Two of the most influential figures in modern aesthetics spent decades as footnotes to the biographies of their husbands. This is more than a case of “behind every great man is a great woman”. These were collaborative partnerships that would, if they were two men, have been referred to in the manner of Beaumont and Fletcher or Lieber and Stoller, but instead were attributed solely to one half, because the other was a woman. It’s an old story, of course, but Margaret MacDonald, wife of Charles Rennie Macintosh, and Marion Mahony, wife of Walter Burley Griffin, have in recent times begun to be acknowledged as the great artists they were.
It is important to remember that as part of the first group of women admitted to the Glasgow School of Arts, MacDonald was already a pioneer, even before her distinctive design style marked her as a leader. She and her sister Frances, her future husband, Charles, and Herbert MacNair formed a collaborative group with a shared artistic vision, and became known as the “Glasgow Four”. Although she worked mainly on the interiors of the buildings Macintosh was primarily responsible for, the watercolour renderings of the aesthetic concepts are hers.
Here is a terrific BBC profile of MacDonald, that quotes from a letter her husband wrote to her: “You must remember that in all my architectural efforts you have been half if not three-quarters of them.”
Marion Mahony was the first woman in the world to be licensed to practice architecture. This brief biography of Mahony contains some anecdotes from her time in the office of Frank Lloyd Wright that suggest she was fortunate in finding a group of colleagues who were prepared to respect her abilities. Walter Burley Griffin also worked in Wright’s office, and after their boss left the country, they married and moved together to Australia, where they won the competition to design the concept for the nation’s new capital city. The astonishing watercolours depicting Canberra as an ideal city were created by her. (You can Read about women in the making of Canberra here.)
These two women are also a great example of the way the depiction of history can change. Although their husbands’ names are still more widely known, biographies, retrospectives and news reports in recent years have begun to treat them as artists working in tandem, instead of merely surprisingly able helpmeets. The recent biography Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin by Alasdair McGregor treats the two as partners and equals, and MacDonald’s paintings are now viewed as works of art independent of the homes they decorated. More importantly, perhaps, MacDonald and Mahony are now recognised as driving forces in the shift it the early twentieth century to new aesthetic ideals.