William Leiper – Glasgow’s Other Architect
Visit Mon 12th – Sun 18th during Glasgow Doors Open Days Festival
Talks Weds 14th & Thurs 15th
William Leiper died a hundred years ago and there’s an exhibition to commemorate his centenary running at the Leiper Gallery, situated appropriately in his Sun Insurance building at the corner of West George Street and Renfield Street.
Although less well known today than some of his near contemporaries Leiper made a significant contribution to our urban and rural architectural landscape. In a long and varied career he designed at least one example of almost every type of building found in late Victorian Scotland, from country and town houses to churches and business premises. He was responsible for the reincarnation of the Doges Palace on Glasgow Green and for the Isle of Mull being home to the only Gothic lighthouse in the world. He even designed the interior for Tsar Alexander’s eccentric floating palace Livadia, which was launched at Fairfield in 1880, a model of which is in the exhibition.
In the late Victorian age there was a craze for the Gothic, with architects attempting to reinvent medieval forms, creating baronial towers, arches and windows all richly decorated. After his education and apprenticeship to a firm of architects in Glasgow, Leiper went to London, where he became immersed in this Gothic Revival. When he returned he would become the leader of the Scottish branch.
At the age of twenty three Leiper got his first commission, to supervise the building of the massive Findlater’s Church in Dublin, which features in the novels of James Joyce. Then at the beginning of 1864 he returned to Glasgow and won the competition to design Dowanhill Church, now Cottiers Theatre.
Leiper’s career then took off with significant public buildings such as Partick Burgh Hall and Dumbarton Academy. He virtually invented the “Jolly Red Giants” (details of free Jolly Red Giants talk here), gigantic red sandstone commercial towers with steel frame and concrete interiors and electric lighting, even electric lifts. These state of the art structures were encased in exteriors derived from medieval French and Italian concepts and embellished with extraordinary sculptures. If you look up to the fifth floor of the Sun building on Renfield Street you’ll see the tombstone Michelangelo created for the Medicis in Florence, although the Glasgow version has the figures clothed!
It’s probably his obsession with the Gothic that accounts for Leiper’s relative obscurity today, as it’s a style that’s been long out of favour. It’s easy to overlook just how revolutionary electric buildings were in the 1890s. His genius was his ability to understand and use the new engineering concepts. His career raises issues about the relationship between art and architecture, interior and exterior, that are highly relevant today, when many new buildings are purely functional and stark.
This free exhibition is open Tuesday to Sunday (and Monday during Doors Open Week) from 12:00 at
117 West George Street