Basic Biographical Details

Name: James Austen Laird
Designation: Architect
Born: 22 September 1878
Died: 14 February 1950
Bio Notes: James Austen Laird was born at 8 Firpark Terrace, Dennistoun, Glasgow on 22 September 1878. He was the son of John Laird, stationery master, and his wife Martha Barr. His RIBA nomination paper rather oddly gives his year of birth as 1879 in his own handwriting, but the actual date is confirmed by his birth certificate which is still held by his family. The Lairds originally came from Glendaruel in Argyll where James's grandparents, James Laird and his wife Mary Clark, had a farm. Austen was not a family name but was adopted from an admiral whose career had interested Laird's father, although whether this was Francis or Charles Austen, or both, is not now known. The Lairds subsequently moved from Dennistoun to Meadowside, Kilmacolm, but connections with Glendaruel remained strong, as holidays were usually spent there.

Laird was articled to MacWhannel & Rogerson in 1894 and remained with them for four-and-a-half years. At the end of 1898 he joined the office of John Burnet & Son, where he became John James Burnet's personal assistant. They got on well, but when Burnet raised the possibility of his being taken into partnership early in 1901, Laird left to commence practice on his own account as he found Burnet's congregationalism insufficiently evangelical for them to be compatible.

Sometime early in his apprenticeship with MacWhannel & Rogerson Laird was befriended on a train journey to Glasgow by Mary Risk, the widow of William Joseph Thomson, a wealthy Glasgow tailor who had lived at Strathmuir, Kilmacolm. She and her ten children had joined the Plymouth Brethren Assembly in Kilmacolm and Laird soon became a Plymouth Brother himself. This led to difficulties at home. His parents' increasing displeasure at his association with the Brethren and his planned marriage to Agnes Risk Thomson, born 1881 and the ninth of the Thomson children, caused him to move out and live instead with his aunt Elizabeth McLelland at Lurland, Kilmacolm, in or about 1900. He probably commenced practice there, but by early 1903 he had opened an office at 131 West Regent Street, Glasgow where family connections brought him a good general practice. This enabled him to marry Agnes at the Windsor Hotel, Glasgow on 7 September 1904. She had suffered from rheumatic fever and it was known from the outset that her life might be short. They set up together in Kilmacolm, moving to a larger house, Croftluton, sometime before 1911 to accommodate their four children, John McClelland (born 1905), Mary Risk known as Mona (born 1907), Muriel Martha Barr always known as Martha (born 1909) and Agnes Austen known as Nancy (born 1912).

Laird's early success was founded on more than Laird and Thomson family connections. He was one of the most accomplished architects to have trained in Burnet's office but from the very beginning his domestic work for friends and family in Kilmacolm, Giffnock and Milngavie tended to be influenced by the work of contemporary English architects of the arts and crafts school rather than by that of Burnet himself. His houses quickly attracted attention, particularly in Kilmacolm, and brought a wider clientele. He was admitted LRIBA on 20 July 1911, his proposers being James Salmon, who also lived in Kilmacolm, Duncan McNaughton and Robert Douglas Sandilands.

In February 1914 Agnes died from the combined effects of a cut which had become septic and a chill. By that date Laird was beginning to run into financial difficulty. The Finance Act of 1909 had affected his practice as it had so many others and he had resorted to speculative house-building on family land at Kilmacolm to keep himself and his staff employed.

After the outbreak of the First World War these houses proved difficult to sell. That and the lack of new business compelled him to close his office in 1915 and take a job with John Laing at Gretna. Croftluton was given up and the family moved to a terrace house in Dumfries. A year later, c 1916, they moved to Whinnyrigg near Annan and after a few months there they moved again to Powfoot. While at Gretna Laird appears to have supervised the building of All Saints' Episcopal Church for its architect Geoffrey Lucas, the first priest Claude O'Flaherty giving him a copy of The Ring of the Niblung as a token of his gratitude on 29 September 1917.

Shortly after the war ended in November 1918 Laird recommenced practice in his old office at 131 West Regent Street and moved his family into what had been the Barr family home, Summerlea at Kilmacolm. His son John had been sent to the Quaker Bootham school at York, but the daughters had been kept at home, and now attended St Columba's School. Throughout the war years they had been cared for by Agnes's older sister Janet, known as Nettie, whom Laird married at the Royal Hotel, Charing Cross, Glasgow in the summer of 1919.

Laird's practice gradually recovered in the 1920s, and reached its peak in 1929-30 with the building of the extremely fine English neo-Jacobean Carlung at West Kilbride for his uncle Robert Barr, a whisky and shipping magnate, and the commission for Balmore School in Possilpark, a large and handsome Wrenaissance design. The refined academicism of these buildings was in marked contrast to the absolute simplicity of his best work before the First World War. By the late 1930s some of his designs showed the influence of the modern movement, notably the moderne Keil Hotel at Southend, Kintyre, built in 1938-39.

These larger commissions enabled Laird to move from Summerlea to Merlewood, also in Kilmacolm, early in the 1930s and finally in or about 1937-38 to build his own Dunfraoich adjacent to Torridon, the large arts and crafts house he had recently designed for his brother Nigel. Somewhat unusually Dunfraoich was Scottish in character with crowstepped gables and a slated roof rather than a red tiled one.

Laird closed his practice in 1940 and his wife Nettie died in 1944. However John Thomson King appears to have taken over Laird's practice in 1947 so Laird or ones of his assistants must have re-opened it after the War. Although Dunfraoich was retained Laird thereafter spent much of his time with his daughter Mona who had become a teacher. The other members of the family had emigrated: John to New Zealand, returning to live in London in 1945; Martha to India, returning to marry and settle in Hampshire in 1947; and Nancy to Rhodesia as a missionary.

Laird died of cancer at Shrublands Nursing Home, Croydon, on 14 February 1950 and was buried at Kilmacolm with his wives Agnes and Nettie. In person he was of average height, very slim and in his earlier years extremely good looking. Throughout his life he was always elegantly dressed with spats and bow tie. His son John wrote of him that beyond architecture 'his thought went little further than an innocent and simple thankfulness for salvation from the wrath to come.' Nevertheless he had a humorous and engaging personality, much given to little poems and sayings of which that beginning 'Hae faith and ye'll get through' probably referred to the tragedy and financial vicissitudes of 1914 and the ensuing wartime years.

Private and Business Addresses

The following private or business addresses are associated with this architect:
 AddressTypeDate fromDate toNotes
Item 1 of 10Meadowside, Kilmacolm, Renfrewshire, ScotlandPrivate18981899(?)His parents house
Item 2 of 10Lurland, Kilmacolm, Renfrewshire, ScotlandPrivatec. 1899c. 1903Laird's aunt
Item 3 of 10131, West Regent Street, Glasgow, ScotlandBusiness19041905(?)And after
Item 4 of 10213, West Campbell Street, Glasgow, ScotlandBusiness19091915 
Item 5 of 10Croftluton, Kilmacolm, Renfrewshire, ScotlandPrivate1911 *  
Item 6 of 10131, West Regent Street, Glasgow, ScotlandBusiness19191920 
Item 7 of 1055, West Regent Street, Glasgow, ScotlandBusinessBefore 19241940 
Item 8 of 10Summerlea, Kilmacolm, Renfrewshire, ScotlandPrivate19251931 
Item 9 of 10Merlewood, Kilmacolm, Renfrewshire, ScotlandPrivate19351936 
Item 10 of 10Dunfraoich, Kilmacolm, Renfrewshire, ScotlandPrivate19391950 

* earliest date known from documented sources.


Employment and Training

Employers

The following individuals or organisations employed or trained this architect (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 2Macwhannell & Rogerson18941898Apprentice 
Item 2 of 2John Burnet & SonLate 1898Early 1901Assistant 

Employees or Pupils

The following individuals were employed or trained by this architect (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 8Andrew Wilson Beaton1903 Architectural Illustrator 
Item 2 of 8Alexander Barr Winning19091912Apprentice 
Item 3 of 8Alexander Barr Winning19191921Chief Assistant 
Item 4 of 8Archibald McNeil Duncan19231928Apprentice 
Item 5 of 8Kenneth Finlayson Masson (or Kenneth T Masson or erroneously Manson)19241927Assistant 
Item 6 of 8Samuel McColl (sometimes misspelt MacColl)January 1924January 1925Assistant 
Item 7 of 8Archibald McNeil Duncan1928 Improver 
Item 8 of 8Alasdair Cameron Sutherland1934(?) * Assistant(?) 

* earliest date known from documented sources.


RIBA

RIBA Proposers

The following individuals proposed this architect for RIBA membership (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate proposedNotes
Item 1 of 3Duncan McNaughtan20 July 1911for Licentiateship
Item 2 of 3James Salmon (junior)20 July 1911for Licentiateship
Item 3 of 3Robert Douglas Sandilands20 July 1911for Licentiateship

Buildings and Designs

This architect 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 44 SpringfieldKilmacolm/Kilmalcolm RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 2 of 441893University of Glasgow Students' Union  GlasgowScotlandWestern extension - as assistant in Burnet's office
Item 3 of 441895Glasgow Samaritan Hospital for Women  GlasgowScotlandAs assistant to Macwhannel & Rogerson
Item 4 of 441899 or 1900VillaKilmacolm/Kilmalcolm RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 5 of 441901Western Infirmary  GlasgowScotlandAs assistant to Burnet - extensions, possibly including nurses' pavilion, steam laundry, pathological institute, operating theatre and/or dispensary
Item 6 of 441902Dunard for Robert BarrKilmacolm/Kilmalcolm RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 7 of 441903House for D D BinnieGiffnock RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 8 of 441903Semi-detached villaKilmacolm/Kilmalcolm RenfrewshireScotlandExhibited under James Austen Laird's name only - therefore principally by him?
Item 9 of 441903VillaKilmacolm/Kilmalcolm RenfrewshireScotlandExhibited under James Austen Laird's name only - therefore principally by him?
Item 10 of 441903Villa at KilmacolmKilmacolm/Kilmalcolm RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 11 of 441904Residence for George JacksonKilmacolm RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 12 of 441906Wimbourne for J H BarrKilmacolm/Kilmalcolm RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 13 of 441909House West Kilbride AyrshireScotland 
Item 14 of 441909J J Laird Limited Works  GlasgowScotlandAdditions
Item 15 of 441910OvertonKilmacolm/Kilmalcolm RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 16 of 44c. 1910(?)House, Knockbuckle RoadKilmacolm/Kilmalcolm RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 17 of 441911Govanhaugh Solder FactoryGovanhaugh GlasgowScotland 
Item 18 of 44Before 1911Barranca for Robert L Guthrie EsqKilmacolm/Kilmalcolm RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 19 of 44Before 1911Factory and warehouses  GlasgowScotland 
Item 20 of 44Before 1911Factory and worksPossil Park GlasgowScotlandExtension
Item 21 of 44Before 1911House for C Molleys (?)Milngavie DunbartonshireScotland 
Item 22 of 44Before 1911House for David CrawfordKilmacolm/Kilmalcolm RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 23 of 44Before 1911House for Edward McCraeKilmacolm/Kilmalcolm RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 24 of 44Before 1911House for Francis Martin EsqKilmacolm/Kilmalcolm RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 25 of 44Before 1911House for Walter GilmourKilmacolm/Kilmalcolm RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 26 of 441912Empress CinemaGorbals GlasgowScotland 
Item 27 of 441913GreystonesKilmacolm/Kilmalcolm RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 28 of 441913Paldehran (Puldohran)Kilmacolm/Kilmalcolm RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 29 of 441917All Saints Episcopal ChurchGretna DumfriesshireScotlandWorked in some unidentified capacity on the church - received a present of a book inscribed by Claude O'Flaherty, the priest, in recompense for work there
Item 30 of 441919Daily Mail ideal workers' houses, Northern industrial area   EnglandCompetition design
Item 31 of 441920Daily Mail ideal home competition, labour saving home    Competition design
Item 32 of 441924Drumlanrig Laundry CottagesDrumlanrig DumfriesshireScotlandOne cottage divided to form two cottages
Item 33 of 44c. 1924Drumlanrig Mains Offices, sawmill and workshopsDrumlanrig DumfriesshireScotlandAlterations
Item 34 of 441929Balmore Public School  GlasgowScotland 
Item 35 of 441930s(?)LadymuirKilmacolm RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 36 of 441930Carlung HouseWest Kilbride AyrshireScotlandCompletely new house
Item 37 of 441930House for J C KerWest Kilbride AyrshireScotland 
Item 38 of 44c. 1930ArdchattanSeamill AyrshireScotland 
Item 39 of 44c. 1930TorridonKilmacolm/Kilmalcolm RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 40 of 441931Blairheim Boarding HouseDunoon ArgyllScotlandReconstruction and extension
Item 41 of 441937Hillholme, PortencrossWest Kilbride AyrshireScotland 
Item 42 of 44c. 1937DunfraoichKilmacolm/Kilmalcolm RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 43 of 441938Factory at Dahanoch   ScotlandAlterations and additions
Item 44 of 441938Keil HotelSouthend ArgyllScotland 

References

Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this architect:
 Author(s)DateTitlePartPublisherNotes
Item 1 of 4British Architectural Library, RIBA2001Directory of British Architects 1834-1914   
Item 2 of 4RIBA1939The RIBA Kalendar 1939-1940 London: Royal Institute of British Architects 
Item 3 of 4Walker, Frank Arneil1986South Clyde Estuary: An Illustrated Architectural Guide to Inverclyde and Renfrew  p89
Item 4 of 4Who's Who in Architecture1914    

Periodical References

The following periodicals contain references to this architect:
 Periodical NameDateEditionPublisherNotes
Item 1 of 1Builder24 February 1950v178 p 275 - obituary (misspells middle name as 'Austin')

Archive References

The following archives hold material relating to this architect:
 SourceArchive NameSource Catalogue No.Notes
Item 1 of 2Professor David M Walker personal archiveProfessor David M Walker, notes and collection of archive material Additional information from Iain Paterson. Personal information to DMW from Alfred G Lochhead and John Watson II who were personal friends of J A Laird. Information from Elizabeth Laird.
Item 2 of 2RIBA Archive, Victoria & Albert MuseumRIBA Nomination Papers L v18 no1394 - confirms that middle name is spelt 'Austen'