John Baird


Born at Dalmuir, Baird trained as an architect in the Glasgow office of a relative, a Mr Shepherd. When Shepherd died in 1818, Baird took over the running of the company.

His early Glasgow work included the design for the Greyfriars United Presbyterian Church in North Albion Street. This was later followed by the United Presbyterian Church in Wellington Street, the central town house of Claremont Terrace, the Prince's Buildings on Buchanan Street and various buildings on the Gilmorehill campus of Glasgow University.

Baird's style adhered to modifications of Greek and Roman architecture, with only an occasional divergence towards the Tudor and early British Renaissance styles. He died at home in December 1859, and was survived by a widow and two daughters.

THE impression produced by the mere external aspect of a great city is of a somewhat complex kind. More or less consciously the mind of the ordinary observer identifies the citizens with the city. He will judge of them as well as of their city by what he sees. Are the streets narrow and mean, the houses plain or ugly, the public buildings vulgar or contemptible, the mere extent of the monotonous architectural wilderness will serve rather to intensify than mitigate amazement that wealth and enterprise should be so completely dissociated from liberality and refinement. But if he traverses wide and well-paved streets and spacious squares and airy terraces, and finds, in every quarter of a great city, parks bright with verdure, and - despite, perchance, a smoky canopy - fragrant with many-hued flowers, while along the quiet streets as well as the crowded thoroughfares, on public and private buildings alike, there is some appearance of good work and thoughtful design, he will recognize on every hand the evidence not of wealth merely but of culture, and be not more impressed with the beauty of the city than with the forethought, good sense, and good taste of its inhabitants. There is, indeed, a civic as well as a civil aristocracy, and on the roll of cities of renown few are worthy of a higher place than our own. Owing less than many others to accidental peculiarities of site and surroundings, its claim to distinction rests more exclusively on what its inhabitants during successive generations have done. Its general aspect now attests to their sagacity as well as their cultivated taste; but we must not forget how much that is admirable, how much that may be said to determine the rank of the city, is due not to the superior intelligence of the wealthy citizens, but to the genius of the men who gave their crude conceptions definite and enduring form - the architects who flourished during that critical period of its history when its growth was most rapid and its character was being formed.

This we are too apt to do. Probably not one in a thousand knows that we owe the stately frontage of Carlton Place, and the wide embankments -which have cost our city nothing - to the eminent architect, Peter Nicolson, or that Charles Wilson had anything to do with the arrangement of Kelvingrove Park, and designed Park Terrace, with its striking and picturesque skyline; and still less, perhaps, is it generally known that Claremont Terrace was sketched out, and the house which now forms the centre of it designed, while yet waving cornfields lay between it and the western outskirts of the city, by John Baird, the subject of this memoir. Of course, we must not forget our obligations to the Lauries, the Fullartons, the Flemings, and others who left us our uninterrupted river vista, or made our magnificent West-End possible; but then, without Nicolson there would have been no Carlton Place as it is; and without John Baird, Mr. Fleming's best intentions might have been frustrated, and on the slopes of Claremont we might have seen the prototype of Hillhead.

We know little of the early life of John Baird. He was born at Dalmuir, Dumbartonshire, in 1798, and, when fifteen years of age, commenced to learn his profession in the office of his relative, Mr. Shepherd, an architect in Glasgow. Shepherd died in 1818, when Baird was only in the twentieth year of his age and the fourth of his apprenticeship, and it is a remarkable testimony to his ability, and the confidence which he had already inspired, that he should, in these circumstances, have been thought competent to take up and carry on his late master's business.

This, not without many misgivings, he undertook, and if he did make any serious blunders to begin with, they have not been recorded. In the Greyfriars United Presbyterian Church, North Albion Street, we have an example of his skill, both in design and construction, at what may be called the commencement of his public career in 1822, when he had been only four years in independent practice. From this time onwards his progress was rapid and uninterrupted, and this although he never engaged in architectural competitions, a species of professional speculation - to use a mild epithet - which he consistently protested against till the last. Blessed with a vigorous constitution, his capacity for work was great, yet for many years it was severely taxed as he worked his way up to the leading position which he ultimately held. He made no pretension to any exact knowledge of Gothic art. He never had time, and it is doubtful if he ever had any inclination to study it in the only way which can be of practical use - by examining and sketching existing remains. Surrounded by classic influences, his preference was early shown, and throughout his long and varied practice he adhered to modifications of Greek and Roman architecture, with only an occasional divergence towards the latest Tudor and the more picturesque early British Renaissance.

The United Presbyterian Church in Wellington Street is a good example of Baird's mastery of Greek detail; but in this case the narrow and false ideas on the subject of church architecture then prevalent forbade any variation of the usual form which might have added grace to the exterior, or even grace (of an artistic kind) to the interior; and if the general effect of the whole has not much to commend it, we can hardly blame the architect for that. We must judge of his artistic attainments, not by the ungainly square mass, then the beau ideal of a Presbyterian place of worship, but by the elegant portico, and the details generally, in which there is much to be admired. Baird's careful delicacy of detail is equally conspicuous in his private buildings and warehouses. It is, indeed, characteristic of his work, combined as it invariably is with convenience of arrangement and sound construction.

As the business centre of Glasgow moved westwards, and the old shops in the High Street, Saltmarket, and Trongate were forsaken by the more enterprising tradesmen, an immense impulse was given to building operations, as not only were new shops and warehouses required, but the dwellings displaced or interfered with by these had to be replaced. Besides, the better classes, no longer content to live over their shops or in the "lands" near them, required, in increasing numbers, self-contained houses made in conformity with modern ideas. Baird was largely engaged not merely in designing such dwellings, but also in laying off the streets and terraces which rapidly spread out into the fields, especially westwards. His most important work of this kind was his design for the lands of Claremont, by which the various blocks of houses and the intervening pleasure grounds were so disposed, as to work in with the design of Mr. George Smith of Edinburgh for the adjoining lands of South Woodside, thus greatly enhancing the value of both properties. About the same time he designed Claremont House, which for many years stood alone, but now forms the centre of Claremont Terrace. It is a spacious and well-arranged town house, with a frontage of 58 feet, and is a very good example of Baird's domestic work.

In 1840 Baird designed for Sir James Campbell the large block of business premises in Buchanan Street, known as Prince's Buildings, which stand partly on the site formerly occupied by Mr. Gordon of Aikenhead's town house. He subsequently designed Messrs. Campbell's great warehouse at the corner of Ingram and Brunswick Streets, but the elevations of this building were prepared by the late Mr. Billings, the well-known author of the "Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland."

In 1846 the Senatus of the University, having resolved to remove the College westwards, secured a site on the Woodlands estate, and employed John Baird to prepare designs for the new buildings. These were approved of, working drawings were made, and tenders for the work taken in. All preliminary arrangements seem to have been completed and the scheme was sanctioned by Act of Parliament, but it was, nevertheless, ultimately abandoned. Baird's design was exhibited at the International Exhibition of 1862. It represents a building of rather heterogeneous composition, chiefly in the style of Heriot's Hospital, with some features rather too severely classical to harmonize with the rest. The plan was more successful, and in after years, when it was finally determined to transfer the College buildings to Gilmorehill, Baird's plan was utilized, and served to indicate the kind of arrangement which the Senatus wished. The buildings, as they now stand, are, from an architectural point of view, by no means satisfactory, and it must ever be a matter of regret that the Senatus refused to receive designs from Glasgow architects, some of whom were only inferior to Sir George Gilbert Scott in having less work to attend to - a difference which ought not to have been regarded as a disqualification.

One of the largest warehouses designed by Baird is that erected for Messrs. D. & J. McDonald Co., fronting South Hanover Street and extending from Ingram Street to George's Square; and among his more important country mansions may be mentioned Urie, in Kincardineshire; Birkwood, Lesmahagow; and Viewpark, near Uddingston, all in the late Tudor style.

In later years his great experience in property of every kind led to his extensive employment as a valuator, his advice being eagerly sought both by sellers and purchasers. He was also much engaged as an arbitrator, a position for which he was admirably qualified. Skilful, cautious, and judicious, with a reputation for shrewd common sense and sterling probity which his awards were seen to justify, it is probably not too much to say that no professional man of his time enjoyed more largely the confidence of those with whom he came in contact. In 1857 some expression was given to this feeling by his business friends, who then presented him with a full-length portrait - an excellent likeness - painted by the late Sir Daniel Macnee. Shortly before his death he assumed as partner one who, long associated with him as pupil and assistant, still worthily follows in his footsteps. He was thus relieved from much of the drudgery of his profession; but his labours were not ended, indeed they were hardly relaxed till they were interrupted by his last brief illness. He died peacefully at home in December, 1859, surrounded by those dearest to him, and was survived by a widow and two daughters.

If we consider the prevalent ideas on art seventy years ago, it must be evident that Baird entered upon the practice of his profession in circumstances peculiarly favourable to the development of his classical bent. With the exception of St. John's Parish Church by Hamilton, and St. David's by Rickman, there had been no serious attempt to introduce Gothic architecture into Glasgow, even for ecclesiastical purposes, and these examples were not calculated to stimulate the desire for more. The classic traditions remained unbroken, and the followers of the Adams, and Stark, and David Hamilton remained insensible to the charms of the reviving Gothic; indeed, any perceptible divergence from the established order of things, or, perhaps we may say, from the established "orders," was rather in the direction of the more elegant refinement of pure Greek art.

The influence of this tendency may be seen in much of John Baird's work, and, confirmed as it was by a happy, or, from another point of view, unhappy combination of circumstances, it produced an effect upon the architecture of the city still apparent and likely to be permanent. Two circumstances mainly conduced to this result - the predilection of many of the most cultivated and esteemed citizens, men like James Smith of Jordanhill, Charles Hutcheson, Graham Gilbert, Archibald McLellan, and others, who were looked up to as leaders in matters of taste; and the ability of architects like Hamilton and Baird and Foote, whose works seemed to justify the preference for classic forms. Nor is it surprising that even at a later period the pseudo-medievalism which flourished elsewhere should have failed to find a firm footing here, when we remember how the succession of classical enthusiasts was carried down by such men as Charles Wilson, Rochead, and Alexander Thomson. To the influence of such men we undoubtedly owe the general excellence of our street architecture, which, for variety of design, combined with elegance and refinement of detail, surpasses that of any other city in Great Britain. There is reason to hope that this enviable position may be maintained. Hitherto, at all events, we have been preserved alike from the vagaries of aestheticism and the vulgarities of "Queen Anne." As a community we show little indication of wavering in our allegiance to classic art, and it is a significant fact that not only our new Town Hall but our newest West-End churches are in the classic style.

Some perhaps, with Mr. Ruskin, will hold that all this is very deplorable, and only the fitting sequel to our past artistic history, leading, as was inevitable, to the degradation of our architecture, or rather to the extinction of anything true or good or worthy in it, and the creation of a dreary embodiment of ghastliness, pestilent and unburiable, from which there is no deliverance! But whether we look at the architecture of Glasgow as a complete development or a mere transient phase, Mr. Ruskin's sweeping condemnation of it cannot be justified unless we are prepared to admit that, being classic, it is therefore hopelessly bad. Judged by prevailing standards - by any standard intelligible to the great majority of men - it will be declared worthy of the high position we claim for it, and which therefore, in fact, it holds. The majority, it is true, may be wrong - they very often are wrong; but at least this art of which we have been speaking is theirs, the embodiment of their ideal, and indeed the outcome of their hereditary culture much more than it is a mere manifestation of their architects' judicious eclecticism. It is to that extent indigenous, and on the great critic's own principles we should expect to find in it some germ of goodness, some possibility of life, some ground for satisfaction with the present and hope for the future.

It is now pretty generally recognized that the recent Gothic revival was a mistake. Its origin was unfortunate as well as its aims, and its unfulfilled promises lie as stumbling-blocks in the path of artistic progress. But our modern Gothic has not been modified or transformed by growing classic tendencies - it has been supplanted. Here, at all events, as we have seen, there has been no break in the continuity of classic traditions, and our position is advantageous for further development. It may be permissible to speak of classic architecture as we speak of the classic languages of antiquity as "dead," but like them it is a perpetual well-spring of inspiration; and it will probably be found that, as in education, as in literature, so in art the superstructure may be most safely reared on a good classic foundation.

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