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In the opening months of the First World War, a visitor to the Suffolk village of Walberswick was arrested on suspicion of spying. The accused was a Glaswegian who had been living in the village for the past year, painting watercolours of the local flora. Sporting a cape, deerstalker and impenetrable accent, he became a subject of intrigue, not least on account of his solitary, nocturnal walks. His arrest followed one such excursion along the beach, during which his lantern had developed a fault. Returning home, he found himself accused of signalling out to sea – a charge that seemed to be confirmed when police discovered a bundle of his correspondence, written in German.
It took the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh a week to confirm his credentials and secure release. History does not relate whether the Suffolk constabulary came to appreciate the fame of the man they had been holding, but the letters were indicative of the reputation that their prisoner maintained within avant-garde circles across mainland Europe. When he and his wife had visited Vienna 15 years before, devoted architecture students had transported them through the city on a flower-strewn cart.
Yet in his own country his talents encountered a more mixed reception. In 1909, on the completion of his greatest achievement, the Glasgow School of Art, one local newspaper queried why a house of correction had been built in the city centre, while another advocated Mackintosh’s public whipping – reactions that no doubt confirmed his view of his fellow Glaswegians as “philistines”. When the city’s economy took a turn for the worse before the First World War, he concluded that it had no more to offer him. Aged 46 when he arrived in Walberswick, he moved to London soon after his run-in with the law but, save for the remodelling of a house in Northampton, failed to realise another architectural project before his death in 1928. ….