Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thomson, Alexander (1817-1875)

THOMSON, ALEXANDER (1817–1875), architect, known as ‘Greek Thomson,’ born at Balfron in Stirlingshire in 1817, was the son of John Thomson, bookkeeper in a spinning-mill at Balfron, by his second wife, Elizabeth Cooper, sister of the burgher minister at Balfron. After serving for a short time in a lawyer's office, Robert Foote, an architect, saw some drawings by him, and took him as an apprentice. About 1834 he entered the office of John Baird, an architect in Glasgow, and about 1847 went into partnership with John Baird, his son. While in partnership with John Baird he assisted him in the plans (which were not carried out) for the new buildings for the university of Glasgow in a style imitating the old college buildings. Convincing himself of the inferiority of this style, he determined to follow in his future work the principles of Greek architecture. ‘Greek Thomson,’ as he was thenceforth generally called, to distinguish him from other architects of the same name in Glasgow, was perhaps the most original architect of modern times. His ability was acknowledged by Gothic architects such as William Burgess; and Roger Smith, speaking in London at the Society of Arts, called him an architect of genius. He never had the opportunity of designing great buildings; but whether he designed shops and tenements, merchants' offices, rows of houses, or united presbyterian churches, he made every building remarkable, and impressed it with the stamp of genius. His style, while developed to carry out modern requirements, was founded on Greek architecture, breathing its spirit rather than strictly following its forms, and sometimes adopting features which suggested ancient Eastern styles. He had a fine sense of proportion, and gave to common buildings massiveness and dignity. His influence affected the general architecture of Glasgow, giving it largeness and dignity, and it still inspires students of the art.

Thomson died at Glasgow on 22 March 1875, leaving a widow and seven children. Among his works in Glasgow may be mentioned the united presbyterian churches in Caledonia Road, in Vincent Street, and in Queen's Park, the Egyptian Hall in Union Street, and almost all the buildings in Gordon Street.

His younger brother, George Thomson (1819–1878), was born at Balfron on 26 March 1819. He was associated with Alexander from 1856 till 1871, when he went as a missionary to Victoria in the Cameroons. He died there on 14 Dec. 1878.

[This article is largely based on information kindly given by Mr. J. J. Stevenson, F.R.I.B.A.; see also ‘Greek Thomson,’ by Thomas Gildard, in the Proceedings of the Philosophical Society of Glasgow, xix. 191–209; Builder, 26 March 1875; British Architect, 26 March 1875, 19 Nov. 1886; Dictionary of Architecture, 1887; Memoir of George Thomson, 1881.]

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