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Significant Scots
Peter Nicholson


NICHOLSON, PETER.—This skilful architect, whose long life was one of continued usefulness, and whose scientific knowledge was constantly turned to practical results, was born in the parish of Prestonkirk, East Lothian, on the 20th of July 1765. Even before he had reached his ninth year he had unconsciously chosen his future profession, as was manifested by his drawings and models of the numerous mills in the neighbourhood of Prestonkirk. When a young schoolboy, his scientific tastes so strongly predominated, that mathematics formed the chief object of his study; and his proficiency was so much beyond his years, that having on one occasion borrowed from an elder boy Commadine’s "Euclid," translated by Cann, in which the engraved diagrams of the 18th proposition of the third book were wanting, he supplied the loss by constructing them from the proposition itself. His ardour in these studies was only increased by the difficulty he experienced in obtaining or borrowing works upon the subjects of his inquiry.

At the age of twelve, Peter Nicholson was taken from the parish school of Prestonkirk, where he had been a pupil for three years, that he might assist in the occupation of his father, who was a stone-mason. But having no liking for this uncongenial work, Peter betook himself to that of a cabinet-maker; and having served a four years’ apprenticeship to it at Linton, he repaired to Edinburgh, and afterwards to London, working in both capitals as a journeyman. In the latter city he also commenced teaching at an evening school, in Berwick Street, Soho, and his success in this new profession enabled him to abandon the making of chairs and tables for more intellectual pursuits, as was shown by his first publication, "The Carpenter’s New Guide," in 1792, the plates of which were engraved by his own hand. In this work, the originality and inventiveness by which he was afterwards distinguished, were shown in his new method in the construction of groins and niches. His next productions in authorship were the "Student’s Instructor," the "Joiner’s Assistant," and the "Principles of Architecture"—the last-mentioned work, in three volumes, 8vo, having commenced its serial appearance in 1794, and been completed in 1809.

After a residence of eleven years in London, Mr. Nicholson returned to Scotland in 1800, and dwelt eight years in Glasgow, a city already rising into eminence, and which his scientific skill as an architect greatly aided to adorn and benefit. His chief works in Glasgow were the wooden bridge across the Clyde; Carlton Place—that may be termed the commencement of these splendid modern residences in which the city is now so abundant; and the large structure that terminates the second quadrangle of the university. Why a Grecian building should have thus raised its front so scornfully over the Gothic walls and pepper-box pinnacles which it seems to sneer at, even as would a spruce, well-dressed cit of the present day at a serge-clothed, flat-capped, and bearded Glasgowegian of the 16th century, has never yet been fully answered, so far as we can learn. It appears, however, that Nicholson had no choice in the matter; that a Greek building and no other he was commissioned to devise—and it is evident that he has made the most of it.

The next residence of Mr. Nicholson was Carlisle, where, through the recommendation of his countryman, Telford, who, like himself, had commenced life as a stone-mason, he was appointed architect of the county of Cumberland, and in this situation he superintended the building of the new court-houses in the county town. While here, he also obtained rewards from the Society of Arts for an improvement in hand-railing, and for the invention of an instrument called the Centrolinear. After remaining two years in Carlisle, he returned in 1810 to London, and resumed the work of authorship, in which his pen was both active and prolific, as appears by the list of his works at this period. These were, "The Architectural Dictionary," in two volumes large quarto, the publication of which extended from 1812 to 1819, "Mechanical Exercises," and "The Builder and Workman’s New Director." Besides these practical works connected with his own profession as an architect, Mr. Nicholson turned his attention to subjects of a more purely scientific character, and was author of the "Method of Increments," "Essays on the Combinatorial Analysis," "Essay on Involution and Evolution," for which he received the thanks of the Academie des Sciences at Paris, "Analytical and Arithmetical Essays," and the "Rudiments of Algebra." In 1827 he commenced the publication of a work entitled "The School of Architecture and Engineering," which he designed to complete in twelve numbers, at 1s. 6d. each; but, in consequence of the bankruptcy of the publishers, only five numbers appeared. This failure, combined with the pecuniary loss it occasioned him, so annoyed Mr. Nicholson, that in 1829 he removed from London to Morpeth, and afterwards, in 1832, to Newcastle-on-Tyne, where his time was chiefly spent in teaching, for which purpose he opened a school in the Arcade; and in the production of various scientific works. Here, also, his well-established reputation procured his election as president and honorary member of several societies connected with architecture, civil engineering, and the fine arts. But, notwithstanding such a long life of interesting and multifarious authorship, his pecuniary profits by no means kept pace with his merits; and while he was the means of enriching others by his discoveries and instructions, he obtained little else for his own share than the reputation of a highly-talented originator. His writings, twenty-seven in number, were thus justly characterized in a petition from the inhabitants of Newcastle to his majesty in 1835, for the grant of a pension to Nicholson from the privy purse:—"The works of Peter Nicholson, while they have contributed to the advancement of knowledge, have tended to raise the English mechanic to that pre-eminence he has attained over the other artificers of Europe; and while they have been honoured with the proudest marks of distinction by the various learned societies of this kingdom, have yet failed to produce to their author those benefits which are necessary for his existence; and it must ever be a source of regret that an individual who, having devoted his best energies to the advancement of science, should be left at the close of a long and laborious life, and in his seventy-third year, to struggle in penury and want." This application to the royal bounty was made after an attempt of Nicholson’s grateful friends in Newcastle had failed to raise for him an annuity by a general subscription. On this occasion the sum of 820 had been subscribed, which only sufficed for present emergencies. Mr. Nicholson left Newcastle for Carlisle in October, 1841, and died there, June 18, 1844, in the seventy-ninth year of his age. He was twice married. By his first wife, who died at Morpeth, in 1832, he had one son, Michael Angelo, author of the "Carpenter and Joiner’s Companion," who died in 1842; by his second marriage, Mr. Nicholson had a son and daughter, who survived him.


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