Walberswick resident Esther Freud's link with Charles Rennie Mackintosh
PUBLISHED: 12:06 14 October 2014 | UPDATED: 12:06 14 October 2014
A century ago, celebrated artist and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh made Walberswick his home for a year. Author Esther Freud has based her latest novel on Rennie's experiences of the village. Catherine Larner talked to her about it
Wherever you look in Walberswick, there are pictures by Charles Rennie Mackintosh – racks of cards in the gift shop, prints on the walls in the cafe and holiday cottages, a summer exhibition at the village hall.
The celebrated artist and architect spent a year in the village at the beginning of the first world war, and worked on his distinctive floral watercolours while he was living there. But he left under a cloud. The paranoia of the time, and his often eccentric behaviour, led the villagers to accuse Mackintosh of spying. He was banished and told never to return to Suffolk, Norfolk or Essex.
“I don’t think many people know this about him,” says author Esther Freud, whose latest novel, Mr Mac and Me, explores this extraordinary episode in Walberswick’s history.
“I first heard about it 15 years ago, but I didn’t know what to do with it – it didn’t feel like my story to tell, so I left it alone,” she says.
Then Esther discovered a personal connection to the artist – her home in Walberswick used to be the Anchor pub and Mackintosh had been a guest there.
“I always knew I would write something about the house,” she says. A former owner left her details of its history with accounts of the residents and the tragic lives they led. Esther even felt a shadowy presence of a young boy who had once lived there.
“A few years ago, I decided to write a ghost story and thought Mackintosh would appear in it,” Esther explains. But she got bogged down with the structure and eventually decided to start again.
“The agony of that day – I had written a lot – but then what comes after. It’s like swimming through mud and then coming into fresh water.”
Leaving her family in London – Esther is married to the actor David Morrissey and has three children – she retreated for a long weekend alone in Walberswick to immerse herself in the story she now felt needed to be told. There are no longer any ghosts, instead the narrator is a boy called Thomas, who is living with his parents in the village pub in 1914. He befriends the visitors to Walberswick, the artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife, Margaret Macdonald.
“I knew little about Mackintosh then,” says Esther, “and had no idea that he, like my character Thomas, was the only surviving son of a large family or that, like Thomas, he walked with a limp. All I really knew was that Mackintosh had designed the Glasgow School of Art.
“But as I started to look into what had brought him to Suffolk, I discovered what a difficult and frustrating life he had led, and that his time in this sleepy seaside village had been fraught with danger and anxiety.
“I realised then that I wanted to create a small biography of Mackintosh within the novel – Mackintosh’s entire life held within the one year of Thomas’.”
So, as well as researching the period in which her book is set – the soldiers billeted in Suffolk, the herring girls working on the coast, the lives of the villagers – Esther read numerous books about Mackintosh and visited some of the buildings associated with him. She also toured the Hunterian Gallery in Glasgow where his house is recreated as part of the museum.
“He and Margaret Macdonald created this incredibly beautiful house. They had lowered the ceilings and changed the windows, put in white carpets and they made this incredible furniture. It is so beautiful.”
Esther chatted to the tour guide, who told her she needed to talk to Pamela Robertson, who studied the life of Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald and read through the draft of Esther’s novel.
“Obviously it is a work of fiction, but I wanted it to be factually correct in terms of his life,” Esther says. “I realised that everyone has their own idea about Charles Rennie Mackintosh – that Pamela Robertson has spent her life in a scholarly way looking at him, and the tour guide standing in his house had made her own assumptions about his life. And there are rumours about Mackintosh in the village too. It was just lovely when I realised I was also making up my version of him.”