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Mr William Kelly

Dr William Kelly was an architect who who was born in Aberdeen in 1861. He built Dunecht House, Aberdeen for the Viscount and Lady Cowdray. The building is reported to have been similar to Buckingham House, the precursor to Buckingham Palace.

Kelly was born in Aberdeen on 22nd December 1861, the son of Francis Bonnyman Kelly, a Tailor & Outfitter, and his wife Jane Tough, daughter of James Tough, Tenant Farmer at Mains of Drum. He never sought Membership of the RIBA and as a result our knowledge of his early career is somewhat sketchy. He was educated at William Rattray’s Aberdeen Institute School 9North Silver Street and attended King’s College 1876-78, principally to Study Mathematics & Natural Philosophy. The years immediately after WW1 witnessed the final flowering of the Arts & Crafts Movement in Britain. Not only were Sculptors in demand for Figural work to commemorate the Fallen, but Metalsmiths and Architectural Woodcarvers were needed to provide Public & Private Memorials to enable the Country to mourn the loss of so many. Yet, while he was an Academic who sought to bring beauty to his City, Kelly was a man whose career also embraced the social meaning of Arts & Crafts belief: in the post-war years, as the City’s Director of Housing, he was able to design Cottage Housing Schemes for all. Its members-all Architects or Artist-craftsmen at the forefront of the Arts & Crafts Movement in the City-included Marshall Mackenzie, Kelly, Strachan, Harry Townend & James Cromar Watt. Watt enjoyed dialogue and collaboration with fellow Artists & Designers

In May 1878 he was Articled to William & John Smith and on the Completion of his Articles in May 1883 he sought wider experience in London, William Smith‘s open reference describing him as having ‘gentlemanly manners’ and being ‘steady diligent & obliging’; he was also an ‘exceptionally good Draughtsman‘. Of the several Offices Kelly worked in while in London, only John James Stevenson’s has been identified. In 1885 he made a study Tour of the French Chateaux and visited Spain & Holland. Kelly returned to commence independent Practice in Belmont Street in 1886 and, following John Smith‘s death on 11th April 1887, declining health induced William Smith to invite William Kelly to become his Partner. The Partnership was dissolved late in 1890 or early 1891, probably because of Smith’s failing health, as the Firm name was retained.

In 1893 Kelly married Mary, eldest daughter of George Carmichael, Bank Agent in Aberdeen, thus becoming the brother-in-law of the Architects Charles & Duncan Carmichael. In 1896 Kelly had an important Competition win when John James Burnet (1857-1938) selected him as Architect of Aberdeen Savings Bank, the Business of which he retained thereafter; and in 1902 he took into Partnership his Chief Assistant James Brown Nicol, born c.1867. Nicol was Articled to Alexander Marshall Mackenzie in 1883-88, where he worked under the Supervision of the ablest of Mackenzie’s Assistants, Alexander Mackintosh. In 1889 after a further year in Mackenzie’s Office he moved to Edinburgh to gain wider experience 1st with James Bow Dunn in 1889-90 and then with Sydney Mitchell & Wilson as Chief Assistant from 1890 until 1891 when he returned to Aberdeen as Kelly’s Assistant. Nicol Published ‘Domestic Architecture in Scotland‘, a Survey of Contemporary work, in 1908.

Kelly was elected ARSA in 1911 and had the Degree of LLD conferred upon him by the University of Aberdeen in 1919, mainly in recognition of his Work at King’s College Chapel. He held the Post of newly created Aberdeen Corporation Director of Housing from 1918-23, the 1st to do so. He retired from the Practice in 1928, but remained Consultant Architect to Viscount & Lady Cowdray, doing much work on the Dunecht Estate and consolidating and partly restoring Dunnottar Castle in association with his lifelong friend the Historian & Antiquary Dr W Douglas Simpson. Simpson described him as ‘endowed with commanding height, a fine Leonic Head and a rich resonant voice… His tall figure and rapid walk made him noticeable among Aberdonians of his time. Men with shorter legs found it trying to come down Albyn Place with him in the morning’. He was active in ‘Choral Singing’ and ‘a good player of both Piano & Organ, always reading from the old-fashioned tonic sol-fa system and scarcely ever from the conventional Staff Notation’ but his main interests were Antiquarian.

On 28th June 1941, at the age of 79, Kelly had a bad fall at home and broke his thigh. Thereafter he was confined to bed: Simpson recalled that ‘those who visited will never forget his bed-ridden figure with full & silken white beard…his eyes sparkling with fun or wistful reminiscence’. He continued his Sketches in bed from Books & Photographs, assisting Simpson with his Book on Glenbuchat & the Rhind Lectures on the Province of Mar, Published in 1942. He died on 10th March 1944 and was buried in Springbank Cemetery. He left the then very substantial moveable Estate of £22,458-8s-4d, and was survived by his wife, 3 sons none of whom pursued Architecture as a career & a daughter. Some of his relatively few Papers were Published by Simpson as a tribute to him from the University of Aberdeen after his death. His name is still familiar to Aberdonians through the ‘Kelly’s Cats‘ on the Parapets of Union Bridge. There has been a debate as to whether Kelly actually designed the Leopards, or whether it was Sidney Boyes, the Sculptor who designed the Bronze Panels on either side of the Bridge but Kelly used a similar Leopard on the Savings Bank in Union Terrace and sketches of the actual Bridge Finials are in the Kelly Archive in Aberdeen University. Kelly’s great-niece, writing in ‘The Leopard‘ relates how during Rag Week, the Students decided to tie Ribbons around the Smug Leopards’ necks. Kelly’s wrath knew no bounds and the Ribbons were ordered to be removed, but in doing so, the nickname ‘Kelly’s Cats‘ was born.

The Parapets were added when the Union Bridge was 1st widened (1905-08). The Leopards were cast later by William Wilson of Monymusk and erected on the Bridge in 1910. Designed in a sitting or upright position, there are 16-cats in position at present on the Northside of the Bridge, of which only 6 are Cast-iron and the other 10 are Cast in Concrete and painted Black. The 14-Cats on the Southside of the Bridge were removed to the Winter Gardens in Duthie Park in 1962 when New Shop Building took place. The Parks are an all too convenient dumping ground for the many Architectural Artefacts removed from our Streets by the City Fathers.

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