In September 1864, very soon after the family moved to Ham, Sir George Gilbert Scott was awarded a commission to design a new building to re-house Glasgow University. Only the previous month he had been to Dundee to show the building committee his plans for the Albert Institute there, and this visit may have been a factor in his selection to design the new university. Glasgow is the fourth oldest university in Britain, after Oxford, Cambridge and St Andrew’s, having been founded in 1451. Its building, known as the College, was built in 1630 and located in the High Street of the medieval city just to the south of the cathedral. In the nineteenth century, the massive industrial growth of Glasgow made it the largest city in Britain after London. The old centre was engulfed by new development and the medieval High Street became run down, ‘squalid and repulsive’, so the university looked for removal to the growing new suburbs on the west side of the city.
In 1863, the North British Railway made an offer of £100,000 for the site of the College, to enable the company to build a station and goods yard to serve its Coatbridge Railway. An Act of Parliament was obtained to enable the university to sell off its historic buildings and to purchase the Gilmorehill estate, on the west side of the city, for £65,000. This contained a fine classical mansion at the summit of a hill which rose very steeply above a bend on the river Kelvin. The Professor of Anatomy at the university since 1848 was Dr Allen Thomson and in 1863 he was appointed chairman of the university’s Removal and Buildings Committee. He was particularly interested in the Gothic revival and was a frequent visitor to London where he had close connections with the scientific establishment. Like Willis and Whewell, he was a prominent member of the British Association and must have known about the intention to have the Albert Institute at Dundee completed in time for the 1867 meetings of the Association and may have seen Scott’s plans for the buildings. But his ideas provoked opposition in Glasgow.
‘Greek’ Thomson, who was no relation to the Professor, gave a lecture to the Glasgow Architectural Society on 18 April 1864 entitled, ‘The Unsuitableness of Gothic Architecture to Modern Requirements’. No record of this has survived, but since the Professor became chairman of the Removal and Buildings Committee, he probably made no secret of his Gothic leanings and this lecture may have been a pre-emptive move by ‘Greek’ Thomson against the possibility of Scott’s employment. But Scott was the leading Gothic revival architect and the inevitable choice. Scott conformed to the traditional collegiate layout of buildings around two quadrangles, as at the old building. But any idea of reviving its traditional Scottish seventeenth century style was abandoned by Thomson’s choice of Scott for the work. It was to be a Gothic building and the greatest opportunity that Scott had had so far, as he said:
I adopted a style which I may call my own invention being already initiated it in the Albert Institute at Dundee. It is simply a 13th or 14th century Secular style with the addition of Scottish features belonging in that Country to the 16th century though in reality derived from the French style of the 13th & 14th centuries.
As at Dundee he was using ‘the best period of pointed architecture’ and its Scottishness was achieved by crow-stepped gables and turrets with conical roofs, although he also used stone balconies on the central tower, as appear on the Old Steeple in Dundee. Scott’s layout is symmetrical about the Great Hall which runs north and south on the highest point of the site, with quadrangles of teaching rooms on either side. The hall is at first floor level and he provided an open undercroft linking the two quadrangles at ground level beneath the hall. The museum is in the northern range of the east quadrangle, while the library is in the matching range on the west side. Where the three ranges meet at the north end of the hall, Scott re-housed the Hunterian Museum in a great apse looking out from the north side of the university, while at the south end of the hall he proposed to erect a tall ventilation tower overlooking the Kelvin and the city beyond. He decided to exploit the magnificent site to the full by making the tower the centrepiece of his layout. On top of the tower he intended to add a lead and slate covered spire, giving a height of 287 feet above the summit of the hill so that the university could proclaim itself across the city. But this blatant exhibitionism seems to be the source of Scott’s design dilemma.
Here was the opportunity to house an ancient and highly respected institution in a noble building, and for the fifth time he turned to the central tower composition of Ypres in the hope that at last he may have been able to achieve that form in an actual building. However, there was no way that Scott could reproduce the proportions of the Cloth Hall or even those of his Hamburg Rathaus design. The tower is too tall and thin, the wings are largely two-storey and too long, while the steepness of the hill in front of the tower precludes a dignified approach to the Great Hall. The wings appear to be symmetrical with only minor variations in the window design and in the centre of each wing there are vaulted archways which lead through to the quadrangles behind. In Scott’s day, the western quadrangle lacked a western range because of the continuing presence of the Gilmorehill mansion. This was only demolished in 1872 after it had been used as a site office for the building works. The quadrangle was not completed until the 1920’s when Sir John Burnet built the western range to harmonise with Scott’s work but with a chapel in the centre. Beyond this, and at a slightly lower level, Scott built the Professor’s Square. This provided the professors of the university with thirteen three-storey houses, with attics and basements, laid out in three terraces on the north, south and west sides of the square. The terrace on the south side, overlooking the view, consists of only two houses, one of which, the larger, is for the Principal of the university. They were all designed in a particularly severe version of Scott’s secular style, with crow-stepped gables, mullioned windows and only a hint of Gothic detail in the upper portions of the windows and over the entrance doorways.
To the east of the main building, where the ground slopes down to the Kelvin, Scott built the science departments at a lower level. Thomson appears to have been able to acquire particularly spacious accommodation for his Anatomy Department, adjacent to the north-east corner of the main building, while further down the hillside was the Chemistry Department. Here Scott designed a delightful little square building with a conical roof as the laboratory and perched it on this most picturesque of sites. It is said to have been a reproduction of the fourteenth century Abbot’s Kitchen at Glastonbury, but Scott had probably based his ideas on Deane and Woodward’s similar building attached to their museum at Oxford. During subsequent years the little laboratory became immersed in a sprawl of science buildings along the edge of the hill and in 1957, it was demolished to make way for the massive James Watt Engineering Building. This makes no acknowledgement of Scott’s building and completely spoils the best view of it from Kelvingrove Park below.
It was not until the spring of 1866 that Scott was able to submit fully worked out designs to the university. Perhaps the delay was due to the construction of the Albert Memorial, which had started in the spring before Scott’s appointment. Scott got on well with Allen Thomson but the twenty-two professors of Glasgow University at that time included some remarkable luminaries in their respective fields. The brightest of these was the professor of Natural Philosophy, William Thomson, who satisfaction with his new surroundings was evident in 1892 when he chose the title Lord Kelvin when he was raised to the peerage.
‘Greek’ Thomson had already publically expressed his dislike of Gothic for modern buildings, so when Scott produced his first plans for the university, Thomson, on 7 May 1866, let off another broadside at the Glasgow Architectural Society. This has the short title, ‘An Inquiry as to the Appropriateness of the Gothic Style for the proposed Buildings for the University of Glasgow, with some remarks upon Mr. Scott’s plans’. Pevsner, paraphrasing Thomson, says that:
Everybody knows the [Mr. Scott’s] is the most fashionable establishment in the great metropolis, and that his business is so enormous that, to expect him to bestow more than the most casual consideration upon the work which passes through the office, is altogether unreasonable.
What is surprising is the personal nature of Thomson’s attack. He had probably not met Scott, but to be able to say that he did not ‘bestow more that the most casual consideration upon the work which passes through the office’, although an obvious assumption in view of Scott’s vast output, requires a particular insight into Scott’s approach to his work. The source of this information was probably J. J. Stevenson, who after his spell in Scott’s office between 1858 and 1860 became a prominent member of the Glasgow Architectural Society and a friend of Thomson. He was probably present at the meeting. However, Thomson was on firmer ground when he criticised the choice of the Gothic style. He felt that classical architecture was evocative of learning while Gothic ‘is most unfit to express the character and purposes of the University’. The great movements emanating from Oxford and Cambridge, which became the basis of the Gothic Revival, had less influence over the border and the Revival in Scotland never had the vigour of its English counterpart. With the deaths of Scotland’s two great classical architects, William Playfair in 1857 and Thomas Hamilton in 1858, Thomson probably saw himself as the last in a line of Scottish classical architects fighting a rearguard action against the invasion of English Gothicism. But his last shot was towards Scott’s clients:
Upon the whole, I think that the less the professors say about the artistic merits of these designs the better, and certainly the local architects have nothing to fear from this invasion from the south.
Thomson must have known that his attack was far too late for it to affect the plans for the university. Scott’s design had already been approved by the professors and he was about to prepare the detailed information to enable the contract to be signed in the following October.
By October 1866 the contract drawings had been completed and Scott’s favourite builder, John Thompson of Peterborough, was appointed to carry out the work. He was already working at Hereford and Ripon for Scott but this was the first time that Scott had employed Thompson without his previous partner, Francis Ruddle, the carpenter. Construction started on 4 April 1867 but a strike of masons delayed the work and it was not until 8 October 1868 that the Prince of Wales, accompanied by the Princess, laid the foundation stone. By that time, Thompson had 750 men working on the site, constructing the building from Griffnock and Bannockburn stone, and it was anticipated that the south front would be roofed in during the following month. Scott’s drawing was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1869.
The new building was opened on 7 November 1870 although Scott’s great design was far from complete. The central tower was no higher than the ridges of the adjacent wings and the foundations of the Great Hall had not been started. Scott had intended that the tower would be a giant version of the Kelham and Preston towers, incorporating eighteen feet diameter clock faces at the base of the spire, but it was only completed after Scott’s death, when John Oldrid replaced the clock and spire with the existing open-work affair.
As with much of Scott’s ecclesiastical work, money was also a problem at Glasgow University. By the end of 1870, £420,000 had been expended on the buildings. The sale of the old site and a government grant had realised a mere £138,900 and the rest of the money was raised by subscription. Although there was still much to do, including the Great Hall, funds were now exhausted.
The Builder, unusually critical of Scott, felt that his endeavour to graft a late Scottish Baronial style onto his own Domestic Gothic style ‘fairly fails in the attempt’. After the Government Offices, this was Scott’s largest and most expensive building but soured by ‘Greek’ Thomson’s vicious attack against both Scott’s appointment and his architecture. He was bitterly opposed to the work going to an architect outside Glasgow, but he may also have been harbouring some resentment over the way that Scott had been so successful with the Albert Memorial, compared with the way that his own spectacular design was dismissed out of hand. Thomson was right that the Glaswegian architects had nothing to fear. The invasion from the south never really happened and Scott’s only other building in Glasgow was St Mary’s Church.
Fisher, G., Stamp, G. and Heseltine, J., (eds),The Scott Family, Catalogue of the Drawings Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Avebury Publishing, Amersham, 1981), 31, 32 [b].
Companion to the Almanac or Year Book of General Information of 1862 (Knight & Co., London, 1862), p. 75.
McKean, C., Walker, D., and Walker, F., Central Glasgow, An Illustrated Architectural Guide (RIAS, Edinburgh, 1989), pp. 4, 25, 167, 178.
Williamson, E., Riches, A., and Higgs, M., Glasgow, Buildings of Scotland (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1990), pp. 335, 337, 338, 340.
McFadzean, R., The Life and Work of Alexander Thomson (Routledge Keegan Paul, London, 1979), pp. 197-202, 204.
Scott’s Recollections , III 235-6.
Dixon, R., and Muthesius, S., Victorian Architecture (Thames and Hudson, London, 1978), p. 254, plate 244.
Blau, E., Ruskinian Gothic: Architecture of Deane and Woodward, 1845-1861 (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1982), plates 54-6.
The Builder , XXVI, 10 October 1868, p. 743.
The Builder , XXVIII, 5 March 1870, p. 192.
The Builder , XXIV, 13 January 1866, p. 32.
The Builder , XXVII, 8 April 1869, p. 357.
Pevsner, N., Some Architectural Writers of the Nineteenth Century (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1972), pp. 183-7.
Macleod, R., Style and Society, Architectural Ideology in Britain 1835-1914 (RIBA Publications Ltd, London, 1971), pp, 72-3, 85-7.
Bute Hall, Glasgow University
By 1870, although there was still much to do, including the Great Hall, funds were now exhausted. However, the financial situation changed radically in November 1877 when the wealthy Marquess of Bute offered to donate the £60,000 that Scott estimated would be required to erect the Great Hall. This was the first time that Bute had become professionally involved with Scott although they had many mutual friends and numerous common interests. John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, third Marquess of Bute, inherited a vast fortune derived from Cardiff Docks when he was only six months old and when he died, at the age of fifty-three, he left estates valued at over £5,000,000. He was a flamboyant character with a passion for all things medieval. In the month after he made his offer to the university, his mansion of the Isle of Bute in the Clyde estuary, Mount Stuart, was severely damaged by fire and it may have been Scott’s suggestion that he should employ Scott’s friend and former assistant, Robert Rowand Anderson of Edinburgh, to rebuild Mount Stuart as a fantastic Gothic palace.
Scott produced a series of proposals for Bute Hall, as the Great Hall was now called, and worked on the details with Allen Thomson, who came to see him just two days before he died. John Oldrid took over the work, which includes some superb vaulting to the space under the hall, a grand approach staircase supported on exposed iron beams with metallic decoration, as at the Foreign Office, and a smaller hall. John Oldrid and his son, C. M. O. Scott, also built the Randolph Hall to his father’s design and he completed the central tower, although there he replaced his father’s clock and solid spire with the existing open-work affair. Funds for the staircase and the smaller hall came form a bequest of £40,000 from Charles Randolph, a wealthy Glaswegian shipbuilder, who was a graduate of the university. The hall range was built between 1878 and 1884 with Edwin Morgan as the Clerk of Works, but the tower and spire were not completed until 1888, ten years after Scott’s death and twenty-four years after he had been commissioned to carry out the work.
Building News , XXXIII, 30 November 1877, p. 550.
McKinstry, S., Rowand Anderson, ‘The Premier Architect of Scotland’ (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1991), pp. 78-9.
Fisher, G., Stamp, G. and Heseltine, J., (eds), The Scott Family, Catalogue of the Drawings Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Avebury Publishing, Amersham, 1981), 32 [plans 22-33], 32 [b], 94 [a].
Scott, G. G., Scott, G. (ed.), Personal and Professional Recollections (Sampson Low, Murston, Searle & Rivington, London, 1879), p. 379.
Ward Lock, Guide to Glasgow and the Clyde (Ward Lock and Co., London, 1950), p. 50.
Cole, D., The Work of Sir Gilbert Scott (The Architectural Press, London, 1980), pp. 200, 236.