On a quiet residential street in the upper part of Helensburgh stands what is widely believed to be one of the finest private houses built anywhere in the world in the 20th Century. The story of Hill House started when, in the early spring of 1902, the publisher Walter Blackie and his wife Anna were looking for a new home convenient for Glasgow. During their search they stumbled upon a site in Helensburgh offering space for extensive gardens and excellent views south over the town and the River Clyde.
The Blackies wanted something rather special, and sought the advice of Talwin Morris, the Art Manager of their company, Blackie & Son Limited, about a suitable architect. Morris recommended Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a rising star working with the prestigious Glasgow practice of Honeyman and Keppie. Mackintosh and his wife, Margaret Macdonald, were among the founders of what has since become known as "The Glasgow Style", which strongly influenced the Viennese Art Nouveau movement.
Blackie had strong views about how the house should look. He wanted grey slate rather than red tiles for the roof, and decided on a grey rough-cast finish for the exterior walls. He also instructed his architect to avoid all "adventitious ornament". Mackintosh's initial plans were not accepted by Blackie, but before long an agreed set of plans had been produced and work was under way. The plans drawn up by Mackintosh extended to every detail of the exterior and interior of the house, and required that the Blackie family discard much of their furniture so Mackintosh could control that too.
Compromises were made on both sides. As Blackie's trust in his architect's instincts grew, he allowed more and more of the detailed ornamental touches favoured by Mackintosh to return. For his part Mackintosh allowed his clients to retain some of their furniture: in the dressing room he even designed a mahogany wardrobe to fit around a chest of drawers from the family's existing home in Dunblane.
The interior decoration of the house was a collaboration between Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald, the latter also working closely with Anna Blackie who, with her sister Jane, embroidered many of the bedcovers in the house. What emerged within the house was a series of principle rooms which were finished in either darkly masculine tones or light, bright, feminine tones. It is almost as if the decoration of some rooms was most strongly influenced by Margaret Macdonald with support from Anna Blackie; while others were undertaken by Charles Rennie Mackintosh with support from Walter Blackie. The result is remarkable, and lends much to the enduring charm of the house.
Hill House was completed late in 1903, well under two years after the Blackies first found the site. At a short ceremony Charles Rennie Mackintosh handed the house over to the Blackies and their children. Walter Blackie later wrote that Mackintosh had said: "Here is the house. It is not an Italian Villa, an English Mansion House, a Swiss Chalet, or a Scotch Castle. It is a Dwelling House".
Hill House is a remarkable building. Between them Mackintosh as architect and Blackie as client produced a striking house that does a number of apparently contradictory things. On the one hand the exterior is uncompromisingly modern, almost stark and angular in some views, especially at its west end. But on the other hand it also has striking overtones of the traditional Scottish tower house style of castle. The east end, in particular, harks back to an earlier age, especially through the use of what looks for all the world like a circular stair tower with a conical roof set within the angle of an L-plan tower house. The effect is emphasised by the small circular gardener's hut, also with a conical roof, carefully positioned nearby.
Hill House was intended to be seen and admired. In 1892 Mackintosh had given a lecture in which he condemned "the seclusion of fine buildings and beautiful grounds behind high ugly walls". At Hill House he even included horseshoe shaped cutouts in the surrounding walls so passers-by could view his creation.
Hill House remained the family home of the Blackies for 50 years. In 1972 the house was put on the market by its owner, T. Campbell Lawson. By this time its international importance was widely recognised and its future was secured when it was purchased by the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland. In 1982 it passed into the care of the National Trust for Scotland, and it has since become one of their most popular visitor attractions in western Scotland, a place of pilgrimage for fans of Mackintosh and Macdonald from around the world, or simply a good afternoon out for those who want to see a truly unique "dwelling house".
The main entrance to Hill House is in the west gable, facing the main gate. Immediately to the right of the entrance vestibule is a door leading into the library. This served as a room in which unexpected or perhaps unwanted visitors were received: the rest of the ground floor of the house is only accessible by climbing a flight of four steps which seeks to emphasise the difference between the public space of the library and the more private spaces beyond. The library is an eminently comfortable room, finished in dark wood. Many of the books on the shelves were published by Blackie & Son Limited and have covers produced by Talwin Morris, the man who recommended Mackintosh for the Hill House commission.
The main hall is wider than you might expect, and has a strongly rectangular theme, with the shapes of the windows being reflected by the dark pine surrounds of the wall panels, the space being topped off by a ceiling supported by exposed dark wood beams. Off to the left a superb staircase climbs, turns through 180 degrees on a semicircular landing, then climbs again to the upper hall.
The drawing room is one of the brightest and lightest rooms in the house. A wide rectangular south facing bay window draws in a great deal of light. The room has been restored by the National Trust for Scotland as it appears in photographs taken when the house was first built. Furnishing is fairly sparse, but what is there is superb: and this does allow the space you need to admire the decoration. Above the fireplace is "Sleeping Beauty", a gesso panel Margaret Macdonald designed for this location. It shows a female figure sleeping amid brambles, inaccessible to any but the most determined of suitors. It has been suggested this may have been a reference to the way many women were trapped by the rules of Edwardian society.
Many other details are exactly as they would have been when the house was first lived in, including the wall lights and the original decorative scheme. It is hard to believe that the original cream ceiling was painted a plum colour not long after the Blackies took up residence, and was later painted black. Another returnee to the house was the writing desk made by Mackintosh for Anna Blackie. This came up for sale in November 2002 and was purchased by the National Trust for Scotland and Glasgow City Council, with support from others. It is displayed in the drawing room at Hill House from 1 April to 31 July each year.
The dining room is dominated by its dark pine panelling. While the fixtures such as the fireplace and lights were designed by Mackintosh, the dining suite was one the Blackies previously owned: though today only two chairs and a side table survive of it. The main table on view today is a more recent replacement. Elsewhere on the ground floor are a series of pantries and kitchens. Today these include a tea room for visitors and two shops.
The upper floor of the house is dominated by the main bedroom. This is L-shaped and the carved white bed and range of built in cabinets occupy an alcove covered by a barrel vaulted ceiling. Classic Mackintosh/Macdonald themes are everywhere you look, from the rose-coloured glass squares in the window shutters and cabinet doors to the ladder backed chairs. Especially striking are the silk embroidered hangings produced by Margaret Macdonald either side of the head of the bed, depicting elongated figures of women.
Other rooms on the first floor that have been restored to their original condition include the magnificent upper hall, Walter Blackie's dressing room, and the bathroom complete with a bath and a remarkable shower. The upper floor is also home to a series of rooms containing displays exploring different aspects of the life and work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald: there is also a venue for temporary exhibitions. One of the rooms is home to an impressive model of Hill House, allowing the opportunity to view it from angles not possible from the surrounding gardens.
The gardens at Hill House owed far less to Charles Rennie Mackintosh than they did to Walter Blackie. When the National Trust for Scotland acquired the house in 1982 the gardens were seriously overgrown. They have since been restored as they would have been during the first decade of the house's life. This means there is a great deal outside the house to interest keen gardeners: while other visitors will simply use the gardens as a means of seeing as much as possible of the house itself.