Alexander 'Greek' Thomson, architect, died on the 22nd of March, 1875.
With a name like 'Greek' Thomson, you'd expect this guy to be say, a machine gun toting, hit-man from the Depression era United States. However, Alexander 'Greek' Thomson wasn't a member of the Mafia, nor was he the inventor of the Thomson machine gun and he didn't live during the Great Depression. He wasn't Greek either. Alexander 'Greek' Thomson was an eminent Glaswegian architect and an architectural theorist, who was also a pioneer of sustainable building, and he lived in the 19th Century. Thomson got his nickname, because he developed a modern – for his day – interpretation of pre-Roman, classical architecture. Nevertheless, from a practical standpoint and despite drawing lessons and precedents from the Greeks and Egyptians, Thomson used modern materials, such as
cast-iron and plate-glass, to achieve his results.
During his career, the 'Greek' Thomson style became increasingly distinctive, even though its creative range was broad and varied and some of its subject matter, on the face of it, uninspiring. For his designs of the otherwise mundane terraces, villas and warehouses, for example, Thomson drew on styles as diverse as those of Greece, Egypt and India, yet he rarely left Scotland. Thomson never once left Great Britain either, not even to go on holiday. Instead, true to his applied moniker, Thomson relied on 'The Antiquities of Athens’, by Stuart and Revett. He also drew inspiration from the visionary paintings of John Martin and the more factual ones of fellow Scot, David Roberts. Of course, Thomson's own great talent and imagination played a part and his architectural trademarks include stylised pineapples, and geometric Greek fret patterns and scrolls.
Thomson’s contribution to the late-Victorian streetscape of Glasgow is immeasurable. He was responsible for constructing whole streets of tenements, particularly on the south side of Glasgow. Many of those were demolished in the post-war rebuilding of the city, however, you'd have to say it’s extremely doubtful if anyone who once lived in a ‘single end’ in Glasgow would have the same sense of regret at their passing as the architectural intelligentsia. Some might say that those tenements were a blight on the city, but never mind the insides, the street-side aspect of many of his tenements is quite grand. The Broons got on fine in a tenement, so what's the problem.
Although Thomson's work featured in the architectural press of the time, he was little appreciated outside Glasgow until the 1950s and 1960s, long after his passing. Interestingly, Thomson entered the competitions for the Albert Memorial, in 1862, and for the South Kensington Museum, in 1864. It's probably that his lack of success is a reflection of how little his work was valued at the time. Or maybe they saw one of his warehouses.
Thomson’s skills were applied to other areas. He did bits of buildings, if you like, as well as whole buildings. For example, he designed chimney pots and a variety of ironwork, some of which featured in ‘Macfarlane’s Catalogue’ of designs, twenty years after his death. In fact, a re-working of Thomson's design for the lampposts outside The Egyptian Halls, in Glasgow, comprises the only example of Thomson’s work in England. Those rare examples are in New Cross, in the London Borough of Lewisham. They were made by the Macfarlane foundry in Glasgow.
Alexander Thomson was born, sans nickname, in Endrick Cottage, in the village of Balfron, in Stirlingshire, on the 9th of April, 1817. After Alexander’s father’s death, in 1824, the family moved to Glasgow, which brought him near his city-dwelling brothers and sisters – he had eighteen siblings between his father and mother, and a step-mum. Alexander originally trained as a lawyer's clerk, however, his potential as an architect was recognised by a Glasgow architect called Robert Foote, who offered him an apprenticeship. Then, in 1836, he joined the architectural practice of John Baird I.
When John Baird II succeeded John Baird I, he formed a partnership with Alexander Thomson, which lasted from 1849 until 1856. The new partners' first building was finished in 1850. Together, they were also responsible for Seymour Lodge, in Ardsloy; the Italian Villa, in Cove; Craig Ailey, in Kilcreggan; a series of villas, in St Andrew’s Drive, Glasgow; Woodside Cottages, in Langbank; The Garnkirk Vase (for the 1851 Exhibition); a warehouse in Howard Street (Thomson’s first sizeable commercial building); The Knowe, in Pollokshields; Rockland, in Helensburgh; villas, in Bothwell; and the Scottish Exhibition Rooms, in Bath Street, Glasgow. You can draw a breath now!
Thomson and Baird were not just brothers in business, they also became brothers-in-law, when they married sisters, Jane and Jessie Nicholson respectively, in a joint ceremony, in 1847. It may have been 'in-laws rivalry’ that decided them on the need to establish independent careers. As it happened, Baird later claimed a part in the design of the Hutchesontown and Caledonia Road U.P. Church, and that very fact alludes to a certain amount of enmity.
Between 1856 and 1871, Alexander partnered with his younger brother, George as A. & G. Thomson. During that time, Alexander seemingly concentrated on the design and draughtsmanship, while George was more involved with the business side of the firm. Later, in 1873, George’s role was taken up by Robert Turnbull, when the business became A. Thomson & R. Turnbull, after George left to become a missionary man in Africa, quite likely inspired by the news of David Livingstone.
Apart from the Hutchesontown and Caledonia Road U.P. Church, Thomson's principal extant works include Holmwood, in Netherlee Road (now looked after by the National Trust for Scotland); Walmer Crescent; St Vincent Street U.P. Church (now designated as a World Heritage Site); 1-10 Moray Place; the Grosvenor Building, in Gordon Street; the Buck’s Head Building, in Argyle Street; the Grecian Chambers, in Sauchiehall Street; Great Western Terrace; the pedestal for John Mossman's statue of Sir Robert Peel, in George Square; and the Egyptian Halls, in Union Street. Sadly, at the time of writing, in the Spring of 2012, The Egyptian Halls are under threat of demolition.
Thomson was a co-founder of the Glasgow Institute of Architects and established The Alexander Thomson Travelling Studentship. The second winner of the Studentship, in 1889, was a certain Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Alexander 'Greek' Thomson died in his home at No. 1 Moray Place, Strathbungo, on the 22nd of March, 1875 and he was buried in the western section of the Southern Necropolis, in Glasgow.