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Issue 90 - Three Glasgow Gems

Scotland Magazine Issue 90
December 2016


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Three Glasgow Gems

John Hannavy explores three of Glasgow's many architectural treasures

If you watched the recent TV serialization of Joseph Conrad’s story The Secret Agent, set in Victorian London and starring Toby Jones, you might have assumed that it was filmed in London. In fact, the cobbled streets were those of Thistle Street Lane in Edinburgh and, if you recall a scene supposedly set inside the palm house at Kew, you might have recognized that as Kibble’s Palace – jewel in the crown of Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens.

When I used to visit the BBC’s then headquarters at Queen Margaret Drive in the 1980s, just across the road, Kibble’s Palace looked forlorn and somewhat unloved – despite housing an amazing collection of rare tree ferns. I always meant to go in and have a look, but a combination of busy filming schedules and planes to catch meant it just never happened; it was to be more than 30 years before I finally stepped inside the building on a gloriously warm early summer Sunday morning. In the interim, however, the magnificent glasshouse had been given a complete overhaul and restoration, and now rightly takes it place as one of Glasgow’s most surprising – and breathtaking – buildings.

John Kibble was an eminent Victorian, an engineer of considerable vision, and a keen photographer who was renowned in the 1850s for taking pictures with the largest camera ever to be used in Scotland – a camera that took a massive glass plate measuring 44 inches by 36 inches. Each sheet of glass is said to have weighed more than 40 pounds.

He inherited a large sum of money from his mother, and used it to build himself a fine villa, Coulport House, by the shores of Loch Long. It was there that he developed a fascination for plant collecting and for glasshouses, which had become something of a rage since the success of the Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition in London in 1851.

The glasshouse he built at Coulport for an estimated £15,000 – not a small sum now, but a truly huge amount of money in 1871 – was, however, a much smaller affair than the building we can enjoy today. Within just a few years of its completion, Kibble made the unexplained decision to offer it to the city of Glasgow and it was to be rebuilt on a much grander scale in Queen’s Park.

For whatever reason, the city fathers did not respond either with the speed or the enthusiasm that Kibble had anticipated so, in something akin to a fit of pique, he withdrew the offer, turning instead to the Royal Botanic Institution and offering them a similar deal. After negotiations, the Botanic Gardens got by far the best of the deal – for Kibble had to meet the cost of rebuilding the glasshouse and maintaining it for 21 years.

The glasshouse was dismantled, loaded onto a steamer at Coulport, unloaded at Port Dundas and re-erected in its present position. Re-erected is, in actual fact, a misleading term, for what was actually built was largely a new building – albeit incorporating the ironwork and glass of the original – designed by James Boyd & Sons of Paisley. It was opened in 1873 and given the grand name of the Kibble Crystal Art Palace and Conservatory.

By the early 1880s, the building was being used more as a plant house than as an entertainment venue, which had been Kibble’s original plan, so the authorities sought to change its name from the Kibble Crystal Art Palace to the ‘Winter Gardens’ – unsuccessfully. It was also about that time that the first of the tree ferns that dominate the building today were planted. To accommodate them, the roof level was raised and, a century and a quarter later, the building and its contents are counted as one the most spectacular sights in Britain.

A major refurbishment in the early years of this century has returned Kibble’s Palace to its Victorian splendour. It is, without doubt, one of the treasures of the city. To achieve that restoration, the building was dismantled in 2003, restored off-site, and then rebuilt in its entirety before reopening in 2006.

It is just one of a host of spectacular buildings in Glasgow, all well worth a visit, although to visit my next choice, a bit of forward planning is needed.

I am an avid collector of books about Scotland and probably the best series ever published on the country’s buildings are the Buildings of Scotland Pevsner Architectural Guides published by Yale University Press. The first volume in the series, Lothian, was published almost 40 years ago in 1979 and the final one, Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire, came out in November 2016. The complete series now describes every building of merit in Scotland.

Having been born in Edinburgh and brought up in the village of Braco in Perthshire, Glasgow was a city I knew very little about until my acquisition of the Glasgow volume, published in 1990, which first alerted me to its treasures. On the back cover was a photograph of a spectacular cast iron column that, it turned out, could be found inside a dark and forbidding-looking church on the corner of St. Vincent Street, right in the heart of the city.

Looking like a giant Greek temple with a tall tower attached, the church was the work of one of Victorian Glasgow’s most celebrated architects – Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson – and, like a lot of his buildings, has been sadly neglected. Nonetheless, the interior of the church is stunning, albeit in need of some restoration work, and exists in sharp contrast to the Grecian solidity of the exterior. Inside, Thomson employed the latest in mid-Victorian technology and elaborate cast-iron columns support the ceilings, surprisingly picked out in a rich palette of bright colours.

Completed in 1859, the church’s beautiful iron columns were cast by Weir & McElroy, one of Glasgow’s leading foundries, who were renowned for the quality of their workmanship, which ranged from the finely detailed, as seen here, to heavy ironwork for the construction and railway industries. The company worked extensively for Thomson, who had earlier designed McElroy’s ‘Italian Villa’ at Cove on the Clyde, so there was no way Thomson was going to get anything less than their finest work.

The St. Vincent Street Church is currently used by the Free Church of Scotland so please call ahead before visiting. Alexander Thomson’s work can also be explored at Holmwood House, south of the city centre. Completed in 1858 for James Couper, a local businessman, the rich decoration of the rooms – in wood, plaster and marble – is being carefully uncovered and conserved by the National Trust for Scotland. When the house is open, visitors can follow the progress being made with this restoration work.

While my first two choices – and Holmwood House if we include that too – focus on buildings that have benefitted, would benefit, or are benefitting from sensitive restoration back to their designers’ original vision. Conversely, my third choice is a magnificent edifice which the architect never saw built. It doesn’t feature in the 1990 volume of Buildings of Scotland, quite simply because it hadn’t been built by that time. And yet, the House for an Art Lover had been designed as long ago as 1901 by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald.

Back in 1989, one of the city’s leading consulting engineers, Graham Roxburgh, drew up plans to turn Mackintosh’s designs for the Art Lover’s House into a reality. What was eventually built is every bit the masterpiece that the judges of the competition for which it had been designed, in 1901, had predicted.

The Mackintoshes had designed the building in response to a competition in the German magazine Zeitschrift Fur Innendekoration, but due to a technicality – they had submitted some of the interior drawings after the closing deadline – it didn’t win and, somewhat disillusioned, the architects just filed the drawings away and pretty much forgot about them.

Fast forward nearly 90 years and Graham Roxburgh found the drawings in the archives of Glasgow University’s Hunterian Gallery – which is also home to the Mackintosh House, the preserved interiors of their home in Southpark Avenue, which was demolished in the 1960s. Roxburgh became determined to build Mackintosh’s modernist masterpiece and assembled an impressive team of leading architects to help develop viable plans from the few drawings that survived – no small feat in itself – before then proceeding to organise the construction of the house.

The structure that now stands in the city’s Bellahouston Park is both impressively large and visibly stunning. The dimensions of the building, and each room within it, were laid down by the organisers of the competition in 1901, but the architects had freedom to interpret each space as they chose. The exterior has all the hallmarks of a Mackintosh design, but it doesn’t really prepare the visitor for the breathtaking simplicity and elegance of the interiors.

In addition to exploring the rooms, there is a fascinating exhibition about Mackintosh's life and work, and a very good café. I would image that if the Mackintoshes were to return to Glasgow, and see their creation standing proudly in Bellahouston Park, they would be both astounded and delighted.

Visitor Information
House for an Art Lover
Bellahouston Park, 10 Dumbreck Rd, Glasgow, G41 5BW
+44 (0) 1413 534 770

St. Vincent Street Church
265 St Vincent St, Glasgow, G2 7LQ
+44 (0) 1416 491 563

The Kibble Palace
Glasgow Botanic Gardens
730 Great Western Road, Glasgow, G12 0UE
+44 (0) 1412 761 614