Herbert McNair
(1868 – 1955)

James Herbert McNair was born in Glasgow, the son of a military man. In 1888 he joined the office of a Glasgow architect where he met Charles Rennie Mackintosh, with whom he formed a lasting friendship. He attended the Glasgow School of Art as an evening student for six years from 1889 to 1895. 


In 1895, he left his apprenticeship in architecture to set up his own studio where he worked on furniture, illustrations and posters. By 1900 he was married to Frances Macdonald with a son and living in Liverpool working as Instructor in Design at University College. By this stage the McNairs were recognised by the leading critics of the day as distinctive and progressive artists-designers. When the school closed and he lost his private income, he moved back to Glasgow with his family where they endured financial struggles and little luck in gaining commissions. In 1921 Frances died suddenly, a final blow, which left McNair devastated and from then he never returned to artistic life.


Little of his work survives, with no recorded output after 1911, not helped by a studio fire in 1897 which destroyed much of his early work. His work included furniture, metalwork, glassware, jewellery, watercolours, pastels and graphics The output of the McNairs often subscribed to the principle of Arts and Crafts, with hand-making, individuality and diversity of output. Their designs were unconventional, often containing personal and symbolic references. Common themes are expressed including romantic love, Christian values, the cycle of the year, with imagery of birds in flights fruit-bearing trees and roses often adopted.


His work featured in The Studio, The Yellow Book and Dekorative Kunst as well as at the first exhibition of the Salon de l’Art Nouveau (1895) and the Arts and Crafts Society in 1896. In 1898, his pastels were displayed in a one man show in London. In 1901 The Studio published the interiors of his family home at 54 Oxford Street, Liverpool (alongside those of the Mackintosh’s Glasgow Main Street flat). His work was also exhibited at the Vienna Secession of 1900 and at the 1902 Turin exhibition. 

The friendship between McNair and Mackintosh is considered as crucial factor in the development of the Glasgow Style. Examples of his work are displayed at the Huntarian Art Gallery, Glasgow and the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Doves and Dreams is a book dedicated to the work of McNair and his wife, Frances Macdonald. From what survives of his work, it is clear he was highly inventive, experimental for his time and interested in symbolic content. 

Writing Cabinet & Chair
Cabinet in stained oak with glass insets and brass fixings. Chair, in stained oak, ash and beech, with glass beads on string. The Cabinet front is adorned with a brass owl, a symbol of wisdom and learning. Circa 1902. Courtesy of the Hunterian Art Gallery and Museum.
Silver Tea Caddy and Spoon
Repoussé panels with symbolic content relating to marriage and love. © The Peartree Collection.
Smokers Cabinet
Stained beech and oak, glass and brass. Courtesy of Liverpool Museums.
Stained oak with leaded glass panels and leather upholstery. Curtains by Frances MacDonald, his wife. Exhibited at the prestigious International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art in Turin in 1902 as part of a Writing Room presented by McNair and his wife. Courtesy of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.
Owl Screen
Courtesy Haslam and White.
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