Born in Paisley, the son of a wine merchant’s agent, he trained as an architect in the Glasgow offices of Black & Salmon, becoming Salmon’s chief assistant, and later with William Spence.
Setting up his own practice in 1857, he specialised in designing industrial buildings, such as grain mills, factories, workshops and stores, most of which were built in brick and unadorned.
By 1894, Gordon was in partnership with Thomas Baird, working from an office at 261 West George Street. One of their major projects at this time was Strathbungo Public School in Alison Street, a drawing of which was featured in the ET
on 14 February 1894.
Gordon also designed villas, churches, and commercial buildings, often incorporating sculpture and carverwork to identify their purpose and to advertise their owners’ wealth:
At the villa Cleveden in Cleveden Road, he included a pair of large-scale medallion busts of allegorical females on the rear wall, possibly by
, and provided its interior with a sumptuous display of stained glass, ornate plasterwork and carved wood (1877); and at the Regent Flour Mills, Bunhouse Road, he added carved cornstooks as finials on their riverside gables (1885).
One of the cornstooks was rescued when the building was demolished in 1978, and relocated to Glasgow Green, outside the People’s Palace.
For the Glasgow Savings Bank, Bridge Street, he altered the ground floor of an earlier tenement and inserted a columned entrance and four relief panels featuring symbols representing Justice, Industry and Prosperity, International Commerce, and Education (1888). These are:
Scales and sword: Justice; distaff, spinning wheel and cornucopia: Industry and Prosperity; a globe and thistles: International Commerce; and a lamp and books framed by flowers: Education, all of which were finely carved by an unknown sculptor.
In 1901-2, Gordon devised his most elaborate sculpture scheme for the seed merchants, J & A McArthur, which was for a trophy of agricultural implements and produce on a tenement adjoining their store at 202-4 Hunter Street.
Carved in red Locharbriggs stone, the trophy cascades down the wall at the left of the tenement's windows. It comprises a lion's head holding a ring in its mouth, from which is suspended a long ribbon attached to an escutcheon carved with a wheatsheaf and surrounded by thistles, oak leaves and potatoes. Suspended below this is a scythe, a grain rake, a pitchfork, a malt shovel, a bulging sack, and a sieve. Other carvings include swags and potatos between the windows, and keystones on the ground floor carved with a caduseus and a trident entwined by a dolphin.
Although the carver of the trophy has yet to be identified, it is known that as carved, it is a much more elaborate work than that originally planned. Gordon's elevation drawing reveals that he originally intended to have the lion hold a simple tablet inscribed with the date, 1901.
Gordon also designed monuments for cemeteries, including the massive Gothic monument in grey granite to the Miller Family, in Glasgow's Eastern Necropolis (Janefield Cemetery), which is signed by the architect and its sculptor, James Wishart (c. 1868).
In 1894, Gordon was joined by David Bennet Dobson (b. 1871), who later became his partner in 1903. Dobson had a flair for the Glasgow Style, which he put to good use in several of the firm’s Edwardian projects.
Dobson was responsible for designing the distinctive tenements and terraces in Dungoyne Street, Barra Street and Crosbie Street, in the north of the city, and the idiosyncratic Miller & Laing Art Publishing Works, Darnley Street, in the south side, which features an extensive programme of sculpture, beaten metalwork and stained glass; much of it referring to Neptune and the sea (1903).
After Dobson left to set up his own practice and publishing house at 108 Douglas Street, in 1907, Gordon continued in partnership with his son, J. Graham Gordon, as John Gordon & Son, until 1911, when Gordon retired.