News and Views from Scotland

Greek Thomson: Glasgow's Master Builder

United Presbyterian Church, St Vincent Street, Glasgow

In 1966, when Glasgow City Council was planning to demolish one of the churches on Caledonia Road (see picture on the right) created by Alexander "Greek" Thomson, it was an influential American architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock who persuaded them to stop. Hitchcock argued that "Glasgow in the last 150 years has had two of the greatest architects in the world - Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Alexander Thomson was the other. Rennie Mackintosh was well known - especially for his design for the Glasgow School of Art. Thomson was less well known but many believe that he was an even greater visionary.

Thomson initially designed his buildings in a range of styles - Gothic revival, Scottish baronial and Italianate - but he designed a church on Caledonia Road in the heart of the Gorbals district of Glasgow which had many features drawn from Greek architecture but in his own distinctive style. Thomson worshiped in this church himself.

The architect went on to design a magnificent church for the United Presbyterians in St Vincent Street near the centre of Glasgow (pictured above and on the left). This had elements of Egyptian styles incorporated and that was continued in his "Egyptian Halls in Union Street (see below).

Thomson was born 200 years ago in the village of Balfron in Stirlingshire. He was more of a mature business man who had seven surviving children and was less of a dashing young artist than MacIntosh who emerged a generation later. On the other hand more of Thomson's creations were completed and survive to this day.

He became President of the Glasgow Institute of Architects and because his style was popular, it was copied by many who came after him. Glasgow's Victorian architecture has benefitted greatly as a result. The Alexander Thomson Travelling Studentship, of which the second winner was Charles Rennie Mackintosh, was established in his honour. In recent years his stature has increased considerably as his legacy is better appreciated.

When Glasgow became the UK City of Architecture and Design for 1999 the Clydesdale Bank (with its Head Office in Glasgow rather than in Edinburgh) produced a commemorative £20 note with illustrations of Thomson and some of his buildings. See Clydesdale Bank - Commemorative Bank Note

The BBC televised a programme about Thomson this week to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth.

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8 April 2017

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