ESME GORDON was a well-known and much-respected architect in private practice in Edinburgh from 1937 until his recent retirement, and served in the 1970s as Honorary Secretary of the Royal Scottish Academy.
Born in 1910, Gordon made his mark by winning the RIBA Owen Jones Scholarship in his qualifying year, 1934, for knowledge and skill in the field of colour. That was two years after Sir Basil Spence had qualified, and three years after Sir Robert Matthew at the same School of Architecture in Edinburgh College of Art.
Gordon was an individualist and kept his office on a small scale. His work was mainly in the field of churches, including restoration work in St Giles' Cathedral and the historic Canongate Kirk, and St Andrew's in George Street, all in Edinburgh; and the design of several modest new churches in Scotland. Heriot-Watt University and insurance companies were also among his firm's clients.
Esme Gordon was brought up in one of the elegant houses in Heriot Row, a New Town terrace built between 1803 and 1808. His father was a solicitor. After schooling at the Edinburgh Academy Gordon took a six- year architecture course, including a period in London with Sir John Burnet, Tait & Lorne. At the start of the Second World War he designed and organised the building of canteens for the troops, from Shetland to the Bay of Biscay, before being called up into the Royal Engineers for armed service in Europe until 1945.
After return to civilian life and his practice, Gordon was President of the Edinburgh Architectural Association (1955-57) and a member of the Scottish Committee of the Arts Council (1959-65), and soon became a notable and loyal member of the Royal Scottish Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. He was elected a full Academician in 1967 and held the responsible post of Honorary Secretary from 1973 to 1978.
Gordon's name will go down as one of the greatest Secretaries. His enquiring mind encouraged him to embark upon a voyage of discovery in the RSA archives and treasures, some of which had been buried for many years in the stores under layers of dust. It was he who drew the members' attention to the remarkable collection of calotypes by DO Hill, one of his best-known predecessors as Secretary.
On another occasion, he discovered the now famous 'secret drawer' in the large desk in the library used during Assemblies by the President, Secretary and Treasurer. Here were found a series of long-lost architectural drawings by Thomas Hamilton, unfolding his ambitious design to provide a pair of Greek Temples to the south of the Royal Institution building (now the RSA) for the Royal Scottish Academy and the National Gallery of Scotland respectively. Alas, for reasons of economy the imaginative large-scale composition was abandoned.
Gordon's incalculable contribution to the affairs of the academy culminated in his writing the academy's history, The Royal Scottish Academy 1826-1976 (1976). To coincide with the opening of the RSA Shop, he produced a second book, a well-illustrated condensed version, The Making of the Royal Scottish Academy (1988). As a Senior Academician he was a regular attender and speaker at Assemblies.
It should be said that Esme Gordon's interest in fine art was not confined to architecture: he was a devoted scholar of Oriental art, particularly Chinese jade and Japanese woodblock prints, of both of which he was an avid collector. He inherited several paintings by leading artists and was a close friend of the artist SJ Peploe's elder son, also an artist, Denis Peploe, who predeceased him by nine days.
With his wife Betsy, who died in 1990, he was an enthusiastic traveller mainly in Italy, India and the Far East, and he recorded much of his journeys with fine drawings and watercolours, many of which he exhibited in the RSA Annual Exhibitions. In January 1988 52 of his watercolours were shown in the Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh. Some of them showed technique reminiscent of Arthur Melville's. Not only that, but many had human figures in the foreground - a thing that most architect-artists find very difficult.
Esme Gordon was enthusiastic, generous and sociable, and an entertaining raconteur. He was a man of middle height, with a thick crop of hair which he retained to the end.
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