A vision preserved amid debris of fire

The wreckage caused by the fire at Glasgow School of Art
The wreckage caused by the fire at Glasgow School of Art

By Maggie Millar

When I watched the news on TV recently and saw live footage of fire breaking through the roof of Glasgow School of Art, my reaction, like many art lovers out there, was one of absolute dismay.

I’ve been in the building a few times and hoped - beyond hope it transpired - that the library above all would be saved.

That room was an absolute masterpiece and what’s more it was a working, living, breathing piece of art; the perfect fusion of form and function, a joy to behold.

It almost goes without saying that the financial loss was substantial - to put the total into perspective, a single small Charles Rennie Mackintosh chair sold at auction a couple of years back for almost $200,000.

But in today’s market-driven world where art is big business, the financial loss for Glasgow is (almost) immaterial.

The room and its furniture were never for sale, never kept behind rope cordons or hermetically sealed behind glass, never treated as ‘valuable’ exhibits.

It was used daily by art students and that’s what makes its loss all the more tragic.

It’s ironic that Mackintosh - despite his reputation as Scotland’s greatest architect - was never really celebrated here in his own lifetime.

He was better appreciated in Vienna - the European hotbed of the Art Nouveau movement - Germany, and even Moscow.

And despite a number of private commissions from select clients, including one whose Mackintosh-designed gravestone can be seen at East Wemyss cemetery, his practice folded in Glasgow and he lived out his last years painting watercolours in the south of France where it was cheaper to live.

Like Van Gogh, it took a number of years for the cognoscenti to appreciate his achievements and over time the cash value of his work has risen in parallel with his critical elevation.

Compare that to the likes of Damien Hirst who knows the value of his work so well, he bypassed a dealer/gallery in 2008 and went straight to Sotheby’s auction rooms with his new exhibition ‘Beautiful Inside My Head Forever’.

As he potted balls in a dingy snooker hall with Ronnie O’Sullivan, the auctioneer’s hammer banged away for an hour and a half in Kensington, drawing in £110 million.

Now cast aside any debate about whether Hirst’s work is more deserving of our attention than Mackintosh, and consider instead the fact that art today is saturated by the language of the market.

Art’s no longer a craft, it’s a commodity and buyers tend to value most highly those artists they consider to be an investment.

The upshot of this is that a privately-owned Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud which comes fresh to the market is more likely to be snapped up by Roman Abramavich’s wife than by the Tate Modern and it’s us mere mortals who lose out, ultimately.

That’s why it was inspiring to hear that plans are already pushing ahead to restore the Glasgow school.

A “small army” of 100 volunteers and conservationists are on site picking up the debris and the UK Government has pledged “millions” towards the building’s restoration, as has the Scottish Government which pledged to match fundraising efforts up to the value of £5 million.

The school’s archive (tucked securely in a concrete basement) escaped the fire and should provide the blueprints needed to recreate the library.

Give it time and the new room should develop a patina as warm as the original.

Sure enough, the library will essentially be a reproduction of - and worth a fraction of - a Mackintosh original but, at the end of the day, that really doesn’t matter; it’s the preservation of a vision that counts.

It was never really about the money anyway.