Are you one of those folks who takes photos of their food when dining out? I am guilty of that sometimes, but here I suggest taking photos of your surroundings as well, as you will find the work of celebrated architect/designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald at the Willow Tea Rooms.
Enjoy the food, take the photo, and be sure to take the recipe book home!
By the late 19th century Glasgow offered an array of tea shops, but none was finer than those run by Catherine Cranston. This daughter of a tea merchant strongly believed in the temperance movement, and thought to provide “art tea rooms” which would allow customers an alternative gathering place to enjoy a non-alcoholic beverage.
Her establishments, as she created a chain of tea shops under the name of Miss Cranston’s Tearooms even after she married, provided rooms for ladies only, for gentlemen only, and luncheon rooms where men and women could dine together. These really became social centers for members of all social classes, from men conducting business deals to ladies’ maids having a treat on their half day off.
The Ladies Rooms in particular were successful, as they allowed respectable women the opportunity to meet together without male company.
In addition to the relaxing atmosphere, Miss Cranston’s choice of interior decoration was a way to highlight the work of notable Glaswegian artists such as The Glasgow Boys and specifically Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald. In short, one could enjoy a cup of tea and delicious baked goods while enjoying the company of friends in the midst of what were basically art galleries.
She contributed to the mystique of her business by wearing clothing designs that were popular decades earlier, and initially going into business as C. Cranston to fight against the accepted prohibition of women in work.
Of her four establishments, The Willow Tearooms has been in existence the longest, albeit under varying management. Historically, it was the most important commission for Mackintosh, as he had full control over all architectural and interior design details. The lavish rooms had different color schemes for men and women, and the “Room Deluxe” featured a beautiful gesso panel by Macdonald.
Here a poster design by Mackintosh, indicating location (the White Room) and the addition of live music during certain hours—excellent marketing strategy.
Leading up to his work on The Willow Tea Rooms, Mackintosh designed wall murals of stenciled friezes showing elongated female figures surrounded by roses; these were installed for the luncheon room and the ladies tearoom at the Buchanan Street tearoom. These displayed his frequent motif of roses that came to be seen in his residential architecture and furniture pieces.
In 1900 Mackintosh was given the responsibility of redesigning an entire room at the Ingram Street tearoom. Having recently married Margaret Macdonald, this is one of their prominent collaborations, with leaded glass panels a feature of The White Ding Room.
Mackintosh’s professional relationship continued with Kate Cranston, culminating in the major commission for an entire building in Sauchiehall Street in 1903. Again Mackintosh and Macdonald collaborated on the design of three linked tearooms on the ground floor and the first floor gallery. Their famous “Room de Luxe” ran the width of the building on the mezzanine level.
Waitresses from this first decade of the 20th century are pictured in the Room de Luxe.
After the death of Kate’s husband in 1917, she sold the business. Her reputation was such that for over 100 years, The Willow Tea Rooms have existed in multiple locations in Glasgow. Having provided quality foods and created wonderful memories for thousands of customers, subsequent owners have come and gone; today the latest iteration on Buchanan Street is on the market.
And what of the designs and furnishings created by Mackintosh and Macdonald? There certainly have been many imitations over the decades, but efforts have been made to preserve the original pieces whenever feasible. The two wall friezes, The Wassail by Mackintosh, and The May Queen by Macdonald are examples.
These were created in 1900 for display above the windows in the Ingram Street location. Before being mounted there, the friezes were the centerpiece of the Mackintosh exhibit at the Eighth Secessionist Exhibition in Vienna. Now they can be found in the Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Glasgow Style Gallery at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.