Basic Biographical Details

Name: James Playfair
Designation: Architect
Born: 5 August 1755
Died: 23 February 1794
Bio Notes: James Playfair was born on 5 August 1755, the fourth son of the Rev. James Playfair, minister of Liff & Benvie Parish Church, Angus. Nothing is yet known of his earlier life or training. His older brother John Playfair became a well-known mathematician and geologist and his younger brother, William, gained some notoriety as an inventor and pamphleteer. The last ten years of James Playfair’s life are recorded fully as his professional journal survives in the National Library of Scotland and his drawings in the Soane Museum and RIBA Drawings Collection.

By 1783 Playfair had established an office in Bloomsbury, London and he began to exhibit regularly at the Royal Academy. That year he published ‘A Method of Constructing Vapour Baths’. Most if his commissions were however still in Scotland where he had the patronage of Henry Dundas.

It is documented that he travelled abroad. In August 1787, he went to Paris probably visiting his younger brother William who was in Paris as an agent of the Scioto Land Company of Ohio. Almost certainly he spent some time there not just visiting antiquities (his sketch of the Baths of the Emperor Julian survives) but also looking at contemporary French architecture. In 1791 he travelled to Italy with his wife where he met Canova in October of that same year to whom he was introduced by the painter Henry Tresham. Later he and his wife dined with the Flaxmans in Rome. In April 1792 he made drawings for Townley Hall in Ireland. He exhibited views of the Appian Way near Capua and one of the Greek temples at Paestum at the Royal Academy on his return to England.

Playfair died young at the age of 39 on 23 February 1794. Joseph Farington states that he ‘died of a broken heart in consequence of the death of his eldest son’. Sir John Soane and Joseph Farington helped his widow organise the sale of his books and drawings which were sold at Christies on 10 January 1795. It was at this time that Soane acquired the portfolio of drawings which are still held in the museum.

Of his children two became well-known in their fields: James George Playfair practised medicine in Florence and William Henry Playfair who was three at the time of his father’s death became an architect.

Playfair’s early designs have a refined neo-classical simplicity. Later works are more sophisticated and follow the example of Soane and Ledoux. This can be seen in his designs for the mausoleum at Methven, Perthshire and in his unexecuted designs for a house at Ardkinglas. However it is at Cairness he was able to give full expression to his neo-classical predelications with its great hemicycle of offices, bold semi-cicular arches, primitivist Doric columns and Egyptian detailing in the billiard room. These bear similarities to some of the work of the French neo-classical architects, Boulée and Ledoux. This interest is borne out by some items which he had in his library and are noted in the sale catalogue and included Wincklemann’s ‘Histoire des Arts Anciens’, ‘Ruines de Pestum’ ‘4 French books on building’ and ‘A portfolio with architectural designs and the Halles aux Graines’. Had he not died young, he might have become a leading neo-classical designer.

Cairness is in a remote part of Scotland and therefore had little impact on other architects. Playfair’s other houses for example Kinnaird Castle and Melville Castle were designed in a castellated style but do not compare favourably with the master of the castle style, Robert Adam. In contrast the design for Gothic church at Farnell in Angus is unusual and sophisticated. The design he made for ‘an American City’, probably at the behest of his brother William, have not survived as far as is known and may have shown further evidence of his interest in French neo-classical architecture.


'A Method of Constructing Vapour Baths' (1783)

'Unto the Right Honourable the Lords of Council and Session, the petition of James Playfair of London, architect, and Robert Playfair, his assignee, chargers; (1792) Edinburgh' [relates to the building of the church at Kirriemuir].

Private and Business Addresses

The following private or business addresses are associated with this architect:
 AddressTypeDate fromDate toNotes
Item 1 of 1London, EnglandBusiness   

Employment and Training

Employees or Pupils

The following individuals were employed or trained by this architect (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 1John SmithAfter 17921794(?)Apprentice(?) 

Buildings and Designs

This architect was involved with the following buildings or structures from the date specified (click on an item to view details):
 Date startedBuilding nameTown, district or villageIslandCity or countyCountryNotes
Item 1 of 421779Kinnaird Castle, with stables and lodgeBrechin AngusScotlandMajor remodelling
Item 2 of 421782Blackadder HouseAllanton BerwickshireScotlandPlans for alterations - unexecuted.
Item 3 of 421784Forfar Town and County HallForfar AngusScotlandOriginal building
Item 4 of 421784Hawkhead Park  RenfrewshireScotlandRepairs and alterations
Item 5 of 421785Anniston House  AngusScotlandOriginal house
Item 6 of 421785Raith HouseKirkcaldy FifeScotlandExtensions. According to Colvin Playfair added a gateway and lodge.
Item 7 of 421785Small House, BaldovieKingoldrum AngusScotlandSmall house proposed but not built
Item 8 of 421786Clapham  SurreyEngland 
Item 9 of 421786Dalkeith House  MidlothianScotlandAddition of bow window to library. Also unexecuted designs for an entrance gate and lodges.
Item 10 of 421786Douglas HousePetersham SurreyEnglandGreenhouse added
Item 11 of 421786Kirriemuir Parish ChurchKirriemuir AngusScotland 
Item 12 of 421786Langholm LodgeLangholm DumfriesshireScotlandAdditions
Item 13 of 421786Melville Castle  MidlothianScotland 
Item 14 of 421786Raith Walled GardenKirkcaldy Fife  
Item 15 of 421787Bothwell CastleBothwell LanarkshireScotlandRemodelling
Item 16 of 421787House, village and marketDunninald AngusScotland 
Item 17 of 421787Molesey Hurst  SurreyEnglandAlterations
Item 18 of 421788Brooksby Hall  LeicestershireEnglandMinor alterations
Item 19 of 421788Burley-on-the-Hill, farm officesOakham RutlandEnglandFarm offices added
Item 20 of 421788Cullen House and estate buildingsCullen BanffshireScotlandPlans drawn up for remodelling 'in the Saxon style' (not executed) but walled garden designed by Playfair.
Item 21 of 421788Farnell Parish ChurchFarnell AngusScotlandPlans drawn up
Item 22 of 421788Glenogil (or Glenogle?) HouseForfar AngusScotlandDesign drawn up - not executed
Item 23 of 42c. 1788House at Easter ElchiesEast Elchies MorayshireScotland 
Item 24 of 421789Buchanan CastleDrymen Stirlingshire/DunbartonshireScotlandHouse enlarged
Item 25 of 421789Cullen House, Temple of PomonaRathven BanffshireScotlandDrawing for Temple of Pomona - not executed by Playfair
Item 26 of 421789Dupplin CastleForteviot PerthshireScotlandVarious works including a 'Temple of Virtue and Honour'
Item 27 of 421789Kippenross HouseDunblane StirlingshireScotlandAlterations and additions proposed - but not executed
Item 28 of 421789Murie  PerthshireScotlandAdditions proposed but not built
Item 29 of 421789Tower, Inchmurrin, Loch Lomond InchmurrinDunbartonshireScotlanddesign drawn up
Item 30 of 421789Urie HouseFetteresso KincardineshireScotlandProposal to remodel house
Item 31 of 42c. 1789Lynedoch  PerthshireScotlandOffices added
Item 32 of 421790House, Ardkinglas  ArgyllScotland 
Item 33 of 421790House, Beaumont Square  LondonEnglandPlans for addition of picture gallery drawn up.
Item 34 of 421790Skene House  AberdeenshireScotlandAdditions for George Skene
Item 35 of 421790St Peter's Episcopal Chapel  EdinburghScotland 
Item 36 of 421791Cairness House  AberdeenshireScotlandBurn house incorporated in new house
Item 37 of 421791Douglas Castle  LanarkshireScotlandProposed additions - not executed
Item 38 of 421791House and premises in Long Acre  LondonEngland 
Item 39 of 421792Townley Hall  Co. LouthEireDesigns drawn up - not executed.
Item 40 of 421793Methven Churchyard, Lynedoch MausoleumMethven PerthshireScotland 
Item 41 of 42c. 1796Church and Manse, LonmayLonmay AberdeenshireScotlandPerhaps designed Cairness Enclosure in kirkyard
Item 42 of 42Before 1820Dupplin Castle, stablesForteviot PerthshireScotland 


Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this architect:
Item 1 of 3Colvin, Howard2008A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840 London: YUP. 4th edition 
Item 2 of 3Farington, Joseph Diary   
Item 3 of 3Pride, Glen L1999The Kingdom of Fife2nd EditionThe Rutland Pressp50-51, p53

Periodical References

The following periodicals contain references to this architect:
 Periodical NameDateEditionPublisherNotes
Item 1 of 1Caledonian Mercury1 March 1794  Date uncertain as in one place on BL site it is recorded as 1 February 1794 but this is clearly an error.