The Hill House in Helensburgh

colour photograph of Hill House, a gray building with a hedge and lawn in the foreground.

How Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh created a domestic masterpiece in western Scotland

Maria Knober Turrall

In 1902, at the height of his powers, the famous Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) was commissioned to design a family home for book publisher Walter Blackie (1860-1953) in Helensburgh, a town situated about 50km northwest of Glasgow.

The project also involved Mackintosh’s wife Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh (1864-1933) - a well-established artist and interior designer, talented and with useful experience in many different mediums and crafts.

Walter Blackie had admired Charles' work at the Glasgow School of Art – maybe the public building he is most well known for. He designed a new building to house the school, on two occasions - between 1897-1899 and 1907-1909.

black and white photograph portrait of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
black and white photograph full-length portrait of Margaret MacDonald, who is sitting in a chair looking at the camera.

Today, Glasgow School of Art is recognised as one of Europe's top universities in the visual creative disciplines. Unfortunately it has twice been severely damaged by a fire, in 2014 and in 2018.

Both Charles and Margaret were working in the Scottish Art Nouveau movement called Glasgow Style. They were most probably a perfect team to take on this 'total art project', which included both exterior and interior design.

So let’s take a closer look at the house, considered as Mackintosh’s masterpiece of domestic homes: The Hill House.

colour photograph, Hill House on a sunny day.

How was the Hill House built?

Walter Blackie seems to have had a clear vision about the exterior of the house when he told Charles: '...grey roughcast for the walls, and slate for the roof; and that any architectural effect sought should be secured by the massing of the parts rather than by adventitious ornamentation'.

Since the house was going to be designed inside out, Charles wanted to learn the Blackie family's needs for their new home. In order to do so, Charles actually lived with the family for a few days.

black and white illustration, the Hill House.

The Hill House is built in local sandstone and is rough-cast rendered, giving it the look of austere simplicity.

With its massive walls and the overall design, the house seems to bear a tradition of Scottish baronial buildings. For example, it is said that there are details of the Hill House that are similar to parts of the 16th century Scottish Crathes Castle.

What architectural styles are in the Hill House?

Mackintosh embraced vernacular architecture too. At the beginning of the 1890s, he spent several summer holidays in the Cotswolds in England, where he sketched vernacular buildings. He liked their unaffected simplicity and the emphasis on function and domestic connection.

Mackintosh continued the work on the Hill House by adding various forms, making it asymmetrical with different roof levels and shapes. In previous designs by Mackintosh, organic forms like circles and curves were prominent features. Now in the Hill House, squares and rectangles are his top priority.

colour photograph, a long seat in front of a window with many panes.
colour photograph of a window from the outside, it has many small panes.

Take the windows for instance: The Hill House has 58 asymmetrical windows in about 40 different designs! They vary in many ways, but they are all geometric in shape.

Mackintosh’s fascination for squares and rectangles is followed inside the house, like the square carpets showing the way through the house. This indicates that Mackintoshes did not rule out one over the other when designing. They did not only design geometrically for decorative purposes, but also to be used in a functional way.

colour photograph, a room in Hill House with hanging lamps, two chairs and other furnishings.
colour photograph, a lamp with geometric design hanging from a ceiling.

How was the interior of the Hill House designed?

Evidence of Charles’ and Margaret’s avant-garde style is constantly present in the building's interiors. Female and male forms and schemes of colour vary in each room with the room's intended use.

The walls in the house are mostly white, some delicately decorated with stencilled patterns in pink, green, grey and silver. A geometric rose is a common motif.

colour photograph, a rose motif on wall panelling.
colour photograph, lamps hanging from ceiling in Hill House.

The hall appears sober, framed in rectilinear dark wood. It leads to a lighter, brighter drawing room.

Here the Mackintoshes chose to create three different zones for different activities. This is similar to something we often want for ourselves nowadays, like an open plan kitchen, which also serves as a dining room as well as a comfortable sitting room.

In the drawing room of the Hill House, there are places for music, for sitting in the sun and a snug to keep warm and cosy during the winter. In the middle of the room, they placed a large carpet with squares, maybe to encourage other ways of furnishing and using the room.

colour photograph, a room with a fireplace, seats and other furniture.
colour photograph, a room with a piano in the corner, a lamp and vase with flowers are on top of the piano.

There is also a fireplace. Above the mantel shelf is a gesso panel by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh. This was an artwork made on site: The Sleeping Princess. Gesso is a technique with a special kind of plaster mixture which is used to prepare a surface for painting. Margaret often used it when creating art.

colour photograph of an artwork panel, it shows a female figure sleeping with swirling lines and rose motifs around her.

When entering the principal bedroom there are two mirrored linen and silk embroidery panels on both sides of the bed. Both were designed by Margaret, as well as the bedspreads. Charles’ iconic black ladder-back chair is also to be found there. It’s more an object d’art than a chair to sit on, and also a perfect place to drape clothes before going to bed.

colour photograph a bedroom, behind the bed are two long tapestries on a wall with rose motif wallpaper on other walls.
two long embroidered panels, a female figure on each side with circular lines surrounding each.
colour photograph of a chair with a high back.

Charles and Margaret designed nearly all pieces of furniture, light fittings, textiles and decorative items custom–made for the Hill House. The lamps, especially those hanging from the ceilings, are aesthetically unique. The design combines the Glasgow Style with Japanese influences.

The Hill House as a home

The Blackie family moved into the Hill House in 1904.

The Mackintoshes handed over their new home, with Charles saying: 'Here is the house. It’s not an Italian Villa, an English Mansion House, a Swiss Chalet, or a Scotch Castle. It is a Dwelling House.' Walter Blackie and his family lived nearly 50 years in their home on the hill.

Over the years, the Hill House has suffered severely from water damage. Its location on a very exposed site in the west of Scotland has made it vulnerable for rain and wind.

Since 1982, the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) has been responsible for the Hill House, and are working intensely to save it for the future. During this important work, the Hill House is still open for visitors.

Further reading

  • Alan Crawford, 1995, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, London: Thames & Hudson Ltd
  • Jackie Cooper (ed.), 1984, Mackintosh Architecture. The Complete Buildings and Selected Projects, London: Academy Editions
  • Jude Burkhauser (ed.), 1990, Glasgow Girls. Women in art and design 1880-1920, Edinburgh: Canongate Publishing Limited
  • Jan Torsten Ahlstrand, 1976, Arkitekturtermer, Lund: Studentlitteratur (A dictionary of architecture terms in four languages)
  • The Hill House website
  • Mackintosh Architecture website