George Meikle Kemp
George Meikle Kemp
Portrait of Kemp by William Bonnar c1840
|Born||25 May 1795|
Biggar, Lanarkshire, Scotland
|Died||6 March 1844|
|Cause of death||Drowning|
|Burial place||Edinburgh, Scotland|
|Occupation||Carpenter, joiner, draughtsman and architect|
|Known for||The Scott Monument, Edinburgh|
|Spouse(s)||Elizabeth Wilson Bonnar|
George Meikle Kemp (25 May 1795—6 March 1844) was a self-taught Scottish architect who designed and built the Scott Monument in Edinburgh, Scotland. Trained as a joiner and carpenter, he was said to have had a first-hand knowledge of Gothic architecture which was unrivalled in Scotland.
Childhood and education
Kemp was the second of six children of James Kemp (1754—1835), an itinerant and impoverished shepherd working on the southern slopes of the Pentland Hills, and his wife Jean Mowbray (1764—1817). He was born on 25 May 1795 in a cottage at Hillriggs Farm above the town of Biggar in Lanarkshire. When Kemp was a child his father moved from farm to farm in the valley to the south of the Pentlands, wherever he could find herding work. The family were frequently on poor relief. Kemp was known to have lived at Newlanddale from just after his birth, moving to Ingraston in 1802 and Nine Mile Burn in 1805 before his father settled at Moorfoot, below the Moorfoot Hills, southeast of Penicuik, in 1807 when Kemp was 12.
Kemp's schooling was brief, at parochial schools in West Linton, Walston and Penicuik, before he became a herdboy at the age of 11. Later, at Moorfoot, he worked for his father for two years. At around this age he was sent on an errand by his father's employer and while carrying it out visited the 15th century Rosslyn Chapel, northeast of Penicuik. The building's Gothic architecture, considered to be the finest in Scotland, was Kemp's introduction to ancient buildings of a sort he had never seen before. The delight he experienced that day stayed with him all his life. The incident awakened what was to become in time an almost fanatical appreciation of Gothic architecture.
Kemp's artistic talents had already shown themselves in his childhood when he learned to carve local bog oak into trinkets and quaichs finished with intricate ornament. His innate mechanical and joinery skills also allowed him to build miniature watermills which he set to work in the hillside burns. His talents were recognised by his parents and they realised that he would benefit from proper training. His father was noted as saying “We will have to make some other thing than a shepherd of George - the sheep or cows seem to be the least of his care” (reported by Violet Aitchison née Kemp (1805-1889), Kemp's youngest sister.)
At the age of fourteen Kemp was enrolled as an apprentice joiner with master-wright and carpenter Andrew Noble at Moy Hall, Redscarhead, north of Peebles. He stayed there for four years receiving, as well as training in joinery, a wide education including technical drawing and many mechanical skills, architecture and mathematics. He repaired agricultural machinery as part of his duties and saw foundations laid and buildings erected. In his spare time, and self-taught, he also became highly practiced in wood-modelling, reading the classics, writing poetry and songs with many literary references and playing the violin.
It was at this time that Kemp developed a life-long habit of walking long distances, sometimes sleeping under the stars, when travelling. On Saturday nights he would walk for four hours from Redscarhead to visit his parents at Moorfoot, walking back late on Sundays. In adulthood he sometimes walked enormous distances when looking for work and studying medieval architecture.
Kemp's apprenticeship was completed on 20 June 1813 when he was 18. He immediately started work as a millwright at a workshop at Roxburgh House Court in Galashiels. His job entailed not just the upkeep of mills but also the repair of the various wooden agricultural and industrial machines being invented at this time. His expertise in this work and his willingness to labour as a journeyman was to provide his sometimes meagre income for the next 14 years.
At the same time he began an exhaustive and intense study of Gothic architecture. His job required much local travel, always on foot, and he took the opportunity to sketch and study the monastic churches of the area, such as Melrose, Dryburgh, Jedburgh and Kelso. The abbey at Melrose was of great and lasting significance to Kemp; he returned to it repeatedly, and it later became his most important inspiration for the Scott Monument. Kemp's method of looking at the architecture of a building was first to make a general study of it, then to carry out a few detailed sketches of decorative features. He did not draw plans there and then, but did so later, being able quickly to commit to memory the layout of a building and its intricacies.
In 1815 he moved to John Cousin's building and joining workshop in Leith. This gave him the opportunity to work on the many new buildings in Edinburgh and to learn the practicalities of converting two-dimensional plans into three-dimensional structures.
In 1817 he went to Manchester for three years, benefiting from the availability of work repairing machinery in the rapidly increasing number of mills, and from the building opportunities provided by the huge development of the city and its environs. He studied all the Gothic architecture he could find in the area, even walking for 24 hours to York in order to view the Minster. From Manchester Kemp moved to Glasgow in 1820 and worked there for another four years while attending evening classes at Anderson's Institution, probably studying practical subjects like draughtsmanship, geometry and science. While in Glasgow he made a hugely detailed study of the Cathedral there, drawing many views of the building, and plans, sections and elevations, all of which enabled him to suggest restorations and additions.
In May 1824 Kemp went to London but he failed to find permanent work there and disliked it, so he stayed only a little over a year. Nevertheless, he was able to study the wealth of Gothic architecture there, including Westminster Abbey, and many of the other ecclesiastical buildings in the south of England, including Canterbury Cathedral, probably the earliest Gothic building in England and which rivalled the early Gothic buildings in France.
Intent on yet further study of Gothic architecture, from London Kemp made for France in 1825 and, supported by his millwright and general craftsmanship skills, and walking everywhere as had been his habit in Scotland and England, he visited and studied a multitude of buildings. His itinerary included the great cathedrals and churches of Abbeville, Beauvais, Amiens, Paris and - in Belgium - Antwerp. At this time Kemp considered emigrating to Canada, but returned to Scotland in 1827 because of the commercial embarrassments of a near relative, (not as reported by his first biographer, Thomas Bonnar, because of the death of his mother; she had died some ten years previously). The near relative is thought to have been Kemp's elder brother, Thomas Kemp (1792-1841), Clerk of Works to the Duke of Buccleuch.
Kemp returned to Edinburgh in 1827 and never left Scotland again. His studies of ancient buildings had provided him with a knowledge of Gothic architecture unrivalled in Scotland, and in England surpassed by only three other men. He had ambitions to become an architect but he had not received specific training and much of the architectural establishment was opposed to him. He became a Freemason, being initiated in the Lodge of Edinburgh St Andrew No.48, in 1927, but the move failed to improve his prospects. While he had produced unsolicited but detailed designs for the theoretical reconstructions of Glasgow Cathedral, Rosslyn Chapel, Trinity College Kirk and Melrose Abbey he had never designed a new building.
In order to support himself and his new family he became a cabinet-maker, but though he made impressively-crafted furniture he was not noted for his business acumen or his ability to promote himself and so he was largely unsuccessful. Through long practice he was skilled at draughtsmanship, and drawings he made of Melrose Abbey were exhibited in the Scottish Academy Exhibition of 1830. They were thought to be “exceedingly accurate in outline, minute in detail, and so exquisitely finished that they attracted considerable attention”  and helped to make his name as an architectural illustrator. He was well-paid when the pictures were sold, but they could not support him adequately in the long term. Nor could a following commission from an engraver to prepare drawings for a proposed illustrated survey of Scottish cathedrals and other antiquities. Kemp worked on drawings for this book over a number of years but it was never published.
Seeking to help him, his elder brother, Thomas, secured a job for him with the architect William Burn on the Duke of Buccleuch's estate at Bowhill near Selkirk. Burn engaged Kemp as a competent draughtsman, entrusting him with drawings for the new Bowhill House that Buccleuch proposed to build there and it is possible he served as Clerk of Works as building began. Burn then commissioned Kemp in 1831 to make a wooden architectural model of his (Burn's) design for a new palace for Buccleuch at Dalkeith. It took Kemp, with his assistant, his cousin Joseph Mowbray, two years to build the model.
By 1834 Kemp's ideas on the restoration of Glasgow Cathedral and his proposed additions to it had been developed still further. He had produced an ambitious set of drawings of plans and elevations and had even built a large model of the cathedral in wood to illustrate his proposals in three dimensions. A local Glasgow committee took up the ideas, but Kemp's work was plagiarised and published without credit to their true author. Kemp asserted his intellectual rights by re-publishing his proposals, but his lack of practical experience as an architect went against him and the scheme failed to go ahead.
Some commentators have argued that Kemp was not as inexperienced an architect as his detractors maintained, claiming that he designed and built the West Parish Church at Maybole in Ayrshire  in 1836. But evidence is lacking and while the need for an additional church at Maybole had been discussed in 1836, no steps had been taken for its erection. It has also been noted that funding for a new church was only in place in 1842, and that those who doubt Kemp's involvement claim the building's design lacks the Gothic inspiration that Kemp would have brought to it.
The Scott Monument
In 1836 a competition was launched (by a committee of "Noblemen and Gentlemen") to design a monument to the leading Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, who had died in 1832, to be erected in Edinburgh. Several leading architects had already been invited to submit designs, but none was considered adequate. The competition's three best designs would each receive a prize of 50 guineas.
Kemp recognised his opportunity and after working at great speed for five days submitted an entry, using the pseudonym “John Morvo”, one spelling of the name of the French master mason who had worked on the building of Melrose Abbey and Rosslyn Chapel. Kemp's design was described as “a lofty tower or spire of beautiful proportions, with elaborate and carefully drawn details, chiefly taken from Melrose Abbey”.
There were 54 entries in the competition and “John Morvo” was one of the three winners. English architects Thomas Rickman and Charles Fowler were placed first and second, "John Morvo" third. It was not known who “John Morvo” might be and enquiries were made amongst Edinburgh's architects. Kemp's identity was eventually discovered and he was awarded one of the 50–guinea prizes. However, the other two winners and many of the losing competitors were aggrieved that someone so unqualified, inexperienced and obscure, and not even an architect, should have been one of the winners. One complainant stated that Kemp's inexperience was such that he had not even built a cow house.
Unable to decide amongst the three winners, the competition committee invited further designs. Several outstanding architects contributed. Kemp submitted an improved version of his design under his own name and, after the committee had deliberated, on 28 March 1838 Kemp was announced as the winner. The organisers praised “an imposing structure, 135 feet (41 metres) in height, of beautiful proportions, and in strict conformity with the purity of taste and style of Melrose Abbey, from which the author states it is in all its details derived”.
The site on Princes Street in Edinburgh was decided upon. Kemp's approved builder, David Lind, was chosen, and it was decided that the monument was to be built of Binny sandstone from the shale beds at Linlithgow, West Lothian. This stone was popular in Edinburgh because it was easily worked and could be transported into the city by the Union Canal, but hindsight has shown it be a poor choice for a large city and for a site near a railway station, because of its propensity for attracting soot. Kemp took over as his own Clerk of Works, bringing in a regular income and the opportunity to supervise closely the building of his design. He was well-liked by the craftsmen working for him, because he was not grand and because he demanded accuracy and precision. In an early instance of his determination that the monument should be built in his own way he rejected a proposal that wooden piles be driven into the ground to support the structure, insisting the excavation for the foundation should be carried down to the bedrock, some 52 feet (16 metres) below the surface of Princes Street. However, he at first lost an argument about the height of the monument; his original plans were for a height of 184 feet (56 metres) rather than the 135 feet (41 metres) determined upon by the committee because of insufficient funds. Despite this, at Kemp's insistence the organisers relented and allowed him to build to his original dimensions and in the end even slightly higher.
The foundation stone was laid on 15 August 1840, the 69th anniversary of Scott's birth, the day being declared a public holiday. Tens of thousands of people were present at the ceremony and Kemp was prominent among those being celebrated. The monument began to rise above the ground in 1841. As work progressed over the next three years, Kemp's presence on the building site, visible daily to passers-by on Princes Street, probably contributed to his growing public popularity. Seeking an even greater affinity with his workers than he already possessed, Kemp - already a Freemason - joined the Lodge of Journeymen Masons, Edinburgh No.8 in 1843. With the huge public interest in the Scott Monument, Kemp was now an admired member of Edinburgh society, and several potentially lucrative architectural commissions came his way.
In the early months of 1844 the monument was nearing completion. It was reported that as each step of the building was completed “the public eye detected some new beauty, and waited impatiently for the completion”. As the monument became a startlingly dramatic presence on Princes Street Kemp was being increasingly fêted. However, during the foggy evening of Wednesday 6 March 1844, while walking on his way home from a meeting with his builder, Kemp drowned in the Union Canal in Edinburgh. His body was found the following Monday in the Lochrin Basin, close to the Lochrin Distillery at Fountainbridge.
The circumstances of his death have not been explained. Suicide was discounted. Other theories such as drunkenness, an attack by robbers or in the fog losing his footing on the towpath were considered, but the cause of his drowning has never been resolved.
Kemp's death brought an outpouring of public grief. Huge crowds came to observe the funeral procession. The workmen who had laboured with him in the building of the monument carried his coffin from his home in Morningside to St Cuthbert's churchyard below Edinburgh Castle, where he was buried. The grave is in the centre of the first southern section, facing the Scott Monument.
There had been a proposal to bury him in the crypt of the Scott Monument, a feature which was never actually constructed and which had originally been designed by Kemp for Sir Walter Scott's interment, but the idea was considered by Kemp's widow to be inappropriate. 
Despite his death Kemp's masterpiece continued to be built, under the supervision of Kemp's brother-in-law, William Bonnar. The height was increased to 200 feet 6 inches (61.11 metres), adding to the elegance of the Monument. It was completed in the autumn of 1844, with Kemp's 10-year-old son, Thomas, placing the topmost stone. Vast crowds attended the inauguration ceremony in 1846. Since then the Monument has become an icon of Edinburgh and indeed of Scotland, though an early critic was the author Charles Dickens who, in 1847, wrote: "I am sorry to report the Scott Monument a failure. It is like the spire of a Gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground". Similar denigrators were few and the building was, and still is, almost universally admired.
The Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen sang the Monument's praises some 30 years after its completion:
The Scott Monument has been visited from every land; engravings of it are diffused over the wide earth; and as long as it stands in its majestic and imposing beauty, the pilgrims of future centuries, who gaze upon it in silent admiration, will connect the name of its builder with the thought of him who it commemorates.
Now, 35-45,000 people a year visit it; roughly the same figure as have visited it every year since it was inaugurated: over seven million people in total. It has, as The Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen predicted, almost eclipsed the reputation of Sir Walter Scott himself. Few people are thought to visit the Monument now because it is a memorial to the author. The huge majority of visitors do so because it, and its architect, are themselves famous. Kemp is revered in Scotland and within the great Scottish diaspora around the world.
The Scott Monument is the only confirmed completed building designed by Kemp. The West Parish Church at Maybole in Ayrshire has been shown to be unlikely to be his work, and Millburn Church at Renton in Dunbartonshire (now ruined), which was for several years speculatively said to be Kemp's design, is now believed to have been designed by John Thomas Rochead. Reliably attributed to Kemp was a south wing added to the 1700s New Woodhouselee House in Glencorse, Midlothian in 1843  but the whole house was demolished in 1965. Stables attached to the house, built at around the same time, are tentatively attributed to Kemp. They are still standing, listed Category B, and may, with the Scott Monument, be the only other surviving Kemp building.
Kemp married Elizabeth Wilson Bonnar (1808-1889) on 11 September 1832. They lived at first in an upper tenement flat at 7 Saunders Street in Stockbridge, a suburb of Edinburgh, and in 1837 moved to 33 Parkside Street in the city  and then to Bloomsberry Cottage in Canaan Lane in Edinburgh. They had four children: two boys and two girls.
While being a man with many friends, and towards the end of his life very popular with the public, Kemp has been described as socially awkward and cantankerous. His latest biographer, Morven Leese, writes that Kemp demonstrated “a huge level of self-belief and drive, combined with a very unusual personality”. She suggests that his social disabilities were perhaps engendered by his humble background and exacerbated by him being “high on the autistic spectrum”. Despite this, she writes, Kemp “came to inspire love and respect from those who knew him.”.
Despite the impressive attendance at the funeral, the large number of dignitaries who attended, and the obvious high esteem in which the architect was held, the Kemps were not wealthy. A journalist observed that “The poor deceased, though he had risen, after a long struggle, into celebrity, had not risen into affluence.” He also commented on the humble appearance of the house in Morningside from which the funeral procession left.
Kemp died intestate, leaving assets of £202 18s. 6d, some furniture, and the model of Glasgow Cathedral, which proved unsaleable. A memorial concert to support the Kemp family was held and the Freemasons contributed, but Kemp's wife, Elisabeth, was left with little to live on and had to take work as a seamstress.
Kemp's son, Thomas Kemp (1833-1853), who had placed the topmost stone on the Monument, trained as an architect but died young.
In 1932 (the centenary of Sir Walter Scott's death) a memorial to Kemp, designed by James Grieve, was unveiled at Moy Hall, Redscarhead where Kemp served his apprenticeship. It is a single-storey Gothic gable added to the L-plan former workshop of Andrew Noble, joiner and millwright, who was Kemp's apprentice master.
Another Kemp memorial was installed by the Biggar Museum Trust on the 200th anniversary of his birth in 1995. It is of rough-hewn Cairngryffe stone, bearing a bronze plaque, and stands just across the valley from where the Kemp cottage stood in 1795.
Kemp's brother-in-law, William Bonnar, painted at least two portraits of him. One, with the half-built Monument seen behind Kemp, is in the possession of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, though it is held in storage. The second portrait by Bonnar is owned by the City of Edinburgh Council.
Three sculpted representations of Kemp exist. One, a bust modelled from life by Alexander Handyside Ritchie and carved in marble by John Hutchison, is in the care of the City of Edinburgh Council. A profile, also by Ritchie, adorns Kemp's tombstone in St Cuthbert's churchyard. A further profile by Ritchie, in bronze, forms the centrepiece of the Kemp memorial at Redscarhead.
Two photographic portraits of Kemp, posed on the Scott Monument's building site, were made by David Octavius Hill in 1843. Salted paper prints from paper negative images are preserved by the City of Edinburgh Council.
A Biographical Sketch of George Meikle Kemp, Architect of the Scott Monument, Edinburgh, Thomas Bonnar, William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London, 1892.
An Appreciation of the Life and Work of George Meikle Kemp, Joiner and Architect, J Faichney Methven, The Methven Family Trust, Glasgow, 1988, [IBSN 0-9514033-0-3].
George Meikle Kemp, Architect of the Scott Monument, Morven Leese, Lomax Press, Stirling, 2014, [IBSN 0-9560288-9-6].
When Kemp's first biographer, Thomas Bonnar, published his biography in 1892 he wrote that Kemp was born at Moorfoot in Midlothian. Immediately on publication members of Kemp's birth family challenged this and stated that Kemp had been born at Hillriggs, above Biggar Town in Lanarkshire. One of Kemp's nieces, Jean Houston née Aitchison, was the first to point out the mistake. In response Bonnar vigorously defended his statement in the public press without providing any evidence to support it.
The belief that Moorfoot was Kemp's birthplace subsequently became the accepted truth in the reference books and other publications of the time and since (with the exception of those published by Chambers), including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Until very recently Wikipedia, quoting Thomas Bonnar, was also stating that Kemp was born at Moorfoot.
The matter arose again, in an article in The Scotsman in 1910, in which the writer listed in detail the hearsay evidence of many of Kemp's birth family that he was born at Hillriggs. Most crucial was the evidence of an aunt of Kemp's, Mrs Thomas Mowbray, who was present at the birth at Hillriggs. The article encouraged much further discussion in The Scotsman.
In 1932 a further campaign to establish Kemp's birthplace as being Hillriggs began in the pages of The Scotsman  which excited further correspondence, but reference sources largely ignored the campaign and continued to state that Kemp was born at Moorfoot.
In the mid-1980s, under the aegis of the Biggar Museum Trust, an extensive research project was established, whose conclusion was that Kemp was born at Hillriggs rather than Moorfoot  and as a result an increasing number of reference sources, including Kemp's last two biographers, followed the Museum's lead. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entirely rewrote its Kemp entry in 2004 and stated therein that Kemp was born at Hillriggs.
- Kemp, George Meikle, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840, Howard Colvin, Yale University Press, 1954
- The Scotsman, Edinburgh, 12 May 1910
- Kemp, George Meikle, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004
- George Meikle Kemp, Architect of the Scott Monument, Morven Leese, Lomax Press, Stirling, 2014
- Kemp, George Meikle, Dictionary of Scottish Architects 1660-1980, 2016 "Architects". scottisharchitects.org.uk.
- Biographical Sketch of George Meikle Kemp, Thomas Bonnar, William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh, 1892
- Kemp, George Meikle, Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, Robert Chambers, Blackie & Son, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London,1875
- The World and Its People, Book V, Modern Europe, Fanny E Coe, edited Larkin Dunton, Silver, Burdett & Company, New York, 1896
- An Appreciation of the Life and Work of George Meikle Kemp, Joiner and Architect, J Faichney Methven, The Methven Family Trust, Glasgow, 1988
- Canterbury Cathedral and the Cult of Becket, M F Hearn, The Art Bulletin, vol 76, no 1, 1994
- Chamber's Edinburgh Journal, Edinburgh, 21 April 1838
- The Scotsman, Edinburgh, 23 March 1844
- Famous Scottish Freemasons, edited Robert L D Cooper, Edinburgh, 2010
- The Scott Monument: a history and architectural guide, N M McQ Holmes and Lyn M Stubbs, City of Edinburgh Museums and Art Galleries, Edinburgh, 1979
- Glasgow Herald, Glasgow, 25 March 1844
- Renton, Main Street, Millburn Church, Canmore 198447, National Record of the Historic Environment, Scotland
- Woodhouselee Policies, Former Stables, LB13512, Historic Environment Scotland
- Scotland, Select Marriages, 1561-1910 "Marriages". ancestry.com.
- 1841 Scotland Census, Edinburgh, St Cuthbert's, General Register Office for Scotland
- National Archives Scotland, SC70/1/60 p354, valuation
- David Goold (1904-09-16). "Dictionary of Scottish Architects - DSA Architect Biography Report (December 24, 2015, 3:19 am)". Scottisharchitects.org.uk. Retrieved 2015-12-24.
- James Grieve, Dictionary of Scottish Architects,1660-1980, 2016 "Architects". scottisharchitects.org.uk.
- Friends of Biggar Museums Newsletter, The Biggar Museum Trust, Biggar, 11 September 1995
- Scottish National Portrait Gallery, National Galleries of Scotland
- Museums and Galleries Edinburgh, The City of Edinburgh Council
- Letter to Gilbert Rae, Biggar historian, from Daniel William Kemp, antiquarian and Kemp researcher, 14 July 1910, D W Kemp Papers, (GD327/6), Scottish Record Office, Edinburgh
- Kemp, George Meikle, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 1891
- The Scotsman, Edinburgh, 19 August 1932
- Friends of Biggar Museums Newsletter, The Biggar Museum Trust, Biggar, 10 January 1995
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