Glasgow - City of Sculpture
By Gary Nisbet
Mungo Naismith
(1730-70)
A master mason, builder and sculptor, Naismith was something of a character in his day. A well known, lovable rogue with a particular fondness for whiskey, he reputedly 'occupied a 'studio' in a "famous" tavern in the High Street'.

As a sculptor he worked at a time when there were really no 'sculptors' as such in Glasgow, and was rather a mason who performed the role established by masons in Medieval times, in producing artistically accomplished carved work as and when required on the masonry intended for important public and ecclesiastical buildings.

His only recorded sculpture scheme is one of the most important in the city's architectural and cultural history.

This is the group of fearsomely grotesque Tontine Heads which were carved as keystones on the arches of the western extension to the Town Hall in the Trongate (1758-9), and which led a famously peripatetic existence after their removal in the mid-19th century until their resiting at St Nicholas' Garden, Provand's Lordship, Castle Street, in 1994-5.

According to anecdotage relating to Naismith's methods and mischievous personality, he reputedly carved the models for the heads from turnips, and soon after the keystones were completed, a popular rumour was spread that they were caricatures of prominent, and suitably embarrassed, Glasgow merchants and town councillors. A rumour which Naismith neither confirmed or denied at the time.

However, the presence of the fashionable peri-wigs on some of the heads and the more human and characterful modelling of the facial features (as opposed to the enigmatic 'Green Man' type of David Cation 's earlier set of Tontine Heads, of 1737-42) appear to confirm the rumour for him.

As a master mason he achieved celebrity status for his repairs to the spire of Glasgow Cathedral after it was struck by lightning in 1756, and for his innovative construction of the portico of St Andrew's Parish Church (completed 1756), for which he was accorded the Freedom of the City.

It was at the church that he performed one of his most celebrated acts, when he had a bed made up under the building's portico to prove to his doubters that his innovative method of its construction was completely safe by sleeping soundly beneath it.

At the Tontine Head and St Andrew's In The Fields he worked for Allan Dreghorn , an important figure in Glagow's architecture; David Cation , one of Glasgow's first 'named' sculptors; and Thomas Clayton, one of the finest Scottish plasterers of the period.

Mungo Naismith was buried in Glasgow's Merchant City, in St David's (Ramshorn) Churchyard, Ingram Street.

One of his grandsons, James Naismith, was an important figure in the Young Men's Christian Association in the USA, and reputedly invented the game of Basketball in 1891.

A modern, conjectural bronze portrait of Naismith, by Alexander Stoddart , is included in the sculpture scheme on Cruise, 179 Ingram Street, 1994, in acknowlegement of his importance to the development of the Merchant City, together with busts of Dreghorn, Clayton and David Hamilton , who succeeded Dreghorn as the Merchant City's finest architect.

Naismith's Tontine Heads were amongst seven of the heads exhibited at the RGIFA , in 1894.

Sources:

  • 'Senex', Vol. 1, pp. 128, 270;
  • 'Senex', Vol. 2, p. 241;
  • GH : 27 July, 1923, p. 8;
  • House, p. 55;
  • Fisher, pp. 37, 380;
  • James Cowan (as Peter Prowler): From Glasgow's Treasure Chest;
  • McKenzie (1999) (ill.);
  • McKenzie (2002) (Tontine Heads), pp. 52-6 (ills.);
  • Nisbet, in McKenzie (2002) (biog: Naismith), pp. 493-4;
  • House ;
 
Works in our Database:
#397 1: Castle Street (Townhead),
St Nicholas Garden, in the L-shaped cloister
Thirteen Keystone Masks,
including 'Tontine Heads' (1758-9)

Sculptor: M Naismith;
Architect of Town Hall (later Tontine Hotel): A Dreghorn
 
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