Leeson, John (d. 1855?), architect, was probably born in Dublin. His parentage is unknown, although he may have been a direct or collateral relative of James Leeson, carpenter, who was active in Co. Dublin c.1806, and William Leeson, architect, who worked from the 1760s to the late 1780s. John Leeson attended the Dublin Society drawing schools and was awarded one of the two first-class premiums in July 1813. From August 1819 to June 1822 he was clerk of works at the Roman catholic pro-cathedral in Dublin. The final design of the pro-cathedral cannot be attributed to any single architect. Given the collaborative nature of the project, it is possible that Leeson contributed to some aspects of the design. In January 1829 he received his first documented commission; to design the catholic church of St Nicholas of Myra on Francis St., Dublin, on the site of the Franciscan monastery. The building was externally complete by early 1834 and the interior alone was said to cost £8,400.
While the building of St Nicholas was under way, he was awarded another important commission to build St Andrew's catholic church on Townsend St., Dublin. The retired parish priest who gave Leeson the commission expected the church to be one of the most beautiful in the United Kingdom, and at least £5,000 was spent on the project prior to April 1832. However, the new parish priest strongly disapproved of the site, and with the support of Daniel O'Connell (qv) a more prominent location for the church was found on Westland Row. Leeson was dismissed as architect, and a rival, James Bolger, was employed. In a contemporary satirical pamphlet Leeson is described as ‘without one ray of genius – not a spark, L-s-n comes next – a chapel clerk; so dull and stupid – could you once suspect, this brainless oaf to be an architect.’ The same author suggests that Bolger took off his coat and challenged Leeson to a boxing match and ‘owing to his superior powers, I suppose, the parishioners gave him the job’ (Essay on the rise and progress of architectural taste, 10). Whatever the truth behind Leeson's departure from the project, it seems to have had a long-term negative impact on his career. He is not known to have been awarded any other major ecclesiastical commissions after 1832.
Leeson's design of St Nicholas of Myra church was criticised as soon as it was built, on account of ‘the incongrous [sic] association of Gothic spire rising out of a Greek portico – a union which destroys the effect of both’ (Dublin Penny Journal, i, 213). In 1858 the Builder noted that the design of the building was awkward for the congregation, as those sitting in the upper gallery had to use the same main entrance, leading to congestion in the central vestibule. Though Leeson may not have been in the top league of architects in the 1820s and 1830s, his original design for St Nicholas was not as poor as some contemporaries thought: above a simple tetrastyle portico of the Ionic order he added an attic, a tower dressed with Corinthian pilasters, and then a spire (not completed). It would have been an elegant addition to the Dublin skyline. Far from being ‘incongrous’, the juxtaposition of spire and classical portico was deployed by architects in London and other English cities from the 1660s onwards. But there was a tacit assumption among ecclesiastical patrons in Dublin from the early 1830s that new anglican churches would be strictly Gothic with spires, whereas the new post-emancipation Roman catholic churches would be of the classical or Italianate style and adorned with cupolas and pudding-bowl domes. The portico and tower at St Nicholas of Myra were completely remodelled in an Italianate style by Patrick Byrne (qv) in 1860. Trade directories indicate that Leeson carried on working as an architect in Dublin until the mid-1850s. He probably died in 1855 at his home on Clare St., Dublin, which he shared with his wife, a court milliner and dressmaker of whom nothing else is known. His son, Arthur Edmund Leeson, MD, was living at this address in 1857, but later emigrated to Argentina.