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’.

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