This little group of workers is distinct. They together stand alone, and so happily escape classification . . . their art is for the artist and thinker. From their hands we have poems. . . .

—Talwin Morris, “Concerning the work [of The Four]” (manuscript), ca. 1897

After meeting in 1893, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, James Herbert McNair, Margaret Macdonald, and Frances Macdonald became close friends and artistic collaborators. The quartet became known as The Four, and soon their shared interests and deep understanding of one another developed into romance. In 1899 McNair and Frances Macdonald married, changing their surname to MacNair; Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald wed a year later.

The Four developed a unique visual language. Like many young artists, composers, poets, and writers at this time, they engaged with mythological and allegorical subjects through their own personal symbolism. The Four’s style evolved throughout the 1890s as they experimented with different approaches and techniques. Their art often conveyed a deep sense of mystery, stillness, and calm. To gaze at their work is to enter another world—to “breathe within their reality,” as the German architect and diplomat Hermann Muthesius so eloquently described it.

The Four’s work was central to the representation of Scotland at the Third International Exhibition of Venice (the precursor of the Biennale) held between April and October 1899. The display included beaten metalwork by the Macdonald sisters, McNair’s paintings and silverware, and Mackintosh’s mural designs for the Buchanan Street Tearooms. Most prominent were their posters of 1894–96 (seen earlier), which continued to act as the dramatic presentation of the design principles that underpinned the Glasgow Style. In contrast, their watercolors (on display here) remained more personal artistic explorations.

Prince and Sleeping Princess, ca. 1897
Frances Macdonald (1873–1921)
Watercolor on vellum
From the collections of The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, GLAHA 41966

In Frances Macdonald’s depiction of the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” (also known as The Briar Rose), she employs a tangle of rose stems to cocoon the sleeping princess. The artist added an eye, outlined in black, in the prince’s hair, likely in reference to the prophecy that the princess would only awaken from her hundred-year sleep at the kiss of a prince. Fairy-tale narratives like this were popular subjects for both Macdonald sisters throughout their careers.

Whether the roses be your lips or your lips the roses, ca. 1898
Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928)
Pencil and watercolor on tracing paper
From the collections of The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, GLAHA 41037

In the later 1890s, Mackintosh painted a series of watercolors in thin washes of paint that depict women emerging from roses or floral-infused landscapes. While some indicate a fairy realm, this work is titled with a more romantic message: Whether the roses be your lips or your lips the roses, a line from an English sixteenth-century madrigal (harmonic song), which is inscribed at the top left corner. As in Mackintosh’s stylized posters and stenciled murals from a few years earlier, the female figure, whose head is framed by a nimbus, is seen only in part, as her body gradually merges with the rose petals and stems around her.

Fountain, ca. 1893–94
James Herbert McNair (1868–1955)
Pencil and watercolor on paper
From the collections of The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, GLAHA 41046

James Herbert McNair depicts an unhappy twilight world in this powerful watercolor from The Four’s early Spook School period. The forms are expressive, but the exact narrative is unclear. Tears and breast milk issuing from two women fall as columns of water to create a pond, while strands of their hair swirl to fuse into the branches of a tree. They are observed by two humans: a crouching naked man to the right, a wizened female to the left. In the foreground two ominous birds fight at the water’s edge.

Summer, ca. 1894
Margaret Macdonald (1864–1933)
Ink, pencil, and watercolor on paper
From the collections of The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, GLAHA 41047

The tall, sinewy forms in this watercolor by Margaret Macdonald are typical of the early Spook School style. In this design for a stained glass panel, the central female figure springs from kidney-bean-shaped seeds to reach up into the passionate embrace of her lover, who crouches within the moon. Tiny roses fall from her hand, and a horizontal band of fast-flying birds adds dynamism to the scene. Margaret frequently reused the arrangement of this figurative composition, adapting it to tell different stories.

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