William Playfair Architectural Drawings

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The drawings in the collection range from Playfair's student drawings, sketch designs and preliminary schemes, to many presentation drawings in watercolours. The earliest catalogued plans, elevations and sections relate to the commission to complete the University (the College of Edinburgh), 1817 onwards. The Advocates' Library, Royal Terrace, Regent Terrace, the National Gallery, the National Monument, and New College also feature in the collection. Other material relates to the Observatory, Edinburgh, and Dollar Academy and Bathgate Academy, and other commissions up to around 1849.

Administrative / Biographical History

The architect William Henry Playfair was born in Russell Square, London, July 1789. On the death of his father, Playfair 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. His first public appointment was the laying out of part of the New Town in Edinburgh in 1815. Then, after a visit to France 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 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. New College, housing the University's Faculty of Divinity and the Church of Scotland's General Assembly Hall (the latter being the temporary home of the Scottish Parliament from 1999) is a jagged-lined rendering of the Gothic style. He also built country houses and mansions in the Italianate and Tudor styles. Playfair died in Edinburgh after a long illness on 27 May 1857. After his death, his drawings - regarded as valuable academic remains of a leading figure in Edinburgh's Enlightenment - were preserved in the Library of the University of Edinburgh. While the University expressed willingness to accept the drawings, they asked that they should be catalogued. This was quite a task for Playfair's Trustees when they examined the contents of the Playfair house and office at 17 Great Stuart Street in the city's New Town, and so they retained James A. Hamilton, Playfair's clerk, to sort and catalogue the drawings. Over five thousand drawings were eventually presented to the University. However, an almost equal amount of material was rejected as unworthy of presentation and probably included sketch books, preliminary designs and returned presentation drawings, competition designs, specifications and letters. When Playfair's library and picture collection were auctioned (by Nisbet of Hanover Street, Edinburgh) in November 1857, no mention was made of the rejected material. One of the questions for history is, what happened to the material discarded by Hamilton?

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