Doves and Dreams

Frances MacDonald and J Herbert McNair
Walker Art Gallery (27 January 2007 - 22 April 2007)

Reviewed by Jennie Lewis

Known as the Glasgow Four, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, wife Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, J. Herbert McNair and his wife (sister to Margaret) Frances Macdonald McNair, were among the most avant-garde artists/designers of their time. They propelled themselves into the public eye through their novel, though much anticipated approach, pushing the boundaries and almost changing the world of art by definition.

The work of Mackintosh is still very much celebrated today, and his iconic deco prints decorate and adorn much in the modern western world, from furniture to jewellery. It is perhaps fitting then, that the Doves and Dreams exhibition lays acclaim to the lesser known, though no less important members of the group - the McNair’s.

The exhibition documents their lives through their work, from getting their feet off the ground in Glasgow in the 1890’s, to groundbreaking success in Liverpool in the early 1900’s, then follows back to their final tragic years in Glasgow. Throughout this journey we see their dream as it transpires, is realised, commended, and finally broken. We share in the highs and lows of two lives brought together through a mutual love and perception of art.

The work of the McNair’s is portrayed through an array of different forms, from metalwork, to glassware and furniture design, though more specifically, and indeed significantly, through watercolour. Even through early pieces, such as ‘Ysighlu’ and ‘Girl with Butterflies’, it is easy to see their distinctive style emerging, and their world of myth and fairytale evolves through work. It is precisely this idea that would become, in a way, their trademark, and saw them embark upon their journey to victory.

Following early exhibitions of their work in Paris and Venice, a move to Liverpool would be the springboard to send the McNair’s spiralling into success. As their eye turned from artwork to interior design, so came about their most ambitious and most acclaimed exhibition to date, ‘A Lady’s Writing Room’, which has been meticulously recreated for the Walker’s current exhibition. Words are integral to the piece. Both written and read, and expressed through a host of different means, it is argued that words form some unity. However, for me, it is the repeated image of fledgling birds that becomes most poignant through its assumed depiction, thus, young minds eager to learn, just as theirs had once been.

Upon approaching the end of our journey through the exhibition, we see Frances Macdonald McNair’s final watercolours. Following the demise and untimely death of her husband, these few late additions to her life’s work almost become some haunting homage to her own life. The presiding theme of the images, perhaps, the issues she had faced throughout her years, like loss, redemption, motherhood, love and entrapment.

When coming away from the aptly named Doves and Dreams exhibition, you can but fail to see just how the Glasgow Four affected the world of art, by inspiring followers with their highly stylised work, and can but commend advances made by the elusive duo in a once relatively unexplored world of design.

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