Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Playfair, William Henry

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1169491Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 45 — Playfair, William Henry1896Lionel Henry Cust

PLAYFAIR, WILLIAM HENRY (1789–1857), architect, born in Russell Square, London, in July 1789, was son of James Playfair, an architect of some repute in London, who in 1783 published ‘A Method of constructing Vapor Baths,’ and nephew of Professor John Playfair [q. v.] In 1794 Playfair came to reside with his uncle, the professor, in Edinburgh, and followed his father's profession of an architect, studying under William Starke (d. 1813) [q. v.] of Glasgow. He gained some considerable private practice in Edinburgh and the neighbourhood, but his first public employment was the laying out in 1815 of part of the new town in Edinburgh; in 1820 he designed the Royal and Regent Terraces in the same part; and in 1819 a new gateway and lodge for Heriot's Hospital. From 1817 to 1824 Playfair was engaged in rebuilding and enlarging the university buildings, leaving, however, the front as designed by Robert and James Adam. Other important buildings designed by Playfair at Edinburgh were the Observatory, the Advocates' Library, the Royal Institution, the College of Surgeons, St. Stephen's Church, and the Free Church College. From 1842–8 he was engaged in constructing Donaldson's Hospital in the Tudor style, a building which is reckoned as his most successful work. He designed the monument to his uncle, Professor Playfair, and that to Dugald Stewart on the Calton Hill, the latter being modelled on the monument of Lysicrates at Athens. Some of his most important works in Edinburgh were executed in the purely classical style, among them being the National Gallery of Scotland, the first stone of which was laid by the prince consort on 30 Aug. 1850, and the unfinished national monument on the Calton Hill, for which the original design was supplied by Charles Robert Cockerell, R.A. [q. v.] Playfair's classical buildings are predominant objects in any view of modern Edinburgh, and have gained for it the sobriquet of the ‘Modern Athens.’ It may be doubted, however, whether the classical style is thoroughly suited to the naturally picturesque and romantic aspect of the northern capital.

Playfair had also a very extensive private practice, and built many country houses and mansions in the classical or Tudor styles, to which he nearly always adhered. He died in Edinburgh, after a very long illness, on 19 March 1857.

[Dict. of Architecture; Scotsman, 21 March 1857; Building News, 1857, iii. 359–60; Lord Cockburn's Memoirs.]

L. C.