See all stories
31 Jul 2020

On the trail of designer architects

Exterior view of the Hill House from the garden on a sunny day
Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson, Sir Robert Lorimer and Charles Rennie Mackintosh were all architects of the late 19th and early 20th century. Their beautiful buildings in our care reveal a fascinating blend of traditional Scottish architectural styles with classical and modern touches.

The Trust’s collection of special houses includes some of the nation’s most famous designer-architects, from the Classically inspired Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson and the Arts & Crafts-promoting Sir Robert Lorimer to Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose individual and all-embracing artistic vision produced buildings that are now celebrated as total works of art.

“Just as a ship must have a captain, I consider that under modern conditions it is essential that the architect should have a definite say in regarding all the decorative work into his building.”
Sir Robert Lorimer
A Victorian stone villa stands in its grounds, with a large gravel drive in front and trees to the side.

Holmwood (1857–59)

Designed for James Couper, owner of the nearby Millholm paper mill, Holmwood is considered to be the finest domestic building of Glasgow architect Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson (1817–75).

Thomson worked in Glasgow during the mid-19th century, at a time of rapid expansion and industrial development. His commissions included a mixture of churches, warehouses, tenements and mansions.

His strict religious convictions lay at the root of his genius – he was inspired by biblical theology and the idea of the eternal, which he recognised in ancient art. His use of Classical Greek and Roman elements make his constructions instantly recognisable. His architectural trademarks include stylised pineapples, geometric Greek fret patterns and scrolls. Though he is referred to as ‘Greek’, it could just as easily have been ‘Indian’ or ‘Egyptian’ – and this for a man who never left the British Isles and rarely ventured outside his native Scotland. His designs drew on the architecture of ancient civilisations, which he reinterpreted with an unprecedented degree of creativity and originality.

There is nothing at all conventional about Holmwood. The facade consists of two gables, the left higher than the right, housing a decorated, curved bay window, whose glazing forms a screen behind stone columns. The obvious horizontal lines of the building, combined with the wide eaves and the low pitched gables, give the villa an exotic appearance. Every single detail has been carefully planned – from chimney pots to brackets, doors to gates.

The interior is regarded as one of the most experimental of 19th-century Scottish design and is an outstanding example of Thomson’s individual Greek Revival style, with amazing stencil and freehand polychromatic decoration. This includes the depiction of Homer’s Iliad in the frieze in the dining room. Thomson took responsibility not only for the architectural design, but even the solid furnishings and textiles. Holmwood is a tribute to Thomson’s talent, not only as an architect but also as a designer in his own right.

With many other examples of his work lost in the commercialisation of Glasgow, Holmwood is one of Thomson’s most important surviving works – a unique building of international significance. We’ve been working on a long-term conservation project in the house, using specialists to help us painstakingly reveal and restore the original wall decorations.

Find out more about the Holmwood restoration project.

A view of Kellie Castle with its towers and chimneys, seen from a colourful garden. The bed in the foreground is filled with small blue flowers, mirroring the sky!
Kellie Castle & Garden

Kellie Castle (1878–97)

A significant historical building in its own right as an excellent example of a Scottish lowland castle, Kellie Castle gained further interest in the late 19th century as the home and restoration project of the Lorimer family. The approach to restoration adopted by the Lorimers at Kellie allows visitors to view the development of architecture and the decorative arts in Scotland over several centuries.

The restoration project was begun by Professor James Lorimer in 1878. He carried out repairs, based on extensive historical research, that were considered to be ground-breaking in their sensitivity. Professor Lorimer lived there over many summers with his family, and Kellie inspired his youngest son Robert’s early interest in architecture. At the age of 14, Robert (1864–1929) helped with his father’s restoration work and, watching the craftsmen at work, learned the skills of plastering, carpentry and stonemasonry.

Robert trained as an architect and completed a number of conservation projects in his own career before becoming the foremost Scottish architect of the early 20th century. He was strongly influenced by the ideas of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts style of architecture, which sought to revive traditional building crafts and the use of local materials. In 1910, Lorimer was knighted for his design for the Thistle Chapel in St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh.

At Kellie, Lorimer embodied the Arts and Crafts ethos, employing highly skilled craftsmen and artists, such as Phoebe Anna Traquair, to decorate the interior. He also designed many items of furniture himself. In the drawing room, he designed the cartouches (ornamental scrolls) over the chimneypieces bearing his, his brother John Henry’s and their mother’s monograms. There is an exceptionally fine inlaid chest of drawers, designed by the young Robert Lorimer in his early Arts & Crafts manner, as well as a pair of elaborately shaped gilt and bevelled mirrors, carved with birds. After he married, Robert took much of the furniture to his own country house nearby. Thankfully, his son Hew inherited several pieces on his father’s death, which have been returned to Kellie. Hew also inherited his father’s creative talents and became a monumental stone carver. He and his wife Mary moved into Kellie in the late 1930s.

In 1897 Robert Lorimer laid out the gardens at Kellie. The garden retained many of the features of the ‘pleasaunce’, a medieval enclosed garden attached to a castle or large house, designed to delight all the senses. Two small corner gardens were added – Robin’s Corner and the Yew Enclosure (usually referred to as the Secret Garden). These ‘gardens within gardens’ often appear in Sir Robert Lorimer’s later work, and were characteristic features of the Edwardian gardens designed by his contemporaries and friends such as William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll.

Find out more about Robert Lorimer’s furniture at Kellie Castle

A large white-walled country mansion stands on a slight hill, with stone staircases and terraced gardens leading down in front. Tall trees surround the gardens.
Hill of Tarvit

Hill of Tarvit (1905–07)

Formerly known as Wemyss Hall and dating back to 1696, Hill of Tarvit was remodelled by Sir Robert Lorimer for the Dundee financier Frederick Sharp. Sharp commissioned Lorimer to create a family home that would also provide a setting for his fine collection of tapestries, furniture and paintings.

Hill of Tarvit is an excellent demonstration of Lorimer’s approach to design – drawing influence from the past whilst favouring simplicity which rejected the highly ornamental styles of the previous decades. The way Lorimer’s house is built up from a straight line of public rooms, each not only with tall sash windows but plentiful south-facing exits directly into the garden, is a striking feature with few parallels in Scotland. The manner in which the phases of interior design blend together was also highly influential on Scottish taste across the early 20th century.

Lorimer designed each room individually to complement the period of the collection it contained, all created by a team of highly skilled craftsmen. The hall was designed on baronial lines, and against its oak panelling the hunting and battle scenes of two magnificent 17th-century Flemish tapestries are shown off to their best. They’re complemented by 17th- and 18th-century English and Scottish furniture. In contrast, the character of the drawing room matches the fragile elegance of its 18th-century French furniture.

Although Lorimer was totally immersed in every creative detail (even the door handles were made to his design), he could also visualise all the modern, practical amenities which Mr Sharp wanted to make his home comfortable. Central heating with electricity from the estate’s own generator was installed, as well as a wooden sink to save glass and china being chipped and an internal telephone system.

As at Kellie, Lorimer also considered the garden. At Hill of Tarvit his aim was to enfold the façade of the house in a totally green setting. His ideal remained the traditional Scottish structure – parkland rolling up to the house on one side, and access to an enclosed walled garden, typically a mixture of fruit, vegetables and flowers, on the other.

Hill of Tarvit is the only house where Lorimer’s architecture, interiors, collections and gardens have remained intact as a unified experience, making Hill of Tarvit a highly valuable example of his work.

Discover the origins of some of the remarkable pieces in Mr Sharp’s collection.

The Hill House seen from the garden on a sunny day. Green hedges follow the line of the wall in the foreground.
The Hill House

The Hill House (1902–04)

Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928) is perhaps the most famous Scottish architect and designer. Although he is tremendously popular today, he never really enjoyed popular success in Scotland or Britain during his lifetime. His individual contribution to the development of architecture and design was recognised by the avant-garde in Europe.

Designed in 1902 for Glasgow publisher Walter M Blackie, the Hill House is regarded as Mackintosh’s finest domestic building. Moving away from the historicism of the Victorian period, Mackintosh adopted an individual style which drew on the traditional forms of Scottish Renaissance architecture, presenting these in symbolist and geometric forms. In order to escape from the overbearing influence of the classical past, he drew on a wide variety of sources: geometry, the natural world, Scottish Baronial architecture, and Celtic and Japanese artforms. This recycling of traditional forms was in line with current trends.

The visual impact of his work is very obvious. Mackintosh treated the building as an organic whole – the house, its fixtures (down to the smallest fittings) and interior design were all designed to be both practical and aesthetic. He is well known for designing every aspect of an architectural project, from light and window fittings to clocks and cutlery.

To create the traditional Scottish harling on the exterior walls, Mackintosh experimented with the new material of Portland cement render. In addition to the use of traditional grey slate for the roof, this gives the outside of the building a definite Scottish ‘feel’. Unfortunately, the cement harling has not fared well in the Scottish wet climate, and is now the subject of a large-scale conservation project.

Find out more about the Hill House Box

The interior, with its Japanese influences, provides a varied and rich contrast – here, Mackintosh’s masterly use of colour, texture and light combine to create a dwelling which is unique. The influence of Mackintosh’s wife, Margaret Macdonald, a renowned artist in her own right, is also evident in the decorative scheme. Mackintosh’s furniture was always designed for a specific location. Individual pieces may appear somewhat unusual on their own but when viewed in the correct context they are always at one with their surroundings.

Many of Mackintosh’s favourite themes and motifs are to be found in the Hill House. The entrance hall, with its strong verticals and horizontals, integrates many of the current stylistic movements with those of the past. Arts and Crafts jostles with Art Nouveau; Japanese rhythms add life to the old baronial hall, everything controlled and held together by the architectural geometries. Upstairs in the main bedroom, modern elegance in furniture and fittings combines with traditional Scottish expectations. A vaulted ceiling embraces and enfolds a large white bed carved to represent forms abstracted from nature. The contrast of curves, cool whites and warm pinks with the angularity of the darkest brown ladder-back chairs is pronounced. Integration is paramount to success: the stencilled wall pattern echoes the rose motif used elsewhere in the house.

The result at the Hill House is a beautiful work of art.

Margaret Macdonald's 'Sleeping Beauty' design above the Hill House drawing room fireplace
The fireplace in the Hill House drawing room, with the Sleeping Princess gesso panel above

We work hard every day to protect the architectural treasures in our care, from magnificent houses like those above to stone gate posts. Now more than ever, we urgently need your support in helping us to protect our built heritage, so future generations can enjoy these beautiful buildings and the remarkable stories they tell.

Support us today

Your donation to help us protect everything that makes Scotland special and unique is more important than ever.

Donate now