Thomson, Alexander

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Thomson, Alexander ‘Greek’ (1817–75). Scots Neo-Classical architect, the greatest of his time, and a formidable and original designer, some of whose works have affinities with those of Schinkel. He lived and worked for most of his life in Glasgow, starting with a period (c.1836–49) with John Baird before he established his own practice in partnership with another John Baird (1816–93— Thomson's brother-in-law ( Thomson and Baird married Jane (1825–99) and Jessie (1827–66), daughters of the London architect Michael Angelo Nicholson) ) until 1857, then (1857–71) with his brother, George Thomson (1819–78), and finally (1873–5) with Robert Turnbull (1839–1905), when the firm was called A. & G. Thomson & Turnbull. Known as ‘Greek’ Thompson because of his frequent allusions to the Greek Revival in his buildings, his work was nevertheless very eclectic and inventive, drawing on a variety of sources, including Ancient Egyptian, Persian, and even vaguely Indian architecture, put together with enormous verve and sureness of touch. Baird and Thomson built a number of villas in the Glasgow suburbs and along the Clyde estuary, some of which were vaguely Gothic and others influenced by the round-arched styles, but by 1857 Thomson had developed the refined and simplified Greek-inspired architectural language with which he was to be associated thereafter. Among the most outstanding houses are the Double Villa (25 and 25a Mansion-house Road, Langside (1856–7—illustrated in Blackie's Villa and Cottage Architecture (1868)— two identical semidetached houses facing in opposite directions, composed asymmetrically, with low-pitched roofs and glazing well set back from the stone mullions) ); Holmwood, Cathcart (1856–8—also illustrated in Blackie's publication— a sumptuous villa at once Classical and Picturesque, with a circular bay-window featuring a peristyle of inventive columns, and a rich scheme of interior painted decoration and furnishings, also designed by the architect); and Ellisland, 200 Nithsdale Road, Pollokshields (1871—a single-storey symmetrical villa with Graeco-Egyptian detail).

He also designed several terraces of houses. Moray Place, Strathbungo (1857–61), is unquestionably his finest achievement in this respect, and is arguably the most distinguished Greek-inspired group of terrace-houses anywhere. It is a symmetrical design with projecting pedimented ends (featuring Giant Orders of square columns), between which is a long façade with first-floor windows set behind a regular row of square mullions reminiscent of Schinkel's use of the same motif at the Berlin Schauspielhaus (Play House) of 1818–21. The form of the building recalls von Klenze's Ruhmeshalle (Hall of Fame), Munich (1850s), and the great Hellenistic altar of Pergamon (c.180 bc—now in the Pergamon-Museum, Berlin). Other Thomson terraces include Great Western Terrace (1867–77) and Northpark Terrace, Hamilton Drive (1866), the latter again with a top storey treated with a row of square mullions derived from the Berlin Schauspielhaus and ultimately from a synthesis of the Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus, Athens (319 bc), and the long rows of square columns found in Ancient Egyptian temples at Elephantine and Deïr-el-Bahari. The very severe columnar and trabeated Walmer Crescent, Paisley Road (1857), a tenement block, again uses the Schinkel Schauspielhaus motif, the whole composition, with its projecting rectangular bay-windows, handled with rigorous discipline. His Queen's Park Terrace, Eglinton Street (1856–60—demolished), was an important precedent for subsequent tenements in Glasgow. Thomson's three United Presbyterian Churches, Caledonia Road (1856—mostly destroyed by fire), St Vincent Street (1859), and Queen's Park (1869—destroyed in the 1939–45 war), were among the most original inventions of their time. Queen's Park had pronounced Egyptianizing elements and a hollow stupa-like top to the crowning part of the composition. At Caledonia Road the Schauspielhaus clerestorey row of square mullions was again used, but at St Vincent Street a complex system of pylon-forms, high-level Ionic porticoes set on tall blocky podia, and a strangely inventive tower with two Neo-Classical heads facing each other in each T-shaped recess over an H-shaped (on elevation) lower stage, with much else, suggests some kind of mnemonic programe perhaps connecting the building with the Temple of Solomon (Templum Hierosolymae). The platform arrangement also suggests von Klenze's Walhalla, near Regensburg (1830–42), a building that may also have influenced Thomson's brilliant but unrealized designs for the South Kensington Museum, London (1864). Furthermore, von Klenze employed cyclopean (or pelasgic) and pseudisodomic masonry in some of his designs, and Thomson also used these at the Caledonia Road Church, possibly for symbolic purposes (e.g. the Rock on which the Church is built). The St Vincent Street Church also has interior cast-iron columns rising from the basement hall to carry the gallery and the clerestorey, while the inventive capitals employing sharp claws, acanthus, and stars suggest something exotic and Eastern, perhaps the Solomonic Temple itself.

Among Thomson's designs for commercial buildings are two important exemplars: the Grecian Chambers, Sauchiehall Street (1865–8— with squat Egyptianesque columns along the top storey and an Attic storey vaguely derived from the Thrasyllus Monument), and the Egyptian Halls, Union Street (1871–3—with a highly complex façade of paraphrases and variations on Graeco-Egyptianizing themes, and a suggestion of a Renaissance cornicone capping the whole Sublime composition).

In 1874 Thomson gave a series of lectures in Glasgow in which he argued for the superiority of columnar and trabeated construction over arcuated forms, castigated Ruskin for his highly selective arguments, demanded that architects should follow the example of the Greeks rather than imitate their work, and extolled the ‘mysterious power of the horizontal element in carrying the mind away into space and into speculation upon infinity' (in this he appears to have been influenced by the paintings and engravings of John Martin (1789–1854) ). Although he used the arch in some of his earlier works, Thomson came to reject arcuated construction, insisting that trabeated building methods of the Greeks were more appropriate to modern architecture than was the inherently unstable arch. Unlike many Greek Revivalists, he never became a slave to that style, and, unlike Ruskin and his disciples, held that architecture ‘in its highest forms does not bear the least resemblance to anything in nature’, and that it is ‘peculiarly and exclusively a human work’. When the commission for buildings for the University of Glasgow went to ‘Great’ Scott without competition, Thomson ridiculed the pretensions of the Gothic Revival and its protagonists: his views make interesting reading, even today. The contents of the lectures demonstrate that Thomson was widely read and had a deep understanding of architectural styles of all periods as well as their principles. In particular, he analysed the Thrasyllus Monument which was so important in his own architecture. It has become clear that, although he does not appear to have travelled, and built in a small geographical area, he was an architect deserving of international fame.


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Thomson, Alexander

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