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Authors & Artists: Frances Macdonald McNair – or Frances Herself

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The first artist in my Authors & Artists series is Frances Macdonald McNair (1873-1921). She was born in England and attended the prestigious Glasgow School of Art with her sister, Margaret. Frances and Margaret became part of a creative collective known as The Glasgow Four together with Charles Rennie Mackintosh and James Herbert McNair. Their work was multi-disciplinary (though that concept didn’t exist then): painting, furniture design, architecture, textiles and metalwork. Margaret Macdonald married Charles Rennie; Frances married J. Herbert McNair. The future was bright.

Charles would go on to be an incredibly influential architect. He was lauded across Europe and influenced Gustav Klimt in Vienna. His wife collaborated with him extensively. Today the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society is dedicated to preserving his heritage (just a hop & a skip from where I am typing this!) and he was commemorated on a series of bank notes in 2008.

The McNairs led an unhappy life, however. They had exhibited across Europe in the early 1900s but just a decade later, everything was in tatters. McNair’s family had some financial misfortunes, he started drinking, and his career stalled. Frances suppressed her own career in order to help Herbert with his. She had his son, left the marriage briefly but returned before dying at the age of 48. It is notable that even as Herbert McNair stopped producing art (around 1911), Frances kept painting.

Girl_and_Butterflies_1907

This watercolour dates from when life started wobbling – 1907 – and is entitled Girl & Butterflies.

 

Frances_MacDonald_-_Woman_Standing_Behind_The_Sun

This is called Woman Standing Behind the Sun. It was painted sometime between 1912 and 1915 – when Herbert’s career was in serious decline, their marriage mostly over, and Frances was looking after their child. The symbolism is fairly clear.

 

Frances_MacDonald_-_Man_Makes_The_Beads_Of_Life

This is the amazingly named Man Makes the Beads of Life but Woman Must Thread Them – again painted sometime between 1912 and 1915. I’m not a psychologist, but I think we can agree on the anger emanating from this painting.

I find Frances really, really interesting. She is an artist that seems almost unbearably twee with faerie princesses, butterflies, bows, gauzy dresses and long flowing locks of hair – but if you scratch the surface you find serious thoughts on women’s rights, motherhood, society, and (lack of) equality. Even her early art asks questions about identity: who am I as an artist, why am I being defined by men, how can I break free? Her later art is more outspoken and confrontational – it is as though Frances decided to cast off her mask. Her late watercolours show near-nightmares of darkness crashing against frail female bodies – as an artist she was very much rooted in the Symbolist art movement.

Herbert McNair destroyed most of Frances Macdonald McNair’s work after her death. I presume her work did not depict him in a particularly flattering light.

Frances_MacDonald_-_Bows_Beads_Birds

Bow, Beads, Birds (1911)

I celebrate Frances. She was struggling to be an artist on her terms; her art shows a woman grappling with huge topics, and her having a very limited outlet for her struggles. We are still struggling to be heard and we are still struggling to be taken serious. We are still defined by men and we are still expected to conform to society’s expectations.

So, Frances Herself. I struggled to name the shawl but ultimately it is about Frances herself – and by extension our right to be ourselves no matter who we are. This is already a very long post – and I like leaving this celebration of Frances here. I’ll talk about the shawl in tomorrow’s post (it’ll include details on colours and modification – including how to add beads if you want to give the shawl even more Glasgow Style).

All images via Wikimedia Commons.

2 Thoughts on “Authors & Artists: Frances Macdonald McNair – or Frances Herself

  1. Joan WIlson on February 25, 2016 at 4:05 pm said:

    Karie, Love, love, love this idea you have of creating a shawl in honour of Frances. I’m a great admirer of CRM and the sisters and have got quite a few CRM books which include info on the sisters. I’ve visited all the CRM places in Glasgow and south-west France. Thinking hard about a suitable name for your shawl, but nothing coming through. So sad that little is known about Frances. I always felt the art of both sisters was almost ephemeral. Everything seems to be depicted with light brush strokes and appears almost translucent.
    Really looking forward to your Authors and Artists series, Well done you for thinking and being creative enough to produce something like this.

  2. janstebarra on February 25, 2016 at 4:07 pm said:

    I’m really enjoying these posts, Karie. Thank you. Frances sounds so interesting. Isn’t it frustrating that her husband destroyed so much of her art. I would have liked to see how it developed. Look forward to tomorrow’s shawl chat!

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