Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson (1817-75)

This appreciation was reprinted in Aberdeen in 1925 by W. Jolly & Sons Ltd from the Scottish Ecclesiological Society’s Transactions by J. Jeffrey Waddell, I.A.

Alexander Thomson was born at Balfron in the year 1817. I have no knowledge of his ancestors, if his talent was the outcome of a long line of parents who had a natural aptitude for the decorative arrangement of material and colour, or if his was one of those sudden and apparently inexplicable outbursts of ability which we call genius. I do not know what may have influenced him to make his choice of a profession, a medium in which to reveal his personality. I like to think that he was inspired by some great building seen in his boyhood, which caused him to make up his mind that he too would build something which, to quote Milton, “the world would not willingly let die.”

Be that as it may, he made the choice and was apprenticed to Robert Foot, an architect in Glasgow. There is nothing, so far as I know, noteworthy to record of his student or earlier years, unless what is negative. He had not the advantage of foreign travel. This loss meant more in those days than it does in these, when not only are measured drawings of every important building available for the study of the student, but these have been supplemented by photographs innumerable, and casts not a few, so that now it is possible to get a most accurate impression of the history of architectural styles, without leaving our shores or indeed our city.

Young Thomson had not the advantages of these aids, but must have made very good use of his opportunities, proving once again the importance of personality.

Illustrations of this must occur to every one. Here is an example from the same field which Thomson was to make his own. The Erechthion on the Acropolis at Athens had been photographed and studied on the spot by many. Its irregular and unsymmetrical plan is apparent to the least observant, yet it was left for a young man who had never seen it to solve the mystery of its plan. Having completed his training, young Thomson started in business, and seems to have got quite a lot of work to do. Many villas along the shores of the Firth are of his design. These are in the Scots baronial style, and are very well done. Indeed, they are so fine that an architect not long ago gave it as his opinion that Thomson would have gone farther if he had kept to this style, and left severely alone the style for which he afterwards became famous. It is very difficult, however, to say Who, indeed, can map out the bounds of genius ~ I for one could not wish his development to have been other than it was. It is only necessary to think how much we would have missed, to see that this is so. Alex. Thomson, then, was just like many another: he had quite a number of “tries” before he found his real medium of expression, the style which afterwards gave him his distinctive name of “Greek” Thomson. Carlyle’s early writings are not at all to be distinguished as his; his style was not yet formed; and, as is well known, R. L. Stevenson played the sedulous ape to many masters, before he became master of his own inimitable style. So it was with Thomson, so it is, (in a lesser degree, it may be,) with all of us. Many never get past the imitative stage of development. It is said that Thomson had a partner so that he might be free, or at any rate freer, of the worries which are inseparable from an art which is also a business. I do not know whether this is so or not. Perhaps it is not quite fair to Thomson to say so; for in my opinion an architect who is not also a business man is a failure. He must be both if he is to be of the maximum use to his clients, and produce the finest buildings.

Be that as it may, he was not long in discovering that his talent lay in adapting and developing the Greek style to suit modern requirements. He built a studio for Mossman the sculptor, and a villa at Cathcart, and in both of these he showed himself a master of style. In the Cathcart example he seems to have been fortunate in having a client who had perfect faith in him, and allowed him to design everything to the proverbial door mat. The result, I understand, was most striking and harmonious.

It is in his church work, however, that he is seen at his best. The Caledonia Road Church is the first example. It is a gusset site, or junction of two roads. It is a fine chance, and nobly did Greek Thomson rise to it. The church faces south and is well seen. A beautifully proportioned Ionic portico is elevated on a great stylobate, unpierced save by two doors. This elevation of the portico is a favourite motif of Thomson’s. It has no exact prototype, so far as I know, but the effect is not unlike that of some of the lesser Grecian examples, which are situated on rocky surbases, level perhaps on one side at the temple floor and at the other on the edge of a precipitous cliff. It is a very effective clerestory treatment, a very welcome change from the monotony of the classic temple front. The tower is equally striking and equally original. Greek Thomson was very successful with his towers. It is a great testimony to his power of design that it should be so, for the Greek style does not lend itself specially to tower design, and in this feature he had practically no ancient examples to guide him.

The rusticated finish to the masonry, and also the cyclopean style which he employed on the lower parts of his buildings, were equally full of character and style and charm.

His next church, that in St. Vincent Street, Glasgow, is generally regarded as his finest achievement in ecclesiastical art. Here again he has elevated the porticos and made the most of the slope in the site. The tower is particularly fine. The figure-heads at the clock opening are very noble in conception and in detail. Unlike the average critic of this design, I prefer the north front that is to St. Vincent Street. I consider it simply perfect, nor could wish to alter a single line of its majestic, most monumental dignity. I do not care so much for the lower windows of the south front, but the side door to the west I consider a perfect piece of design, masterly in every respect. The two north doors are equally fine, quite Greek, yet not copied from any ancient example.

Many architects can “lift” a feature from a classic or gothic building. It has been done times without number since the Renaissance in the Sixteenth century, and especially since the later revivals of last century; but it is given to only a very few to re-capture the spirit of the style in which they are working, and to solve the problems set by modern requirements in the way that a Greek, say, would have done, or a mediaeval master builder. Greek Thomson had that gift most assuredly; so, working in another style, has Sir John Burnet, another of Glasgow’s great architects, and the late Dr. Macgregor Chalmers. There was a design for a third church for Lenzie, prepared, perhaps, earlier than the St. Vincent Street example. It resembles it somewhat, but unfortunately was never built.

His last church at Queen’s Park, Glasgow, had none of the advantages of the other two. It is neither on a sloping site nor at a corner, yet it is distinguished by the same monumental, statuesque dignity and repose. There he has no tower, but a great cupola crowning one of the finest of all his entrances. It is certainly very noble; the late Professor W J. Anderson was of opinion that it was his finest effort.

The halls and offices are somewhat tame externally, perhaps as a foil to the central feature of the composition.

I have sometimes wondered how this site would have looked with one of his tall towers. The site seems to call for it, but it is hypercritical to suggest a change in what is so perfect.

Here, too, he seems to have had a freer hand with the decorations of the interior, which until recently at any rate, was as he desired it. The organ and consequent alterations, of course, are later than his day. I have refrained from commenting on his interiors till now. They are not so successful as his exteriors. In this we see the faults of his time. It is only in recent times in Scotland since the Middle Ages that the interiors of churches have received adequate thought and attention, and I am afraid this is not invariably the case even to-day. It is being realized, however, that the day of the barn-like interior is past, and that the interior treatment of a church is at least as important as the exterior, in my opinion more so.

But in speaking thus of Greek Thomson, I am only admitting that he had in that respect the limitations of his period. Even with this fault, they remain the grandest achievement in church architecture since the Middle Ages.

No other town or city has anything that can equal them, of last century’s date, for scholarship and individuality combined. In this he ranks with Sir Christopher Wren in England, and our own Gibb, and the Brothers Adam. We have only to think of him in relation to his contemporaries to realize something at least of his greatness. Who was there in England ? Young Elmes in a burst of genius designed S. George’s Hall, Liverpool, a building which Greek Thomson very much admired, and there is the fine High School, Edinburgh; but these are perhaps the only two that can compare with the architecture of Thomson, and they both had better chances of producing ” the fine thing.” Greek Thomson was once asked why he had never used the Grecian Doric Order, to which he replied, ” I have never had a building worthy of it to design.”

That is perhaps the saddest feature. He never really got a first class chance. One chance came to Glasgow in his day, but he was passed by; the University buildings were given to Sir Gilbert Scott with the result we know to-day, passable in general outline but uninteresting in detail to the last degree of insipidity, and hard and unsympathetic as cast iron.

If Greek Thomson had got this commission we should have had a building which would have been a centre of architectural pilgrimage from all over the world.

But that is day dreaming of what might have been. It is not necessary to do so; we have his great concrete achievement, an earnest attempt to solve for us, as well as for himself, the problems of modern architecture.

That he was not entrusted with the designing of a university, a cathedral, or a mansion house, was his loss and ours, but he has pointed the way. It is for us to walk in it, each to the best of his or her ability (for there are lady architects now), and it is for the public to give us of their criticism and encouragement, for without the encouragement of the sometimes despised man in the street no art can flourish and endure.

Greek Thomson is also responsible for a number of warehouse blocks and street fronts, the most notable, perhaps, being that in Union Street, opposite the Central Station. The top story and cornice are very bold and striking. It has been said that this is the finest wallhead in Europe. The two lower storeys are not so good. In this as in other buildings, he makes most admirable use of surface carving, beautifully designed and easy to carve. This surface ornament must have solved for him a very difficult problem; for, I understand, the carving of his day had fallen to a very low ebb. In the battle of styles the carver and sculptor had fallen between the two combatants, and were really practically no use to either. It must have meant a lot of drawing on the part of Greek Thomson.

I remember seeing the elevation of the building which is now the Grosvenor”” now mutilated out of all recognition of its former chaste beauty. The draughtmanship was masterly, the ornament superb.

In addition to this warehouse he was also responsible for that in Bath Street, now occupied and unfortunately destroyed by the Corporation Tramway Department. One of his smaller warehouses is that on the north side of Sauchiehall Street, now occupied by Messrs Gentles and Mr. Lauder. But for us, and especially for a society such as ours, he will live in the fine three churches which he has left to adorn our city. His name will never die as long as these remain. I wish to claim for these three churches, that they are the highest and finest architectural expressions since the great cathedral building times of the Middle Ages.

In addition he is responsible for quite a number of terraces and tenement blocks, all quiet, restrained, and dignified. His finest terrace is that in Great Western Road, which is certainly very fine. It has been described by some as his noblest effort. There he has eschewed surface ornament and all architectural orders, and has relied solely on outline and mass and the beauty of his fenestration. It is very near the perfect exterior treatment for its purpose. From it if he had lived – he died at the comparatively early age of fifty-eight – he might have developed a style entirely suitable to our modern requirements. Unfortunately, too, he was not the founder of a school. If his successors had carried on the torch when he dropped it, by now the problem which America is solving would have been part of the history of architectural style in last century.

Greek Thomson drew his inspiration not only from ancient examples from the land of Greece, but wherever the Greek spirit is to be found, not only from Asia Minor, but from the earlier civilization of Assyria, from which the Greeks also borrowed, from India, and, next to Greece itself, from Egypt. He seems to have had a very profound admiration for Egyptian architecture, and I think I might close this short account of his work with a sentence of his own description of that great cradle of civilization. ” In the Egyptian architecture,” he says, ” and in the sculpture we see the same look of repose””the same indifference to the passing events of the world’s history””an expression of quiet waiting till all the bustle is over, till time shall be no more””when they shall enter on a new and never-ending existence with the revived forms of that race whose genius called them into being.” With this understanding of the great civilizations of the past, and with these beliefs, can we wonder that he has produced architecture which Sir Reginald Blomfield has characterized as the most purely Grecian in spirit that was produced last century?