Playfair, W. H. (William Henry), 1790-1857

Alternative names

Hide Profile

William Henry Playfair (1789-1857) was born in Russell Square, London, in July 1789, the son of James Playfair, a London architect. He moved to Edinburgh in 1794, and trained as an architect under William Starke of Glasgow (d. 1813). He designed part of the Edinburgh new town in 1815, and the Royal and Regent Terraces in 1820, and worked on the buildings of the city university in 1817-1824. His other work in Edinburgh included the design for the Observatory, the Advocates' Library, the Royal Institution, the College of Surgeons, St Stephen's Church, the Free Church College, Donaldson's Hospital, and the National Gallery of Scotland. Playfair favoured the classical and Tudor styles for much of his work, which also included many country houses and mansions. He died in Edinburgh on 19 March 1857.

From the guide to the William Henry Playfair: Memoranda, 19th century, (Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives)

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?

From the guide to the William Playfair Architectural Drawings, 1817-1849, (Edinburgh University Library)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Playfair, William Henry, 1789-1857. Autograph letter signed : Edinburgh, to David Roberts, 1851 Aug. 11. Pierpont Morgan Library.
creatorOf Playfair, William. Papers. Ohio History Connection, Ohio Historical Society
referencedIn W.H. Playfair : vertical file. Centre canadien d'architecture, | Canadian Centre for Architecture | CCA
creatorOf William Playfair Architectural Drawings, 1817-1849 Edinburgh University Library
referencedIn William Playfair Architectural Drawings, 1817-1849 Edinburgh University Library
creatorOf William Henry Playfair: Memoranda, 19th century Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Bell Rock Lighthouse and Signal Station Fife 1810-1860 corporateBody
associatedWith Playfair John 1748-1819 person
associatedWith Playfair William Henry 1789-1857 person
associatedWith Playfair William Henry 1790-1857 person
associatedWith Ray, Gordon Norton, 1915- person
associatedWith Roberts, David, person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Edinburgh (Scotland)
London (England)
Ohio--Scioto River Valley
Arran (Scotland)
Real property
Cranes (Birds)
Architecture Designs and plans Presentation drawings
Architecture Scotland


Birth 1790-07-15

Death 1857-03-19




Ark ID: w6jq3pdt

SNAC ID: 70735036