Welcome to the first episode of The Fran Zone’s series about Unforgettable female artists. This first episode is a special one right away. Because it features not one but two magnificent female artist from history. I am talking about the Macdonald sisters. Frances Macdonald MacNair and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh .

Watch the episode here or read it below.

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The Macdonald sisters were born in the second half of the 19th century. They were the creative and artistic founders of the Glasgow School. The Glasgow School was an artistic movement at the fin de siecle in Glasgow, Scotland. As an artistic movement it was a fusion of Japanse art, art nouveau, Celtic revival art and arts & crafts.

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margaret macdonald o ye, all ye that walk in willowwood 1902
Image 1: O ye, all ye that walk in Willowwood, gesso panel by Margaret Macdonald, 1902.


If you look at this painting (image 1) you can see several of the typical Glasgow Style characteristics: This is an artwork made by Margaret MacDonald in 1902. It is called O YE, ALL YE THAT WALK IN WILLOWWOOD. You can see the distorted, elongated human forms, the intricate lines all over the painting. Furthermore the painting seems like it is in 2D, much like the Japanese art of that time. And it has a Celtic fairy tale feel because of the depicted flowers and veils. All symbolical depictions of femininity. The arts & crafts influences can be noticed in the materials used. This artwork is a gesso panel and Margaret Macdonald used her skills with metal, paint and embroidery.


The Macdonald sisters opened up their own art studio in the Glasgow city center. At their school they met Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Herbert MacNair. They started working together and called themselves The Four. Soon their nickname would become ‘The Spook School’ because of the distorted, witch-like human forms that occupied their art. The public found their work upsetting, creepy and sometimes even dangerous.

Check out my Glasgow School board on Pinterest for more images and inspiration about the Glasgow Style.

Economics and art where booming in Glasgow at the end of the 19th century. At the same time women’s rights and privileges were high on the agenda in Glasgow. Women were allowed to study, to pursue careers and the Glasgow School of Art played a large role in that by providing education and employment. Many female students were active in the women’s suffragette movement. In this progressive climate the Macdonald sisters flourished.


Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh (1876-1933) Glasgow School
Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh (1864-1933)

Their creative and artistic accomplishments were noticed outside Scotland and the UK. And especially Margaret knew how to take advantage of that. Together with her husband Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whom she married in 1900, she delivered artworks to more than 40 exhibitions in Europe and America from 1890 until 1924. After her marriage Margaret started to work with Mackintosh more often. He was an architect who designed buildings and furniture. Margaret designed the interiors of rooms in large country houses. She designed panels to go with Mackintosh’s furniture. And they designed their own house and interior together. Which you can still visit when you’re ever in Glasgow.


Frances Macdonald MacNair (1873-1921) Glasgow School Liverpool Scotland
Frances MacDonald MacNair (1873-1921)

The story of Frances and Herbert is a little different. Frances married Herbert MacNair and they relocated in Liverpool. MacNair had been appointed at the Liverpool school of art. The artistic and social climate in Liverpool however was completely different from that in Glasgow. Frances missed the freedom she had had in Glasgow. She got pregnant and became a mother. All the while questioning her life choices and decisions. And making art about it.


The Choice (1909) Frances MacNair
Image 2: The Choice (1909) by Frances MacDonald MacNair

Let’s look at this painting (image 2) by Frances Macdonald made in 1909. It is called THE CHOICE. And it features two couples. As you can see the two women are connected (the legs of the woman on the right are connected to the ‘dress’ of the woman on the left). But the two couples are clearly going their own separate ways. The golden circles laid out in front of the couple on the right are going in the opposite direction from the roses all around the couple on the left.

It seems like the couple on the right could be Charles Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald heading off to a golden future in the midst of the Glasgow art scene. While the couple on the left could be Frances Macdonald and Herbert MacNair whom she followed to Liverpool out of love. But with great pain of leaving Glasgow and the other two, especially her sister, behind.


The artistic genius an creative inventiveness of these women are extraordinary. And especially the name and fame of Margaret Macdonald was known all over Europe at the peak of her career. Yet they play no significant part in any form of art history outside of Scotland. How could this have happened?

There are two main reasons for this. And this is the first. How progressive and inclusive the Glasgow art scene may have been during their lifetime. Many of Margaret Macdonald’s accomplishments, artworks and designs have been attributed to her husband after their death. In spite of all the evidence of Margaret being the artist behind the work in stead of Charles (such as signatures on the work). Just as history has long been a tale of mankind rather than human kind has the art canon long been dominated by men.

And as for the second reason: Frances was less successful with her art during her life. Her artworks were written off like fairy tale, feminine oddities. Neglecting the great symbolic power and mysticism in them. But the most important reason Frances Macdonald and her art were forgotten for a very long time is the fact that her husband destroyed more than half of her works after she committed suicide in 1921.


So there you have it: Margaret and Frances Macdonald. Two artistic and creative geniuses. Responsible for the birth of one of worlds most influential art movements at the and of the 19th century. But absent from all the great art history books.

I hope you found this first episode interesting and helpful. That’s it for now. Until next week!

My Dutch blog about the Macdonald sisters
My Pinterest board about the Glasgow Style

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