'The May Queen', gesso panel

About this object

In 1900, about the time that she married Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Margaret Macdonald created her first gesso panel 'The May Queen'. It celebrates the pagan festival of May Day and the coming of summer. The central figure is 'The May Queen', still crowned annually as part of May Day festivities in villages throughout Britain.

Macdonald had attended classes at the Glasgow School of Art and was an original and talented artist. She made the panel in three parts using 'gesso' a type of plaster, which was worked onto the coarse-woven hessian material while still wet. This is a difficult technique and she became particularly skilled in it. She drew the outlines of the figures, trees and plants with painted household string. She then added glass beads and shaped plaster blocks pressed into the surface to create the panel's textured detail and decoration. If you look carefully, you can even see her finger prints on some of the petals. The finished result is spectacular.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed a partner panel to this one called 'The Wassail' with the theme of the coming of winter. Mackintosh and his wife Margaret worked together on their panels in the evenings. He wrote to a friend saying, "We are working on them together and that makes the work very pleasant. We have set ourselves a very large task..."

Both panels were displayed in Vienna at the end of 1900, as part of the 'Scottish Room' designed by Mackintosh for the ground-breaking Vienna Secession Exhibition. After that, they returned to Glasgow, where they were installed in the Ladies' Lunch room at Miss Cranston's Ingram Street tearooms-the first of her tearooms interiors entirely designed by Mackintosh.

If you would like to find out more about how the panel was made, take a look at the short film presented on the screen to your right.
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