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Obituary of George Esselmont Gordon LEITH


Author:EATON, Norman
In:South African Architectural Record May, Vol. 50 No 5
Pages:pp. 12 & 47

It was in Johannesburg in 1924 as a prospective architectural draughtsman, fresh from boarding-school at the Cape, that I first met Gordon LEITH in his small suite of West-facing offices on the 3rd floor of the Netherlands Bank Building on Fox and Sauer Streets - offices which he shared in some way with a charming old Hollander architect J. H. BREYER - (brother, I think, of a Director of the Bank) - who assisted with some of the more practical details of office routine.

He was about 36 years old at the time, owner of a great, red, six-cylinder Red Indian motor cycle on which he inspected his jobs and commuted between the office and his little home in Forest Hill. He had only established his office in Johannesburg a year or two before but, after a brief partnership with an older architect, Theo SCHAERER, designer of the building we were in, was on his own and fast building up a name and a practice.

I was duly apprenticed and the first adventurous stage of my unfolding acquaintance with the inner workings of our profession which followed became for me an unforgettable experience deeply infused with impressions of an attitude towards the art and practice of architecture of the most elevated kind gathered almost entirely from the opinions, enthusiasms and general behaviour of the highly individual and talented personality who became my chief mentor for those few introductory years, giving direction to the mysterious thought processes which slowly built into my mind beliefs and criteria which have continued to influence my own particular interests and judgements to this day. In addition to his role as master-mentor he was also a fatherly-friend who freely expressed to me his more personal aesthetic feelings and, young pupil though I was, not only had me on occasion to stay in his home but often included me in his party of friends at those recurring dinner-dances of the then Scientific and Technical Association which he enjoyed so much. This privileged treatment naturally added for me a glow to that early association with him which I remember today with warm affection.

Gordon LEITH was a true son of South Africa, fluent not only in the mere grammar of the two languages but which is so much more important - in their idiom and rhythm. And, as became clear on those relaxed and endearing occasions when he charmed and amused a company of friends with his skill as a raconteur and mimic, this verbal flair was further enriched with linguistic flavourings from his ancestral Scotland and from Italy where deep, warm impressions had obviously been absorbed at a very happy and receptive period of his life.

His father, George Leith, a brilliant student born in Aberdeen, because of ill-health came with his beautiful young Scottish wife, Sally Scott, to South Africa in 1897 in search of a healing climate. They settled for short periods in Cape Town, Riversdale, Burghersdorp, Knysna and Mossel Bay until finally, after the coastal weather had proved unhelpful, he trekked overland to Pretoria in 1889. Here he gave up teaching, qualified, through the official medium of Hoog Hollands as an attorney and quickly became one of the most active, hospitable and loved citizens of that peaceful little dorp in those old Transvaal Republican days of Oom Paul.

Gordon was born in Knysna in 1886 in what was said to be the "Old Place" of George Rex during that short break in his father's teaching when he tried farming there as an 'outdoor' remedy for his persisting ill-health. In Pretoria, which became his permanent home after the age of 3 years, he was sent by his father to the old Staats Model Skool (later famed as the prison of Winston Churchill) - where he received his first formal education through the medium of Hoog Hollands and had as fellow students and friends such people as Henk Pierneef, Fanie Eloff and Gerard MOERDYK later to become well-known in South Africa as painter, sculptor and architect respectively.

During the Anglo-Boer war years, when most activities came to a stand-still in Pretoria, Gordon seems to have spent much time learning drawing and modelling under the now famous Anton van Wouw - (who had persuaded his father he had a very special talent for this work) - painting under Frans Oerder and music, the violin, under the then well-known music master Henri ten Brink.

It seems that in 1902 the young Gordon served a short apprenticeship in the Pretoria Railway Workshops though he must at the same time have continued his lessons with Anton van Wouw for Mr Jimmy DEY remembers joining him and Mr. Sam Cunningham there at that time. In 1903, however, his father, persuaded by Mr Fred Stephans, the then Chief Government Electrical Engineer and a Mr TYRWHITT, a senior official of the PWD obtained for him a position on the architectural staff of the Public Works Department. Here he acquitted himself so well that, as the story goes, a deputation of fellow draughtsmen appealed to his family to find ways and means of sending him to study overseas and that, as a result of this, funds were raised to send him to the Architectural Association, London, where he worked for his Associateship of the Royal Institute of British Architects from 1905 onwards, becoming the school's top student - qualifying with distinction in 1908 when, with his ARIBA achieved, he returned to Pretoria and, in 1909, rejoined the PWD under its then chief architect Mr Patrick [sic - Piercy] EAGLE and chief assistant Mr James CORMACK. Here, assisted by Mr Jimmy DEY and about seven others, he prepared plans and perspectives for a vast Government complex of buildings - (including Houses of Parliament) - under the direction of EAGLE, in anticipation of a unified central scheme in Pretoria to accommodate South Africa's first government after 'Union' This scheme was quashed, it is said, by John X. Merriman who persuaded Generals Louis Botha and Smuts to leave Parliament in Cape Town and it is at this point, that Herbert BAKER first came into the scene of Gordon LEITH's career, being instructed by Smuts to urgently advise upon a site and prepare plans for the Pretoria Administrative Buildings (now known as the Union Buildings).

Due to some misunderstanding about the Johannesburg Law Courts in Von Brandis Square for which he had prepared drawings about this time, Gordon LEITH left the PWD and in 1910 joined the staff that BAKER had had to hastily get together for this great Pretoria project. Because of his considerable energy and talent (as I have it on the authority of Mr. Jimmy DEY who worked with him) - it then followed that the greater part of the preparation of the sketch plans and particularly the perspectives to be submitted to the Government for approval fell upon his shoulders and subsequently, when the scheme went ahead proceeded to play a major part in interpreting and even amplifying BAKER's ideas in the form of detail drawings for many of the more important elements of the great design as it developed.

In 1912 BAKER created his architectural scholarship, largely as a gesture of gratitude to Cecil Rhodes but partly, it is believed, because of his recognition of the promising young Gordon Leith who became its first holder the same year and proceeded to make the most of this great experience before he, two years later, like so many other young South Africans, was swept into the purgatory of the First World War which, though it earned him the Military Cross for the sort of bravery one would have expected from a man of his character and temperament, left its painful mark in the form of a poison-gas injury to his lungs from which he suffered for the rest of his life.

After the 1918 Peace, as Captain in the RFA he continued at the request of General Smuts to serve in France as designing architect under Sir Herbert BAKER and Sir Edwin LUTYENS for the Imperial War Graves Commission till sometime in 1920 when he returned with his wife, whom he had married in 1914 before going to the 'Front' and three little daughters - (Sally and the twins) - to his home town Pretoria. Here he at once set up in private practice. In a short time, however, this seems to have proved too unproductive of commissions for his impatient needs for he quickly transferred both home and practice to Johannesburg.

In 1921, as part-time lecturer in Design, he assisted Professor GE PEARCE in establishing the first architectural courses in the old "Tin Temple"; and this nucleus developed into the first School of Architecture in South Africa later to become incorporated in the University of the Witwatersrand.

At the time I joined the office in 1924 there was only one other draughtsman, John Peel NELSON, and the work consisted mostly of private houses, there being one on the boards for Dr Orenstein of Malarial Research fame and another for Advocate van Soelen, later elevated to the Bench. The former house had a great concave, 'suntrap' facade with vaulted rooms and a pergola'd flat roof of which I remember his making an exciting water-colour perspective, full of golden sun, deep shadows and creeper-covered walls, in his inimitable way. There was a strong tendency for him to plan with radial axii in the Roman manner using curved internal end-walls to rooms and, where money would permit, vaulted ceilings. There was a classico-romantic quality to the designs but also a strong modelling of forms which not only gave them a highly individual character but saved them from being merely atavistic or sentimental.

Many competitions were entered for at this time causing the traditional last-minute, all-through-the-night work to get the drawings in on time. Among those he won were the Pretoria War Memorial, the Pretoria Technical College and the Bloemfontein Town Hall.

It was the Technical College job that caused him to open a branch-office in Pretoria in about 1926 and to send me as a 2nd year student to run it. During this time houses were designed and built for many well-known personalities.

Here, with weekly visits from Gordon LEITH, I continued to supervise his Pretoria work until, having completed my Wits Diploma course I entered for and won the Herbert Baker Scholarship in 1929 and proceeded to go overseas for two or three years, returning early in 1933 to start my own practice in Pretoria.

Thus it was I lost direct contact with his work from that time on but it seems that from about 1928 or so his immense practice in Johannesburg began to grow in earnest and a large number of buildings were carried out for the Mining Houses, Banks - (mainly Barclays but also the Reserve Bank) - and various other large concerns with recurrent building programmes.

In 1946 the University of the Witwatersrand conferred upon him the Honorary DArch for his 'services to Architecture' so that, to this important extent, a seal has already been put upon his life's work.

Gordon Leith died on Thursday the 15th of April last. a little over a month before his 78th birthday, after a somewhat long period of ill health and was buried on the following Saturday next to his father and mother in the Leith family plot in the Old Cemetery, Pretoria, not far from that of Oom Paul Kruger and of Henk Pierneef.

To those who were privileged to know him well the loss of this link with a more measured and humane interval in the social and architectural history of South Africa and the passing of this unique personality who belonged to it is sad indeed.