Frances Macdonald MacNair, Bows

We are delighted to welcome Frances Macdonald MacNair's Bows into the national collection. Find out more about this piece and MacNair in our blog below.

Frances Macdonald MacNair was one of the celebrated ‘Glasgow Four’, along with her older sister Margaret Macdonald, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Herbert MacNair, who Frances later married. The four met at the Glasgow School of Art in 1893 and formed a remarkable creative group, developing a progressive and distinctively Glaswegian design aesthetic which became internationally renowned. They worked across many areas of design, including architecture, furniture, textile and poster design, embroidery, jewellery, stained glass and the making of gesso and metal reliefs. Inspired by Aubrey Beardsley, the Pre-Raphaelites and the contemporary Dutch artist Jan Toorop, the Glasgow Four favoured sinuous organic forms and lines and recurring motifs, such as the rose, bird in flight and the stylised, distorted female figure.

Frances and Margaret Macdonald established a design studio in 1895 and frequently collaborated on projects. They shared a passion for fairy tale imagery and mythology, while Frances’s work in watercolour shows a particular fascination with the female form and women’s spiritual and physical experience. With Margaret, her lean, elongated figures challenged conventional idealised representations of the female body in Victorian art, leading one critic to write about Frances’s ‘weird designs’ with ‘their impossible forms, lurid colour and symbolism’. These eerie, exaggerated figures led to the Four gaining the nickname ‘the Spook School’. The sisters were ‘New Women’, part of an international movement pushing against the limits imposed on women by society. In 1903 Frances provided the cover design for Das Eigenkleid Der Frau (Woman’s Own Dress), a pioneering feminist text by the German writer Anna Muthesius, which advocated for women to choose their own dress and styling and express themselves through fashion.

Frances married Herbert MacNair in 1899 and the couple moved to Liverpool, where he taught at the School of Architecture and Applied Art at the university. Their son Sylvan was born in 1900. The couple exhibited internationally in Vienna and Turin and Frances expanded her design work into new areas, including jewellery, but their work was not commercially successful. After the loss of MacNair’s teaching job and other financial difficulties, they moved back to Glasgow around 1908.

Frances Macdonald MacNair, Bows, about 1910, pencil and watercolour heightened with touches of body-colour and with scratching out on vellum. Purchased by National Galleries of Scotland in 2019.

Bows dates from around 1910-11 after their return to Glasgow and may have been painted as part of preparations for the couple’s joint exhibition at the Baillie Gallery, London in 1911. The female figure is at the heart of the composition, placed within interlocking organic shapes, the lower of which loosely resembles a rose. The bows of the title are strewn like butterflies across the image, although they follow the decorative curve of the rose form as though strung on a cord.

The meaning of Frances’s work is often opaque or elusive and open to multiple interpretations, as Symbolist thought encouraged, but it has been suggested that this watercolour represents her most direct comment on female sexuality. While recurring motifs such as bows or flowers were often used to preserve a figure’s modesty, here the bows placed at the woman’s breasts, waist and hips seem to draw attention to what is left exposed. The form of the bow is associated with femininity, adornment and even innocence, but that has slipped back to expose a tension with a starker, more adult reality.

Frances Macdonald MacNair, Sleep, about 1908-1911, watercolour and pencil on vellum, framed: 33.00 x 21.00 cm). Purchased by National Galleries of Scotland in 2012.

Another watercolour of a similar date, Bows, Beads and Birds (Private Collection) appears to use bows as a symbol of fashion, frivolity and empty materialism. If the bows whirling around the woman’s body here carry similar associations, the watercolour may also suggest the gulf between society’s trivial surface expectations of women and the richer, more complex spiritual world.

Frances went on to paint a series of extraordinary watercolours, including Sleep, in which she continued to explore themes of a woman’s emotional wellbeing, loss, love, choice and motherhood. As a body of work, her haunting and highly original watercolours represent a remarkable contribution to European Symbolism and a powerful feminist voice within Scottish art. We are delighted to have been able to bring another outstanding work by her into the National Galleries of Scotland collection.

By Charlotte Topsfield, Senior Curator, Collection & Research: European & Scottish Art & Portraiture, 24 February 2021