Celebrated designer and educator Ann Macbeth’s links with The Glasgow School of Art lasted some 32 years, from 1897 when she enrolled as a student, until her retirement in 1929. The Archives and Collections hold examples of her work, and that of her students, much of which aligns with the Glasgow Style, a design ethos developed at GSA with similarities to Art Nouveau.
Macbeth’s father was Scottish, however she was born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1875 and was living in St. Anne’s on the Sea before enrolling at GSA. She studied at the School for eleven years between 1897-1909, and from 1902 onwards, she combined her studies with a teaching position. This was not unusual at the time with a number of students starting to teach courses while continuing their own professional development.
Her work as a designer and her teaching covered a range of subjects, including metalwork and repoussé, bookbinding and decoration, ceramic decoration and china painting. However, she is perhaps most famous for her embroidery work and her legacy most influential in the area of needlework education.
Macbeth’s design output was significant and acclaimed, ranging from one-off hand-made pieces to designs for large companies such as carpet manufacturers Alexander Morton and Co., Donald Bros. of Dundee, and Liberty’s & Knox’s Linen Thread Company. Her work was included in The Glasgow International Exhibition in 1901, and in the Turin Exhibition of Decorative Arts in 1902, where she was awarded a silver medal; her designs were also regularly featured in The Studio.
As a teacher, she was closely involved with GSA’s Saturday classes for teachers and co-developed, with educationalist Margaret Swanson, a course of needlework instruction for 6-24 year olds. Their approach, which placed focus on individual creativity while introducing technical skills at a level appropriate for the different stages of a child’s development, was ground-breaking and gained international interest. The use of affordable materials and everyday stitches to create beautiful and practical objects was also emphasised. Examples of typical student projects can be seen in GSA’s Grace Melvin collection. The course was published in 1911 as Educational Needlecraft and Macbeth went on to write a number of other instructional manuals.
Macbeth was also an active member in the suffrage movement, designing pieces which her students helped to sew. In 1909 she designed a banner for the Edinburgh suffrage procession and demonstration, and in 1910 a linen quilt, made up of 80 pieces, to commemorate the 80 Women’s Social and Political Movement hunger strikers in Holloway Prison. A 1912 letter from Macbeth to GSA’s Secretary and Treasurer discusses her own recovery after a period of solitary confinement and force feeding.
During the First World War, Macbeth contributed work to GSA’s two-day Belgium Tryst, an event in 1915 which put on activities and exhibitions throughout the Mackintosh Building to raise money for Belgium refugees. She also contributed to GSA’s exhibition of Ancient and Modern Needlecraft in 1916, which showed work produced at the School and borrowed from across the UK, and raised funds for the British Red Cross Society and other similar war charities.
Macbeth stopped teaching at GSA in 1921 and moved to Patterdale in the Lake District where she focussed on china decoration (firing her own work) and on large scale textile designs, as well as teaching embroidery and handicraft classes. She regularly submitted work to the Lady Artists’ Club in Glasgow, winning their Lauder prize in 1930 and 1938, and continued to act as a Visiting Staff member at the Art School until 1929.