The glory of Glaswe­gian Greek

As we cel­e­brate the bi­cen­te­nary of Alexan­der ‘Greek’ Thom­son, Gavin Stamp con­sid­ers the re­mark­able way in which he adapted prin­ci­ples of Greek ar­chi­tec­ture to the de­vel­op­ment of his na­tive city

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­tographs by Si­mon Jauncey

As we cel­e­brate the bi­cen­te­nary of Alexan­der ‘Greek’ Thomp­son, Gavin Stamp con­sid­ers the re­mark­able way he adapted prin­ci­ples of Greek ar­chi­tec­ture for his na­tive city

In 1874, the year be­fore his death, in a pub­lic lec­ture on Greek ar­chi­tec­ture, Alexan­der Thom­son (1817-1875) asked his Glas­gow au­di­ence ‘to turn and look for a mo­ment at the Acrop­o­lis of Athens, as it ap­peared when Greece was the light of the world’. He de­scribed its ‘beau­ti­ful forms com­posed of mar­ble of pearly white­ness, and the azure, crim­son and gold with which they were par­tially tinted’. This, he sug­gested, was ‘one of the most glo­ri­ous sights which the hu­man eye has ever been per­mit­ted to be­hold and the like of which it will never again see in this world’.

Alexan­der ‘Greek’ Thom­son never saw the Acrop­o­lis and never went to Greece. In fact, he never crossed the Chan­nel and al­most all his work was con­fined to the west of Scot­land. ‘Greek’ Thom­son he may have been, but he was not one of the con­ven­tional, ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Greek Re­vival­ists; in­deed, as far as he was con­cerned, they ‘failed to master their style, and so be­came its slaves’.

Thom­son’s phys­i­cal in­su­lar­ity stim­u­lated a fer­tile and in­ven­tive imag­i­na­tion and he dreamed of the an­cient world, ap­ply­ing the ar­chi­tec­tural prin­ci­ples he dis­cerned in the mon­u­ments of Egypt, Greece and the near East to the mod­ern build­ings he de­signed for Vic­to­rian Glas­gow.

In this smoky, pol­luted in­dus­trial city on the Clyde, Thom­son man­aged to de­sign, with rare bril­liance and in­ge­nu­ity, ware­houses and com­mer­cial of­fices, blocks of ten­e­ments and ter­races of houses, sub­ur­ban vil­las and three great tem­ples for the United Pres­by­te­rian Church.

To­day, his achieve­ment is gen­er­ally seen to be of less im­por­tance—cer­tainly, less fash­ion­able—than the work of his fel­low Glaswe­gian C. R. Mack­in­tosh (whose 150th birth­day will be cel­e­brated with rather greater fan­fare next year). How­ever, in the words of the ar­chi­tect Mark Baines, his work ‘seems to be of con­tin­u­ing rel­e­vance in any pur­suit of an ur­ban ar­chi­tec­ture, for there is a sen­si­bil­ity ex­hib­ited in build­ings that is able to con­fer an equal dig­nity upon all sec­tions of so­ci­ety with­out un­nec­es­sary dis­tinc­tion’.

Largely self-ed­u­cated, Thom­son was in the best tra­di­tions of the Scot­tish En­light­en­ment. A de­vout Pres­by­te­rian, a thinker and a dreamer, ev­i­dently in­spired by the apoc­a­lyp­tic, vi­sion­ary im­ages of the painter John Martin, he was nev­er­the­less a highly prac­ti­cal ar­chi­tect. Thom­son was happy to ex­per­i­ment with new ma­te­ri­als, such as struc­tural cast-iron and large win­dows of plate glass, and de­signed not only build­ings,

but also iron­work and ter­ra­cotta chim­ney pots, fur­ni­ture and in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tion.

The con­tin­u­ing fas­ci­na­tion of his work lies partly in an in­quir­ing mind ap­ply­ing to mod­ern con­di­tions the ar­chi­tec­tural prin­ci­ples he held to, the God-given ‘eter­nal laws’ he un­der­stood in An­cient Egypt and Greece: ‘We do not con­trive rules; we dis­cover laws. There is such a thing as ar­chi­tec­tural truth.’

These laws gov­erned his ap­proach to do­mes­tic ar­chi­tec­ture, in­side and out. As Thomas Gil­dard, his ad­mirer and memo­ri­al­ist, put it in 1888: ‘With Mr Thom­son, the de­sign­ing of a build­ing did not cease with the plas­ter­work and join­ery. It ex­tended to the coloured dec­o­ra­tion and this was as orig­i­nal, beau­ti­ful and char­ac­ter­is­tic as were the group­ings or the mould­ings.’

Thom­son be­gan his ca­reer de­sign­ing vil­las down the Firth of Clyde in a va­ri­ety of fash­ion­able styles: Ital­ianate, Ba­ro­nial, even Gothic, a style he ar­gued was in­her­ently un­sta­ble and later turned vi­o­lently against (‘Stone­henge is re­ally more sci­en­tif­i­cally con­structed than York Min­ster’). And then, in the mid­dle of the 1850s, he seems to have de­cided that just one style, the tra­beated Greek, must hence­forth be the ve­hi­cle for his en­deav­ours.

As Sir John Sum­mer­son once wrote, with Thom­son, ‘the Greek Re­vival had turned it­self into a new style, still mostly Greek but also ro­man­ti­cally ab­stract’. And the mod­ern, per­sonal Greek style that he de­vel­oped can be seen as a bridge be­tween the vil­las of Schinkel in Ger­many and the early prairie houses of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Af­ter the vil­las came ter­races of houses for Glas­gow. These are re­mark­able com­po­si­tions in which he strove for ar­chi­tec­tural unity. Thom­son did not in­vent the build­ing type, of course, but, whereas the ter­races in, say, Blooms­bury or Bath some­times tried to ap­pear as sin­gle grand palace fronts, Thom­son’s were novel com­po­si­tions, each unique, in which the houses were com­bined in dif­fer­ent ways.

The grand­est was Great West­ern Ter­race, in which he com­bined two- and three-storey houses in an un­prece­dented ar­range­ment, full of op­ti­cal sub­tleties. ‘Only a ge­nius of a high or­der could, with so few, and seem­ingly so sim­ple, el­e­ments de­sign a build­ing of such com­posed unity,’ wrote Thomas Gil­dard. ‘The win­dows have no dress­ings, but Greek god­desses could af­ford to ap­pear un­dressed.’

Unity was of­ten achieved by hav­ing doors and win­dows equally spaced and of equal width, ris­ing to the same height. This is the case with his first ter­race, Mo­ray Place in Strath­bungo (Fig 4), with the uni­fy­ing first­floor colon­nade of 52 square piers, ex­em­pli­fy­ing Thom­son’s be­lief that ‘all who have stud­ied works of art must have been struck by the mys­te­ri­ous power of the hor­i­zon­tal el­e­ment in car­ry­ing the mind away into space and into spec­u­la­tions on in­fin­ity’.

For him, win­dows were a prob­lem that gave rise to in­ge­nious so­lu­tions. He wished them to ap­pear only as voids be­tween struc­tural el­e­ments—whether walls or piers—so he used the largest sheets of glass he could find, with few glaz­ing bars and a min­i­mal frame. Some­times, he placed his win­dows like a cur­tain wall be­hind and de­tached from the struc­tural piers and some­times hang­ing his sashes so they could de­scend as well as rise (and mak­ing care­ful pro­vi­sion for fix­ing blinds or cur­tains).

Thom­son also lav­ished care on his do­mes­tic in­te­ri­ors. His ceil­ing plas­ter­work, with rosettes placed on wide, flat sur­rounds, is dis­tinc­tive. His join­ery is unique: door­frames could be like small Stone­henge mega­liths, with an

over­hang­ing lin­tel. The doors them­selves were given a sin­gle, cen­tral pier be­low a tran­som—a form de­rived ul­ti­mately from the en­grav­ing of the (lost) Chor­agic Mon­u­ment of Thra­syl­lus in Stu­art’s and Revett’s An­tiq­ui­ties of Athens (Fig 7).

His iron­work, in­clud­ing balustrades and bal­cony fronts, cre­atively adapts Greek pat­terns cast at Wal­ter Mac­far­lane’s Sara­cen Foundry.

Then, there is colour. By the 1840s, it was widely known that Greek tem­ples were orig­i­nally brightly coloured and this may have in­formed Thom­son’s predilec­tion for cov­er­ing in­ter­nal walls in poly­chro­matic pat­terns de­rived from Greek mo­tifs. In some of his early schemes, he is said to have cut his own sten­cils; later, he worked with pro­fes­sional dec­o­ra­tors (Fig 6).

In­side, the Queen’s Park Church, his lost (bombed) mas­ter­piece, the spec­tac­u­lar dec­o­ra­tion was car­ried out by the artist Daniel Cot­tier. ‘I want noth­ing bet­ter than the re­li­gion that pro­duced art like that,’ ex­claimed Ford Ma­dox Brown when he saw it. ‘Here, line and colour­ing are sug­ges­tive of Par­adise it­self.’

Thom­son’s prin­ci­ples may be stud­ied in his two most cel­e­brated houses. The first is Maria Villa in Lang­side, to the south of Glas­gow. Built in 1856–57, it is, to­day, bet­ter known as the Dou­ble Villa be­cause it is, in fact, a pair of semi-de­tached houses (Fig 5). It does not look like it, how­ever, be­cause, in­stead of du­pli­cat­ing the plan of one house as a mir­ror im­age, Thom­son turned it through 180˚ so that each side of the build­ing presents an iden­ti­cal, but asym­met­ri­cally com­posed el­e­va­tion.

Each, there­fore, is some­thing that was, in fact, novel, a Gre­cian villa con­ceived in Pic­turesque terms: be­fore Thom­son, Ital­ianate or Gothic vil­las could be asym­met­ri­cal, but Gre­cian ones were de­signed with ax­ial sym­me­try.

Maria Villa presents a bril­liant com­po­si­tion in what was now the aus­tere Thom­son style, an af­fair of con­tin­u­ous wall planes, square struc­tural piers and low-pitched roofs (not, per­haps, ideal in the cli­mate of the west of Scot­land).

One of these houses has been care­fully re­stored in­ter­nally (Fig 8) and presents rooms en­tirely pan­elled in tim­ber in a dis­tinc­tive, per­haps ec­cen­tric man­ner, ar­tic­u­lated by thin pro­ject­ing pi­laster strips. The de­sign of the Dou­ble Villa was pub­lished by Blackie & Son in 1868 in a book en­ti­tled Villa and

Cot­tage Ar­chi­tec­ture (Fig 3), in which the ac­com­pa­ny­ing texts were pre­sum­ably sup­plied by the ar­chi­tect.

In this case, he wrote: ‘The whole of the in­te­rior fin­ish­ings are of care­fully se­lected yel­low pine, the en­rich­ments be­ing frets of ma­hogany planted upon it. The wood is var­nished, pre­serv­ing its nat­u­ral colour and mark­ings, no stain of any kind be­ing used. The ef­fect of this mode of treat­ment is to unite to­gether the sev­eral parts of the room, thereby giv­ing an ef­fect of in­creased ex­tent.’

Thom­son’s finest and most elab­o­rate villa, Holm­wood House, was built in 1857–8

(Fig 1). It was com­mis­sioned by James Couper, a pa­per man­u­fac­turer, and it may have been in­tended as a show­case for his

prod­ucts as well as for en­ter­tain­ing. Gil­dard mar­velled: ‘If ar­chi­tec­ture be po­etry in stone and lime—a great tem­ple an epic—this ex­quis­ite lit­tle gem, at once clas­sic and pic­turesque, is as com­plete, self-con­tained and pol­ished as a son­net.’

The key, again, to un­der­stand­ing the orig­i­nal­ity of this ‘adap­ta­tion of the Greek’ is its com­bi­na­tion of the Clas­si­cal and the Pic­turesque.

In its clev­erly asym­met­ri­cal com­po­si­tion, ex­tended hor­i­zon­tally by a long wall, each large room is clearly ex­pressed ex­ter­nally. The bay win­dow of the par­lour ap­pears as if it is a cir­cu­lar Ionic tem­ple and, at the other end of the villa, three huge win­dows (with sashes that go both up and down) an­nounce the tall, sin­gle-storey din­ing room (Fig 2).

This room in­cor­po­rates a frieze based on John Flax­man’s il­lus­tra­tions of Homer’s

Iliad. At the far end is a toplit re­cess that con­tained a side­board ‘of white mar­ble’, ac­cord­ing to Villa and Cot­tage Ar­chi­tec­ture, ‘with en­rich­ments in­cised and gilt; and the back and ends of the re­cess have mir­rors in ma­hogany fram­ing, dec­o­rated with rose­wood frets’.

This has now been re-cre­ated as part of the ex­em­plary on­go­ing restora­tion of the in­te­ri­ors at Holm­wood be­ing car­ried out by the Na­tional Trust for Scot­land, guardians of this mas­ter­piece since it was saved by The Alexan­der Thom­son So­ci­ety from prob­a­ble de­struc­tion.

The first floor is reached by a stair­case un­der a strange ex­otic lantern, ris­ing from dark­ness into light. As al­ways in Thom­son’s houses, the draw­ing room is on this up­per level. Here, the walls were once adorned with pan­els painted by Hugh Cameron de­pict­ing Ten­nyson’s Idylls of the King (long since re­moved). What sur­vives are the white mar­ble chim­ney­p­iece with in­cised or­na­ment and the dec­o­ra­tive ceil­ing.

Thom­son’s (down­stairs) din­ing rooms usu­ally had a stylised sun­burst in the cen­tre of the plas­ter ceil­ing and, in his draw­ing rooms, the ceil­ing rep­re­sented the night sky, with plas­ter stars. Here, at Holm­wood, yet more stars were painted on the dark-blue plas­ter be­tween the raised gilded stars, as if to sug­gest even more re­mote con­stel­la­tions.

In that lec­ture he gave in 1874, Thom­son spec­u­lated about ‘the in­hab­i­tants of the dis­tant spheres’ and about space travel as well as about the mo­tives of his Cre­ator. He mused about the speed of light and how there were stars so dis­tant that their light had not yet reached us, so that, ‘if it were pos­si­ble for us to fly off into space, we might, as we re­tire, sur­vey back­wards, as it were, all the events that have hap­pened on our planet—that we might, by go­ing to a suf­fi­cient dis­tance, wit­ness the very first act of its cre­ation’.

Alexan­der ‘Greek’ Thom­son was not only a great and orig­i­nal ar­chi­tect, he was also a dreamer, al­most a mys­tic.

Fig 1 above: Holm­wood House of 1857–8 is asym­met­ri­cally planned, an un­usual fea­ture for a work of neo-gre­cian ar­chi­tec­ture. Thom­son man­aged to cre­ate dy­namic build­ings on a small scale. Fig 2 right: The din­ing room at Holm­wood House, with its frieze copied from Flax­man’s Iliad

Fig 3 above: The plan and el­e­va­tions of the Dou­ble Villa as pub­lished by Blackie & Son in 1868 Fig 4 be­low left: Mo­ray Place, with its con­tin­u­ous up­per tier of win­dows. Fig 5 be­low right: The Dou­ble Villa. It com­prises two iden­ti­cal houses set in re­verse to each other

Fig 6 left: The en­trance hall of Holm­wood House is a sym­phony of colour. Fig 7 above: The draw­ing-room door of Holm­wood House. Note the dis­tinc­tive cen­tral pier, de­rived from the lost Chor­agic Mon­u­ment of Thra­syl­lus

Fig 8: Thom­son typ­i­cally placed draw­ing rooms on the first floor of the build­ing, as here at the Dou­ble Villa

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