Basic Biographical Details

Name: John Clerk (Sir) (2nd Baronet)
Designation: Architect
Born: 8 February 1676
Died: 4 October 1755
Bio Notes: Sir John Clerk of Penicuik was born on 8 February 1676, the eldest son of Sir John Clerk (died 1722) who had been created a baronet in 1679 and his wife Elizabeth Hendersone. He was the third generation of a family founded by the merchant John Clerk (1611-74) who had purchased the Penicuik estate in 1654. Sir John, the first baronet, had developed the coal reserves on the estate.

He attended Penicuik parish school and Glasgow University, before going to Leyden for legal study. After three years there where he became proficient at the harpsichord and made friends with Herman Boerhave, he went on the Grand Tour from 1697-98. He spent time in Vienna, Rome and Paris and developed a taste for Italian music and Roman antiquities. On his return to Scotland he was admitted to the Scottish Bar in 1700 and was a successful advocate. He married Lady Margaret Stewart, eldest daughter of the third Earl of Galloway the following year and, through his marriage, was drawn into politics. She died in childbirth within a year. Clerk represented Whithorn in the Scottish Parliament from 1702-1707. In politics he was a Whig and an Anglophile and in 1706-07 he was a commissioner for the Union and was returned as a member of the first Parliament of Great Britain. In 1708 he was made a Baron of the Exchequer which had been newly formed, with a salary of the large sum of £500 per year.

In 1709 he married Janet Inglis, daughter of Sir John Inglis of Cramond. They had nine sons. After the Union Clerk was a significant presence among intellectuals in Edinburgh and had friends of a similar cast of mind in England such as Lord Burlington, Lord Pembroke and the antiquaries Roger Gale and William Stukeley. He was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and of the Royal Society and Vice President of the Edinburgh Philosophical Society. Both in Edinburgh and at his home in Penicuik he gathered around a circle of people who were significant figures of the Enlightenment – the poet Allan Ramsay, the antiquarian Alexander Gordon and the architect William Adam to name but a few. Through them and others he exerted a wide influence on the development of Scottish arts and letters.

Sir John Clerk was a polymath but he was especially interested in architecture and landscape gardening. His penchant for these had been inherited from his father. His father made drawings for a house at Mavisbank, advised Sir David Forbes on the design and construction of his house at Newhall, and designed the mausoleum in Penicuik Churchyard in a deliberately ‘antique’ style.

In 1710 Clerk bought a house and estate at Cammo just outside Edinburgh. He added some stables to the house which had been built in the 1690s. He inherited his father’s estates in 1722 on the death of the latter and began a new house at Mavisbank, designed in collaboration with William Adam, although William Adam was not the builder of the house. The foundations were laid in 1723 but Sir John was dissatisfied with the design. He therefore employed William Adam to take down and rebuild what had already been constructed. Mavisbank was created as a small retreat and not as a large country house and set the scene for the development of the Palladian country mansion in Scotland.

In 1727 Clerk visited London where he met with Lord Burlington the leader of the Palladian movement in England. Clerk was entertained at Lord Burlington’s villa in Chiswick and was presented with two drawings by Inigo Jones. Clerk also took the opportunity to visit other important Palladian houses in the south such as Wilton and Wanstead. He returned to Scotland and by way of a poem entitled ‘The Country Seat’ advocated the Greek and Roman architecture or the work of Palladio should be the models on which new houses should be based. His enthusiasm for antiquities and Roman remains was followed up with excavations. His views on landscape gardening suggest he was moving away from formality to ‘naturalism’.

Although almost no buildings were from the hand of Clerk alone, he became an arbitrator of taste and advised many people on the design of their houses or the choice of architect. Arniston, Midlothian and Haddo in Aberdeenshire, both built by William Adam, are seen to reflect Clerk’s views expressed in ‘The Country Seat’. John Baxter was master mason at Haddo and became a protégé of Clerk and subsequently designed Galloway house in Wigtownshire for Clerk’s friend Lord Garlies. Clerk also advised Charles Erskine at Tinwald House, Dumfriesshire and in 1737 he was asked to advise Earl of Morton on the situation of the proposed new Aberdour House, although this scheme came to nothing.

At Penicuik House he carried numerous improvements in the grounds, planting trees and modernising the tenancies but his only architectural design seems to have been the circular tower on Knight’s Law. He accumulated a valuable collection of antiquities at Penicuik House.

Clerk died on 4 October 1755 at Penicuik House. He published a number of works on political and antiquarian themes and many other writings were still in manuscript form at his death. His musical compositions almost entirely remain in manuscript.

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 9 Town House or City Hall  EdinburghScotlandDate not known
Item 2 of 91703NewhallCarlops (near) PeeblesshireScotlandSir John Clerk and his father assisted in designing and building this house.
Item 3 of 9After 1710Cammo House  MidlothianScotlandNew stabling.
Item 4 of 91723Mavisbank House  EdinburghScotlandDesigns with William Adam
Item 5 of 91732Drumlanrig CastleDrumlanrig DumfriesshireScotlandDesign of cascade
Item 6 of 91732Haddo HouseHaddo/Methlick AberdeenshireScotlandGave advice about design.
Item 7 of 91737Aberdour HouseAberdour FifeScotlandGAve advice on site of proposed new house - not executed.
Item 8 of 91738Tinwald House  DumfriesshireScotlandAdvised Charles on design
Item 9 of 91740Galloway House  WigtownshireScotlandGave advice on design


Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this architect:
Item 1 of 8Brown, I G1980Sir John Clerk of Penicuik: Aspects of a Virtuoso Life PHd these, University of Cambridge. 
Item 2 of 8Brown, I G1987The Clerks of Penicuik   
Item 3 of 8Colvin, H and Harris, J (eds.)1970The Country Seat  Chapter by Stuart Piggott 'Sir John Clerk and "The Country Seat"'.
Item 4 of 8Colvin, Howard2008A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840 London: YUP. 4th edition 
Item 5 of 8Fleming, John1962Robert Adam and his Circle   
Item 6 of 8Gray, J M (ed)1892Memoirs of the Life of Sir John Clerk Bart Scottish Historical Society, xiii 
Item 7 of 8New DNB New Dictionary of National Biography  Article by Rosalind Mitchison
Item 8 of 8Piggott, S1985William Stukeley   

Periodical References

The following periodicals contain references to this architect:
 Periodical NameDateEditionPublisherNotes
Item 1 of 4Antiquity1955xxix Article by Stuart Piggott 'The Ancestors of Jonathan Oldbuck'.
Item 2 of 4Architectural Heritage2002xiii Scott Cooper: 'Sir John Clerk's Garden buildings at Penicuik'.
Item 3 of 4Burlington MagazineMarch 1969  A A Tait: 'William Adam and Sir John Clerk: Arniston and "The Country Seat"'.
Item 4 of 4Country LifeAugust 1968  15-22 August

Archive References

The following archives hold material relating to this architect:
 SourceArchive NameSource Catalogue No.Notes
Item 1 of 2National Archives of Scotland (formerly SRO)Gifts and depositsGD 18Clerk family papers
Item 2 of 2Penicuik HouseArchive