Competition design for Royal Insurance Company offices

M102 Competition design for Royal Insurance Company offices

Address: 106, 110 & 112, Buchanan Street, Glasgow G1 2NB
Date: 1894–5
Client: Royal Insurance Company
Authorship: Authorship category 2 (Mackintosh and Office) (Mackintosh and Office)

Tower from Royal Insurance Co. office design

Background to competition

Founded in Liverpool in 1845, the Royal Insurance Company quickly established a presence in other British cities. Its agents are first listed in the Glasgow Post Office Directory for 1846, and by 1872 it had an office at 40 Royal Exchange Square. In the 1890s the Company planned prestigious new offices in both Glasgow and Liverpool, for which architectural competitions were held in 1894 and 1895 respectively. While the Liverpool contest was national in scope, the Glasgow one was limited to three local practices: Burnet, Son & Campbell; John Honeyman & Keppie; and Thomson & Sandilands. 1 The site was at the corner of Buchanan Street and Royal Bank Place. Thomson & Sandilands' design was selected, but John Honeyman & Keppie were rewarded with a premium of £50 on 19 February 1895. 2

John Honeyman & Keppie's office cash book records that they paid Alexander McGibbon £6 6s 0d for an unspecified number of perspective drawings on 4 February 1895, one of which, identified by the initials 'R. I.', was evidently of the proposed Royal Insurance building. 3 McGibbon's drawing was published that year in Academy Architecture and in the British Architect, and it provides the only surviving record of their design. 4

Perspective drawing of Royal Insurance Co. office

The design

The domed corner tower would have signalled the building's presence effectively in the long vista of Buchanan Street. David Walker has pointed out that the top part, with its alternate niches of different heights, seems to be derived from John Belcher's unexecuted baroque design of 1891 for completing the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert) in London. 5 The lower part of the tower, with its sheer walls and flat vertical strips at the angles, is one of several features that echo John Honeyman & Keppie's Mitchell Lane building for the Glasgow Herald, begun in March 1894 and still under construction in 1895. Other distinctive details shared by the Glasgow Herald building and Royal Insurance designs are the bell-shaped pediments superimposed on outward-curving lengths of cornice; the square-headed, two-light windows with column mullions and semicircular lights above; and the window sills with swept corners, like deep shelves resting on chunky, square brackets.

Window detail at Glasgow Herald BuildingConsoles from Royal Insurance Co. office design Window detail from Royal Insurance Co. office design

These distinctive sills occur again at the firm's Martyrs Public School of 1895, as do the banded window architraves and the peculiar, bulbous consoles supporting the ground-floor cornice.

Window cills at Martyrs' Public SchoolConsole at Martyrs' Public School

Since Mackintosh was, by his own account, the uncredited author of the Glasgow Herald building, and almost certainly of Martyrs Public School, it is likely on stylistic grounds that he also contributed significantly to the Royal Insurance design (although it is surprising that he did not draw the perspective, as he did for the other two buildings). When the design was included in the architecture section of the Glasgow International Exhibition in 1901 (1), the catalogue acknowledged his involvement, naming the architects as 'John Honeyman, R. S. A.; John Keppie, I. A.; Chas. R. Macintosh [sic]'. Given the prestige of both client and location, it is appropriate that the design is more richly decorated than the back-street newspaper offices or humble board school. Nevertheless, there is a severity about the almost windowless tower and the absence of a crowning cornice which sets the Royal Insurance design apart from other Glasgow commercial palaces of the period, such as William Leiper's exuberant Sun Life Building of 1889–94 at 117–21 West George Street.

Critical reception

McGibbon's perspective was shown at the Royal Scottish Academy in Spring 1895 (501), where the Glasgow Herald described the design as '... somewhat original ... The general effect is dignified and severe, not in the least traditional, but perhaps no worse for that. There is no cornice above the first floor level, and in the treatment of the re-entering angles throughout the work there is a peculiarity in that these are always rounded off.' 6

In November that year, when Thomson & Sandilands' winning design was already under construction, the British Architect accompanied its reproduction of McGibbon's perspective with the observation that 'Messrs. Honeyman & Keppie's designs are amongst the most noticeable and original in this country, and the building we illustrate today is no exception to the rule. The angle tower, with lead cupola for crown, would have been a telling and picturesque feature at the corner of Buchanan Street.' 7

The following year the design was shown at the Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts (350), where the Glasgow trade journal Building Industries noted that it was marked by 'Appropriateness and [an] entire absence of that cheap air of pretension which makes so many business blocks of the sort look ridiculous'. 8

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Notes:

1: British Architect, 44, 15 November 1895, p. 344.

2: The Hunterian, University of Glasgow: John Honeyman & Keppie / Honeyman, Keppie & Mackintosh / Keppie Henderson cash book, 1889–1917, GLAHA 53079, p. 30.

3: The Hunterian, University of Glasgow: John Honeyman & Keppie / Honeyman, Keppie & Mackintosh / Keppie Henderson cash book, 1889–1917, GLAHA 53079, p. 30.

4: Academy Architecture, 7, January 1895, p. 56; British Architect, 44, 15 November 1895, following p. 344.

5: David Walker, 'The Glasgow Years', in Wendy Kaplan, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, New York and London: Abbeville Press, 1996, pp. 126, 128. William Bingham McGuinness's perspective drawing of Belcher's design is reproduced in Gavin Stamp, The Great Perspectivists, London: Trefoil Books, 1982, p. 110.

6: Glasgow Herald, 19 April 1895, p. 9.

7: British Architect, 44, 15 November 1895, p. 344.

8: Building Industries, 6, 15 February 1896, p. 162.