William Henry Playfair

Northern Elevation of the Royal Institution, Edinburgh (now the Royal Scottish Academy Building) (1832)

About this artwork

This drawing is one of Playfair’s presentation proposals for the new façade of the Royal Institution. He designed the original building in 1822, but by 1832 it was in need of extension. Playfair’s plans for the expansion included additional ornamentation, such as the statue above the pediment of Pallas Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom. She was a suitable embellishment for a learned institution, but this choice also shows how Playfair was a true devotee of the Greek Revival style. Athena was the goddess for whom the Parthenon temple in Athens was built: the touchstone of perfection for all architects. Here, she was to crown a temple to the arts. This design for the statue was never realised, and in 1844 a sculpture of Queen Victoria dressed as Britannia was installed.

William Henry Playfair

William Henry Playfair

William Henry Playfair was one of the leading architects in nineteenth-century Scotland. His buildings were models of classicism, and the majority were constructed in the Greek Revival style. More than any other architect, he was responsible for Edinburgh earning its reputation as ‘The Athens of the North’. Playfair’s architecture relied on monumentality and heavy modelling of forms to emphasise light and shade. He produced numerous detailed drawings for each project, and was renowned for scrutinising the work of builders for quality and accuracy. Most of his finest buildings are in or around Edinburgh, including the Royal Institution (1822; now the Royal Scottish Academy), Royal College of Surgeons (1830–32), Donaldson's Hospital (1842), and the National Gallery of Scotland (1850–57).