An article from the SCOTTISH FIELD (May 1968)

“May 11th (1968) is the 200th anniversary of the birth of David Hamilton, the architect who gave style and dignity to Glasgow at a time when the city was just becoming conscious of its modern greatness.

FRANCIS WORSDALL traces his career and influence.”

When in 1857 a new concert-hall was erected in Glasgow, the decoration included medallion heads of the great figures in various artistic fields. These included Handel for music, Reynolds for painting, and inevitably, as it seemed at the time, David Hamilton for architecture. This gives some idea of how much he was revered by the succeeding generation of architects in the city, many of whom had, in fact, been trained in his office during the half century in which he practised. 

David Hamilton was born in Glasgow on May 11, 1768. He was trained and spent some years working as a stone-mason before deciding to become an architect. In those early formative years the city was rapidly expanding, with new streets of handsome villas and squares, erected by the new wealthy merchant class. This “New Town of Glasgow” in the style popularised by Robert and James Adam had a profound influence on Hamilton’s mature style. About 1790, he set up in business in his native city, and began the long series of works throughout Scotland which was to make him famous. 

In 1802, he was commissioned by the governors of Hutchesons’ Hospital to design their new building in Ingram Street. Here we can see a number of the characteristics which we associate with the contemporary work of Sir John Soane in London. Internally, there was originally a large central hall, expressed externally by a high main storey with Corinthian columns. The statues of the two Hutcheson brothers were rescued from the 17th century building in the Trongate where the school was originally housed. A fluted spire is the crowning feature. About 10 years later, two comparable structures were erected – the Town Steeple at Falkirk (probably intended to be attached to a town-house which was never erected) and Port Glasgow Town Hall, where the spire surmounts a Doric portico of individual type. 

Hamilton designed the Nelson Monument on Glasgow Green in 1806. It was the first to be erected to the hero of Trafalgar, and consists of a massive Roman obelisk 144 feet high, with the names of the great admiral’s victories inscribed on the sides. In 1810 it was struck by lightning during a violent storm and split almost from top to bottom. 

The first two decades of the 19th century saw the rebuilding of many Scottish parish churches, and Hamilton designed a number of them. In those days an architect had to be able to turn his hand to any style his client might choose, and was not always able to make his own choice. Clearly Hamilton favoured variations on Italian themes, but it must be admitted that his contribution to the Gothic Revival was among the most successful when one considers that his work pre-dated the discoveries of Pugin and Rickman. 

St. John’s Church, in Glasgow’s east end, has been demolished, but good Gothic examples remain at Larbert and Lennoxtown in Stirlingshire, and Bothwell in Lanarkshire. The towers in each case are well proportioned and form prominent local landmarks. The Bothwell church was originally erected against the medieval chancel, but in recent times the dividing wall has been taken down to form a single composition. Unfortunately, the removal of Hamilton’s galleries has resulted in the exposure of a large expanse or ugly rubble walling. Campsie High Church at Lennoxtown stands on a hill and its tower emphasises the strong vertical lines of the rest of the design. Allied to the Gothic churches is the tower of Kilwinning Abbey in Ayrshire, which he designed in 1814 to replace the original structure which had collapsed. 

The three churches in Renaissance style were all in Glasgow. Unfortunately two, have been demolished, and the third remain, in a mutilated condition. This is the earliest: Gorbals Parish Church, in Carlton Place erected 1810-11. The spire was demolished earlier this century after being damaged by lightning. St. Enoch’s Parish Church, formerly in the square of that name, was a design of 1827, incorporating the steeple of an earlier building. Traditionally the site of St Thenaw’s burial place (St. Thenaw was St. Mungo’s mother) and certainly that of a medieval chapel in her honour, it is a pity that this historic site is no longer marked by any monument. 

St. Paul’s Church in John Street had a portico similar to that of St. Enoch’s, but was surmounted by a cupola. It was removed to make way for an extension that is now Strathclyde University. All these buildings had a quality of elegance which we associate with the pre-Victorian period of architecture. 

Hamilton’s last church is at Ascog on the Isle of Bute and is quite different from the others in inspiration. It was probably largely designed by David’s youngest son, James who certainly did much of the firm’s later work. It is Romanesque in style with a simple square tower at the east end and the appearance of a simple Italian country church. It is a pity that tiles were not used for roofing instead of the rather dismal, slates as that would have completed illusion. 

Probably the best-known part of Hamilton’s practice consisted of private housing – from the small suburban villa to the huge country mansions of wealthy landowner. They are in many and varied styles. In some, the influence of Robert Adam is apparent, with that architect’s love of circular and elliptical rooms, often expressed externally in symmetrical curved bays, Hamilton’s approach, however, was more robust than Adam’s, and his ornamentation shows a boldness of detail which is absent from the earlier master’s style. Many of these houses have been mistakenly attributed to Adam, owing to the similarity between both architects’ external treatment. These Italian villas are to be found among Hamilton’s earliest and latest work. Two interesting examples of the latter are to be found at. Largs in Ayrshire. Brooksby is a restrained design. St. Fillan’s. now converted into a hotel, is on a very original plan, being shaped like a letter ‘A’ to allow views up and down the Firth of Clyde, and the main doorway placed in the angle facing inland. 

These are examples of the marine villa which became more and more popular as the 19th century progressed. The first of them was Curling Hall, also in Largs, built by Hamilton in 1805, and the series continued with such good specimens as Castle House, Dunoon, and Ellenbank, Inverkip. The culmination was reached in the magnificent pile of Castle Toward erected in 1820-21. A massive and romantic group in castellated Gothic style, it was erected at the height of the fashion for such structures. On the other side of the country, a large addition was made to the medieval buildings of Airth Castle in Stirlingshire in 1807. It consists of a wide embattlmented front flanked by octagonal towers. As in much of his work, the interior is Italian in inspiration, the centre-piece being an elliptical saloon which forms an ingenious link between the old and new parts of the house. Kincaid House, in the same county, is a less successful combination of styles and somewhat resembles a “Gothick Folly.” 

In Ayrshire, Dunlop House is an essay in the Jacobean manner and was one of its author’s favourites. The design began as an addition to an older house, but eventually the latter was almost completely demolished. Dating from 1833-34, the house is set in the midst of attractive landscaped parkland. 

Hamilton was commissioned to design, in a similar manner to Dunlop, a large mansion in Stirlingshire attached to a small 16th century house. The site was obviously unsuitable and the addition impossible to manage, so in 1837 the idea was abandoned in favour of a new house on a different site. On this occasion the style chosen was that of a Norman castle and the new structure given the name of Lennox Castle. A rnember of the family was at that time prosecuting a long and difficult court case hoping to revive the ancient title of Earl of Lennox, which had been first awarded to a Norman ancestor. The romantic grouping of three towers of different sizes within a massive framework is one of Hamilton’s most successful designs. The only concession to Victorian taste was the provision of a large porte-cochere at the principal entrance. 

In sheer size, Lennox Castle was eclipsed only by the additions made to Hamilton Palace in the years 1822-30 for Alexander, the 10th Duke. These consisted of an irnposing new frontage 264 feet in length with, as its centrepiece, a noble Roman Corinthian portico. The columns were each formed of a single stone 25 feet in height. The interior was on a similarly magnificent scale – vast rooms with richly decorated plasterwork, a great marble staircase, the whole to be crammed with priceless works of art. Owing to subsidence from the many pits in the area, the palace, like so many humbler dwellings, was demolished in the years following the First World War. 

It is not generally known that Duke Alexander also commissioned the design for the Mausoleum in the Palace grounds. Hamilton submitted three designs and work began on the project in 1840. Unfortunately, he died when only the crypt was finished and the completion of the building was entrusted to David Bryce of Edinburgh, who is quite wrongly often credited with the whole design. 

Hamilton was responsible for a large number of public buildings. Among them in Glasgow may be mentioned the old Theatre Royal in Queen Street, built in 1803-5 and burned down in 1829; and the Normal School in New City Road with its conspicuous clock tower.Most important is the Royal Exchange . Handicapped by the necessity of retaining the old mansion on the site, he cleverly added a fine Corinthian portico in front and a large richly ornamented hall behind. The vaulted and coffered ceiling of this hall is typical of Hamilton’s care over every detail of his design. 

In the last years of his life, when Hamilton was joined in partnership by his son James, there was a surge of activity and many designs with a new and experimental approach came from the office. Most of these buildings were banks, and sadly, most have been demolished. The only one remaining – the British Linen Bank in Queen Street, Glasgow – is one of the finest, with a well designed circular corner. 

The Western Club in Buchanan Street also belonged to this phase. Apart from two walls, it has been completely demolished. Internally, it had a splendid double staircase and fine spacious rooms. Externally, there is some bold carved ornament, and an attic storey in which the windows are separated by elongated consoles – a device later borrowed by “Greek” Thomson. 

Such a busy office left little time for such luxuries as competition entries. On one important occasion, however, time was snatched up to send an entry for the Houses Of Parliament at Westminster in 1835. As a result he was awarded the third prize of £500, the only Scottish architect to win a placing. 

The painting of Hamilton by Saxon shows a rather dandified young man, but the later one by Macnee is of a friendly old man with a mischievous grin. It is this kindly, humorous, fatherly figure that his apprentices remembered, treated, as they were, as part of the family in the old-fashioned, office-house. This was the training ground for many of Glasgow’s Victorian architects – Charles Wilson and J. T. Rochead are names that spring immediately to mind; and it was Hamilton’s example that enabled them and their colleagues to maintain such a high standard. He died on December 5th 1843, the most loved and revered of all Glasgow’s architects. From his stature and influence, David Hamilton can fairly be called the father of Glasgow architecture. 

Copyright © Scottish Field 1968 

[With thanks to the Scottish Field for their permission to reproduce this article]. 

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