St Vincent Street Free Church, Glasgow,
Alexander "Greek" Thomson (1817-1875) and George Thomson (1819-1878)
The foundation stone of this Category A listed church was laid on 27 May 1857, and the church opened on 16 February 1859 as a United Presbytarian church. [Commentary continues below.]
Main photograph by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, on Flickr (cropped here), kindly released under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence. Other photographs courtesy of the the Glasgow City Free Church, and the Alexander Thomson Society, as attributed. [Click on the images to enlarge them, and mouse over the text for links.]
Image download, text and formatting by Jacqueline Banerjee.
Left: Taken from the gallery, looking down over the church. The organ case was by John Watson jr. The exquisite woodwork has been beautifully restored. Right: Looking the other way, with the same dramatic effect. Photographs kindly provided by the the Glasgow City Free Church (see bibliography).
Thomson was working here in collaboration with his younger brother George (who later became a missionary in the Cameroons), and among the others involved were the firm of J. and G. Mossman for the stone carving. This is confirmed by a Report on Survey and Research (see Urquhart), extracts of which were kindly sent to us by Evan Macdonald, an elder of the church. According to the Alexander Thomson Society, Daniel Cottier was responsible for the interior decoration; however, there is no reference to him at all in the report just mentioned. Here, the firm of Campbell Tait Bowie is credited with the painting. Others contracted for various works on the church building include Wilson & Barron, for the splendid ornamental woodwork, and Weir & McElroy and Robert M'Connal & Co, for the "Cast-Iron Work and Patent Beam" (1.2). The church hall was completed later in the 1860s.
The church has changed over the years, and is now the Glasgow City Free Church. As Thomson's only complete surviving church, it is of great interest. One of the most detailed accounts of it is by architectural historian James Stevens Curl, who sees it as a fine example of Thomson's "ability to mix many elements in a whole." His views are worth quoting at some length:
As the site has a sharp fall, Thomson created a dramatic and massive podium, and set his church on this mighty base, with hexastyle Greek Ionic porticoes at each end, but with clerestorey-strips of windows down each side divided by pairs of coupled columns again square on plan, and clearly derived from the Thrasyllus monument. Near the ends of the flanking aisles are two of Thomson’s favourite Egyptianising devices: tall battered pylons rising above the cornices. On the plain tower, near the top, are T- shaped openings which are Greeco-Egyptianising herms facing each other and supporting the lintel over. Above, four battered pylon-forms help to support the drum with its peristyle of stocky Egyptianesque columns [...]. Now there are all sorts of curious things going on in the design of this church, not least quotations from the publications of the American architect Minard Lafever (1798-1854).
Curl picks out some of these allusions, pointing out how widely and deeply read this architect was, and wondering if he was here "trying to create a new expression in church architecture, linking it with the lost Temple in Jerusalem described in the Bible" (337). This is a fascinating line of enquiry.
Left: External carving. Right two: capitals of the columns inside the church.
The external detailing, as shown on the left above, is typical of Thomson. In this connection, it is interesting to note that the "J" of "J. and G. Mossman," the firm responsible for the elaborate stone carving, was John Mossman, who had worked with the firm before, and was responsible for the bust of Thomson which is now in the keeping of Glasgow Museums. Here, the exoticism of the carving outside is echoed inside, as shown in the capitals of the columns, which are even more eye-catching because of the brilliant colours. As to whether this was what the capitals were originally intended to look like, Alan Ferdinand writes in his conclusion to the Report on Survey and Research that preliminary tests "in the main sanctuary" produced "evidence of four decorative schemes in the areas of the column shafts and the North and South walls, while the decorative plaster details such as the column capitals appear to show evidence of three schemes" (see Urquhart). So this is perhaps unlikely. What is certain is that the interior is still dazzling today.
261 St Vincent Street, St Vincent Street Church.... Historic Environment Scotland. Web. 2 November 2020.
The Alexander Thomson Society. Web. 13 November 2020.
Curl, James Stephens. The Egyptian Revival: Ancient Egypt as the Inspiration of Design Motifs in the West. London: Routledge, 2005.
"George Thomson." DSA (Dictionary of Scottish Architects. Web. 13 November 2020.
Glasgow City Free Church. The church's own website. Web. 13 November 2020.
"St Vincent Street UP Church." DSA (Dictionary of Scottish Architects. Web. 2 November 2020.
Urquhart, Gordon (Heritage Consultancy) and Alan Ferdinand (Historic Paint Consultant), for Page/Park Architects. "St Vincent Street Church, Glasgow." Report on Survey and Research Programme in relation to Historic Interiors. July 2007.
Last modified 13 November 2020