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Sir John James Burnet lived from 31 March 1857 to 2 July 1938. He was a noted Scottish architect whose work would prove influential in the development of modern architecture in Britain. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
John James Burnet was born in Blythswood Hill in the west end of Glasgow. His father was the architect John Burnet, with whom it is easy to confuse him. His mother was Elizabeth Hay Bennet. After schooling in Glasgow. and Polmont, Burnet worked in his father's practice for two years before commencing studies at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1872. In 1876 he gained his Diplôme du Gouvernement in architecture and engineering and spent time touring France and Italy.
Burnet returned to Glasgow. in late 1876 and again worked in his father's practice. Two years later he won a competition to design his first independent project, the Fine Art Institute in Glasgow. Though he then failed in the competition to design Glasgow City Chambers, a steady flow of prestigious new commissions started to come his way. In 1881 Burnet became an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and the following year became a partner in his father's firm, which became John Burnet & Son: and later Burnet Son & Campbell after they were joined by John Archibald Campbell.
The older John Burnet retired in 1889, leaving John James Burnet and John Campbell to take a more adventurous approach to their designs. After a further tour of Italy in 1895, Burnet introduced a style that became known as Burnet Baroque: which by 1900 was dominating many architects' work in Glasgow and more widely. The following year he toured the USA, which added a further dimension to his work. In 1897 Campbell left the partnership, and Burnet was made a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and elected President of the Glasgow Institute of Architects.
Burnet lost out to Charles Rennie Mackintosh in the competition to design the Glasgow School of Art, but his successes were numerous. Some of his most notable buildings included the Edward VII Galleries at the British Museum in London; the Athenaeum and Alhambra Theatres in Glasgow; RW Forsyth's Department Store, Princes Street, Edinburgh; and Unilever House in London. He also produced many more modest buildings such as the beautiful Campbeltown Library and Museum, and undertook one-offs such as the restoration of Duart Castle on Mull.
He also produced a number of churches and, following World War I, war memorials. In 1919 Burnet surprised everyone (including those who thought they were managing its design and funding) when he unveiled a new war memorial in Grangemouth which was topped off by a huge statue of the British Lion with its teeth firmly embedded in the German Eagle.
In 1902 Burnet took on a promising young architect called Thomas S. Tait. After a temporary falling out in 1910, Burnet took Tait into partnership in 1919 in what became known as Burnet, Tait & Lorne. Tait would become Scotland's most prestigious architect of the inter-war years, and by the 1920s was taking a leading role in the work of the partnership. Sir John Burnet was knighted in 1914. He received the Royal Gold Medal in 1923 and was elected to the Royal Academy in 1925. He spent much of his time in London from 1905 to 1935, when he finally retired to live in Colinton, a suburb of Edinburgh. After his death in 1938, his remains were cremated and buried at Warriston Cemetery in Edinburgh.