Great British Architects: Sir Robert Lorimer (1846–1929)

Early career

The son of a law professor, Lorimer was educated in Edinburgh, but left university before graduating in 1884, to join the office of the Scottish Revivalist architect Robert Rowand Anderson. In 1889, he moved to London, where a spell working for G. F. Bodley helped shape his Gothic style and fired him with enthusiasm for the Arts-and- Crafts Movement. Here, he developed his commitment to the unity of art and nature in architecture, and his delight in materials and the richness of textiles and colour. Among his friends in London were young architect Walter Tapper and fellow Scottish architects J. J. Stevenson and James MacLaren. After the latter’s untimely death, Lorimer worked for his successors, Dunn and Watson. Maclaren’s subtle synthesis of Scots and English vernacular in a contemporary idiom left a strong  impression on Lorimer, as seen in his roughcast cottages at Colinton, and other small houses in the Lothians of the 1890s, which also show the influence of Voysey and Lethaby.

Return to Scotland

His first big commission, from 1891, was the restoration of Earlshall in Fife. In reviving this tower house as the atmospheric setting for R. W. Mackenzie’s collections, Lorimer was greatly influenced by his boyhood experiences at Kellie Castle, which his father had sensitively repaired as a summer home. At Earlshall, Lorimer designed fittings, furniture and a garden inspired by that at Edzell, all in harmony with the spirit of the old house.

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He went on to do many more tactful restorations, his favourite being Balmanno, Perthshire (1921), with furniture and an elaborate compartmented garden also to his design. Lorimer’s earliest new houses were English (such as the Lutyens-like High Barn at Godalming), and in Scotland, too, early works such as Wayside in St Andrews (1901) absorbed English influences. But, in 1903, he started work on Rowallan in Ayrshire, the first of three country houses that gave full expression to his love of the Picturesque forms and romantic qualities of 16th-century Scottish architecture. Ardkinglas (1906) and Formakin in Renfrewshire (1914) followed, the architecture of the latter echoed by its outstanding group of ancillary buildings, which incorporate playful carved monkeys and humorous inscriptions. Lorimer’s gate lodges were his ‘happiest inventions,’ wrote Hussey.

The twin-turreted gate lodges at Formakin are characteristic, with their ogee roofs echoed by the garden pavilion, another favourite structure of Lorimer’s. The most interesting example of his late- Stuart/early-Georgian style is Marchmont in Berwickshire, reconstructed for R. F. McEwan in 1915, with new interior work drawing on French and English Renaissance precedents.

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Although he was preoccupied with traditional craftsmanship, the simple severity of St Peter’s in Edinburgh hints at Modernism, and concrete fascinated him. The Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle (1918-27), a fusion of Gothic and Renaissance elements with superb craftsmanship, was the culminating project of his career.