I’ve let myself in, but now I’m not sure whether to disturb him.
‘Hello.’ He looks up and catches me at the door, and he tells me that never has he spent a morning with a flower and known less about it when he was through. ‘Look,’ he lays it out. And together we peer at the dense purple blocks of it, solid as wax above its stalk of blazing green.
(p.195, Mr Mac and Me)
Thomas Magg, the crippled twelve-year-old son of the Blue Anchor owner, lives on the coast of Suffolk. A little before First World War breaks, Tom befriends a new visitor to their village, who it turns out is the renowned architect, Charles Rennie Macintosh. The two develop a cordial relationship, primarily focused upon their common love for painting. Thomas or Tom as he is often referred enjoys doodling ships and boats in the margins of his notebooks, much to the exasperation of his school teacher. Whereas Mr Macintosh or Mr Mac as Tom calls him exquisitely paints water colours of the local wild flowers. ( In fact the cover of Esther Freud’s novel uses a detail from a beautiful 1915 water colour and pencil drawing Charles Macintosh made of Fritillaria.) Soon the two men “bond” over their love for painting and are able to share the silence of working together in peace. ( “There’s a thick, warm silence as we work. I’ve sense that silence, when I used to watch them, but now that I’m inside it, it’s as solid as a coat.” ) At times, Mrs Margaret Macdonald, an accomplished painter herself specialising in the technique of Gosse, joins her husband in Suffolk. ( Her most famous Gesso work was a set of panels, larger than doors, commissioned by a private collector and called The Seven Princesses. ) They are from Glasgow where along with Margaret’s sister, Frances and her husband, Herbert MacNair, they were known as The Four. Mr Mac was also responsible for designing the new Glasgow School of Art, commissioned in 1897 by the School Director, Francis Newberry. (His descriptions of the project are a pleasure to read in the novel.) With the Great War breaking life in Suffolk is also affected. Soldiers come and stay, refugees arrive, and locals living near to the sea move to safer places inland and with the turmoil suspicion falls upon Mr Mac. The locals, goaded by Mr Gory, a newcomer himself, rapidly come to believe that Mr Mac is a spy since he moves around with his binoculars or spyglass observing the coastline. Before the war is over, Mr Mac is arrested and Thomas leaves Suffolk to travel the world.
Mr Mac and Me is a stunningly beautiful novel. All fiction is ultimately a labour of love, but this is infused with love and beauty on every page. Every description is magnificent such as of the child observing Mr Mac paint — “I smile because he’s painted the river as if it is his own”. The descriptions of the wild flowers, even of the sweet william blooms on Tom’s mother’s table in the pub add a dash of colour, it is as if you can almost get the gentle and sweet fragrance of the wild flowers. While reading I kept wondering if some of these observations about watching a painter at work stemmed from Esther Freud’s own experience of seeing her father Lucien Freud at work. An answer was to be had in an interview she gave to the Guardian. She says “It’s funny, I didn’t even think about that until my publisher pointed out that the book describes how an artist works through the eyes of a child. And that was exactly my experience with my father; I slowly came to understand the artistic process through watching him paint. I’d have these little realisations like: oh, it’s going to take years! Or, as it says about Mackintosh in the book, that he was showing the insides of something – he hadn’t just abandoned it halfway through. I enjoyed trying to follow his thought process.” ( 31 august 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/31/esther-freud-author-interview-mr-mac-and-me )
Sadly the buildings of Glasgow School of Art that Charles Rennie Macintosh designed were severely damaged in a fire on 23 May 2014. In fact, Esther Freud “heard the news on the last day of checking the proofs. The timing did feel extraordinary. I felt so connected to him and so aware that he had had enough bad luck already.”
Mr Mac and Me is a pleasure to read. It has the knack of drawing you in to the early twentieth century world of Suffolk without seeming like historical fiction, yet it leaves a warm glow of discovering a new world, creating a new space in one’s mind and introducing the reader to a significant designer of the post-Impressionist and Art Nouveau movement in Great Britain. There is a lovely article published on 16 August 2014 in the Guardian describing how Esther Freud came to write this novel: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/16/esther-freud-houses-ghosts-inspired-new-book .
Please buy it! You won’t be sorry. This is a book for keeps.
Esther Freud Mr Mac and Me Bloomsbury India, 2014. Pb. pp. 300 Rs. 499