Basic Biographical Details

Name: John Lessels & Son
Designation: Architectural practice
Started: c. 1857
Ended: 1883
Bio Notes: John Lessels was born in Kirkcaldy on 9 January 1809 (his gravestone wrongly gives his date of birth as 1808) and was the son of John Lessels (1784-1865) clerk of works on the Raith Estate, and his wife Elizabeth Hamilton Murray. His grandfather, also John Lessels, had been not only an architect-builder but a mill-wright and these practical skills were passed down the family. He was educated in Kirkcaldy, being taught by the Reverend Edward Irving and Thomas Carlyle. After leaving school he first worked as a carpenter for his father, but sought leave to become an architect. This proposal was discouraged but at the suggestion of his father and Robert Fergusson of Raith he entered the office of William Burn, achieving the position of inspector of works. He was in charge of Burn's work at Charleton, Fife in 1832. This enabled him to marry Mary, daughter of Robert Henderson, a Kirkcaldy bleacher, and from 1833 the Lessels family was in the Borders, first at Dawyck Peeblesshire where their eldest son John was born on 22 December 1833, and then at Allanton Berwickshire from which Lessels supervised the building of other Burn houses.

By 1843 Lessels had settled in Edinburgh with a house at 3 St Bernard Row and began exhibiting at the Royal Scottish Academy, initially purely as a watercolourist. In 1846 he set up practice on his own account in a flat at 7 St Vincent Street. His past experience with Burn in the Borders had made useful connections, and with Burn's departure for London in 1844 it became possible to seek clients there, the earliest being the Montgomerys of Stobo and Kinross. By the mid-1850s he had also secured the business of the Walker Estate which gave him architectural control over a large part of the Western New Town, and in 1856 or 1857 he formed a partnership with his son John. John Junior had been sent him to his father's old school at Kirkcaldy, probably because he was then supervising Burn projects in Fife, and finally to the Edinburgh Institution where he was dux of all his classes in 1846-48. He had then been articled to his father, and had studied at the Trustees' Academy from 2 April to 12 July 1851 on the recommendation of Charles MacGibbon, whose son David had been an apprentice in the Lessels Office, taking classes in clay modelling from Gourlay Steel RSA and in watercolour from John Winton, ARSA. From 1853 onwards he had been exhibiting at the RSA, his designs being listed with his father's in RSA Exhibitors 1826-90 as he was living at the same address. In September 1853 he had been appointed Drawing Clerk at Windsor Castle on the strength of a testimonial from Professor Lees. His duties had been 'to make plans, elevations and models in accordance with the ideas of HRH Prince Albert for the improvement of the castle both externally and internally and to attend during theatrical performances in charge of The Fire Brigade'. This post terminated in 1856 when the funds allocated by the Treasury were exhausted, but while at Windsor he taught at the Mechanick's Institute and married Margaret Gillies, his eldest son John being born on 13 September 1856. On his return to Scotland to join his father in partnership shortly thereafter, he had opened a branch office in Perth.

The Perth office prospered for two years but closed c.1859 as a result of fee cutting - 2 1/2% against John Lessels and Son's 5% - and John Junior's distaste for the drinking habits of the local builders and their suggestion of fraud on clients to make up his fees. While in Perth his infant son John died in 1857 and his second son, also John, was born on 18 April 1858. On closing the branch office he returned to Edinburgh and set up practice as 'a general designer and lithographer' specialising in furniture, stained glass and book stamps, but although he described that practice as 'lucrative' he decided to emigrate to New Zealand where he had relatives; his father's assistant Robert Aurther Lawson, who was exactly the same age, had already emigrated to Australia. For that purpose he spent part of each day as a carpenter to be sure of employment. In 1860 he proceeded to London to learn English methods of carpentry with George Myers, who had been Pugin's builder. John Junior's place in his father's office was filled by his brother James (born c.1834), second son of the elder Lessels.

By the early 1860s, the elder Lessels had gained the patronage of Nelsons the publishers, and his friendship with the city architect David Cousin, then in failing health, resulted in his appointment as joint architect to the City Improvement Trust on 23 May 1866, their first proposals for St Mary Street being presented in June.

The elder Lessels's improved circumstances were reflected in his move from St Vincent Street to 21 Heriot Row which was both house and office, but in that year his first wife died, having raised four sons and four daughters. He would appear to have gone into semi-retirement at the age of seventy in 1879 when the office was moved to 50 George Street. The practice was now carried on by his son James.

By the time of Lessels's retirement he had married a second time to Gertrude Anna Huberdina Nofken (anglicised Naufkins) of Baardwyk, North Brabant, and was spending much of his time on the continent, particularly in Belgium, Salzburg and Venice. These continental connections seem to have commenced earlier and strongly influenced his competition designs. His German Gothic design submitted in the limited competition for St Mary's Cathedral in 1873 was placed last by the assessor Ewan Christian whose report was published. This may have discredited him with the Walker Trustees, but the loss of the Walker Estate connection had begun slightly earlier in 1872 because Peddie and Kinnear and companies controlled by them were the largest feuars. Lessels's acquaintance with Venice similarly influenced the Venetian Gothic design he and David Cousin submitted in the Edinburgh New Buildings competition of 1874 but this was no more successful, Rowand Anderson's North Italian Renaissance design being selected.

John Lessels Senior died of cancer of the liver on 12 November 1883 and was buried in Dean Cemetery, commemorated by a very curious sundial monument which formerly bore a photographic glazed tile portrait. It also bears the tools of the mason trade, probably a reference to his Masonic interests: he was a member of the Old Kilwinning Lodge. His second wife survived him by only a few months, dying at Duffel, Belgium on 12 May 1884. There were no children of the second marriage. James Lessels continued as sole practitioner thereafter, later entering into partnership with Harry Ramsay Taylor.





John Junior had been sent him to his father's old school at Kirkcaldy, probably because he was then supervising Burn projects in Fife, and finally to the Edinburgh Institution where he was dux of all his classes in 1846-48. He had then been articled to his father, and had studied at the Trustees' Academy from 2 April to 12 July 1851 on the recommendation of Charles MacGibbon, whose son David had been an apprentice in the Lessels Office, taking classes in clay modelling from Gourlay Steel RSA and in watercolour from John Winton, ARSA. From 1853 onwards he had been exhibiting at the RSA, his designs being listed with his father's in RSA Exhibitors 1826-90 as he was living at the same address. In September 1853 he had been appointed Drawing Clerk at Windsor Castle on the strength of a testimonial from Professor Lees. His duties had been 'to make plans, elevations and models in accordance with the ideas of HRH Prince Albert for the improvement of the castle both externally and internally and to attend during theatrical performances in charge of The Fire Brigade'. This post terminated in 1856 when the funds allocated by the Treasury were exhausted, but while at Windsor he taught at the Mechanick's Institute and married Margaret Gillies, his eldest son John being born on 13 September 1856. On his return to Scotland to join his father in partnership shortly thereafter, he had opened a branch office in Perth.

The Perth office prospered for two years but eventually closed as a result of fee cutting - 2 1/2% against John Lessels and Son's 5% - and a distaste for the drinking habits of the local builders and their suggestion of fraud on clients to make up his fees. While in Perth his infant son John died in 1857 and his second son, also John, was born on 18 April 1858.

On his return to Edinburgh Lessels set up practice as 'a general designer and lithographer' specialising in furniture, stained glass and book stamps, but although he described that practice as 'lucrative' he decided to emigrate to New Zealand where he had relatives; his father's assistant Robert Aurther Lawson, who was exactly the same age, had already emigrated to Australia.

For that purpose he spent part of each day as a carpenter to be sure of employment. He then proceeded to London to learn English methods of carpentry with George Myers, who had been Pugin's builder. He was sent to one of their branch workshops at Windsor where he was entrusted with the execution of the Gothic doors he had designed in 1855. As a result of his return to Windsor he was offered a further appointment with the Office of Works, but at first declined as arrangements had been made for his passage to New Zealand. In the event his friends wrote to pay that because of the bankrupt state of the colony the only employment they could find for him was as a shepherd for the Bishop's sheep. An increasing family induced him to sit the Civil Service Commissioners' and Office of Works examinations and he re-entered the service of the Crown in 1860, his earliest important task being the design and decoration of the large temporary building erected for the marriage of the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra in March 1863. Thereafter he attended to all works required for Royal weddings and funerals until his retirement and in his 'leisure hours' he had a private practice in architecture and illuminated testimonials. Like his father he made his own carved furniture and fishing rods, and although there is no mention of it in his memoirs, in 1860 he appears to have had a house at Marion Villa, Foresthill Kent (see RSA Catalogue 1866, no 456).

In 1871 Lessels was selected to rebuild the British Embassy in Constantinople, built by William James Smith with advice from Charles Barry in 1842-54. It was of fireproof construction but had been badly damaged in the Pera Fire of 1870. Because of the Franco-Prussian War he could not take the direct route which gave him the opportunity of visiting Antwerp, Mayence, Nuremberg, Innsbruck, Venice, Trieste, Corfu, Athens and Smyrna. On his arrival he was appointed surveyor not only of the embassy houses at Pera and Therapia, but of the consular buildings, hospital, prison, doctor's house, and British cemeteries at Scutari and elsewhere on the Bosphorus. In the course of this work he suffered an attack of Asiatic Cholera and sunstroke.

In 1876 Lessels returned to Windsor damaged in health and without the promised fees for the Constantinople work, the First Commissioner taking the view that he was not bound by the decisions of his predecessor. Perhaps by way of making amends he was now promoted as Surveyor of the newly created Country District which included bot only Windsor Castle and its Parks, but Frogmore House and Grounds, the Military Knight's House, Hampton Court Palace, Parks and Gardens, Bushy House, Upper Lodge and the other houses in Bushy Park, Longford River, White Lodge, Richmond Park, Pembroke Lodge, Thatched House, Kew Palace, Cambridge House and other buildings in the Royal Botanic Garden and pleasure grounds at Kew, and Broadmoor Criminal Asylum. In that capacity he rebuilt the front gatehouse of Hampton Court as now existing. Either during those years or earlier he researched the history of the Lessels family and appears to have at times adopted the surname of Lecelles which he believed to be the original spelling.

In 1884 Lessels suffered a breakdown in health as a result of stones in the bladder and recuperated by taking the waters at the Contrexeville Springs in the Vosges. He retired early at the age of sixty to Thistlewood, Guernsey, in September 1894 on a pension of 396.

Private and Business Addresses

The following private or business addresses are associated with this architectural practice:
 AddressTypeDate fromDate toNotes
Item 1 of 219, Princes Street, Perth, Perthshire, ScotlandBusiness1856 or 18571859Perth Branch
Item 2 of 250, George Street, Edinburgh, ScotlandBusiness18791883 

Employment and Training

Employees or Pupils

The following individuals were employed or trained by this architectural practice (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 4John Lessels (junior)c. 18571859Partner 
Item 2 of 4John Lesselsc. 18571883Senior Partner 
Item 3 of 4James Lesselsc. 18601883Partner 
Item 4 of 4Henry ('Harry') Ramsay TaylorMarch 18801883Apprentice 

Buildings and Designs

This architectural practice was involved with the following buildings or structures from the date specified (click on an item to view details):
 Date startedBuilding nameTown, district or villageIslandCity or countyCountryNotes
Item 1 of 2c. 1857Donavourd HousePitlochry PerthshireScotlandExtensive additions
Item 2 of 2186910-11 Abbotsford CrescentSt Andrews FifeScotland 

References

Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this architectural practice:
 Author(s)DateTitlePartPublisherNotes
Item 1 of 1Lessels, John II A Brief Account of the Ancient Family of Lessels in Fifeshire Carbon copy of original typescript in possession of Jane Lessels. Copy in NMRS.