William Henry Playfair FRSE (15 July 1790 – 19 March 1857) was one of the greatest Scottish architects of the 19th century,[1] designer of many of Edinburgh's neoclassical landmarks in the New Town.


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]

Two of his finest works are the neoclassical buildings of the National Gallery of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Academy which are situated in the centre of Edinburgh. The Playfair Project, completed in 2004, joined the two historic buildings with an underground link.

In the 1830s Playfair is listed as living at 17 Great Stuart Street on the prestigious Moray Estate in Edinburgh's west end.[4] Ironically, 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.

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 a number of monuments for others, including Lord Jeffrey.

Timeline of major projects

The unfinished National Monument, Edinburgh, begun in 1826
Fine detailing by Playfair on the Royal Scottish Academy

Gallery of architectural work


  1. ^ Russell, Colin (2014). Who Made the Scottish Enlightenment?. Xlibris Corporation. p. 385. ISBN 9781499091045. [self-published source]
  2. ^ a b McKean, Charles. Playfair, William Henry (1790–1857), architect. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/22371. 
  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. ^ "Our History – Independent Day and Boarding School – Dollar Academy". dollaracademy.org.uk. Retrieved 8 September 2016. 


Further reading

  • Gow, Ian (1984): William Henry Playfair in Scottish Pioneers of the Greek Revival, The Scottish Georgian Society, Edinburgh, pp 43–55

External links

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