Basic Biographical Details

Name: William Henry Playfair
Born: 15 July 1790
Died: 19 March 1857
Bio Notes: William Henry Playfair was born in London on 15 July 1790, a younger son of the architect James Playfair. He was baptised in the Fitzroy Chapel. When he was fourteen in 1804 he went to Edinburgh to live with his uncle, Professor John Playfair and completed his education there. He was articled to William Stark. Stark died in 1813 and Playfair moved to London where he worked in the offices of James Wyatt and Robert Smirke. In 1816 he visited France with his uncle but returned later in the year to Edinburgh.

In 1816 he entered and won the competition for the completion of Robert Adam’s University building. In 1818 he secured the commission for the planning of the area to the north of Calton Hill. The fact that he had been given these jobs suggests that he was an architectural heir to William Stark. In the Calton Hill scheme he follows closely the principles laid down by Stark.

Playfair’s practice grew to rival those of William Burn and James Gillespie Graham in fame if not in the number of his commissions for country houses and churches then at least in the realm of public buildings. He designed some of Edinburgh’s most prominent public buildings, including The Royal Institution (later the Royal Scottish Academy), the Surgeon’s Hall, the National Gallery, Donaldson’s Hospital and the Free Church College. The first three were classical in style following the pattern laid down in Edinburgh by some of his predecessors. However he was also adept in Gothic, for example in the Free Church College and in Jacobethan in Donaldson’s Hospital. His early houses used a picturesque style loosely based on Italian villas. However by 1830 like his contemporaries Burn and Blore he was experimenting with Scots and English vernacular styles. The remodelling work at Floors Castle was the largest commission he executed in this style though this was not entirely a success with coarse and over-crowded details. At Lurgan, Bonaly and Islay he was more successful and went some way to recapture the Elizabethan and Stuart past.

Playfair was painstaking and meticulous. All his designs were worked out with great care. He wrote: ‘Nothing good in Architecture can be affected without a monstrous expenditure of patience and India Rubber’. He was a perfectionist and expected the same from those who worked for him such as his builders. He was just as demanding with his pupils and staff. David Cousin who was a pupil ‘used to tell with great glee many stories of the strictness and rigour of Mr Playfair’s rule, and the devices to which his assistants had to resort to escape detection if at fault’.

Playfair made one trip to France but never visited Greece or Rome. In 1842 he went to Florence to try to improve his health. His older brother James practised medicine there. However the experience had little or no effect on his architecture as he found little to admire in the city. He returned to Edinburgh where his health continued to deteriorate with deafness, crippling rheumatism and chronic bronchitis. He continued to practice but had to decline some work because of his health.

He died on 19 March 1857. He was buried in Dean Cemetery adjacent to his friends Andrew and Sophia Rutherford. He was unmarried.

Playfair’s papers and drawings are preserved in various places. There are drawings in the RIAS collection at RCAHMS. Edinburgh University Library holds drawings and a diary for 1817 with accounts for 1817-22 and town surviving volumes of an elaborated series of letter-books (volume 4 covering 1830-33 and volume 7 covering 1840-45). A brief journal describing a trip to Arran in 1811 is located in Cambridge University Library while many letters to Andrew Rutherford and his family are held in the National Library of Scotland. The sale catalogue of his library is also in the National Library of Scotland. It shows he owned a large number of views of Athens by his friend Hugh W ‘Grecian’ Williams.

Private and Business Addresses

The following private or business addresses are associated with this :
 AddressTypeDate fromDate toNotes
Item 1 of 4Edinburgh, ScotlandBusiness   
Item 2 of 479, Queen Street, Edinburgh, ScotlandPrivate/business(?)c. 1820  
Item 3 of 443, Heriot Row, Edinburgh, ScotlandPrivate/business(?)c. 1824c. 1825 
Item 4 of 417, Great Stuart Street, Edinburgh, ScotlandPrivate/business(?)c. 18301857 

Employment and Training

Employees or Pupils

The following individuals were employed or trained by this (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 5William Notmanc. 1823c. 1827Apprentice 
Item 2 of 5William Notmanc. 1827After 1840Assistant 
Item 3 of 5John Notman1829 * Assistant 
Item 4 of 5David CousinBefore 18301831Assistant 
Item 5 of 5James Anderson HamiltonBefore 1857 Principal Clerk 

* earliest date known from documented sources.

Buildings and Designs

This 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 65 Monument to Mrs Reid  Edinburgh?ScotlandDate unknown
Item 2 of 651817University of Edinburgh, Old College  EdinburghScotlandModified the designs and completed the Adam work.
Item 3 of 651818Calton Hill, area to north, inc. Blenheim Pl, Brunswick St, Brunton Pl, Carlton Ter, Elm Row  EdinburghScotlandAppointed architect for the development of the area to north of Calton Hill. In 1819 he produced a printed 'Report to the Lord Provost, Magistrates and Council fo the City of Edinburgh on a Plan for laying out the New Town between Edinburgh and Leith.'
Item 4 of 651818City Observatory, boundary wall and Playfair Monument, Calton Hill  EdinburghScotlandOriginal building. Also boundary wall and Playfair Monument.
Item 5 of 651819Signet Library  EdinburghScotlandStaircase for the Faculty of Advocates (to upper floor)
Item 6 of 651820Houses, Royal Circus, Circus Place and Circus Gardens  EdinburghScotland 
Item 7 of 65c. 1820Houses, Academy PlaceDollar ClackmannanshireScotland 
Item 8 of 651821The GlenInnerleithen PeeblesshireScotlandAdditions to original house on site.
Item 9 of 651822Royal Institution  EdinburghScotlandOriginal building
Item 10 of 651822St Quivox Parish Churchyard, Campbells of Craigie MausoleumSt Quivox AyrshireScotland 
Item 11 of 651823Duddingston Manse, curling house and studioDuddingston EdinburghScotland 
Item 12 of 651823Premises for the Highland Society  EdinburghScotland 
Item 13 of 651823Thomson TowerDuddingston EdinburghScotland 
Item 14 of 651824Heriot's Hospital, monument to James Denholm  EdinburghScotland 
Item 15 of 651824House, 8 Inverleith Row  EdinburghScotland 
Item 16 of 651824National MonumentCalton Hill EdinburghScotlandIn collaboration with C R Cockerell
Item 17 of 65c. 1824Edinburgh Waterworks, Crawley Cistern  EdinburghScotlandWith James Jardine, engineer for Edinburgh Corporation waterworks
Item 18 of 651825City Observatory, boundary wall and Playfair Monument, Calton Hill  EdinburghScotlandBoudary wall and Playfair Monument.
Item 19 of 651825House, Inverleith Place  EdinburghScotland 
Item 20 of 651825Monument to Professor John PlayfairCalton Hill EdinburghScotland 
Item 21 of 651826Pump-roomInnerleithen PeesbleshireScotland 
Item 22 of 651826St Ronan's WellsInnerleithen PeeblesshireScotland 
Item 23 of 651827Minto ManseMinto RoxburghshireScotland 
Item 24 of 651827St Stephen's Church  EdinburghScotlandOriginal church
Item 25 of 65Before 1827Abdie Parish ChurchAbdie FifeScotlandPlayfair withdrew from commission and Burn built present church
Item 26 of 651828Belmont House  EdinburghScotland 
Item 27 of 651828Dunphail House  MorayshireScotland 
Item 28 of 651828George Heriot's Hospital  EdinburghScotlandGatehouse and terraces
Item 29 of 651829Advocates' Library  EdinburghScotlandOverall design (for stair see separate entry under Advocates' Library)
Item 30 of 651829Drumbanagher House  County ArmaghNorthern Ireland 
Item 31 of 651829Surgeons' Hall  EdinburghScotlandOriginal building
Item 32 of 651830Grange House  EdinburghScotlandAlterations
Item 33 of 651830Minto ChurchMinto RoxburghshireScotland 
Item 34 of 651830Prestongrange HousePrestonpans East LothianScotlandAlterations and additions
Item 35 of 651831Monument to Dugald Stewart, Calton Hill  EdinburghScotland 
Item 36 of 651832Dalcrue BridgeRedgorton PerthshireScotland 
Item 37 of 651832Dalcrue Farmhouse, Lynedoch Estate  PerthshireScotland 
Item 38 of 651832Lynedoch  PerthshireScotlandDrawing room for Thomas Graham, Lord Lynedoch
Item 39 of 651832Royal Institution  EdinburghScotlandEnlargement and alterations
Item 40 of 65After 1832105 George Street  EdinburghScotland 
Item 41 of 651833Lurgan House  County ArmaghNorthern Ireland 
Item 42 of 651834Spottiswoode HouseWestruther BerwickshireScotlandMay have completed job - see Notes
Item 43 of 651835Craigcrook Castle  EdinburghScotlandAdditions for Francis Jeffrey, Lord Jeffrey
Item 44 of 651835Meadowbank HouseKirknewton West LothianScotland 
Item 45 of 651836Barmore HouseStonefield ArgyllScotland 
Item 46 of 651836Bonaly TowerColinton EdinburghScotland 
Item 47 of 651836Stonefield Castle Hotel, Loch FyneTarbert ArgyllScotland 
Item 48 of 651837Duthil, mausoleum to the Seafield family  Inverness-shireScotland 
Item 49 of 651837Floors CastleKelso RoxburghshireScotlandRemodelling for 6th Duke of Roxburghe; also west lodge
Item 50 of 651837Minto House and stablesMinto RoxburghshireScotlandAlterations
Item 51 of 651838Craigie HouseAyr AyrshireScotlandCentral porch added
Item 52 of 651838Murrayfield CottageMurrayfield EdinburghScotland 
Item 53 of 651839Whytope Farm Farmhouse, Byre, EtcGlen Estate PeeblesshireScotlandCorrections in his hand
Item 54 of 651840Colinton HouseColinton EdinburghScotlandKitchen offices
Item 55 of 651840Traquair Parish ChurchTraquair PeeblesshireScotlandAlterations
Item 56 of 651841Islay House IslayArgyllScotlandOffices etc
Item 57 of 651842Donaldson's Hospital  EdinburghScotland 
Item 58 of 651842Kensal Green Cemetery, monument to Robert Ferguson of RaithKensal Green MiddlesexEngland 
Item 59 of 651843Hangingshaw HouseYarrow (near) SelkirkshireScotland 
Item 60 of 651845Free High Church and Free Church College  EdinburghScotlandDid not win compeition but was awarded the job for Free High Church and Free Church College - date of construction.
Item 61 of 651845Lauriston CastleCramond EdinburghScotlandAlterations and additions including staircase and two porches
Item 62 of 651850National Gallery of Scotland  EdinburghScotland 
Item 63 of 651851Dean Cemetery, Monument to Francis Jeffrey, Lord Jeffrey  EdinburghScotland 
Item 64 of 65c. 1852Dean Cemetery, Monument to Sophia Rutherford (d.1852)     
Item 65 of 65Before 1857Dean Cenetery, monument to William Henry Playfair  EdinburghScotlandHe died in 1857.


Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this :
Item 1 of 5APSD The Dictionary of Architectureed Wyatt PapworthThe Architectural Publication Society (8v 1852-1892) 
Item 2 of 5Colvin, H M1995A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-18403rd editionNew Haven and London: Yale University Press 
Item 3 of 5DNB Dictionary of National Biography  Article by Charles McKean
Item 4 of 5Graham, J M1861Notice of the Life and Works of W H Playfairv, part ivTransactions of the Architectural institute of Scotland, 1859-61 
Item 5 of 5Pride, Glen L1999The Kingdom of Fife2nd EditionThe Rutland Pressp194

Periodical References

The following periodicals contain references to this :
 Periodical NameDateEditionPublisherNotes
Item 1 of 6Builder1857XV p208
Item 2 of 6Builder10 June 1882  p717 for Cousin's recollections of the Playfair office.
Item 3 of 6Builder1960xviii p140
Item 4 of 6Building Chronicle1857ii pp181-2
Item 5 of 6Building News10 April 1857  pp359-60
Item 6 of 6RIBA JournalMay 1990 London: Royal Institute of British Architects 

Archive References

The following archives hold material relating to this :
 SourceArchive NameSource Catalogue No.Notes
Item 1 of 1LMARegister of Fitzroy Chapel