© All rights reserved. Edinburgh Architectural Association 1907 Exhibition Catalogue  

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Basic Biographical Details

Name: John Lessels
Designation: Architect
Born: 9 January 1809
Died: 12 November 1883
Bio Notes: John Lessels was born in Kirkcaldy on 9 January 1809 (his gravestone wrongly gives his date of birth as 1808) and was the son of John Lessels (1784-1865) clerk of works on the Raith Estate, and his wife Elizabeth Hamilton Murray. His grandfather, also John Lessels, had been not only an architect-builder but a mill-wright and these practical skills were passed down the family. He was educated in Kirkcaldy, being taught by the Reverend Edward Irving and Thomas Carlyle. After leaving school he first worked as a carpenter for his father, but sought leave to become an architect. This proposal was discouraged but at the suggestion of his father and Robert Fergusson of Raith he entered the office of William Burn, achieving the position of inspector of works. He was in charge of Burn's work at Charleton, Fife in 1832. This enabled him to marry Mary, daughter of Robert Henderson, a Kirkcaldy bleacher, and from 1833 the Lessels family was in the Borders, first at Dawyck Peeblesshire where their eldest son John was born, and then at Allanton Berwickshire from which Lessels supervised the building of other Burn houses.

By 1843 Lessels had settled in Edinburgh with a house at 3 St Bernard Row and began exhibiting at the Royal Scottish Academy, initially purely as a watercolourist. In 1846 he set up practice on his own account in a flat at 7 St Vincent Street. His past experience with Burn in the Borders had made useful connections, and with Burn's departure for London in 1844 it became possible to seek clients there, the earliest being the Montgomerys of Stobo and Kinross. By the mid-1850s he had also secured the business of the Walker Estate which gave him architectural control over a large part of the Western New Town, and in 1856 or 1857 he formed a partnership with his son John who was in charge of a branch office at 19 Princes Street in Perth, but this closed c.1859 as a result of a local fee-cutting war. By the early 1860s, Lessels had gained the patronage of Nelsons the publishers, and his friendship with the city architect David Cousin, then in failing health, resulted in his appointment as joint architect to the City Improvement Trust on 23 May 1866, their first proposals for St Mary Street being presented in June.

Lessels's improved circumstances were reflected in his move from St Vincent Street to 21 Heriot Row which was both house and office, but in that year his first wife died, having raised four sons and four daughters. He would appear to have gone into semi-retirement at the age of seventy in 1879 when the office was moved to 50 George Street. His eldest son John having entered the service of the Crown as Surveyor of Windsor in 1860, the practice was now carried on by his second son James.

Lessels's first pupil was David MacGibbon who wrote of him that 'his ability, together with his perfect honesty and fearless impartiality, had gradually raised him, in spite of many adverse circumstances, to a high position among his fellow citizens… his modesty prevented his full merits as an architect from being recognised and appreciated'. Of Lessels's other pupils the most important were Robert Rowand Anderson and Robert Lawson who emigrated to Australia, then moved to New Zealand.

By the time of Lessels's retirement he had married a second time to Gertrude Anna Huberdina Nofken (anglicised Naufkins) of Baardwyk, North Brabant, and was spending much of his time on the continent, particularly in Belgium, Salzburg and Venice. These continental connections seem to have commenced earlier and strongly influenced his competition designs. His German Gothic design submitted in the limited competition for St Mary's Cathedral in 1873 was placed last by the assessor Ewan Christian whose report was published. This may have discredited him with the Walker Trustees, but the loss of the Walker Estate connection had begun slightly earlier in 1872 because Peddie and Kinnear and companies controlled by them were the largest feuars.

Lessels's acquaintance with Venice similarly influenced the Venetian Gothic design he and David Cousin submitted in the Edinburgh New Buildings competition of 1874 but this was no more successful, Rowand Anderson's North Italian Renaissance design being selected. John Lessels died of cancer of the liver on 12 November 1883 and was buried in Dean Cemetery, commemorated by a very curious sundial monument which formerly bore a photographic glazed tile portrait. It also bears the tools of the mason trade, probably a reference to his Masonic interests: he was a member of the Old Kilwinning Lodge. His second wife survived him by only a few months, dying at Duffel, Belgium on 12 May 1884. There were no children of the second marriage.

Of Lessels's personal life we know a little from his son John's memoir: 'In his youth he was a good athlete, and like his father a good marksman with guns made by himself, he was also fond of both sea-fishing and fishing for trout and salmon, all his rods and tackle including flies being of his own make. He made telescopes, bound his own books and was a turner in both wood and metal, the lathe being made by himself.'

The sale catalogue of his effects (Dowell, 16 February 1884) shows that he owned two Kinnear cameras, a Meagher folding camera, a pantascopic and several other specialised cameras and numerous Dallmeyer, Steinheil and Voigtlander lenses, together with much other photographic equiptment. He was for several years President of the Edinburgh Photographic Society. He also had a significant picture collection, and frequently exhibited oil paintings of topographical and architectural subjects at the Royal Scottish Academy.

Private and Business Addresses

The following private or business addresses are associated with this architect:
 AddressTypeDate fromDate toNotes
Item 1 of 53, St Bernard Row, Edinburgh, ScotlandPrivate1843  
Item 2 of 57, St Vincent Street, Edinburgh, ScotlandBusiness18461858 
Item 3 of 521, Heriot Row, Edinburgh, ScotlandPrivate/business1858  
Item 4 of 5Creal Ha', Roslin, Midlothian, ScotlandBusinessc. 1868  
Item 5 of 550, George Street, Edinburgh, ScotlandBusiness18791883 

Employment and Training


The following individuals or organisations employed or trained this architect (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 2William BurnBefore 1832c. 1846Inspector of Works 
Item 2 of 2John Lessels & Sonc. 18571883Senior Partner 

Employees or Pupils

The following individuals were employed or trained by this architect (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 8John Lessels (junior)c. 18481851  
Item 2 of 8David MacGibbon18491851Apprentice 
Item 3 of 8(Sir) Robert Rowand Anderson18521857ApprenticeFrom 1852
Item 4 of 8Robert Arthur LawsonBefore 1854July 1854Assistant 
Item 5 of 8David RobertsonAfter 18551865Chief Assistant 
Item 6 of 8Thomas McMahon1863 * Apprentice 
Item 7 of 8George CraigAfter 1871Before 1880Assistant 
Item 8 of 8Alexander Cunningham Forrester18721877Apprentice 

* earliest date known from documented sources.

Buildings and Designs

This architect 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 93 Holy Trinity Parish ChurchSt Andrews FifeScotlandUnexecuted designs for internal restoration - date unknown
Item 2 of 931832Charleton HouseColinsburgh FifeScotlandExtensions - Lessels acting as clerk of works for Burn and prepared the sketches
Item 3 of 931845Stobo Castle  PeeblesshireScotland 
Item 4 of 931846Cleish Castle  Kinross-shireScotlandReconstruction
Item 5 of 931847Roslin ChapelRoslin/Rosslyn MidlothianScotlandInterior views (also exhibited views 1861, 1863, 1865 and 1866). Took over repair work from Burn and Bryce
Item 6 of 931849ManseColdingham BerwickshireScotlandRemodelling and additions
Item 7 of 931849Stobo Castle  PeeblesshireScotlandAlterations and porte-cochere
Item 8 of 931850Foulden VillageFoulden BerwickshireScotlandImprovements to houses in village - probably responsible ('Buildings of Scotland')
Item 9 of 93c. 1850(?)The WollAshkirk SelkirkshireScotland 
Item 10 of 931851Canongate Free Church  EdinburghScotland 
Item 11 of 931852CharterhallFogo/Duns BerwickshireScotland 
Item 12 of 931852Kersfield  BerwickshireScotlandAlterations
Item 13 of 931852Milne Graden HouseLadykirk BerwickshireScotland 
Item 14 of 931852Ninewells House, North LodgeChirnside BerwickshireScotland 
Item 15 of 93c. 1852Blackadder HouseAllanton BerwickshireScotlandRemodelling and extension
Item 16 of 931853Turtleton HouseDuns BerwickshireScotlandAdditions
Item 17 of 931854Allanton School and Schoolmistress's HouseAllanton BerwickshireScotland 
Item 18 of 931854Kinross House and Home Farm  Kinross-shireScotland'Ground staircase', probably repairs related to the general conservation of the building at that time
Item 19 of 9318551, 2,3 Melville Crescent  EdinburghScotlandRevised Robert Brown's overall scheme in 1855-6
Item 20 of 93185510, 11, 12 Melville Crescent   EdinburghScotlandRevised Brown's plans and built nos 5, 6, 10, 11, 12
Item 21 of 931855103 Melville Crescent, 45 Melville Street and 20 Walker Street  EdinburghScotlandCompleted Robert Brown's scheme
Item 22 of 9318557, 8, 9 Melville Crescent  EdinburghScotlandRevised Robert Brown's overall scheme in 1855: Peddie & Kinnear responsible for 7-9 Melville Crescent.
Item 23 of 9318564, 5, 6 Melville Crescent  EdinburghScotlandCompletion of Robert Brown's scheme
Item 24 of 931856Free Tolbooth Church  EdinburghScotlandUnsuccessful competition entry
Item 25 of 931856ManseKirkurd PeeblesshireScotlandExtension
Item 26 of 931856The Haga Church  GothenburgSwedenThought to have been involved with construction in Edinburgh
Item 27 of 931857George Watson's Hospital  EdinburghScotlandExtensive additions (east classrooms, library, reading room, workshops, playroom, govenors apartments, dining hall, lodge, etc) now incoorporated in Royal Infirmary
Item 28 of 931857George Watson's Hospital, lodge and gates  EdinburghScotland 
Item 29 of 931857SummerfieldPeebles PeeblesshireScotland 
Item 30 of 931858Donavourd HousePitlochry PerthshireScotlandAdditions
Item 31 of 931859Edinburgh City Chambers  EdinburghScotlandDoorpiece on south end of east range
Item 32 of 931860Corn ExchangePeebles PeeblesshireScotland 
Item 33 of 93c. 1860Canongate Churchyard, Monument to Hugh William Williams  EdinburghScotland 
Item 34 of 931861Victoria SchoolNewhaven EdinburghScotland 
Item 35 of 931862Chester Street  EdinburghScotland 
Item 36 of 931863Speddoch HouseDumfries DumfriesshireScotland 
Item 37 of 931863Stobo ChurchStobo PeeblesshireScotlandRepairs
Item 38 of 9318641-7 Coates Place, 2 Manor Place and 1 Palmerston Place  EdinburghScotland 
Item 39 of 93186415-32 West Maitland Street  EdinburghScotland 
Item 40 of 931865CharterhallFogo/Duns BerwickshireScotlandSouth Lodge and Stables
Item 41 of 931865Charterhall, South LodgeFogo/Duns BerwickshireScotland 
Item 42 of 931865Hawthornden CastleLasswade MidlothianScotlandSketch or survey?
Item 43 of 931865School and Schoolmaster's HouseFoulden BerwickshireScotland 
Item 44 of 931866Houses, Manor Place  EdinburghScotlandNos 47A-61 designed and executed 1870-74
Nos 4-24 executed 1866-73
Nos 48-58 Manor Place and 12 Rothesay Place are probably by Lessels 1872-92
Item 45 of 931866Rosslyn Chapel  EdinburghScotlandTwo views
Item 46 of 931866Salisbury Green Mansion HouseSalisbury Green EdinburghScotlandAdditions, reconstruction and gate lodge
Item 47 of 931867Mordington ChurchMordington BerwickshireScotlandThird church on site built
Item 48 of 93c. 1867Chambers Street  EdinburghScotlandFormation and general scheme of elevations
Item 49 of 93186910-11 Abbotsford CrescentSt Andrews FifeScotland 
Item 50 of 9318692 St Mary's Street and Canongate  EdinburghScotlandWith David Cousin
Item 51 of 931869Palace Hotel  EdinburghScotlandOriginal building
Item 52 of 931869St Leonard's Hall  EdinburghScotland 
Item 53 of 931869St Mary's Street, upper part (numbers 4-28)  EdinburghScotlandUpper part with David Cousin
Item 54 of 931869St Mary's Street, Lower Part  EdinburghScotland 
Item 55 of 931869Tenement, 48, 50 High Street  EdinburghScotland 
Item 56 of 93c. 1869St Leonard's WorksParkside EdinburghScotlandFront building
Item 57 of 93187011-15 Blackfriars Street  EdinburghScotlandDesign
Item 58 of 9318703-21 Palmerston Place  EdinburghScotland 
Item 59 of 9318705-9 Blackfriars Street  EdinburghScotlandOriginal design with Cousin - executed by Robert Morham
Item 60 of 93187056-60 High Street and 1-3 Blackfriars Street  EdinburghScotlandOriginal design with Cousin - executed by Robert Morham
Item 61 of 93c. 1870Cleish Castle  Kinross-shireScotlandAdditions, largely removed
Item 62 of 931871Longnewton Place  RoxburghshireScotlandAlterations and additions
Item 63 of 931871Trinity Church  EdinburghScotlandRebuilding of mediaeval choir and apse as a hall
Item 64 of 93Before 1871Tenement, 52, 54 High Street  EdinburghScotlandDesign
Item 65 of 93Before 18721-37 Drumsheugh Gardens  EdinburghScotlandSite plan and elevations
Item 66 of 9318731-2 Chambers Street and 74 South Bridge corner  EdinburghScotlandWith John Paterson
Item 67 of 931873Commercial Street elevations  DundeeScotlandConsulted on elevational design by William Macksion
Item 68 of 931873St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral  EdinburghScotlandCompetition design
Item 69 of 931873St Paul's Episcopal ChurchKinross Kinross-shireScotland 
Item 70 of 931873(?)Tenement block with shops at ground floor  EdinburghScotlandPresumably consulted on design, as architect to the City Improvement Trust
Item 71 of 931873(?)Tenement block, Canongate, Jeffrey Street and Cranston Street  EdinburghScotlandPresumably consulted on design, as architect to the City Improvement Trust
Item 72 of 931873(?)Tenements and shops, 7, 9, 11 High Street  EdinburghScotlandPresumably consulted on design, as architect to the City Improvement Trust
Item 73 of 931874Orwell Parish ChurchOrwell Kinross-shireScotlandAlterations
Item 74 of 931874Smith InstituteStirling StirlingshireScotland 
Item 75 of 931874St Mary's Church  EdinburghScotlandMinor internal alterations
Item 76 of 93c. 1874Peebles Parish ChurchPeebles PeeblesshireScotlandUnexecuted proposals
Item 77 of 93187539-41 George Street  EdinburghScotlandAdditions of bay window to no.41
Item 78 of 931875Ladykirk ManseLadykirk BerwickshireScotland 
Item 79 of 931875Tenement and shop, GrassmarketOld Town EdinburghScotlandWith MacGibbon and Ross
Item 80 of 931875Tweedsmuir Parish ChurchTweedsmuir PeeblesshireScotland 
Item 81 of 931876ManseHutton BerwickshireScotlandFurther work?
Item 82 of 931877Jeffrey Street  EdinburghScotland 
Item 83 of 931877The DouneRothiemurchus Inverness-shireScotlandNew drawing room, stairhall, French roof
Item 84 of 931878Denbrae House  FifeScotlandAlterations
Item 85 of 93c. 1878St Leonard's Established Church  EdinburghScotland 
Item 86 of 931879East Saltoun Parish ChurchEast Saltoun East LothianScotlandPlans for recasting interior, probably executed
Item 87 of 931879Villa at ClermistonClermiston EdinburghScotland 
Item 88 of 931880Drumsheugh Place  EdinburghScotlandProbably provided elevations for Walker estate
Item 89 of 931881Lady Lawson Street  EdinburghScotland 
Item 90 of 931881Nelson Pillars, Meadows Park East  EdinburghScotland 
Item 91 of 931881Royal Crescent  EdinburghScotlandRevised design
Item 92 of 931882Bellevue Crescent, Northern Half  EdinburghScotlandRevised Cousin's design for execution
Item 93 of 93Mid 1800sCharterhall, stable courtyardFogo/Duns BerwickshireScotlandWith Balfour Balsille, mason-architect


Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this architect:
Item 1 of 6Fraser, Veronica2004Records of Vernacular Buildings made by John Lessels Architect (1809-83) Scottish Vernacular Buildings Working Group Vernacular Building 28, pp42-8 
Item 2 of 6Johnston, W T2003Artists of Scotland Officina Publications CDROM 
Item 3 of 6Lessels, John II A Brief Account of the Ancient Family of Lessels in Fifeshire Carbon copy of original typescript in possession of Jane Lessels. Copy in NMRS. 
Item 4 of 6Post Office Directories     
Item 5 of 6RSA1843   517 - 'Interior view of Melrose Abbey'
Item 6 of 6RSA1844   502 - 'View of Dunkeld'

Periodical References

The following periodicals contain references to this architect:
 Periodical NameDateEditionPublisherNotes
Item 1 of 3Builder1883v45 p648
Item 2 of 3Scotsman13 November 1883  p5 - obituary
Item 3 of 3Scotsman16 November 1883  Obituary by David MacGibbon


© All rights reserved. Edinburgh Architectural Association 1907 Exhibition Catalogue  

© All rights reserved. Edinburgh Architectural Association 1907 Exhibition Catalogue