually quite nervous and I started unrolling this thing and then it was spinning back, so I put a book at one end and unrolled it. And then that jumped off and it clattered onto the floor and she kind of looked over and I thought I’m going to get thrown out of here! And so the reason why I’m telling you this is because it’s kind of entertaining for me to recall a moment of acute embarrassment, which was not a good introduction to the School, but also as a reminder of the School’s archive and conservation practices have really come up leaps in the meantime. As I said, I thought she was going to give me a row, but she just came over, helped me pick it up and didn’t kind of bother. Now the drawing itself, I’d imagine, these 19th century drawings were done on very thick paper, and rolled up like that, they became very brittle and I would imagine that the conservation issues with that would be pretty horrendous, but like I say, I was given free hand with it. So all this was going on in the context of the library and very vividly imprinted on my mind.
What is your most abiding memory of the Mackintosh Library?
Yes, that probably was it, except that… The trouble is that, at that time, I fully admit, I was really very, very unaware of the importance of architecture and interior design. I was doing just conventional art history. I wasn’t tuned in to the fact that Glasgow as a city had its own architectural masterpieces and the Mackintosh Building was the kind of jewel in that particular crown. But you’ve got to remember, this was in the early 1970s and it’s hard to think now when you look back, that we didn’t make such a fuss about Mackintosh in those days. And the library, everyone admitted that it was a breath taking space, but it wasn’t the sort of focus of the world’s attention at that time. Remember that in 1972, that was only 4 years after the big Mackintosh exhibition at the festival, which was a sort of ground-breaking moment. In many ways, the sort of revived interest in Mackintosh dates from about then, but it took a while to get off the ground. And in 1972, it was a fine building, but you know, there are lots of them in Glasgow. So it wasn’t any particular kind of thrill. Thinking of it now, I’ve come over the years to love the Mackintosh Library as much as one can love any inanimate object of anything in the world. And that’s why the recent events kind of touched me as much as anybody. But then over those years, I think, after I joined the staff in 1975 or 76… And remember, at that time, that was the library, there wasn’t any of this (pointing to Main Library). So all the main library collection was there and that’s where you went if you wanted to borrow a book. So over those years, gradually as the library expended and moved out, and the Mack began to take on this special status, as a place you went to from time to time and only with special permission and there was the repository of the most precious central core of the school’s collection, so your perception begins to change. But over those years I think, you know, it was just a kind of tribute to what a genius Mackintosh was. You begin to understand that design is a sort of living organism and you discover new things. I know it’s a cliché to say, but he delivers on that. I worked in the school for 34 years before I retired from full-time and that last 12 or 15, were in the actual Mackintosh Building, which is where our department was based. And I remember saying to people at the end of my term working there, that I think that I was born without a cynicism gene. Because I should have gotten cynical about that building, I should have gotten jaded, but I never did. Almost like, every time I stepped in, I thought wow, you know, this is an impressive place! I don’t know if I’ve just been indoctrinated by all the Mackintosh buffs, but it seems to me to be pretty, pretty genuine. So over those years, as the function of the library changed, and as our use of it and attitude to it changed as well, all the kind of physical impressions all sort of merged together as one sort of evolving continuity, so the mental image I have of it, when I made a fool of myself with that drawing, are actually not that different to what it was like the last time I was in there, a mere matter of weeks before the fire. Although, some things happened in the meantime, like for example when the floor got sanded and revarnished and everyone was up in arms about that. They did it in the most gaudy, you know, shiny, glossy stuff. It was almost like you were afraid to step on it in case your feet got stuck to it! And of course, once it’s used, it gets kind of worn and it starts to mellow along with everything else. Of course, that will be a big issue when they rebuild it, because they won’t be able to reconstruct that sense of generations of use, impregnating themselves on it… but, hey, it will start again, and a century from now, it will be the same.
How did you make use of the Mackintosh Library in your learning and teaching?
The other thing about distinctive memories in relation to learning and teaching and this might correspond to your experience as well, but for me and my department in what was called Historical and Critical Studies, FOCI now, one of the highlights of the year was, after the assistants were done laying out all the dissertations and extended essays in the Mack Library. And that always gave us a certain amount of pride, because my background is in university and university students, they don’t have anything like the equivalent of the degree show, where the summation of your four years of learning is put on display in one go. You do your exams and then you get a result. So they’re very kind of deprived in that sense and as you know, there’s always a sort of thread of anti-intellectualism in art schools, students saying why have I got to do this? and so on. But in my experience, 99% of the students that are reluctant to do dissertations, you know, we kind of drag them through the process and they’re always glad, once it’s done. And they go, by God, did I do that? Yes, you did! And you put it on display, so that the work that they did for us would have some kind of equivalent of the Degree Show. And that was always a very proud moment! So, in the early days, two or three of us always used to be on hand on Degree Show night and that was always a pleasure because they’re kind of laid out and you see all the Mums and Dads come in, and former students, sometimes really old people who would say they were here in Mackintosh’s day or whatever… And it was always a great opportunity to catch up with all these voices from the past and then after Degree Show night, we would have a sort of rota where we would invigilate and take turns during the rest of the week. And people used to laugh at me because they would see it as such a boring job, but I used to cherish that moment. You know, you used to feel, sitting there, I’m the Librarian of the Mackintosh Library and people would treat you with respect.
What was your favourite item in the collection?
Okay, so the one that I sort of mourn the most? Well, David gave me a link to the Wants List and I had to stop after two or three pages, because I thought this is just too much to take in… But I think if I was given sort of magic powers to bring one work back to life, it would be a big folio of nineteenth century photographs called Roman Photographs. Now at the time, as I said I was doing quite a bit of research in the Mackintosh Library and there was a time when research into photographic history was my main activity, outside of teaching and I discovered or my attention was drawn to a very, very fine nineteenth century photographer called Robert MacPherson, who moved to Rome when he was quite young. He was actually a painter to begin with, but after he moved to Rome, he took up photography and became probably the most successful photographer of architectural ruins, antiquities and so on in Rome, in a context where there was a lot of stiff competition, but he made a really fine job of these things. And what happened in those days was that the commercial photographer would simply photograph things on spec and they sort of knew the kinds of things that the tourists liked: the Coliseum, Arch of Constantine and all the rest of it. And like I said he made a really fine job of these things, at a time when taking photographs, pre-digital, was pretty hard. It took a lot of investment and time, but for a while he was very successful . The trouble is, he was a sort of wild Scottish guy and he liked a wee dram and he lost his grip of the business and eventually he died fairly penniless. But anyway, what would happen is he would take out advertising space in the guide books, some of them published by Scottish publishers like John Murray, A & C Black, Baedeker and all those guys, because people would want to buy photographs as souvenirs and have them in print shops and book shops and so on. And what they would tend to do, would be to just buy these photographs of the buildings that they liked, take them home and then have them bound up. And this particular one, it’s unique in the sense that that particular selection is unique, but none of the photographs is a one off. This person clearly liked MacPherson’s work and there was about 50 photographs or something like that in this great bound volume, but as a researcher that was an incredible resource for me. And I think that probably I’d been interested in photography for some time before then, but working on this and handling the actual historic objects themselves… I don’t know if you’ve ever had anything to do with handling nineteenth century photographs, but, man, they are impressive, big things like that! And the technical quality was simply breath-taking and that was one of those little moments of revelation, where you’re suddenly: I get it! I get why people love these things so much! And to me, ever since then, that unique collection of those things epitomised what the special collections of the school was all about. And that’s the thing I feel most gutted about. I know there are more valuable things in there. I think a lot of the books by earlier members of staff like Douglas Percy Bliss, wood engravings and things like that, it’s a tragic loss as well, but they are all replaceable. It’ll take a while… But that MacPherson volume, you’ll never be able to replace, so that’s the one… When I saw that on the list I thought, no, I can’t go on… Bad news, hey?