Panna Munyal takes a peek inside Windyhill, the art nouveau property that could well be the most important private residence in Scotland.
Rare private residence by Charles Rennie Mackintosh goes on the market
Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the enigmatic architect and painter, is credited as being the main representative of the art nouveau movement in the United Kingdom. Best known for commercial projects, most notably the Glasgow Herald building, now known as the Lighthouse, and the Glasgow School of Art, which was badly damaged in a fire last month, Mackintosh and his artist wife Margaret MacDonald formed part of The Four, a collaborative group who were at the heart of the Glasgow School movement. Mackintosh gave up his design career for health and financial reasons, and spent his last days, in the 1920s, as a proficient but penniless painter of floral watercolours. This makes him, according to the many Mackintosh experts and enthusiasts, an even more enigmatic figure today than when he was alive.
Before war - and cancer - struck, a young Mackintosh met William Davidson in the 1890s, when he took on a project to design furniture for the provisions merchant's home at Gladsmuir, Kilmacolm. Little did Mackintosh know that a decade later, at the age of 32, he would be given free rein by an impressed Davidson to build what has come to be considered one of the most important properties in Scotland.
Windyhill was Mackintosh's first major domestic commission and it's now on the market for Dh18.5 million. One of only two homes that he built from scratch, the seven-bedroom Windyhill is special because it is "being occupied as a family home and not as a museum, just as Charles Rennie Mackintosh intended", says David Cairns, the current owner and an ardent Mackintosh devotee. The architect's second domestic project - the famous Hill House - is now part of the National Trust for Scotland, making Windyhill the only private residence from Mackintosh's portfolio - albeit one that has been maintained to museum standard.
When Cairns bought the Grade A-listed property 12 years ago, it retained but faint traces of its former glory. The Windyhill of the early 1900s was a design gem - a blend of strong right angles and floral-inspired decorative motifs, grand fireplaces and intricate stained glass. However, Cairns, who bought it in a "poor condition", had to painstakingly piece it back together, and says that he has "restored it to what it was when Mackintosh handed the keys to Mr Davidson . original pieces in place, furniture, glass and lights. My own favourite is the Japanese cabinet in the drawing room, shaped like a kimono".
Some of the pieces that were gifted to the Glasgow School of Art when Davidson left the house in 1938 - and that have perhaps perished in the blaze - have been reproduced to standards acceptable to Mackintosh scholars.
The restoration process took both research and luck. The features that were replicated - including the light fittings in the hall, which alone cost Cairns £70,000 (Dh436,290) - were produced by craftsmen approved by the Glasgow School of Art.
The procurement of some of the original pieces, which include glass-fronted cupboards, worktops and wood panelling, have a more dramatic story - the dining and bedroom lights were traced by the Scotland Yard antiques recovery department to a house in New York. When the New York police were informed, they raided the house and took down the missing light fittings, eventually returning them to Windyhill. The leaded glass panels, designed by MacDonald, were returned to the house after they emerged at auction in Edinburgh. With the help of Ewan Mundy, a Glasgow art dealer and adviser, Cairns decorated the home with Wemyss pottery and hung paintings by the Scottish Colourists and John Quinton Pringle - similar to the works collected by Davidson. Space was also found for some 21st-century "essentials", including Bose surround sound.
The sprawling main building was constructed using natural stone from the surrounding areas. Spreading over two floors and with 4,400 square feet of living space, Windyhill has three public rooms, a reception area, a magnificent staircase and two acres of leafy lawns, in addition to its seven bedrooms and two bathrooms. The private gardens, which are divided into four distinct spaces, look out onto the countryside from the main, south-facing rooms.
The story goes that Mackintosh, who became a family friend to the Davidsons, was delivering gifts to the children one Christmas when the beard of his Santa suit caught fire, causing Davidson to push the unsuspecting architect into the lily pond, which remains intact in one part of the garden.
The interiors of the house today reflect the art nouveau style on which Mackintosh was so influential, and can be seen in the glass-fronted cupboards, worktops and wood panelling, as well as certain materials and colours that made the architect famous the world over. "My favourite room is the entrance hall, which, while it unmistakably exudes a welcoming warmth, also shows the formality of Mackintosh's attention to detail," says Cairns.
What also sets the property apart is that it has been designed along the strong traditions of Scottish architecture, including an L-shaped plan, a harled, cement-blasted exterior, unadorned window openings, steeply pitched slate roofs and chimneys at the gable ends.
In the run-up to the country's independence referendum later this year, we will be hearing a lot about Scottish heritage in the coming months. Mackintosh's work is an intrinsic part of that heritage, and at Windyhill, it can be seen at its incomparable best. "When buying the house, I was speaking to a friend working at that time for Sotheby's in London," Cairns concludes. "As we walked along Piccadilly, she said: 'Let me show you something', and we entered a bookshop. She found a book on Charles Rennie Mackintosh and pointed to a photograph of the exterior and several interior shots of this property. 'Tell me,' she said, 'of another house anywhere in the world where in a major city I can enter a quality bookshop and show you a photograph of not only the exterior but interior of the house. And this a family home, not a palace or castle. That is the importance of Windyhill.'"