Basic Biographical Details

Name: George Meikle Kemp
Designation: Architect
Born: 26 May 1795
Died: 6 March 1844
Bio Notes: George Meikle Kemp was born on 26 May 1795 at Hillriggs, Biggar the son of James Kemp, a shepherd and his wife Jean Mulberry or Mowbray. The family were frequently on poor relief. Early in his life the young Kemp showed artistic tendencies, in particular an interest in drawing, carving and woodwork. He is said to have been sent by the proprietor of the Newhall estate on which his father worked on an errand to Roslin where the young Kemp saw and was impressed by the Chapel. He was apprenticed to a carpenter, Andrew Noble, at Redscaurshead, Peeblesshire and then started work with a millwright in Galashiels in 1813. Sir Walter Scott by chance offered Kemp a lift in his coach on his way to his new job in Galashiels. While in Galashiels he developed an interest in architecture and spent time drawing the monastic churches of Melrose, Dryburgh and Jedburgh. In 1815 he moved to Leith to work as journeyman carpenter for John Cousin, builder and joiner. He may have returned to work for Cousin from time to time when other work was in short supply.

In 1817 Kemp moved to Lancashire where he worked again as a carpenter while studying architecture and when he was in Glasgow in 1820 he attended evening classes in architecture. In 1824 he travelled to London but failed to find a permanent job. However he did visit some of the cathedrals in the south of England including Canterbury. In 1824 he set out on a tour of Europe, intending to maintain himself as a millwright and visit the principal churches abroad. He visited some of the French cathedral sities, Boulogne, Abbeyville, Beauville and Paris. He considered emigrating to Canada but returned to Scotland on the death of his mother (or, according to his obituary in the Elgin Courant, because of the 'commercial embarassments' of a near relative. In 1827 he became a freemason of St Andrew’s Lodge in Edinburgh. He failed to establish himself as a carpenter in Edinburgh but probably through the offices of his brother who was clerk of works to the duke of Buccleuch from 1821-40 Kemp was employed to make drawings of Bowhill for William Burn and perhaps acted as clerk of works. He also made a large wooden model of the house showing the proposed work.

In 1832 Kemp married Elizabeth (Betsy), daughter of an Edinburgh house painter and decorator.

In 1830 Kemp exhibited his views of Melrose at the Royal Scottish Academy. In the wake of this an engraver called Mr Johnstone invited him to prepare drawings for a proposed publication on ‘Scottish Cathedrals and Antiquities’. The project was still alive in 1838 with Kemp working on the drawings but it foundered thereafter. According to his obituary the drawings of Melrose were purchased by the architect Thomas Hamilton.

By this time Kemp had an unrivalled knowledge of Gothic architecture in Scotland and in England only surpassed by J C Buckler, Edward Blore and Thomas Rickman. He drew up a proposed restoration n of Melrose Abbey, probably of Roslin Chapel (this may be by his son) and a relocation of Trinity College Church, Edinburgh.

But his largest project was the restoration of Glasgow Cathedral for which he drew up an unsolicited scheme in 1834. A local committee took up the ideas. There is some difference of opinion in sources as to what then happened. Colvin states that Kemp's scheme formed the basis for a scheme drawn up by James Gillespie Graham 'who unscrupulously took the sole credit, allowing the committee to publish them without acknowledgement to Kemp’. He then states that Kemp vindicated himself with an open letter to the committee. However Charles McKean in the online DNB gives a different version. He states that the scheme was drawn up by Kemp for Archibald MacLellan, the drawings being forwarded to the Treasury without credit to Kemp and published as ‘Plans and Elevations of the Proposed Restorations and Additions to the Cathedral of Glasgow, with an explanatory Address by the Local Committee’ (1836). Kemp presented a set of drawings to James Skene of Rubislaw each annotated with Kemp’s pseudonym to underline his authorship. MacLellan, perhaps concerned about Kemp’s lack of practical experience, meantime commissioned James Gillespie Graham for new proposals. Kemp, who was mortified, exhibited drawings of his scheme and a model with costs from John Cousin in Edinburgh in 1838. However the whole scheme foundered and it was not until 1843 that the Cathedral was restored under the direction of Edward Blore.

In 1836 Kemp entered the competition for the Scott Monument in Edinburgh. He was awarded third prize, the first being to Thomas Rickman and the second to Charles Fowler in association with the sculptor Charles Sievier. The Committee decided on a second competition and in this instance Kemp was the winner. It was acknowledged at the time as having the ‘style and purity of Melrose Abbey’. His openwork design based on his studied of late Gothic churches on the Continent and in Scotland was constructed between 1840 and 1846.

The Kemp family moved from Stockbridge in 1837 to Bloomsbury Cottage, Canaan Lane, Edinburgh. Although he considered entering into partnership with John Cousin’s son David, the architect, he decided against this after he had taken on the job of supervising the building of the monument. He passed on to David Cousin a commission for a ‘cheap church’ from a Mr Blackie and sent his son to train with Cousin.

Kemp died before the completion of the monument. Tragically he drowned in the Union Canal while returning home on a foggy night. He died intestate leaving assets of £202 and the model of Glasgow Cathedral which proved unsaleable. He was survived by his wife Elizabeth and his son and daughter.

As a person Kemp was good company and a prolific poet. He made furniture throughout his life. He was a devoted family man and had good relations with his workmen who considered him a good role model. He never quite made the transition to a professional architect as some of his contemporaries did.

There are various portraits of Kemp: a medallion portrait By Alexander Handyside Ritchie is on his monument of Greyfriars Churchyard and a bust by Ritchie and a portrait by his brother-in-law William Bonnar are in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Private and Business Addresses

The following private or business addresses are associated with this architect:
 AddressTypeDate fromDate toNotes
Item 1 of 133, Parkside Street, Edinburgh, ScotlandPrivate/business(?)1841  

Employment and Training


The following individuals or organisations employed or trained this architect (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 1William Burnc. 1835 Assistant 

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 101834Glasgow Cathedral  GlasgowScotlandScheme fo restoration - not executed.
Item 2 of 101836West Parish ChurchMaybole AyrshireScotland 
Item 3 of 101837Scott Monument  EdinburghScotlandThird premiated competition design.
Item 4 of 101838Scott Monument  EdinburghScotlandSecond competition - first prize awarded.
Item 5 of 101842East Princes Street gardens  EdinburghScotlandPlans drawn up for promenade on north side of East Princes Street Gardens.
Item 6 of 101843Free ChurchRenton DunbartonshireScotlandSupposed to have had a hand in the design of this (Charles McKean in DNB )
Item 7 of 101843National MonumentCalton Hill EdinburghScotlandSketch showing conjectural restoration of the National Monument
Item 8 of 101843WoodhouseleeGlencorse MidlothianScotlandAdditions
Item 9 of 10c. 1843Gothic BankMorningside EdinburghScotlandAlterations? Fees for work on this owing to Kemp at the time of his death.
Item 10 of 10Before 1844St John's Free Church  GlasgowScotlandSupposed to have had a hand in the design


Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this architect:
Item 1 of 6Bonnar, Thomas1892Biographical Sketch of George Meikle Kemp   
Item 2 of 6British Architectural Library, RIBA2001Directory of British Architects 1834-1914   
Item 3 of 6Colston, James1881History of the Scott Monument Edinburgh 
Item 4 of 6Colvin, H M1995A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-18403rd editionNew Haven and London: Yale University Press 
Item 5 of 6Mays, D (ed)1997The Architecture of Scottish Towns and Cities  Chapter by James Macaulay 'The demolition of the western towers of Glasgow Cathedral, pp115-124
Item 6 of 6New DNB New Dictionary of National Biography  Article by Charles McKean.

Periodical References

The following periodicals contain references to this architect:
 Periodical NameDateEditionPublisherNotes
Item 1 of 2Country Life5 August 1971  Article 'George Kemp and the Scott Monument'
Item 2 of 2Elgin Courant & Morayshire Advertiser29 March 1844   

Archive References

The following archives hold material relating to this architect:
 SourceArchive NameSource Catalogue No.Notes
Item 1 of 3Central LibraryDrawings CollectionECL/WNA/997 K32MSS by Thomas Bonnar, sketches possibly by Thomas Kemp
Item 2 of 3NASSC Archives (Sc)SC 70/1/60, p354 
Item 3 of 3National Archives of Scotland (formerly SRO)Gifts and depositsGD 327/5/1-12; GD 327/61-161GD 314/555/6