At the end of the 19th century a group of designers who studied arts and crafts at the Glasgow School of Art started a variation of the Art Nouveau Movement that has become known as the Glasgow Style. The group was known as The Four and consisted of an architect and designer named Charles Rennie Mackintosh, his wife Margaret, her sister Frances MacDonald and Frances’ husband Herbert MacNair. During this same time a woman named Catherine (Kate) Cranston began opening tea rooms all over Glasgow. Over a 20 year span from 1896 to 1916 she commissioned Mackintosh to design her tea rooms. Margaret supplied most of the decor on the tea room walls while Charles concentrated on the furniture. You can still see some examples of their Glasgow Style today.
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Kate’s father George started out as a baker and pastry-maker and then went into the hotel business. Kate’s older brother Stuart became a tea merchant and also opened a few tea rooms of his own. Kate went a step further creating some tea rooms for women only and also some smoking and billiards rooms for men only. In some of her other establishments men and women could dine together. Many of the Cranston family members were leaders of the temperance movement in Glasgow and the whole idea of the tea rooms was to offer social establishments that were alcohol-free.
Kate sold all of her tea rooms in 1917 after her husband died and she retired from public life. Some of the new owners kept the tea rooms open for awhile but one by one her old establishments closed down. Four of the tea rooms were run by Cranston’s Tea Rooms Ltd. who went into liquidation in 1954. The Willow Tea Rooms of Sauchiehall Street became part of Daly’s department store which closed in 1979. Lately the spirit of Kate’s tea rooms has been rekindled with the opening of the Willow Tea Rooms on Buchanan Street next door to where Miss Cranston’s Tea Rooms once stood. Mackintosh designed Kate’s tea rooms on Ingram Street and they have been replicated in the design of the Willow on Buchanan.
Anne Mulhearn reopened the Willow Tea Rooms at 217 Sauchiehall Street in 1983 but the building has recently closed for two years of refurbishing and Ann is moving to the Watt Brothers department store down the street. Anne also owns the tea rooms at 97 Buchanan Street which we visited one afternoon during our recent stay in Glasgow. I was surprised to find champagne, beer and whisky on the menu. I wonder what Kate would have said to that! My wife and I both ordered the afternoon high tea but I also had a glass of Lawson’s.
We visited the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum on our last day in Glasgow and discovered a number of displays devoted to Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style. One of the displays was a series of chairs and one of the chairs was the high back designed by Mackintosh for Kate’s Ingram Street tea rooms. We sat on identical chairs on Buchanan Street.
There are other tea rooms all over Glasgow’s central district. We went to one close to our hotel one afternoon. The tea, sandwiches and cakes were about the same quality as the Willow on Buchanan but at about half the price! No champagne, though. And no Glasgow Style. Right now the only tea rooms that look like they were designed by Mackintosh are on Buchanan Street but you will soon be able to also see the tea rooms at Watt Brothers on 119 Sauciehall Street and in two years the renovated Willow Tea Rooms at 217 Sauciehall Street.