Mitchell, Arthur George Sydney (1856-1930)

Arthur George Sydney Mitchell was born at Headswood in Larbert, Stirlingshire on 1 January 1856, the only child of Dr Arthur Mitchell and his wife Margaret Hay Houston, daughter of James Houston of Tullochgriban, Strathspey. Dr Arthur Mitchell (later Sir Arthur) was qualified in both medicine and law and the year after his son was born he had been appointed Deputy Commissioner for the Board of Lunacy for Scotland, becoming Commissioner in 1870. The older Mitchell was an eminent figure in public life, being Chairman of the Scottish Life Assurance Company, and a Director of the Commercial Bank from at least the 1880s as well as having wide-reaching interests and holding posts both in the fields of the arts and sciences. He was Secretary and twice President of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Rhind Lecturer on Archaeology 1876-78, Secretary of the Scottish Meteorological Society to name but a few.

The younger Mitchell (known as Sydney) was educated privately and later attended classes at Edinburgh University before being articled to Robert Rowand Anderson in 1878. During this period he made a study tour of France, Germany, Belgium and Holland. In 1883 directly after his completing his articles, he commenced practice on his own account at 122 George Street in Edinburgh. The move from apprenticeship to independent practice with no interim period as assistant or draughtsman was unusual and it is clear that this was facilitated by contact with the wealthy clients he had met through the influence of his father, one of the most significant being John R Findlay, proprietor of the ‘Scotsman’. Findlay employed Mitchell for his first commissions in 1883, for alterations to Findlay’s own house at 3 Rothesay Terrace and for Well Court, workers’ housing in the Dean Village. It was probably also through his father’s influence that Sydney Mitchell was appointed architect to the Commercial Bank of Scotland. David Rhind had held the post of architect to the bank from 1846 but retired in c.1881 and died in April 1883. A few months prior to Rhind’s death Sydney Mitchell was commissioned to remodel the telling room of the headquarters of the bank in George Street which he did in lavish fashion spending at least half of the total budget for the work on the bronze capped marble columns in the interior. Thereafter Sydney Mitchell was commissioned to design or remodel a series of bank branches, the first purpose-built new premises being erected in Aberfeldy in 1884. In that year Mitchell was officially appointed architect to the bank, though the bank reserved the right to employ other architects if they chose and to employ tradesman directly should the need arise. Despite this caveat the Bank was to use Mitchell almost exclusively as their architect for new branches and rebuilding of old branches for the next eighteen years.

In or around 1887 Sydney Mitchell took his assistant George Wilson into partnership. Wilson was twelve years Mitchell’s senior, born in 1845 at Simprin, Berwickshire or Oldhamstocks, East Lothian (sources vary), the son of George Wilson, farmer. He was educated at Swinton School and Coldstream Academy before being articled to Leadbetter & Smith in 1862, remaining there for four years and subsequently becoming an assistant to David Bryce where he remained for eight years. In or about 1874 he moved to the office of Robert Rowand Anderson where he made Mitchell’s acquaintance, and he left Anderson’s office in 1883 to assist Mitchell in his new independent practice. When he was taken into partnership, the practice title became Sydney Mitchell & Wilson.

Shortly thereafter, presumably also through the influence of his father, Sydney Mitchell secured the appointment of architect to the Board of Lunacy in Scotland from which stemmed a number of his most important works from c.1888, the first being the rebuilding of Craighouse in Edinburgh for the Managers of the Royal Asylum. This was followed in the 1890s by the extensive work on the Crichton Royal in Dumfries, where he became official architect to the Managers of the Royal Crichton Institution. Work for the Managers of the Melrose Asylum and for those of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Edinburgh followed. Sydney Mitchell was a very capable designer being able to turn his hand to both public and private work with equal ease, designing fluently in a number of styles. At the Findlay house he proved himself the equal of Anderson and Browne with an even greater awareness of London Aesthetic Movement fashions than Browne’s. From the very beginning he frequently drew upon his own indigenous past, immediately establishing himself as the supreme master of the 17th-century Scots genre at Well Court. His father’s interest in archaeology had rubbed off – one of his earliest commissions was the recreation of the Muckle Cross in Elgin in c.1882 which was followed in 1885 his restoration of the Market Cross in Edinburgh, a high profile commission for a relatively young and inexperienced architect; this was followed by the commission for designing the ‘Old Edinburgh’ section of the Edinburgh Exhibition of 1886, complete with recreations of the Netherbow Port and the Old Mint, which was hugely successful.

Throughout the late 1880s and 1890s he worked in the Scots Renaissance style, borrowing from Linlithgow Palace in his unexecuted scheme for the enlargement of Barnbougle Castle for the Earl of Rosebery and for a number of other large country houses commissions such as Duntreath and Sauchieburn. This ran concurrently with an accomplished use of free Italian baroque at the chief office of the Commercial Bank in Glasgow and London ‘Queen Anne’ for the West End branch in Shandwick Place. More vernacular and Arts & Crafts elements, as at Ramsay Garden, Leithen Lodge and some of the buildings at the Crichton Royal Hospital, appeared frequently in the 1890s. It is only in his final commission before retirement that a real change of direction is apparent in the monumental American-and Scandinavian-influenced offices for the United Free Church in George Street in Edinburgh. Despite the sheer quality of his best work exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy from 1883 until 1893 when he abruptly stopped sending, Mitchell was never elected an academician; and although he had a very busy practice and a range of eminent clients, Sydney Mitchell never sought membership of the RIBA, probably because he was in sympathy with Richard Norman Shaw and his circle in the disruptive registration and ‘a profession or an art?’ disputes of the 1890s. However his partner George Wilson was admitted FRIBA on 2 December 1907, his proposers being Hippolyte Jean Blanc, David Robertson and John Watson. Not long after his election to Fellow he appears to have retired from professional life, ceasing to ‘take an active part in business matters’ and having been ‘in indifferent health for some time’ died in St Andrews on 16 September 1912. He was buried at Merchiston Cemetery on 19 September, leaving moveable estate of £30,4056. The year before this Mitchell had retired to The Pleasance, the house had built for himself at Gullane where he spent his retirement gardening and playing golf. He had sold his practice to Ernest Arthur Auldjo Jamieson in 1909 or 1910. Jamieson continued in partnership with James Alexander Arnott until 1936 when Jamieson was forced to retire through ill-health. Sydney Mitchell never married. He died at Gullane on 13 October 1930, leaving moveable estate of £48,474 11s. In his will he left £1600 to his golf caddie, Robert Plain.