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Issue 56 - Sir John James Burnet

Scotland Magazine Issue 56
April 2011


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Sir John James Burnet

Burnet's style became very popular in Glasgow, even spilling into Edinburgh

The youngest of three sons, John James Burnet was born to a well-to-do family of Congregationalists, at Blythswood in Glasgow. His mother had great plans for John James. He attended the Collegiate School and the Western Academy in Glasgow, and then Blair College Academy at Polmont.
He started work at his father’s architectural practice in 1871, and then went to Paris to study architecture and engineering under Jean Louis Pascal at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Burnet’s parents are said to have been reluctant to send him to France, fearful of Catholicism and the reputed immorality of Paris. We can only assume Burnet kept his virtue. He evidently learned much from Jean Louis Pascal, who became a much respected lifelong friend.
After his studies Burnet toured France and Italy, then returned to Glasgow in 1876. Back at his father’s firm, he became a partner and worked on independent projects, the first of which was the Fine Art Institute in Glasgow. The brief was to produce a building that combined “Greek with modern French Renaissance” and he accomplished this with great flair.
He was granted the commission for the Clyde Navigation Trust building between 1882-86, which helped John Burnet & Son to weather the recession better than most.
Not only did he get married in 1886 but Burnet also cemented his professional reputation by winning another competition for the Edinburgh International Exhibition, and a commission for the new Glasgow Athenaeum.
By this time the business had a third partner, John Archibald Campbell, and the two young men had ideas that left the senior John Burnet behind. He finally retired at the age of 75 in 1889 or 1890, and after this the company’s designs underwent a radical change, the intention being to expand into England and be a part of the fashionable London scene. The first example of their new style can be seen in Burnet’s Athenaeum Theatre of 1891-93.
Burnet’s neo-Baroque style became very popular in Glasgow, even spilling over into Edinburgh. But he had not yet cracked the London market.
Burnet travelled to the USA for the first time in 1896 and from then on his designs showed an American influence.
The partnership with Campbell was not to last, though partners came and went during Burnet’s career. It was a handy way of bringing much-needed money into the practice, though his relationship with his assistants and partners was sometimes strained to say the least.
In 1903 Burnet got his break. He was commissioned to design the Edward VII Galleries at the British Museum in London. This allowed him to set up a London office and, for a while, all was well. He received commissions for the General Buildings in Aldwych and the Kodak Building on Kingsway, which was built from 1910-11.
Burnet received a knighthood in 1914 once the extension to the British Museum was complete, and this was the pinnacle of a string of accolades Burnet had been accumulating in the preceding years.
The 1st World War hit the business very hard, to the extent that the Burnets had to sell many of their possessions. But the London office recovered more quickly than the Glasgow one, and Burnet was able to keep his head above water.
He spent more time in London and was stretched too thin between the two offices. His attention to detail suffered, as did his health. He wound down his design role, acting more as a consultant for the firm.
Until 1935 he lived in Surrey at Killermont, a sizeable Arts & Crafts house surrounded by its own grounds. But in the mid-thirties he downsized to a cottage near Edinburgh.
Burnet was unhappy in his retirement, with nothing to do. His one great passion had been architecture, and his time was past.
A rather sad ending to a life of mixed success but great esteem, John James Burnet died on 2 July 1938, and was buried with his wife’s family in a
fine classical enclosure he had designed at Warriston Cemetery.

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