William Henry Playfair

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William Henry Playfair

Born(1790-05-15)15 May 1790
London, England
Died19 March 1857(1857-03-19) (aged 66)
Edinburgh, Scotland
Alma mater University of Edinburgh
Parent James Playfair
Buildings National Gallery of Scotland
Old College, University of Edinburgh
Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh
Royal Scottish Academy Building
Dollar Academy
W H Playfairs signature.png
Playfair's townhouse at 17 Great Stuart Street, Edinburgh 17 Great Stuart Street, Edinburgh.jpg
Playfair's townhouse at 17 Great Stuart Street, Edinburgh
Playfair's grave, Edinburgh Grave of William Henry Playfair, Dean Cemetery Edinburgh.jpg
Playfair's grave, Edinburgh
Statue of William Henry Playfair, Chambers Street, Edinburgh William Henry Playfair statue.jpg
Statue of William Henry Playfair, Chambers Street, Edinburgh

William Henry Playfair FRSE (15 July 1790 – 19 March 1857) was a prominent Scottish architect in the 19th century, [1] [ self-published source ] who designed the Eastern, or Third, New Town and many of Edinburgh's neoclassical landmarks.



Playfair was born on 15 July 1790 in Russell Square, London to Jessie Graham and James Playfair. [2] [3] His father was also an architect, and his uncles were the mathematician John Playfair and William Playfair, an economist and pioneer of statistical graphics. After his father's death he was sent to Edinburgh be educated by his uncle John Playfair. He went on to study at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 1809. [2] He was first articled to the architect William Stark and when Stark died in 1813, he went to London.

In the 1830s Playfair is listed as living at 17 Great Stuart Street on the prestigious Moray Estate in Edinburgh's West End. [4] This is not a building of his own design, but is by his rival James Gillespie Graham. [5]

Playfair joined the Free Church following the Disruption of 1843, [6] losing his right to burial in the parish churchyard.

Playfair took David Cousin under his wing and was responsible for the latter part of his training.

Seal of Lodge St David, No.36. Seal of St David 36.jpg
Seal of Lodge St David, No.36.


Playfair was Initiated into Scottish Freemasonry in Lodge St David, No.36, (Edinburgh, Scotland) on 18 January 1815. [7]


Playfair died in Edinburgh on 19 March 1857, and is buried in the "Lord's Row" on the western wall of Edinburgh's Dean Cemetery, where he designed monuments for others, including Lord Jeffrey.

Major works

Two of his finest works are the neoclassical buildings of the National Gallery of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Academy which are in the centre of Edinburgh. The Playfair Project, completed in 2004, joined the two historic buildings with an underground link. Many of his architectural drawings are held by the University of Edinburgh Heritage Collections. [8]

Timeline of major projects

The unfinished National Monument, Edinburgh, begun in 1826 National Monument, Edinburgh 2005-02-18.jpg
The unfinished National Monument, Edinburgh, begun in 1826
Fine detailing by Playfair on the Royal Scottish Academy Detail on Royal Scottish Academy on the Mound.jpg
Fine detailing by Playfair on the Royal Scottish Academy

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  1. Russell, Colin (2014). Who Made the Scottish Enlightenment?. Xlibris Corporation. p. 385. ISBN   9781499091045.
  2. 1 2 McKean, Charles (2004). "Playfair, William Henry (1790–1857), architect" . Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/22371.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. Waterston, Charles D; Macmillan Shearer, A (July 2006). Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Vol. II. Edinburgh: The Royal Society of Edinburgh. ISBN   978-0-902198-84-5.
  4. "Edinburgh - Post Office annual directory -1832–1833". National Library of Scotland.
  5. CEC: listed buildings in Edinburgh
  6. Dictionary of Scottish Architects:David Cousin
  7. Notes on the History of Lodge St. David, Edinburgh, No.36. A. A. MacKay. 1922. P.54.
  8. "Architectural Drawings". images.is.ed.ac.uk. Retrieved 28 March 2023.
  9. "Our History – Independent Day and Boarding School – Dollar Academy". dollaracademy.org.uk. Retrieved 8 September 2016.


Further reading

"Playfair, William Henry"  . Dictionary of National Biography . 1885–1900.