Glasgow - City of Sculpture
By Gary Nisbet
Alexander 'Greek' Thomson

Born at Endrick Cottage, Balfron, the son of a book-keeper, he originally trained as a lawyer's clerk before being 'discovered' by architect Robert Foote who offered him an apprenticeship after seeing some of his drawings.

In 1836, he joined John Baird I with whom he gained invaluable experience working on the designs for Somerset Place, Sauchiehall Street (1840) and the unexecuted Glasgow University (1845).

Embarking upon his own career in 1849, he formed a brief partnership with John Baird II, 1849-56, then left to set up A & G Thomson, with his brother George, 1856-71, a partnership which enabled him to concentrate exclusively on designing the firm's increasingly idiosyncratic, domestic, commercial and ecclesiastical buildings.

The epithet 'Greek' was derived from his passionate allegiance to the Classical styles of Greece, Egypt and Asia, and his status as one of the greatest and most adventurous exponents of the Neo-Classical style in Europe.

His chief works in the style include, Caledonia Road UP Church, 1 Caledonia Road (1856-7); St Vincent Street UP Church, 265 St Vincent Street (1857) the Grosvenor Building, 68-80 Gordon Street (1858-59); the Buck's Head Building, 59-61 Argyle Street (1863); The Egyptian Halls, 84-100 Union Street (1871); and the Egyptian-style villa, Ellisland, 200 Nithsdale Road (1871).

As a Glasgow architect he was almost duty bound to contribute to the city's traditional form of domestic design - the tenement. His numerous examples of these include Queen's Park Terrace, 355-429 Eglinton Street (1857-60, dem. 1980), and the severely classical 1-18 Walmer Crescent, Paisley Road West (1857-62).

As well as architectural work he produced a number of designs for funereal monuments, ornamental iron work and public monuments, the latter including the pedestal for John Mossman 's Sir Robert Peel, George Square (1859), the Albert Memorial, London (1862, unexecuted) and the Stewart Memorial Fountain, Kelvingrove Park (1870, unexecuted).

His ornamental ironwork includes lampposts, railings and details for ornamental drinking fountains, all of which were commissioned and mass-produced by Walter Macfarlane 's Saracen Foundry and others. Much of this disappeared during World War II as scrap for the war effort (in reality it was stockpiled as useless and disposed of after the war).

A close friend of the Mossmans , he designed their studio at 83 North Frederick Street (1856, dem. c. 1875), provided them with a few commissions for architectural sculpture and the prototypes for many of the gravestones produced by J & G Mossman for Glasgow's cemeteries.

Among the finest of these are the Wodrow Monument, Eastwood Old Cemetery (c. 1850); the Beattie Monument, Necropolis (1858) and the Inglis Monument, Necropolis (c. 1868); the Provan Monument, Sighthill Cemetery (c. 1859) and the McIntyre Monument, Cathcart Old Parish Cemetery (1867).

As an architect he is not usually associated with architectural sculpture. Few of his executed designs incorporated figurative or animal sculpture although several of his most ambitious unexecuted projects were literally covered with it. An important example being his colossal, Doric design for London's Natural History Museum Competition (1862) which is practically held together by groups of atlantes and elephants, and which includes figurative pediment groups and lions on pedestals.

The museum's atlantes doorcases later provided Campbell Douglas & Sellars with the design for the entrance to the St Andrew's Halls, Granville Street, 1874 -7 (att: Nisbet, letter to Gavin Stamp, 21 June, 1991).

His buildings with sculpture include the Buck's Head Building, which features a recumbent deer above its corner, and St Vincent Street UP Church, which includes eight colossal female heads around its landmark steeple, all carved by Mossmans .

Thomson's buildings are, however, rich in incised Greek ornament and other details such as acroteria, column capitals, decorative ironwork and his ubiquitous urns and Egyptianate chimneypots, the latter manufactured by the Garnkirk Coal Company which commissioned Thomson and George Mossman to produce The Garnkirk Urn as the firm's exhibit at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and which was later modified for use as a finial on Thomson's cemetery monuments (e.g., the Beattie Monument, Necropolis).

By the time he died, he had formed a partnership with Robert Turnbull, 1873-5, who later completed and adapted Thomson's unfinished projects after he aquired the firm in 1876. Much of this posthumous realisation of Thomson's work is concentrated in the city's southern districts and includes the astonishing, convex, Salisbury Quadrant, Nithsdale Road (1877) and its neighbouring tenements and villas.

A co-founder of the GIA , the institute responded to his death by instigating two memorial schemes. One being the commissioning of a marble bust, by John Mossman (now in GMAG ), and the other the foundation of the Alexander Thomson Travelling Scholarship. This was first won by W J Anderson, 1887, for his drawings of Thomson's ecclesiastical masterpiece, Queen's Park UP Church, Langside Road (1868-9, dest. 1943), and later by Charles Rennie Mackintosh , 1889, who's reputation has since eclipsed that of Thomson's.

By the late 20th Century, many of Thomson's buildings had been demolished and many more were in a perilous state and under threat of redevelopment when, in 1975, the Strathbungo Society and The Scottish Civic Trust instigated a competition for a public memorial to Thomson on a traffic island adjacent to 1 Moray place, which Thomson designed in 1859-61, and lived and died in. This was to be in the form of a free-standing portal with four 20ft columns but was abandoned due to increasing costs ( GCCJ : Memorial To Greek Thomson Shelved, October, 1976, p. 213).

More recently, another scheme for a monument to Thomson, by Alexander Stoddart , at Glasgow Cross, c. 1990, has also come to nothing. However, a scheme to erect a monument over his unmarked grave in the Southern Necropolis (original monument lost), by the 1999 Alexander Thomson Travelling Scholarship winners, Graeme Andrew and Edward Taylor, finally came to fruition on 25th May, 2006, when it was unveiled by the city's Lord Provost in the presence of some of Thomson's descendants.

Unfortunately, the monument is inscribed simply 'Thomson', with no other inscription to identify the fact that he was one of the greatest designers of the 19th Century, his dates or even his sex. The result being that the man and his burial place are just as anonymous today as they were before the monument was erected. Visiting the monument with no prior knowledge of the man it commemorates or the colossal contribution he made to the nation's architecture, one would be forgiven for thinking that it is merely a large memorial to some recently deceased soul who just happened to be called Thomson.

Even less encouraging, despite the world-wide interest in Thomson's work, which saw his villa, Holmwood House in Cathcart (1857-8) being taken over by the National Trust For Scotland, 1994, and the designation of St Vincent Street UP Church as a World Heritage Site, 2000, is Glasgow's continued neglect and destruction of several of his buildings.

These include the Watson Street Warehouse (c. 1876, demolished, 1996); his own office building at 183 West George Street (c. 1861-2, demolished 2005); Egyptian Halls, Union Street (derelict, 2006), and most disappointingly of all, St Vincent Street Church, which has since been re-added to the register of buildings at risk due to its decaying stonework.


Works in our Database:
1: Argyle Street (Merchant City),
Buck's Head Buildings, 63 Argyle Street
Couchant Buck (1863-4)
Sculptor: J Mossman; Architect: A Thomson
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