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Significant Scots
George Meikle Kemp

KEMP, GEORGE MEIKLE.—This architect, whose great work, the Scott Monument, one of the noblest ornaments of Edinburgh, has secured the admiration of Europe, and the approbation of the highest judges of architectural excellence in every country, was the son of a lowly shepherd, who pursued his occupation on the southern slope of the Pentland Hills. Such a scenery, where nothing but nature predominated, in the form of bare brown mountains and dashing waterfalls, was the least of all adapted to create a perception of the beautiful in art; so that, had not Kemp been born an architect, he would probably have been to the end of his days a shepherd or a mechanic. But at the age of ten years, having been sent on a message to Roslin, only six miles distant, he then, and for the first time, beheld the creative power of man, in the remains of the ancient castle of Roslin, and above all, in its exquisite gem, the chapel. The delight he experienced at this new revelation, and the earnestness with which he gazed at each portion of the work, not only confirmed his choice of life, but abode with him as vivid remembrances to the end of his days. The present, however, had to be cared for in the meantime; and young Kemp, as soon as he was fit for work, became apprentice to a joiner near Eddlestone; and when his term of service had expired he went to Galashiels, where he was employed nearly a twelve-month in the workshop of a millwright. This last-mentioned locality brought him into the neighbourhood of those districts where some of the richest specimens of ancient cathedral architecture which our island contains are all but grouped together; and thus he had many an opportunity of inspecting the remains of the abbeys of Melrose, Dryburgh, Kelso, and Jedburgh. After having fully studied these inspiring lessons, until Kemp, the humble millwright, had become heart and soul an architect, he went to England, where he worked a short time as a joiner, but omitting no opportunity of pursuing his natural vocation by studying the remains of Gothic architecture. A specimen of his zeal in this way was his walking fifty miles to York, to inspect its cathedral, and afterwards returning on foot. From Lancashire he removed to Glasgow, where he lived some time as a journeyman at his craft, and as a student within the massive shadows of the cathedral. Mr. Kemp came to Edinburgh in 1810 or 1817, and remained in the employment of the same party, as a joiner, until May, 1824, when he went to London. During this period he displayed the same bent of mind, as he was in the constant habit of making excursions into the country, even to remote districts, to examine some object of interest. A Roman camp, a fragment of Norman or early Gothic architecture, a battle-field, or the birthplace of some poet or warrior, all alike interested him. In pursuit of some such object he would often leave his work for days together. He was fortunately an excellent pedestrian, and could walk forty miles a-day with ease; for in those days the facilities of railway travelling did not exist. Kemp was an ardent admirer of our older poets. Chaucer, Sir David Lindsay, and Drummond, were his favourites; Burns he could almost repeat by heart; and he wrote occasional verses himself. Nor did he entirely neglect his musical powers. He was fond of the violin, and could bring out his favourite Scotch airs on that instrument with taste and feeling. Kemp, therefore, while following his humble calling, was recognized by his immediate friends as a man of genius; and, during the whole period of his residence in Edinburgh, he was on terms of closest intimacy with the family of his employer, with whom, on all festive occasions, he was a welcome guest.

Having learned, in this manner, all that Britain could teach him in the science of Gothic architecture, Mr. Kemp resolved to carry his researches into a more ample field. His design was to travel over Europe, inspecting its ancient remains of architecture, wherever they were to be found, and supporting himse1f, during his stay in the neighbourhood of each, by working at his ordinary trade. It was the spirit of the ancient builders, who roamed in companies from land to land, and whose footsteps a thousand years have not erased—men who were content to merge their individual names into the band of which they were a part, and into the art which they so devotedly and disinterestedly loved; and who cared not, if their works only survived to future ages, whether posterity should retain or throw aside the memory of those by whom such permanent sanctuaries for peace and contemplation were created in the midst of universal strife and havoc. It must have been such men as Kemp who were the leaders and master-spirits of such bands. In 1824 he commenced his tour, which extended from Boulogne, to Abbeville, to Beauvais, and Paris, halting at each place for some weeks, and studying their architectural remains during every hour of leisure in his handicraft employment. In such a city as Paris his pecuniary difficulties aught have been increased but for the demand of English workmen in France for mill machinery; and as Kemp was skilful in this department, he obtained full and profitable employment, so that he could confront the expenses of living in the capital, and study at leisure the details of Notre-Dame, and other, less noted structures. After two years’ travel of this kind in England and France, Kemp, on returning to Edinburgh, commenced business as a joiner, but was unsuccessful—and could he well be otherwise, when his heart was neither in the wood-yard nor at the planing-board? His hand, indeed, was more conversant at this time with the pencil than with axe or saw; and he was busy in the study of drawing and perspective, in which he soon became a proficient without the aid of a master. Having been unsuccessful in business as a master-joiner, Kemp returned to his former station as journeyman, to which he added the employment of an architectural draughtsman; and such was now the superior beauty and correctness of his drawings, that they soon found purchasers. One of the commissions of this kind he received was from Mr. Burn, the eminent architect, by whom he was employed to copy some of the working-drawings for the palace proposed to be built at Dalkeith, as the future mansion for the princely house of Buccleueh. Instead, however, of proceeding with the drawings, he set about modelling a section of the building in wood, and with such success, and so greatly to the satisfaction of the architect, Mr. Burn, that it resulted in a commission to do the whole edifice in the same style. On receiving this commission, he commenced the model with characteristic enthusiasm, and his own modest apartments soon becoming too small for the work, the architect’s ample drawing-room was, for the time being, converted into a workshop, and in it this remarkable specimen of zeal, ingenuity, and neat-handedness, was brought to a satisfactory conclusion, after occupying Kemp and an assistant for two whole years. After the miniature palace was finished, it was transferred to the vestibule of the ducal residence at Dalkeith, of which it forms an attractive ornament.

Amongst the engagements into which the occupation of draughtsman brought him, was that of furnishing drawings for a work illustrative of the Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland, similar to Britton’s "Cathedral Antiquities," projected by Mr. James Johnston, engraver, Edinburgh. For this his intimate knowledge of architectural detail eminently qualified him; and he accordingly, during the years 1832, 1833, executed a number of drawings of singular correctness and beauty, besides a large series of preparative sketches, embracing Elgin, Pluscardine, Kinloss, Melrose, Roslin, and other of our ecclesiastical remains. During the progress of these drawings, Mr. Kemp and the publishers of the present work became acquainted. After Mr. Johnston’s premature death, the drawings made for him came into their possession, and Mr. Kemp subsequently completed, at their expense, the measurements and drawings of the Glasgow Cathedral, during the years 1834-35. While he was making these drawings, the project of repairing and completing this beautiful specimen of early pointed architecture was put forth by Mr. M’Lellan, in Glasgow. This led Kemp to prepare a design for the restoration and completion of the building. Fully to exhibit the character of this design, and to demonstrate his ability to construct it if employed to do so, he, in the years 1837, 1838, and 1839, at much sacrifice and labour, prepared a model of the entire cathedral, in which so perfectly did the new portions harmonize with the old, that it would have puzzled any architect, not conversant with the building as it really stood, to tell what part was old, and what were Mr. Kemp’s additions. Unhappily, the design would have cost more money to execute than there was at that time any expectation of obtaining, from government or otherwise; and it remains only an evidence of Mr. Kemp’s persevering patience, skill in handicraft, and architectural genius.

Thus matured in taste, talent, and skill, by an apprenticeship that was unique in the history of modern architecture, it was now full time that the knowledge of Mr. Kemp’s abilities should be extended beyond the circle of his admiring friends, into the world at large. Nothing less, indeed, than a great national work was adequate to such a genius; but what chance was there that an aproned, hard-handed mechanic would be intrusted with such a commission, especially when so many learned Vitruvios were in the field? Happily enough, however, the chance did come. The more than national, the universal desire to erect a monument to Sir Walter Scott in the fair metropolis of that country for which he had done so much, and the proposals that were issued for plans of the work, excited an unwonted stir of artistic emulation; it was an opportunity by which the fortunate candidate might link himself to the undying fame of the great poet and novelist. Fifty-four plans sent to the head-quarters of the committee of subscribers in Edinburgh were the fruits of this competition, of which plans there were twenty-two Gothic structures, eleven statues combined with architectural accompaniments, fourteen Grecian temples, five pillars, one obelisk, and one fountain. Amidst such a profusion the committee made no decisive choice; but, in terms of their agreement, they selected the best three for the prize of 50 a-piece, and laid themselves open for fresh competition. On the three designs thus distinguished above the rest, two were by eminent English architects, and the third by some individual who as yet had no name of his own, or was shy of bringing it into notice, for he signed himself John Morvo. Who was this John Morvo? It was no other than Kemp himself, who had thus come timidly forward, and secured a safe retreat in case of failure. In five days he had drawn the plan, during which period he had suspended his work on the model of the Glasgow Cathedral, with which he was at this period occupied; and as soon as it was done he resumed his labour, apparently thinking no farther of a trial in which the chances were so hopelessly against him. In this mood he trudged home from Linlithgow on the evening of the day of decision, and on crossing his threshold was met by his wife, with news of the three lucky candidates, which she had learned from an acquaintance, and whose names she repeated. What a happy moment it must have been for both when the real John Morvo was revealed!

As the lists were now opened for a second trial, Kemp, animated by his late success, was ready to resume it with double ardour. His first plan had been a tall Gothic tower or spire, whose original conception and details he had adapted from Melrose Abbey, a structure the lines of which had been for years impressed upon his memory, and of which, also, three drawings that he had executed in 1830 first brought him into notice as an architect in the highest sense of the term. Adopting his earlier design as the groundwork, he now produced such an improvement upon it as secured for it the choice of the whole committee, with the exception of only two dissenting voices—one on the plea that Kemp was unknown, and the other that his plan was a plagiarism. The declaration, however, of the committee, that the "design was an imposing structure of 135 feet in height, of beautiful proportions, in strict conformity with the purity in taste and style of Melrose Abbey, from which it is in its details derived," and the attestation of Mr. Burn, who expressed to the committee "his great admiration of the elegance of Mr. Kemp’s design, its purity as a Gothic composition, and more particularly the constructive skill exhibited throughout in the combination of the graceful features of that style of architecture, in such a manner as to satisfy any professional man of the correctness of its principle, and the perfect solidity which it would possess when built"—these testimonies sufficed, in the first instance, to show that Mr. Kemp’s plan was a congenial inspiration, not a plagiarism, and that, if he was still unknown to the world, he ought to be so no longer. But who would now think of adducing such frivolous objections, with the testimony of the whole world against him? The Scott Monument has been visited from every land; engravings of it are diffused over the wide earth; and as long as it stands in its majestic and imposing beauty, the pilgrims of future centuries, who gaze upon it in silent admiration, will connect the name of its builder with the thought of him whom it commemorates.

Mr. Kemp had thus passed, by a single stride, from the condition of a humble mechanic to the highest rank in architectural talent and distinction; and having won such an elevation while life was still in its prime, a long perspective of professional achievements, and the rank and profit by which they would be accompanied, was naturally anticipated for him by his friends, and perhaps by himself also. The building, too, which he had planned, was rapidly rising from base to summit, while at each step the public eye detected some new beauty, and waited impatiently for the completion. But here the life of the artist was brought to a sudden and most disastrous termination. He had been absent from home, employed in matters connected with the structure; and, on the evening of the 6th of March, 1844, was returning to his dwelling at Morningside, through Fountainbridge, when, in consequence of the darkness of the night, he had diverged from the direct road, and fallen into the canal-basin at the opening. His body was found in the water several days afterwards, and the whole city, that had now learned to appreciate his excellence, bewailed the mournful event as a public calamity. It was intended to deposit his remains in the vault under the Scott Monument, as their fitting resting-place; but at the last hour this purpose was altered, and the interment took place in St. Cuthbert’s church-yard; while every street through which the funeral passed was crowded with spectators. Such was the end of this promising architect, when his first great work, now nearly completed, surpassed the latest and best of those of his contemporaries, and gave promise that architecture would no longer be classed among the artes perditae in Scotland. Mr. Kemp was married in September, 1832, to Miss Elizabeth Bonnar, sister to the eminent artist, Mr. William Bonnar. He left four children, two boys and two girls, three of whom survived him. His eldest son, a student of architecture, died in December, 1853, at the age of twenty. He was a youth of rare promise and amiable manners, inheriting all his father’s genius and enthusiasm for art.

Biographical Sketch of George Meikle Kemp
Architect of the Scott Monument, Edinburgh by Thomas Bonnar, FSA Scot (1891) (pdf)

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