Our host on a recent visit to California loaned me an engaging and lovely book of women’s history, tea culture, and design in turn-of-the-century Glasgow. With his background in Arts-and-Crafts and Mission style furniture, John knew that I would find this work fascinating as I was preparing lectures for an upcoming tour of Glasgow and the Inner Hebrides, Orkney, and Shetland islands. He was right.
Taking Tea with Mackintosh: The Story of Miss Cranston’s Tea Rooms (1998) by Perilla Kinchin is, first of all, a delight to the eyes. It is filled with beautiful pictures — historic and contemporary — of tea rooms, furniture, and paintings designed and executed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife, the artist Margaret Macdonald.
But what really grabbed my attention was the story of Catherine (Kate) Cranston, the owner of a chain of tea rooms in the bustling city of Glasgow. Kinchin uses the backdrop of the temperance movement and the suffragette-influenced culture of the tea rooms to paint the intriguing story of how Cranston built a business empire by serving both men and women in spaces designed by leading-edge architects and designers of the period to provide gathering places for those engaged in the city’s growing business and industrial sectors.
Chief among those architects was Mackintosh —- best known for his Glasgow School of Art building (subsequently damaged by several fires). Owner and designers were perfectionists, and over the course of several years as the century turned over to greet the 1900s, they created several stunning places that opened up a unique, avant-garde artistic world to thousands of ordinary people.
Mackintosh — perhaps Scotland’s most famous architect — was born in Glasgow in 1868. A pioneer of modernism the architect, artist and designer created his own aesthetic by blending numerous influences from art nouveau to Asian painting.
As summed up in a recent work on the Argyle tea chair design in dezeen:
…Mackintosh had only a small number of buildings realised, with the majority of his major projects including the Glasgow School of Art, Hill House and Willow Tea Rooms all being built before he turned forty.
In later life he stopped practicing architecture altogether due to a lack of commissions, and concentrated on painting. Mackintosh died of cancer aged 60 in 1928.
Cranston proved to be the perfect patron for Mackintosh, providing commissions even when times were tough and always supporting his artistic vision. Kinchin moves through this story with skill, weaving in elements of women’s history, tea culture, design, and cooking. Sixteen period recipes from the Cranston tea rooms fill out this delightful work, making the reader’s palate ready for Scottish teatime.
More to come…
Image: The front salon of the original Willow Tea Rooms (credit: Willow Tea Rooms Trust)