Throughout his career Thomson delivered a number of talks allowing him to present some of his architectural theory as well as displaying his scholarly knowledge of different styles. Of these, the four that are most thoroughly researched and comprehensive were ‘The Haldane Lecture’, a series of four talks delivered in 1874 at the Glasgow School of Art and Haldane Academy, in what is now The McLellan Galleries on Sauchiehall Street. The four topics covered were Art and Architecture, Egyptian Architecture, Greek Architecture and Roman Architecture. Sadly Thomson passed away before he could add to his original series of four ‘Haldane’ lectures, as we understand he intended to do, but what we do have still provides a wonderful insight into the mind of an architectural genius.
In this post we will consider a fragment from his lecture espousing the greatness of the Ancient Greek civilisation and the architecture produced during this period.
“Certainly no people, either before or since, have achieved such a splendid series of triumphs in every department of human effort to which they thought fit to direct their energies.” Thomson
In Thomson’s talk considering Greek architecture he also saw fit to discuss works of the Greek Revival, and discuss both the successes and failures of this movement. In particular, he addressed the opinion held by some that the failure of the revival to take hold over an extended period was due to the comparative lack of original material to draw inspiration from, by arguing that the root of the issue was not in the availability of precedent but it was in the desire of some to copy their work rather than to understand and embody the thought that led to its initial creation.
Thomson looks to emphasise the success that can be had when one sets out to interpret the Greek, and to illustrate this he highlights a number of buildings by others in Glasgow that utilise elements of the Greek style that have been understood and re-purposed appropriately by their architects. Of the seven buildings that Thomson notes, six still exist for us to visit today.
“the Agora, with the Choragic monument of Thyrsallus, furnishes details for our Custom House, the small temple on Ilissus (considerably englarged) has been copied on the front of Wellington Street UP Church, the Tower of the Winds on the end of the double range of houses between the Great Western and New City Roads; the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates on the Merchants House, Hutcheson Street; the Erecthion on the Royal Bank, also the Municipal and County Buildings; and the Parthenon at the Court fronting the Green.” Thomson
Firstly, the Custom House on Clyde Street by John Taylor, where its frontage combines the doric columns and frieze of the Agora with the square antae and parapet of the Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus.
John Baird I utilised the elements and proportions of the Ionic Temple on the Ilissus to front his, now sadly demolished, Wellington Street United Presbyterian Church.
Clarendon Place, the only constructed element of Alexander Taylor’s proposed grand entrance to Great Western Road, takes its columns and entablature from the corinthian entrance to the Tower of the Winds.
Clarke and Bell at their municipal Grecian block in the Merchant City, utilised both the columns and entablature of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates at their Merchant’s House element (the left hand side of the image), whilst combining the entablature of the Lysicrates Monument with the ionic of the Erechtheum to the frontage of the Town and Country Buildings (on the right hand side of the image).
At Royal Exchange Square Archibald Elliot saw fit to front his Royal Bank of Scotland building with both the columns and entablature of the Erechtheum.
Whilst lastly, William Stark condensed down the doric of the Parthenon for use at the frontage of the High Court of the Justiciary.
Thomson felt that these examples, which were of course readily accessible to all of those that would have been in attendance at the Haldane Lectures, displayed the flexibility of composition that could be afforded by the Greek. Whilst later in the lecture he emphasised the appropriateness of Greek for regular use by noting that the windows of the Temple of Minerva Polias provided the template for “nearly every street house that has been built in Glasgow in the last sixty or seventy years”, something that a walk around the Blytheswood new town area of Glasgow proves true.
Nikolaus Pevsner also noted regarding the influence of Ancient Greece on Glasgow that whilst “Greek Thomson was more Thomson than Greek, Glasgow architects and patrons in his time and even after his death were – this no one can deny – more Grecian in their sympathies than those of any other city.”
Thomson primarily references two book series’ during this discussion; Stuart and Revett’s Antiquities of Athens and Fergusson’s The Illustrated Handbook of Architecture. The illustrations from Volumes I to III have also provided the illustrations for this article. Both sets are now out of copyright and available to download for free on Archive.org (links below).
All that remains is to encourage you to go out and appreciate these buildings first hand. We have therefore provided a map below noting the locations of each of the remaining buildings. As Thomson himself said:
“If you will put yourself to the trouble of examining these examples, you will find that, though so few in number, there is considerable variety, and that all are very good.”
by Scott Abercrombie
The Illustrated Handbook of Architecture vol I by James Fergusson, 1855
Antiquities of Athens vol I by James Stewart and Nicholas Revett, 1762
Antiquities of Athens vol II by James Stewart and Nicholas Revett, 1762
Antiquities of Athens vol III by James Stewart and Nicholas Revett, 1762