William Henry Playfair, architect

William Henry Playfair

William Henry Playfair

On 2 Nov 2015, the CRC hosted a seminar which looked at the figure of William Henry Playfair (1790-1857), discussing his life and work and looking in some detail at a range of architectural drawings which had been selected from our collection.

John Playfair

John Playfair

Playfair was born was born in Russell Square, London, July 1789. On the death of his father, architect James Playfair, he was sent to reside with his uncle in Edinburgh. Professor John Playfair, mathematician and geologist and a leading figure in the Edinburgh Enlightenment, took control of his nephew’s education. Following his father’s profession, the young Playfair studied under William Starke of Glasgow. Following Starke’s death in 1813, Playfair moved to London where he worked in the offices of James Wyatt and Robert Smirke, returning to Edinburgh in 1816.

He established himself professionally by winning the commission in 1817 to complete the unfinished University buildings (leaving the front as designed by Robert and James Adam). He also designed the city’s Royal Terrace and Regent Terrace on the Calton

College of Edinburgh Transverse Section if the Southern Buildings

College of Edinburgh Transverse Section of the Southern Buildings

Hill estate; the unfinished National Monument on Calton Hill; and, the Royal Scottish Academy and the National Gallery on the Mound. While Playfair’s most important works in Edinburgh have been executed in the Greek revivalist or classical style – earning for Edinburgh the title of ‘Athens of the North’ – he was competent in other styles too. He designed New College for the ten newly established Free Church of Scotland, a jagged-lined rendering of the Gothic style. He also built country houses and mansions in the Italianate and Tudor styles.

The discussion in the seminar was not structured in any major way but flowed directly from looking at the drawings we had selected to view.  Alongside the physical drawings, we also looked at digitised ones, using the complement of both to do things which one or other could not do alone.

With over 5000 to choose from, electing the drawings was never going to be an easy task.  However we settled on one or more drawings relating to the following of Playfair’s projects:

  • College of Edinburgh
  • Royal Observatory
  • Dollar Academy
  • Blenheim Place
  • Elm Row
  • Royal Institution
  • Royal Institution Additions
  • National Monument
  • Royal College of Surgeons
  • Stewart Monument
  • Donaldson’s Hospital
  • New College Edinburgh