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As someone who has long admired the work of the interior designer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, I was interested to learn that when my grandmother, Elizabeth Owen, and her children were living at 24 Oxford Street, Waterloo, J Herbert McNair and his wife, Frances (née Macdonald) were living just along the road at at number 54, both houses being in the university district of Liverpool. I am quite sure that Elizabeth's sons, Reginald and Frank Owen, both of whom studied architecture in Liverpool, would have been interested in their designs but equally sure that their mother would have found them quite shocking.
In the early 1890s four students at Glasgow School of Art (apprentice architects, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and J. Herbert McNair, and day students and sisters, Margaret and Frances Macdonald) formed a creative alliance called “The Group of Four”. Working independently and collaboratively they created some of the most innovative and provocative graphic and decorative art designs of the period. In 1899 Frances Macdonald married McNair and in 1900 her sister, Margaret, married Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the most famous of the quartet, though all four of them were very well known at the time both nationally and internationally.
Herbert McNair came to Liverpool from Glasgow in 1898 to teach at the University’s newly established School of Architecture and Applied Arts. The department was housed in makeshift wooden buildings with corrugated iron roofs, known as “the Art Sheds”. Frances joined him the following year, when they were married. At their home in Oxford Street, one of the first things Herbert and Frances did was to furnish it with elegant but sometimes quirky furniture of their own design and often of their own making, set off by equally unusual colour schemes, thus producing a sequence of the most avant-garde interiors in England. In 1901 five of the rooms were featured in Studio, the leading magazine of new art and design. The house was demolished in the 1960s to make way for part of Liverpool University but some of the furniture survives.
At the 1902 Turin exhibition of international modern design, the two married couples each designed a room, the two rooms complementing each other and contrasting with the rest of the British designs which were much more conservative. The light colour schemes of the two rooms were carefully coordinated. The Mackintoshes’ room, painted white, silver and rose-pink, was the Rose Boudoir, and the McNairs’ room was a Lady’s Writing Room which was almost an extension of their Liverpool house, even to the extent of using some of their home furniture. Flanking the central table in the room were a pair of watercolours on linen, which the couple had painted soon after their marriage and which were intended to be viewed together: ‘The Legend of the Snowdrops’ by Frances and ‘The Legend of the Birds’ by Herbert.
The rooms in the McNairs' Liverpool house and their Turin Writing Room would have looked shocking to most of the wealthy in Liverpool or Turin in 1902, whose rooms were still Victorian, draped with fringed curtains and crowded with overstuffed furniture. What Frances and Herbert brought was a new style with clean lines for the new century.
When the University of Liverpool’s Applied Arts Department closed in 1905 the couple returned to Glasgow but their lives and careers fell into decline. They separated, McNair turning to drink and after Frances’s death in 1921, possibly at her own hand, Herbert is thought to have destroyed much of her work and never worked again. Herbert died on 22 April 1955.
Their only child, a son, Sylvan, born in 1900 emigrated to Rhodesia in the 1920s.