Tea Rooms – The Alternative To Gin Palaces?

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned Glasgow’s Willow Tea Rooms. These were designed in the early years of the 20th century by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Catherine Cranston – usually referred to as Kate Cranston, or more formally, Miss Cranston. She continued to use this despite being married to wealthy businessman, John Cochrane in 1892.

In many ways, Miss Cranston was one of the central influences for Clarissa Belhaven in The Tea Planter’s Daughter.

In the year Catherine Cranston was born (1849), her father, George Cranston had  become the proprietor of a hotel in Glasgow’s city centre. As you can see in this advertisement from 1852, he was proud of the range and quality of the service he offered:

Eventually Charles would run a small chain of hotels in Glasgow, Edinburgh and London. Importantly, these were to become temperance hotels, offering high-class, alcohol-free accommodation.

Perhaps it was the combined influence of her upbringing in Cranston’s Hotels, and her brother’s expertise in the tea business (he was a tea dealer) that led Miss Cranston to open her own unique style of tea shops. These were not the sombre, utilitarian outlets that had become commonplace over the last fifty years or so – they were veritable palaces in the most fashionable of styles.

Her first shop (opened in 1878, in partnership with her brother) in Argyll Street was decorated in the contemporary Baronial style. But in addition to the furnishings, and standards of service & hygiene, Miss Cranston had recognised the need to include a social element. In many ways she was creating an alternative to public houses, taking care to offer more than just food and drink.

There were rooms for gentlemen only and ladies only, as well as luncheon rooms, billiard rooms, and smoking rooms. The atmosphere was welcome to all, and Miss Cranston’s Tea Rooms became social centres for business men and apprentices; ladies and maids alike. The ladies only rooms were a particular success, allowing women to meet each other and retain their respectability without male company.

By 1888, Kate’s business was independent of her brother’s, and she commissioned George Walton & Co, Ecclesiastical and House Decorators to design a new smoking room for one of her tea shops in the Arts and Crafts style. It was in 1898 when she again commissioned George Walton to design a new interior for her expanded shop in Argyll Street that she first met Charles Rennie Mackintosh. At the time, he was working with Walton, and designed some of the furniture, which included his trademark high-backed chairs.

When the Ingram Street shop was re-designed in 1900, Mackintosh was given a whole room to work on. With his new wife, Margaret MacDonald, he designed the White Dining Room and hallway to the street. Margaret was a gifted designer and artist in her own right, and was responsible for many of the flowing, sinuous designs in the murals.

Such was the success of this, that in 1903 Miss Cranston awarded the Mackintoshes the commission for the whole of her new tea rooms in Sauchiehall Street. This was to become the Willow Tea Rooms, and  is seen as the acme of the Scottish Art Nouveau movement – at least on a par with Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art.

It is not surprising that Catherine Cranston’s vision of “art tearooms” was a commercial success. She ran the business until the death of her husband in 1917, when it was sold. The Willow Tea Rooms were subsequently incorporated into the adjacent Daly’s department store, and after 1954, only the first floor’s Room De Luxe remained in use.

But in 1983, the building was again sold, and over the next fifteen years it was refurbished back to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s original design. Once again, the business is doing well, and in 1997, opened a second branch in Buchanan Street – right next door to Miss Cranston’s original shop: