A “must” visit during our trip to Glasgow was the world-famous Willow Tea Room. I have to admit that I didn’t know much about the Willow then, just that I had to go. What I did know was this tearoom was designed by one of the most talented architects of the time, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, in 1903 in the futuristic “Arts and Crafts” style. What I didn’t know was the “back story” of how this tearoom, created by Kate Cranston and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, had become one of the most expensive and famous tearooms of Europe.
Born in 1849, Catherine, or Kate as she was known, was the daughter of George Cranston, a successful Glasgow baker. George bought the then very popular hotel, the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway Chop House and Commercial Lodgings. He renamed the hotel the Royal Horse, which then became known as Cranston’s Hotel and Dining Room.
Glasgow at the turn of the century was riddled with problems … industries were closing, slums were prevalent, and overcrowding was a huge problem, followed by diseases like cholera and typhoid. Social centers were male dominated pubs serving coffee and ale, where politics was always the conversation of the day. Glasgow was also the center of the temperance movement and political tensions were high!
Kate’s older brother, Stuart, following in his father’s footsteps, was quite the visionary and saw through all these problems. One of his visions was how “tea” (up until now only afforded by the upper classes) could be an alternative to alcohol, afforded by all. Stuart set out to and had become a successful importer of tea. When customers would come into his shop, he would put the kettle on and offer them a sample. From there he decided to create a place where both men and women together (which was unheard of at that time) could enjoy tea and perhaps light sandwiches in a simple, clean, safe, pub-free atmosphere. This concept was so successful, he opened two more.
Now enjoying great success, Stuart went on to buy one of the first covered shopping malls in Europe, Glasgow’s Argyll Arcade. Built in 1827, the Argyll Arcade housed many retailers and craft shops, but was beginning to be run down and in need of major repairs. Cranston was very focused in what he wanted in this row of shops, from uniformity of shop front designs and styles, to the quality of goods to be sold, as well as a very strict code of conduct for shop owners … which still applies today.
Kate, following in the entrepreneurial spirit of her family, opened the Crown Luncheon Room in the Argyll Arcade. Although Glasgow was ranked as one of the richest cities in Europe, it also suffered from some appalling social problems … poverty, crime and disease. Kate’s father and her brother had taught her well because Kate was a force to be dealt with … not only on quality of tea and food, but on service and cleanliness. With the success of this luncheonette, Kate then opened Miss Cranston’s Tearoom in 1878 where she continued to place great emphasis on the details, from the decor and design, to her strict code on cleanliness, quality of food and service.
Glasgow, in an effort to raise money for the city and showcase what Glasgow had to offer, opened The International Exhibition of 1888 at Kelvingrove Park (which attracted over 5 million visitors). Kate wanted to be able to offer exhibition goers a place where they could sit and enjoy a cuppa in a clean, safe and well organized atmosphere. She opened what is now a very popular concept, a “pop-up” tearoom. Like her brother, Kate was becoming quite successful.
Kate was a bit eccentric at times, always defying social conventions. She dressed in Victorian crinolines, similar to what her mother might have worn, long after they had gone out of fashion. She’d also be seen around town dressed in a grey suit and bowler hat. However she dressed, she was a very astute business woman and although Kate married John Cochrane in 1892, she continued to be known as Miss Cranston of Miss Cranston’s Tearooms.
After the success of her luncheonette and first tearoom, Kate opened a second, then a third and then in 1903, the one which was to become her most famous of all, on Sauchiehall Street.
As a prominent businesswoman, Kate had become very well known in the artist community. This is where she had met the young Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Charles Rennie Mackintosh was born in Glasgow on June 7, 1868, one of eleven children. From the age of 9 he studied art and design, then trained as an architect in a local practice. At art school Mackintosh and his friend and colleague, Herbert MacNair, met sisters, Margaret and Frances MacDonald, also artists. Margaret was later to become his wife and worked with Charles on many of Kate’s projects.
Kate first employed Charles in 1896 to provide just a stencil for the walls of her first tearoom on Buchanan Street. Mackintosh created a frieze depicting delicate elongated lines of female figures in pairs facing each other surrounded by roses. Kate loved it. She then gave Mackintosh more responsibility for the Argyll Street tearoom, where he created his first major piece of furniture, the elegant high-backed chair (now housed in the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery). In 1900, working closely with Kate, Charles designed the ladies’ luncheon room for Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street tearoom. Then came the two-year Sauchiehall Street project.
Mackintosh constructed a barricade around the building to protect his project, decorated with his classic stenciling and lettering, of course. Nothing escaped Mackintosh’s attention. He and his wife, Margaret, designed everything from the furniture and menus, to the silverware and the waitresses’ uniforms. Within this tall, white-washed four story building, Mackintosh created a casual tearoom for ladies on the first floor, with a tea gallery on the mezzanine level above it. On the second floor, he created a more exclusive ladies’ room, the Room de Luxe.
Overlooking the street, this room had white walls with a frieze of stained glass and mirrored glass, stained glass double doors (Mackintosh’s largest and most elaborate stained glass creation) and his signature high-backed chairs in silver with sofas upholstered in rich purple. The third floor was to be a men’s billiard and smoking room. Sauchiehall Street was the “crown jewel” of tearooms.
Kate’s defiant bohemian attitude was frowned upon by the ‘old order’. Her tearooms broke traditions. They provided a fashionable destination for women who were dissatisfied with their lot … where women and men were invited to not only dine together, but to play cards, billiards and smoke. She had created a place where, not only the elite could see and be seen, but where the artist community flourished. She encouraged young artists to showcase their talents by using her tearooms as galleries.
Unfortunately, Kate’s husband, John, died suddenly in 1917 and Kate was no longer interested in the tearooms or in business in general. She sold her tearooms and wore black for the rest of her life. Kate developed dementia and became increasingly difficult to deal with. She moved from her fashionable mansion to a hotel in the south side of Glasgow where she was looked after by a female companion until she died in April 1934. Having had no children, when she died, Kate left two thirds of her £67,476 estate (20 times more than her brother Stuart) to the poor of Glasgow.
Never actually receiving true recognition for his work, Mackintosh left Scotland with the hopes of living in Austria, where his work was admired. This was halted because of the outbreak of World War 1. He and Margaret moved to Walberswick, England, where he was arrested as a spy, possibly because of the letters he received from his friends in Austria. After being released they moved to London.
As happens with so many talented artists, Mackintosh wasn’t recognized as the pioneer of modern architecture until the 1960s with the renewed interest in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts Movement. It was only then that the art world recognized his talents. Charles Rennie Mackintosh died from cancer in London in 1928 – destitute.
Miss Cranston’s Tearooms had become the places to see and be seen for Glasgow society and continued to be for many years. The partnership between Kate Cranston and Charles Rennie Mackintosh lasted for 20 years, the most important being the tearoom on Sauchiehall Street … now known as the Willow Tearoom. Today Charles Rennie Mackintosh is studied and celebrated around the world. Did I know any of this when we visited the Willow? Absolutely not! But it doesn’t take long when approaching the building to realize you’ve come upon a tearoom unlike any other.