Not Mackintosh

Chris Miele

  • ‘Greek’ Thomson edited by Gavin Stamp and Sam McKinstry
    Edinburgh, 249 pp, £35.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 7486 0480 4

The history of architecture is replete with figures whose careers were tied to the fortunes of great cities. John Nash’s genius for town-planning could only have flourished in London during the post-Waterloo boom years. Stanford White’s feeling for opulence fits the New York scene of the 1890s like an evening glove. So, too, did mid-Victorian Glasgow define the professional life of Alexander Thomson.

Thomson (1817-75) grew up near to what was fast becoming Britain’s ‘Second City’. After 1800, Glasgow grew fat on the West Indian textile trade, diversifying during the 1830s into heavy industry. The disruptions that followed the start of the American Civil War merely slowed the creation of wealth. Hardly missing a beat, the Glaswegians changed tack, transforming the Clyde into one of the busiest shipyards in the world. In such a place someone like Thomson, raised in modest circumstances, without the benefit of much formal education or a family connection to the building trades, could suddenly find himself responsible for constructing such a complex urban environment. He was fortunate to find early masters, Robert Foote and then John Baird, and in all likelihood they introduced the aspiring architect to the ideas that were to transform his art and profession: historicism and comparative architectural history. In the years of Thomson’s apprenticeships in the 1840s, another Scot, James Fergusson, was busily chronicling the history of world architecture. By the end of the decade, it was possible for architects in the most remote provinces to form a clear picture of Hindu cave temples or ancient Egyptian palaces, and to contrast them with more familiar Greek, Roman or Gothic buildings, all without getting up from their drawing-boards. Thomson was, by his own admission, captivated by this new literature. Indeed, he seemed to prefer pictures and descriptions of buildings to the real things, since even at the peak of his success he never left the British Isles to study ancient architecture first hand.

Between 1849 and 1856, Thomson and his partner John Baird (apparently no relation to his former master) designed some two dozen villas. Some were suburban dwellings, others weekend country retreats, but all were linked by modern transport corridors to the swelling parent city. These early works are a mixed stylistic bag: Gothic, Romanesque, Italianate, built for men who had made fortunes in trade, manufacturing and property.

In 1849, Thomson made his first bid to emulate the business dealings of his clientèle by developing, designing and managing a warehouse in Dunlop Street with his brother George. Although this particular venture never made any money, Thomson kept his hand in at the speculator’s game. He had a financial interest in several of his best known designs, usually sharing the risk with partners in the building trades. The contributors to this new volume who explore Thomson’s relationship with Glasgow have chosen to overlook this activity, focusing instead on his attempt to shape the city through design. Most of the 16 essays are preoccupied with the analysis and theory of style, the pure stuff of formalist art history, so that by the end Glasgow recedes into the distance, leaving Thomson centre-stage, transfixed by the spotlight of international design celebrity. ‘An architect of genius’, the dust-jacket blithely announces, ‘comparable in stature to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’.

Thomson’s rare talent matured suddenly in 1856, at about the time he and his brother George were forming an architectural partnership. The exact nature of Thomson’s relations with his partners remains unclear. George Thomson, like John Baird before him, seems to have tended to the business side of the practice, leaving Alexander free to design – a fraternal divison of labour, that worked well until 1871, when George abandoned architecture for missionary work in Africa. In that very fruitful year 1856, Alexander Thomson’s fixation on the trappings of historical style gave way to an understanding of the expressive power of mass and proportion. Judiciously placed ornaments, derived almost exclusively from ancient Greek architecture, are deployed across surfaces in order to accentuate the geometrical components of designs. His double villa at Langbank – a semi-detached house cleverly planned to give the impression of a single dwelling – marks a definite turning-point.

In that same year, 1856, he built the truly astonishing Caledonian Road United Presbyterian Church in the heart of a new urban district. The body of the church, now only a shell after a fire in 1965, is treated as a podium for a truncated Ionic temple that dominates the main front of the building, sitting, like a heavenly propylaeon or gateway, some thirty feet above the pavement; behind is the low horizontal slab of the clerestory lighting the main auditorium. To the left of the portico rises a great tower, square in plan, of pure masonry. By any standards it is a startling building.

The individual elements of the Caledonian Road Church are not, in themselves, unusual, and have close parallels in the work of more prosaic Glaswegian architects, such as Charles Wilson, whose Free Church College of 1855-7 also features a portico raised above a high base and highlighted by towers. What distinguishes Thomson from even his most talented contemporaries, such as John Burnet Sr, or the Gothically inclined J.J. Stevenson, is the degree to which he was ready to pare down forms to their simplest state. His work is blunt to the point of primitivism, and Gavin Stamp astutely draws out the underlying similarities between Thomson and the most advanced High Victorian Goths working in England at the same time, in particular Burges, Butterfield and Street. Of course, Thomson’s stylistic idiom was absolutely contrary to theirs, Greek not Gothic; but his ability to design structures that aim at a single, sweeping architectural effect places him squarely in their league.

And in the design of that quintessentially British urban form, the terraced house, Thomson bested even John Nash, impresario of Regency London’s townscape. Thomson’s Nos 1-10 Moray Place, Strathbungo (1858-9), and the Great Western Terrace (1867) are arguably the finest terraces ever built north or south of the Border. Again, the key to their success is the subordination of detail to the overall idea. Each terrace strikes the eye of the viewer at a stroke, as a single mammoth bulk, and every detail is sacrificed to one grand and, undeniably, Greek gesture.

Whatever happened in 1856 to produce this change the result was a total and permanent renunciation of all arched styles. From this point Thomson pledged his life to trabeation: the strict rule of post and lintel construction that finds its purest expression in the earliest monumental stone buildings. ‘Stonehenge is really more scientifically constructed than York Minster,’ was how he explained the preference in 1866. Gradually Thomson developed his favourite idiom, the style of Periclean Athens, with features from ancient Egyptian, Hindu and Assyrian architecture, the details culled from book plates. But his belief, strengthened by a strong Presbyterian faith, that the trabeated styles were more honest and Christian than those using round or pointed arches never flagged. Contrary to what English (and chiefly Anglican) architectural theorists have been saying for some time, Thomson did not see Greek architecture as pagan. Sam McKinstry persuasively argues that, for Thomson, the architecture of the Old and New Testaments was Greek, and thus it was uncorrupted by any whiff of Papal or monastic excess. In 1859, the great Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, perfectly expressed the ideal of a modern Christian temple when laying the foundation stone of his Metropolitan Tabernacle in Newington Butts, South London. ‘Greek is the sacred tongue, and Greek is the Baptist’s tongue ... Every Baptist place should be Greek, never Gothic.’

For their original admirers Thomson’s church designs would have had a bearing on urgent religious issues. In 1843, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland had upheld the right of Church patrons to appoint ministers against the wishes of congregations. ‘Evangelicals’ protested and defiantly left the Assembly to form the Free Church. In 1847, those who had left the Church of Scotland in the years before this Great Disruption formed the United Presbyterian Church. There followed a church-building boom of unprecedented proportions, with each group, and sometimes factions within groups, striving to express a corporate identity through these new buildings.

This is the background to the power and purity of Thomson’s churches, with their deeply symbolic forms. It is barely addressed in this book, although it is central to Thomson’s development. The problem facing Thomson scholars may be that he left no clear account of the role religion played in his stylistic conversion, or at least no account as unequivocal as that of his near contemporary, George Gilbert Scott, the most prolific of the English Goths. Reading Pugin, Scott recounted in his memoirs, persuaded him that Gothic was the only style for a Christian country, leaving him to denounce both trabeation and impure Gothic styles.

Rather than suggest the religious motives behind the adoption of Thomson’s style, the contributors to this volume stick to his visual sources. The weight of art historical evidence skilfully set out here succeeds in placing Thomson firmly at the end of a great tradition – the Greek Revival – not at its beginning. Even in Scotland, where Neoclassicism survived longer than in England, it was becoming old-fashioned in the late 1850s. In the next decade, Goths from the south, some trained in G.G. Scott’s office, would swarm north of the Border to challenge the trabeated styles, but Thomson would not budge. Hence his alias. The case for Thomson’s architectural genius is, some contributors seem to fear, thereby greatly weakened.

The sources of Thomson’s style are well documented by Charles McKean, David Walker and David Watkin. It is clear that he looked closely at the works of the vigorous school of northern Classicism, and he admitted to having certain favourites. In an 1866 pamphlet attacking Scott’s Gothic designs for the University of Glasgow, Thomson expressed unqualified admiration for Thomas Hamilton’s Royal High School in Edinburgh (1825-9) and Harvey Elmes’s St George’s Hall in Liverpool (begun in 1841). His own Caledonian Road Church and Moray Place display more imagination than even these works, with many details that seem to have no precedent, except in books.

Thomson himself freely admitted his debt to architectural publications in an 1859 address to the Glasgow Architectural Society, arguing that the modern architect was fortunate beyond all his predecessors in that he is ‘built about with books, containing examples of every known style. If an architect wants an idea, he does not require to fly away into the region of imagination to fetch it – it is ready on hand on the adjoining shelf.’ The title that generates the most controversy in ‘Greek’ Thomson is the Sammlung architektonischer Entwürfe, with engravings of K.F. Schinkel’s works from the early decades of the century. Thomson is known to have owned a copy by 1863. But when did he first get his hands on it? His double villa is so like Schinkel that most art historians would take the resemblance as proof of influence, concluding, with proper scholarly caution, that by 1855 it is likely that Thomson had seen the work of Schinkel. A number of contributors, in particular Andrew Macmillan, don’t see things in quite this way, and resist any attempt to lessen the unique creative genius of their man by admitting to his being influenced.

Sam McKinstry’s excellent essay shows that the final element in Thomson’s manner is the work of the visionary English painter, John Martin, whose depictions of scenes from biblical history are set in front of colossal reconstructions of ancient Babylon and Nineveh, fantastic buildings that not only provided some of the details for Thomson’s work but also inspired his feeling for scale and mass. These images were widely circulated throughout the 19th century, either on their own or slipped into family Bibles.

The truth may be that Thomson was both a brilliant and a provincial architect. The subject of provincialism is discussed nowhere in ‘Greek’ Thomson, and this omission is consistent with the book’s larger purpose, which is to furnish Thomson with the credentials needed to enter the Pantheon of World-Class Designers. If Andrew Macmillan were to have his way, Thomson would fill a niche between Mackintosh and, of all people, Frank Lloyd Wright.

You sometimes get the imprssion that Thomson enthusiasts are upset by the fact that their man is just not as well known as Mackintosh, Glasgow’s most famous son, whose reputation as a world-class designer has been magnified out of all proportion in the city’s bid to insert itself on the Euro-culture tourist trail. ‘Mackintosh Mania’, to borrow a phrase from Alan Crawford, deflects attention from Glasgow’s splendid Victorian architecture, and this has done real harm to the conservation of its historic environment. For if Mackintosh is a genius then what is ‘not Mackintosh’ – and what could be more ‘not Mackintosh’ than the Greek? – pales by comparison, and is less likely to attract the sort of thinking and money needed to save old buildings.

This is the real agenda of ‘Greek’ Thomson. Such faults as it has derive from history and conservation mingling too closely. To be fair, Gavin Stamp has openly declared his interest as a founding member of the Alexander Thomson Society, a pressure group that aims to win wider recognition for ‘the great man’ and wider statutory protection for his great works. A heroic endeavour which perhaps accounts for the drive to create a hero.