Burnet, John James (1857-1938)
John James Burnet was born at Blythswood, Glasgow on 31 May 1857, the youngest of the three sons of John Burnet and his wife Elizabeth Hay Bennet. The family were ‘Independents’, i.e. Congregationalists. His mother was the driving force in the family, ambitious for both her husband and her sons. John James was educated at the Collegiate School and the Western Academy in Glasgow, and at Blair Lodge Academy, a once-famous private boarding establishment at Polmont: unlike his parents and brothers who were all very tall, he grew only to about 5′ 10”. After approximately two years’ training in his father’s office from 1871, his parents seem to have intended him to study at the Royal Academy Schools under Phené Spiers whom his father knew as Glasgow correspondent of the Architectural Publication Society: the connection was probably made through his father’s younger brother William Cadell Burnet who practised in London and it was doubtless in his office that he was to have been placed. In the event Spiers advised him to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris rather than at his own School. Initially his parents did not approve, not so much because of the expense but because France was Catholic, the Commune was only just over, and the political relationship between the United Kingdom and the new Third Republic was not encouraging. But first his mother and then his father were won over, and in the autumn of 1871 his father took him to Paris to meet his future master Jean Louis Pascal, who was then about to become patron of the Atelier Blouet-Gilbert-Questel and had just succeeded Lefuel as Chief Inspector for the completion of the Louvre.
In 1920 Burnet recalled their meeting:’I will never forget the sight of this short well-built man, his coat off and a cigar in his mouth, who rose from his desk as one of his assistants led us up the long and lofty gallery which formed his office in the new buildings to present one letter of introduction from his former pupil Phené Spiers. His fine intellectual head with his rather long black hair and keen though kindly eyes, and his beautiful courtesy as he greeted my father in perfect English as a brother artist immediately won my admiration.’In Pascal’s atelier Burnet respected his parents’ warning about Paris to such a degree that his cheerful moral rectitude earned him the petit-nom of ‘Joseph’ while his Scottish complexion brought that of ‘confiture de groseilles’. There is, however, considerable conflict of information about the dates of Burnet’s time in Paris. These are usually given as 1874-77, which are those in ‘Who’s Who in Glasgow’ 1909 and in ‘Who’s Who in Architecture’ 1914, 1923 and 1926. These were presumably supplied by Burnet himself; but his FRIBA nomination paper gives the date of his entry as 1872, which was probably the year of his entry to Pascal’s atelier as a probationer. The records of the Ecole show that he passed the entrance exam in 1874. Thereafter his progress was very rapid; he reached the première classe in the following year and completed the course in 1876, gaining his Diplôme du Gouvernement in architecture and engineering. But the ‘Architect’s Journal’ of 2 June 1920 gives the date of his first meeting with Pascal as 1874, while the RIBA Journal of 26 June 1920 gives the date as ‘the latter half of 1877′, probably really 1871 or 1872 and a misreading of Burnet’s handwriting. In the RIBA Journal Burnet gives the period he spent with Pascal as ‘nearly three years’ whereas his nomination paper indicates four, but that perhaps excludes the time he spent in Paris as an assistant with François Rolland.In Pascal’s atelier, Burnet found that ‘it did not seem to take [Pascal] an instant to realise the possibilities of any sketch that his pupil might put before him, and he always left us either happily convinced that our sketch was not worth further trouble, or with our eyes opened to artistic possibilities in it of which we had not dreamed, giving us courage to go through the days and nights required to make the finished drawings. He had a wonderful power of accepting the conception of his pupil and helping him to develop it in his own way”¦’.While at Pascal’s Burnet developed a close friendship with a more senior pupil, Henri Paul Nénot, with whose family he may have lived as there is record of his affectionate acknowledgement of their kindness: very unusually his Ecole dossier does not give the address of his lodgings. Both Pascal and Nénot were to remain lifelong friends, the former visiting the Burnets in Glasgow and later in London. While the influence of Nénot was to be obvious at Burnet’s Glasgow Athenaeum, in later years Burnet felt that he had not been influenced stylistically by Pascal; and while this is superficially true, Pascal’s love of sculptural treatment and his teaching both left their mark on Burnet, as did the Ecole’s emphasis on logic. In Goodhart Rendel’s words, he acquired
‘a tremendous love of order and system. He never lost hold of the essentials and thought no one in England knew anything about them. He used to say that nothing should be done without a decision behind it.’At the end of the course Burnet made an extended tour of France and Italy, returning to Glasgow at the end of 1876 to assist his father with the new façade and secretary’s department at the Union Bank in Ingram Street. Although he was still in Paris when the overall design was finalised in April 1876, and although he never claimed any responsibility for it, it appears in the lists of his works published when he received the Royal Gold Medal in 1920 and again when he died in 1938. It was not completed until February 1879, giving him ample time to refine its superb detailing.The first building which Burnet himself regarded as his own was the Fine Art Institute in Glasgow, which he won in competition in May 1878. Its stated aim was to combine ‘Greek with modern French Renaissance’ and the inclusion of a magnificent frieze by the Mossmans was well calculated to appeal in Glasgow where Thomson, Sellars and the Barclays had ensured that Greek still had a strong hold. Although the interior was pure Greek with a Pascalesque use of sculpture in the stairhall, the yellow and brown decorative scheme with pine woodwork stained a golden colour had elements of Japonisme, a recurring theme in Burnet’s interiors.For the Glasgow Municipal Buildings competitions of 1880-82 Burnet produced superb schemes, that for the second being unique in having a cour d’honneur, but they attracted no favour from the assessors, mainly because they departed from Carrick’s outline plans but perhaps also because their Beaux-Arts classicism was far removed from the assessors’ Italianate tastes. Much of the quality Burnet’s designs would have had, had he been called upon to build them, was realised in both the façade and the interiors of the Clyde Navigation Trust building in 1882-86, even although his full intentions for this incrementally built structure were never realised because of the First World War.The Clyde Navigation Trust commission enabled the Burnet practice to weather the recession better than most. On 3 January 1881 Burnet was admitted ARIBA on the strength of his diplôme, his proposers being John Honeyman, Charles Barry and his father; and in the Spring of 1881 Burnet made a second tour of France and Italy with his advocate brother George, on this occasion sketching little and simply taking in what he saw. In the following year, 1882, his father took him into partnership, the practice title now becoming John Burnet & Son; and in the year after John Archibald Campbell rejoined the practice from Pascal’s atelier, having gone there on Burnet’s advice in 1880. Although in their earlier years they were close friends, they were very different in both background and personality: Campbell was the son of a Glasgow merchant who had died early and a grandson of William Campbell of Tullichewan at Alexandria, tall, bearded and very reserved in manner, his family and business connections being such that he did not need to seek publicity. Theodore Fyfe, who was with them both as apprentice and assistant, remembered them as working independently, collaborating only on some competition projects, for which they tended to send in separate designs. Others remembered them consulting each other for advice. Neither Burnet nor Campbell ever fully clarified Campbell’s contribution to the partnership but Shawlands Church, the Ewing Gilmour Institute and the Free Church at Alexandria and a competition design for the Free Church at Elie are known to be Campbell’s, and the Tullichewan Arms at Alexandria must be presumed to be his.In the same year, 1886, Burnet married Jean Watt Marwick, youngest of the four six-feet-tall daughters of Glasgow’s Town Clerk, Sir James Marwick: like the Burnets, the Marwicks were Congregationalists. She was a classic late Victorian beauty with an enchanting smile but although she was a wonderful hostess when occasion demanded, she was a hypochondriac and spent much of her time in bed. There were to be no children of the marriage, but as Burnet’s brother George died early when Sheriff Substitute of Aberdeen, they undertook the education of his children John and Edith.The year 1886 was also an auspicious one for the practice. Burnet established a national reputation by winning the competition for the Edinburgh International Exhibition of that year with a domed scheme which, on a much smaller scale, recalled the façade of Leopold Hardy’s Paris Exhibition building of 1878. He also secured the commission for the new Glasgow Athenaeum, the façade of which drew inspiration from Nénot’s Grand Prix design for an Athenée.Both these buildings were pure Beaux-Arts and very sculptural in treatment. But both Burnet and soon Campbell found that while such treatments were readily acceptable for great public projects and particularly cultural ones they had to be more adaptable for private client work, especially when domestic. Saughfield Terrace (now University Gardens), begun in 1882 or earlier, had pure Beaux-Arts details but had Glaswegian canted oriels above its first-floor balcony: Charing Cross Mansions, designed in 1891, had the outline and sculptural grande horloge of a Parisian Mairie, but again Glaswegian canted oriels were integrated into the composition and the fenestration as a whole answered the function of the rooms within rather than being strictly to rule as it would have been in France.From the autumn of 1886 until early in 1889 there was a third Beaux-Arts architect in the office, Alexander Nisbet Paterson, whose family, like Campbell’s, was extremely well-off: they were muslin merchants. He was the younger brother of James Paterson the French-trained Glasgow School painter, and an excellent watercolourist whose skills in presentation were to be seen in the perspectives of the new buildings on the Duke of Hamilton’s Arran estate in the late 1880s. But prior to the elder Burnet’s retirement the French schooling of the three leading practitioners in the office brought some problems in its day-to-day running. Neither Burnet nor Campbell was at all cost-conscious and French building science scared the elder Burnet stiff as inappropriate for the Scottish climate and a foreign language to the Scottish building trade. The frustration and delays endured by Alexander McGibbon and William Kerr in drawing out the tower of St Molio’s at Shiskine with hollow walls, only to be told to redraw them solid by the elder Burnet, a procedure repeated over several weeks, became the stuff of office legend.The elder Burnet retired in 1889 or 1890 at the age of seventy-five. Thereafter the architecture of the practice changed radically. Both Burnet and Campbell realised that they had to adapt to the London scene if they were to keep abreast of fashion and have any chance in national competitions, most of which had London assessors, Waterhouse in particular. Superb designs with cylindrical corner turrets on the Norman Shaw model were produced for the Central Thread Agency in Glasgow and for the North British Hotel in Edinburgh but neither found favour with the clients. This dramatic shift in style was first seen at Burnet’s Athenaeum Theatre of 1891-93 which pioneered the redevelopment of Glasgow’s narrow houseplots as tall elevator buildings. Although American in general concept, it took Burnet’s work into a sculpturesque neo-Baroque, some of the details of which derived from Shaw but was overall closer to the work of John Belcher and Beresford Pite, both of whom shared Burnet’s enthusiasm for the sculpture of Michaelangelo and Alfred Stevens. As at the Fine Art Institute, the interior had a Japanese colour scheme in Burnet’s favourite colours – azure blue, yellow and gold.In 1895 Burnet’s neo-Baroque was developed in a more academic form at the single-storey telling room added to his father’s Savings Bank. Its doorpiece was, very unusually, directly based on an English Baroque source, the porch of St Mary’s Church at Oxford, but with some remarkable ‘New Sculpture’ by George Frampton. To further his experiments in neo-Baroque the Burnets made a further study tour in Germany and Italy in that same year: he saw Italian architecture completely anew, writing long letters to Campbell with (in Fyfe’s words) ‘the fresh delight of a debutante about her first ball’. Burnet Baroque, and the giant arch and canted bay theme of the Athenaeum Theatre in particular, were rapidly assimilated by Burnet Son & Campbell’s competitors. By 1900 it had become the common language of Glasgow building and even spread to Edinburgh where Burnet’s former assistant Andrew Robb Scott adopted the features of his North British competition design in the hotel buildings he designed for William Hamilton Beattie on the east side of North Bridge.In 1896 the Burnets made their first visit to the USA in the company of Dr Donald Mackintosh of the Western Infirmary. Old contacts at the Ecole made introductions easy and Burnet became a member of the American Beaux-Arts Cosmos Club and a corresponding member of the American Institute of Architects; but by that date he also had family connections there, his uncle George and his sons, and his younger accountant brother-in-law James Marwick who had settled in New York: he became auditor of Illinois and Ohio, and founder of the giant firm of Marwick, Mitchell and Peat which had a London office. The primary purpose of the 1896 visit was to study laboratory and operating theatre design, but Burnet had become interested in American architecture, and particularly American domestic architecture, at least a decade earlier. American shingle-style influences had first appeared in his domestic work in 1886 at the Edinburgh International Exhibition manager’s house, Corrienessan at Loch Ard and Nunholme in Dowanhill, and still more in his competition designs for the Clyde Yacht Club at Hunger’s Quay in 1889. This low-profiled big-roofed broad-eaved style quickly spread into Burnet’s ecclesiastical work at St Molio’s, Shiskine (1887), Dundas Memorial Church at Grangemouth (1894), the Gardner Memorial Church at Brechin (1896-1900), and the MacLaren Memorial Church at Stenhousemuir and the Burnet family’s own church Broomhill Congregational in 1899-1908, all with squat pyramid-roofed towers and mixed Romanesque and late Gothic detail. They were a low-cost easy-to-heat alternative to the tall Early English Dunblane Cathedral-inspired churches with which the practice had made its name in ecclesiastical architecture at Port Glasgow and Shawlands, and most famously at Glasgow Barony for which Burnet had won a major competition assessed by John Loughborough Pearson in 1886. With the earlier of these church designs Burnet and Campbell were assisted by Andrew Robb Scott.Burnet Son & Campbell’s low-profiled idiom also had a brief vogue in their public buildings, most notably at Campbell’s Ewing Gilmour Institute at Alexandria in 1888, and, rather later, at Burnet’s Public Library and Museum in Campbeltown, built in 1896-98. In style these were a distinctive Scottish renaissance which had its origins in the addition they made at William Burn’s neo-Jacobean Auchterarder House in 1886. It was brilliantly exploited at Baronald, Lanark, in 1890, at the Pathological Institute of the Western Infirmary in Glasgow in 1895 and at Alloa Public Baths in 1899. Altogether bolder and more original than the work of Rowand Anderson and his school in this vein, Burnet and Campbell Scots Renaissance was as rapidly assimilated by their competitors as Burnet Baroque, most notably by the practice’s former assistants Clifford and Paterson, and by Honeyman & Keppie, but in the hands of lesser practitioners the idiom could become seriously debased: except at Fairnalie, built in 1904-06, Burnet did not pursue it into the twentieth century.In 1897 Burnet’s partnership with John Archibald Campbell was dissolved by mutual consent. Of that event Burnet’s niece Edith observed that ‘drink had something to do with it': but they remained friends although by that date Campbell had become closer to Keppie, whose bachelor lifestyle was similar to his own. While it is unlikely to have had any real bearing on the break-up, Quiz’s article on the partners in September 1893 had been a mischievous attempt to exploit any difference there might have been between them, describing the Athenaeum Theatre as ‘a little like its author, clever but a trifle “cocksure”‘ and Campbell’s Free Church at Alexandria as being ‘as good as has been done by the firm as far as it goes, Barony not excepted’. Whatever personal differences there may have been, the initiative for the dissolution probably came from Campbell as he had not succeeded in establishing his own identity as an architect. The division of the practice was carried out in a very civilised way, the staff being given some say in which partner they wanted to stay with, and Campbell quickly established a larger clientele, designing in a style subtly different from Burnet’s. It is also probable that Campbell had begun to become concerned by the practice’s very high running costs which must have eroded profits. Fyfe provides a vivid picture of the drawing office which, like William Leiper’s, was given a studio atmosphere with good pictures and sculpture:
‘Burnet rarely worked at a drawing board except in his house. His spruce and perfectly turned out figure and his active springy step could be seen passing through the office occasionally though prevailing custom made the senior draughtsmen take sheaves of drawings and tracings into the principal’s room. This was seeing “Johnny”, sometimes a matter of trepidation. To the pupils he was an awful mystery and a supreme man, though very human, and he always said he didn’t mind a “yell” as it showed that a man was enjoying his work and they felt lucky enough to get a passing smile from him once a month. On the comparatively rare occasions when he sat down at some draughtsman’s desk he usually sketched out isometric diagrams with a soft pencil on tracing paper and after he had left the junior staff crowded round and reverently regarded these masterpieces, as such they generally were of their kind; for a capacity to turn any aspect of construction or design inside out in sketch form I have never known anyone who could touch John James Burnet – he was in a class by himself.’
Projects always started with small-scale pencil sketch designs, the equivalent of the Ecole’s esquisse, and for a short period about 1895, he experimented with photographic enlargement of these from 1/8th to 1/2 scale lest the draughtsmen did not interpret them boldly enough, until his office manager George Galloway became seriously concerned at the bills incurred. Legend has it that he showed them to Burnet’s father, but by that date he was rarely seen in the office. To quote Fyfe further:
‘He was a master in the art of designing on tracing paper, which means that his fastidious taste was never satisfied till he had gone through a process of trial and error that to his draughtsmen seemed inexhaustible; and he never expected any tracing – however slight – to be destroyed until all possible use for it had disappeared. This and his insistence on scale by rigid adherence to the most minute facts of the small scale in the half-inch and so on to full-size drawings were the mainsprings of his design methods “¦ It was a commonplace that he would not look at a scheme (he would say “I can’t see it”) unless it were presented to him in every possible aspect and drawn to “the millionth of an inch” in exactness.’
Others recorded how the final result was studied under a large reducing glass and sometimes even miniaturised to 1/8th again and compared to the esquisse to ensure that the qualities of the original concept had not been compromised. If a scheme failed to satisfy, all these tracings were laid aside and a fresh start made, no matter how much time had been spent on them. Inevitably the practice never made much money but the staff – far more numerous than in any other Glasgow office – learned much from these design methods. Burnet took his role as a teacher very seriously and the staff would regularly receive an individual ‘pep talk’ with both standing, always with the exhortation to study the classics and frequent reference to his books, those of Paul Letarouilly being particular favourites.Burnet was elected President of the Glasgow Institute of Architects in 1897. This necessitated his being a Fellow of the RIBA, the GIA being an allied society. In December 1897 Burnet’s RIBA membership was raised to FRIBA, his proposers being Campbell Douglas, John Honeyman and Richard Phené Spiers. This event was somewhat overdue as his father had been admitted as long ago as 1876, and Burnet himself had been elected ARSA in 1893. His hesitation in joining the RIBA probably related to the registration and ‘profession or an art’ disputes, but it had become essential because of the wider professional links he had established in France and in America. At some point in his career, either in 1896 or perhaps earlier at an Ecole reunion, he had become a friend of the American architect Charles Follen McKim and other leading American architects of the Beaux-Arts School. The impact of McKim’s work on Burnet was to be seen only briefly in his remodelling of his father’s Glasgow Savings Bank with a colonnaded top floor in 1898-1900, but the wider impact of his 1896 visit to the USA was soon evident in two seven-storey elevator office buildings designed in 1899, such buildings having become practicable with the enhanced electricity supply from Port Dundas Power Station in 1897. Of these Atlantic Chambers was a dumb-bell plan building extending back from Hope Street to Cadogan Street. Its Hope Street elevation was kept very simple with a central chimneybreast dividing a low eaves gallery with the deeply shadowed cornice favoured by Sullivan and the Chicago school; this feature was repeated on the Cadogan Street elevation which had close spaced canted bays again of Chicago derivation. At the much larger Waterloo Chambers, which was originally to have been two storeys higher, a very American galleried atrium plan was adopted. Its façade was much more deeply modelled than at Atlantic Chambers, with a double-height broad-architraved entrance, Greek Ionic columns rising from canted bays and again a dwarf eaves gallery at the top, all clamped together between narrow pylon bags which were soon to become a feature of his more monumental compositions.Although these buildings were at the time the finest exemplars of the new elevator office building genre in Glasgow, they did not lead to further commissions for similar buildings, a field in which Burnet was quickly overtaken by his former partner Campbell, the unrelated Frank Burnet & Boston and most of all by James Miller, an ex-Caledonian Railway employee who had gradually superseded him as architect to that company. It was in Edinburgh, not in Glasgow that the ideas in the Waterloo Chambers façade were to be developed, first at the Civil Service and Professional Supply’s department store of 1903-07 and then at R W Forsyth’s store in 1906-10. In Glasgow Burnet’s one major commercial building was McGeoch’s ironmongery warehouse where the facades were the finest British expression of the Sullivanian concept of a mullioned grid of windows, here married to a baroque doorpiece with Michaelangelesque figures of tradesmen by Phyllis Archibald and a very Glasgow oriel bay solution to the turning of the corner. It had no progeny in Glasgow at the time, and it was to be in London that Burnet developed the concept further.Although Burnet and Campbell had occasionally submitted designs for English competitions they had had no success in extending their practice south of the Border. But in 1903-04 Burnet’s career took on a new dimension when the Office of Works headed by Lord Windsor as First Commissioner and the Trustees of the British Museum selected Burnet to design the Edward VII Galleries from a list of seven names submitted by the RIBA, their decision being made on the basis of folios of photographs of executed work. In 1905 Burnet established a London base in the name of John J Burnet only at 1 Montague Place, a grace-and-favour house rented to him by the Museum, which was initially both house and office; and by the same year he had developed a masterplan which would have extended the Museum on all four sides and laid out a very Parisian British Museum Avenue on the north axis. To develop these schemes Burnet took south with him Thomas Smith Tait, a pupil of James Donald, who had been recruited as his personal assistant in 1902, and Andrew Bryce; and he also brought in the classical scholar Theodore Fyfe, a former pupil and assistant who had established his own practice in London. Only the Edward VII Galleries, which had been funded by a bequest made in 1899, were actually carried out. Burnet adopted the Ionic order of Smirke’s colonnades in a subtly updated form, but the façade as a whole reflected contemporary French and American ideas drawing some inspiration from Ginain’s Faculté de Médecine in Paris, but more on the scale of Louis Duc’s Palais de Justice, lengthened from nine bays to nineteen.While the British Museum was building Burnet received two major London commissions for commercial buildings. The first of these was the curved frontage General Buildings in Aldwych, built in 1909-11 in a simplified version of his eaves galleried Glasgow style with superb sculptural details by Albert Hodge. The second was the Kodak Building on Kingsway, built in 1910-11, where his client, George Eastman was American and unafraid of a modern solution. Several alternative sketch schemes were handed out to the senior draughtsmen in the London office and that developed by Tait was preferred by the client. It followed the familiar Burnet formula of the two-storeyed base but the design of the upper floors, giant pilasters enclosing steel-framed glazing with metal spandrel panels, was a drastic simplification of anything Burnet had designed before and the familiar eaves gallery was now replaced by a deep Egyptian cavetto cornice. The basic concept appears to have been drawn from Albert Kahn and Ernest Wilby’s Owen Building at Detroit, built in 1907, which Burnet may have seen on his second visit to the USA in 1908. Although Burnet himself did not develop the Kodak bay design further, it was to be the prototype of countless commercial buildings of the 1920s and 1930s, particularly in Glasgow.By the time the Kodak building was under construction Burnet was spending only a few days a month in the Glasgow office where the main responsibility was in the hands of William John Blain, James Wilkie Weddell and a senior draughtsman called Bow who never had his own practice. There is a hint in James Miller’s obituary that Burnet approached him with a view to merging their Glasgow practices but at that date Miller’s was the more successful and he preferred to remain independent. But in 1907 Burnet recruited a pupil of Peddie & Washington Browne who had studied in Paris from 1905, though not at the Ecole as he claimed to have done. He was Norman Aitken Dick, big, red-haired, stand-offish and somewhat short of temper, who was an extremely fast draughtsman. Most importantly he had money at a time the practice needed it, and in 1909 he bought a ten-year partnership which was confined to the Glasgow practice of John Burnet & Sons, a development which was a matter of some disappointment to Blain and Weddell. At that date Burnet still did all the designing and Dick’s role was essentially that of office manager and chief draughtsman for the major projects the Glasgow office now had in hand: the Alhambra Theatre, an austere twin-towered design of red brick banded with black and panels of white-glazed tile towards the top, built in 1910-11; the Sick Children’s Hospital at Yorkhill, again red brick with a very American glazed porte-cochere; and in 1913-22 the Albert Kahn-like Wallace Scott Tailoring Institute at Cathcart, an American garden factory with broad-bayed pilastrades stretched between corner pylons, a brick version of the British Museum colonnades with the spandrels of the windows patterned in the French manner. All three of these buildings were American in inspiration, directly related to his second study visit to the United States in 1908 which was concerned with warehouse and hospital design and a third late in 1910 which was primarily concerned with museum and gallery design on which he produced a detailed report to Sir Frederic Kenyon, the new Director of the British Museum, in March 1911. Also in America at that time was William Forsyth, the son of his most important private client, Robert Wallace Forsyth, who had returned full of ideas on the organisation of industry for the Wallace Scott Tailoring Institute. But their inspiration may not have been wholly American: also of significance was a visit to Germany and Austria later in 1911, in the course of which he saw the work of Otto Wagner and his circle and just possibly that of Peter Behrens.The completion of the King Edward VII Galleries in 1914 brought Burnet a knighthood and the bronze medal of the Paris Salon, followed by the Gold in 1922. In parallel with this cascade of honours, Burnet was belatedly elected RSA in 1914, and ARA in 1921. He was now an influential figure at the RIBA, although never its President, securing the Royal Gold Medal for Pascal in 1914, for Rowand Anderson in 1916, and for Henri Paul Nénot in 1917, and working closely with Sir John Simpson to expand the RIBA’s links with Europe and the United States. He also had a major role in the founding of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, his friendship with Simpson resolving the RIBA Council’s initial opposition to Rowand Anderson’s Institute of Architects in Scotland being granted a charter: Simpson was then President of the RIBA. But in the practice itself there had been problems with the Office of Works and the British Museum Trustees over a leak in the roof – which was eventually traced and rectified – the strength of the floors and most seriously fees; as ever Burnet’s perfectionism had cost money. The year 1912 had also been marred by the first of two serious rows with Tait. In July it was announced that Tait and James Mitchell Whitelaw, a brilliant draughtsman who had joined the London office in 1907, had come second in the unofficial ‘Builder’ competition for the completion of the rebuilding of the Regent Street Quadrant in conformity with Shaw’s Piccadilly Hotel. Burnet was not best pleased: his consent to enter had not been sought and more seriously the bay design was based on Burnet’s Civil Service and Professional Supply and Forsyth department stores. But they survived and after Whitelaw was drowned at Bournemouth in July 1913 the matter was allowed to drop. But early in 1914 there was a much more serious disagreement when Burnet discovered that Tait had been helping Trehearne & Norman with their new buildings on Kingsway to augment his income as he had married Constance Hardy, the daughter of a London stationmaster, in 1910 and his son Gordon had been born in 1912. Tait abruptly left for New York to work as an assistant with Donn Barber, leaving his wife and son Gordon at home. Burnet quickly regretted their disagreement and appealed to him to return home as junior partner but he declined. When he did return it was as chief draughtsman to Trehearne & Norman on the Kingsway buildings, an appointment which ended in 1915 when he joined the drawing office in the arsenal at Woolwich. After Whitelaw’s death Theodore Fyfe moved into Burnet’s office on a full-time basis to complete such work at the Museum as was still outstanding and later to help design the Institute of Chemistry in Russell Square. Fyfe’s family believe that a partnership with Burnet was then in prospect and it may well have been, but that possibility died with the First World War. Neither the London nor the Glasgow offices had much work after 1915 and by that year the quarrel with Tait had been made up, Tait assisting Burnet on an evening and weekend basis from that year. But throughout the war the Burnets suffered increasing financial hardship and by 1918 some of their most loved possessions had had to be sold, the departure of their tapestries being found particularly distressing and regretted for the rest of their lives.After the war the London office recovered rather more quickly than the Glasgow one, thanks to Harry Gordon Selfridge who had entrusted Burnet with the completion of his Oxford Street store, the first section of which had been designed by Francis Swales and built by Robert Atkinson. The work was carried out in association with Albert D Miller of the Chicago firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, and although the bay design had been predetermined, some Burnetian features were introduced. The Imperial War Graves Commission allocated him the cemeteries in Gallipoli, Palestine and Suez in January 1919, the last not without an unfortunate disagreement with Lorimer: a further offer of cemeteries in France had to be declined because of commitments at home. For these cemeteries Burnet made a tour of the sites in March 1919, followed by a further visit in April 1922 and a third in April 1925 to inspect the final stages of the work.To carry out these works, the large Forsyth building, Vigo House, on London’s Regent Street in 1920-25, and the First Church of Christ Scientist for which he had made the original designs during the war, Burnet needed to rebuild his office staff. The pre-war arrangement with Fyfe, who had become architect to Chester Cathedral, was not pursued further. Tait returned full-time and was taken into partnership; David Raeside, his office manager who had survived war service in the Middle East, also became a partner, the London practice now becoming Sir John Burnet & Partners although still not completely separate from the Glasgow one. There the situation was more complicated. There were several major commissions due to go ahead: the implementation of the 1913-14 scheme for Glasgow University Chapel as a war memorial, the enlargement of the Wallace Scott factory and additions to the Sick Children’s Hospital. Although Burnet was initially glad to get Dick back, having had difficulty in securing his release, the previously good relationship between them did not last. Burnet’s niece Edith had hoped for a place in the London office, and her husband Thomas Harold Hughes, whom she had married in 1918, had hoped for a partnership there; but Tait and Raeside demurred at Hughes joining the London office and there was no separate female lavatory at Montague Place. The problem was briefly resolved by giving Hughes a partnership in Glasgow but Dick disliked him as much as Tait, openly referring to his refined wash drawings and their brown ink script as the ‘pansy productions of that wishy-washy College of Art b****r’. As a result Hughes worked entirely alone in a small first-floor room with the door closed, almost exclusively on war memorials. The catalyst for the end of this unhappy state of affairs was the firm’s trusted chief clerk, Duncan, who withdrew the moneys held on behalf of contractors and disappeared. Burnet and Dick had to make good the loss, the latter by repurchasing his partnership, and for the good name of the firm Duncan was not reported to the police. The Glasgow practice then became Burnet Son & Dick. Hughes withdrew to teach at the Glasgow School of Art, succeeding Fulton as head of school in 1922. After the departure of Hughes, James Wallace, a big man who had been a pupil of Neil Campbell Duff and an assistant with Thomson & Sandilands, joined the office. The Glasgow Cenotaph and the fine Zoology building and chapel at the University were all successfully completed: these were designed by Burnet himself with the aid of James Taylor Thomson, originally an assistant of Lorimer’s, who had returned from Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue’s practice in the USA, and the accomplished draughtsmen Walter J Knight and James Napier, but the enlargement of Forsyth’s in Edinburgh and the extension of the Sick Children’s Hospital were largely the work of Dick and Wallace on their own. Apart from the University Chapel, the most important Glasgow commission was the North British and Mercantile Building on St Vincent Street of 1924-26, which Burnet had planned to be his final masterpiece. It was a brilliant design, in some degree influenced by the classical work of Charles Holden at its arcaded ground floor, but the building of it was beset with problems, at least partly because Burnet was over-committed in London, his health was failing and he was not in the Glasgow office often enough. Knight, the draughtsman initially engaged on it, incorrectly interpreted Burnet’s jointing of the plinth as channelling and Burnet insisted on the granite work being recut; and because of an error in the design of the steelwork in relation to the staircase window, the steel frame had to be partly dismantled and modified. To correct these defects the Glasgow partnership had to pay the contractors something like £10,000. Dick had already been at loggerheads with Burnet on a number of other issues and this final disaster brought about the effective dissolution of the Glasgow partnership in the late 1920s, although the practice title was retained. In London Burnet’s design role had gradually diminished. He had still been very much in charge on the War Graves and at the French classical-modern Vigo House, which is a reflection of his visit to Paris to see Pascal, Nénot and recent French work en route to the Middle East in March 1919. He also had a considerable influence on Adelaide House, the mullioned grid of which was a post-war development of McGeoch’s even if the details were both more classical and more Egyptic: Burnet had sent Tait out to Port Tewfik to take a look at Egyptian architecture, sensing that it was about to become fashionable. But although Burnet received the Royal Gold Medal in 1923 and was elected RA in 1925, he was now much more limited in what he could do and his role became much more supervision of the office and the contribution of ideas to work in hand. Financial anxiety during the war and after it as a result of the disasters in the Glasgow office aggravated his eczema, forcing him to wear skullcap and gloves, and limiting his ability to draw. Tait took over the design work completely at the Daily Telegraph Building and at Lloyds Bank on Cornhill, even although these still had marked Burnetian elements: only in the partial redesign of Lomax Simpson’s Unilever House did Burnet have a direct hand, having been asked to deal with the commission himself.From the early 1900s Burnet had frequently been asked to act as assessor rather than as architect, and from the time of his knighthood in 1914 his official roles steadily increased, culminating in his appointment to the international jury for the League of Nations Building at Geneva in April-May 1927. He sat in distinguished company with Victor Horta, H P Berlage, Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffman and Ivar Tengbom. But they could not agree and when they all had to nominate their own preferences Burnet placed Giuseppe Vago first. In the event the effective architect in the compromise team was his old friend Nénot who consulted him on the final design.A serious illness ultimately made it necessary for Burnet to retire completely, but he could not afford to. His secretary Helen Lorne solved the problem by persuading her brother Francis Lorne to return from the United States and buy a partnership, his position at Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue Associates having been badly affected by the financial crash in 1929. Burnet then became a consultant, retaining a significant financial interest in the practice, and appearing only about twice a year in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce for purely business meetings. Until 1935 he retained Killermont, a large Arts and Crafts house in extensive grounds at Rowledge, near Farnham, Surrey. But in the mid-thirties he bought the much smaller Colinton Cottage so that he could be nearer his nephew and niece and Lady Burnet’s Marwick relatives in Edinburgh. His niece Edith altered it to suit their needs and there the Burnets received visits from the greater Burnet family of assistants from their Glasgow days and kept in touch with developments in the Burnet Tait & Lorne office. One of his visitors recalled that in his retirement at Colinton ‘he had no profession and no recreation – nothing of interest for him to turn to, no hobbies of any kind. He passed through life with one all-absorbing interest which burned him dry’.
He died on 2 July 1938, leaving moveable estate of £13,725 11s 1d. His remains were cremated and buried with the Marwicks in the fine classical enclosure he had designed for them at Warriston Cemetery.