William Henry Playfair (1790-1857)

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Early Life

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 (1748-1819), 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.

Career and Style

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.

Death and Legacy

Playfair died in Edinburgh after a long illness on 27 May 1857. Following this, his trustees presented 5,062 of his drawings to the University.


  • Son of architect James Playfair (1755-1794)
  • Nephew of the inventor of statistical graphics, William Playfair (1759-1823)
  • Nephew of Professor John Playfair (1748-1819)


All or some of the text on this page originally appeared in the Gallery of Benefactors