Basic Biographical Details

Name: Robert Arthur Lawson
Born: 1 January 1833
Died: 1902
Bio Notes: Robert Arthur Lawson was born at Grange of Lindores on 1 January 1833, the son of James Lawson, a carpenter and sawmiller at 49 Hogg's Place, Abbeyhill. He was educated at Abdie Parish School and was articled to Andrew Heiton, Senior, of Perth c.1848, but completed his apprenticeship in the office of James Gillespie Graham in Edinburgh. During that period he was recommended to the Trustees' Academy by Gillespie Graham; he entered the Academy on 29 November 1850 and left on 11 March 1851. Thereafter he was an assistant in the office of John Lessels until July 1854 when he emigrated to Melbourne on the ship Tongataboo. His diary during the voyage shows that during the voyage he made designs for 'a church in the Gothic style', 'a mansion in the Tudor Gothic style' and 'an Italian design for a public building,' building up a presentation folio with which to impress clients. He found, however, little employment as an architect and spent seven years in the goldfields. Having amassed a modest amount of capital he then set up as an architect in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne from which office he won the competition for the design of First Church, Dunedin in New Zealand in 1862, the tower and spire of his entry being based on that of Gillespie Graham and AWN Pugin's Victoria Hall in Edinburgh.

First Church was not actually built until 1873 but his success encouraged him to transfer his practice from Melbourne to Dunedin. He does not seem to have secured much other work in the first few years but in 1874 he designed the ANZ Bank on Princes Street as a reduced version of David Rhind's Commercial Bank in Edinburgh and in 1876 Knox Church in George Street, the spire of which suggests that he had seen an engraving of Peddie and Kinnear's Pilrig Street Church.

In 1879 Lawson was commissioned to design Seacliff Hospital, an asylum for nine hundred patients which was then the largest building in New Zealand. Its plan was modelled on that of Norfolk County Asylum but its baronial elevations were drawn from Scottish sources and from Alfred Waterhouse and George Gilbert Scott. In 1880 he designed the Italianate Town Hall with a tower modelled on Cuthbert Brodrick's at Hull, and in 1884 he designed the very large neo-Tudor Otago Boys' School, but his career was ended by structural problems at Seacliff Hospital which had been built on unstable and shifting site and was the subject of a Government Commission of Inquiry in 1888. In all his obituarist notes that he designed nearly 50 churches as well as numerous Government and public buildings.

In his spare time he was 'untiring in furthering church work, serving for many years as Superintendent of the Sunday Schools and as elder in the St Kilda Presbyterian Church and "First Church" Dunedin'. He also took an active interest in social and municipal affairs, and served for many years as chairman of the Dunedin Tramways Company.

Lawson died in 1902.

Private and Business Addresses

The following private or business addresses are associated with this :
 AddressTypeDate fromDate toNotes
Item 1 of 3Dunedin, New ZealandBusiness   
Item 2 of 36, James Place, Edinburgh, ScotlandPrivate18531854 
Item 3 of 3Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, AustraliaBusinessc. 1861  

Employment and Training


The following individuals or organisations employed or trained this (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 4A & A Heiton1848Before 1854Apprentice 
Item 2 of 4James Gillespie GrahamAfter 1848Before 1854Apprentice 
Item 3 of 4Andrew Heiton (senior)c. 18481848Apprentice 
Item 4 of 4John LesselsBefore 1854July 1854Assistant 

Employees or Pupils

The following individuals were employed or trained by this (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 1John Coulson Nicol1876Before 1879Assistant 

Buildings and Designs

This 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 81853Design for a college     
Item 2 of 81853Design for a mansion house     
Item 3 of 81854Design for a mansion     
Item 4 of 81862First Church of Otago  DunedinNew Zealand 
Item 5 of 81874ANZ Bank  DunedinNew Zealand 
Item 6 of 81876Knox Church  DunedinNew Zealand 
Item 7 of 81878Dunedin Town Hall  DunedinNew Zealand 
Item 8 of 81879Seacliff Hospital  DunedinNew Zealand 


Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this :
Item 1 of 3Entwhistle, Peter1983Edinburgh in the Antipodes: Victorian Architecture in Dunedin, New Zealand Country Life, 13 January 1983, pp90-94 
Item 2 of 3McCoy, E J and Blackman, J G1968Victorian City of New Zealand   
Item 3 of 3Prior, W J1991Robert Arthur Lawson University of Otago, unpublished thesis 

Periodical References

The following periodicals contain references to this :
 Periodical NameDateEditionPublisherNotes
Item 1 of 1Evening Telegraph20 February 1903  Obituary