Edinburgh World Heritage - News Article


Fitting tribute to a distinguished man

The grave of Professor John Playfair is finally commemorated.

Aug 22, 2011

For almost 200 years their final resting place has lain un-marked, but now a plaque has been installed marking the graves of Professor John Playfair (1748-1819) and architect James Playfair (1755 – 1794), commemorating their many achievements. On Tuesday 23 August, a gathering at his grave in Old Calton graveyard marked the occasion. Right: Cliff Porteous and Professor Geoffrey Boulton of the Royal Society unveil the plaque.

The plaque celebrates John Playfair’s career as an eminent scientist, holding the Chairs of Mathematics and then of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University, and as a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. It also mentions that his architect brother James Playfair is buried there, a fact that only came to light during the project.

Adam Wilkinson, Director of Edinburgh World Heritage said: “We were delighted to be able to support this project, as figures such as John Playfair were responsible for making Edinburgh the intellectual centre of Europe. It is also a welcome improvement to Old Calton graveyard, which deserves greater recognition as one of the city’s historic treasures. I congratulate Cliff Porteous for his energy and enthusiasm in making this project happen, and hope that others will now be inspired to properly recognise Playfair’s achievements.”

The project was the inspiration of Mr Cliff Porteous, who noticed that Playfair’s grave was unmarked and started a campaign to gain recognition for this important city figure. Mr Porteous commented: “John Playfair has always been a hero of mine, in particular because he rewrote in more accessible form James Hutton's Theory. I came across William P. Anderson's book Silences that Speak about Edinburgh’s graveyards, in which he wrote that, ‘An unadorned tablet recording the name and dates would still be fitting to this distinguished man’. This is what we have managed to provide. I am content that justice has been done to John Playfair's memory, and grateful to everyone who has helped to bring this about.”

The project has been possible thanks to many kind donations from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the School of Mathematics and Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh, several private donors and a grant from Edinburgh World Heritage.

Professor John Playfair
John Playfair’s book Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth first popularised Hutton’s work on geology, in particular the concept that rock formations can read as a history of the earth. He made an important contribution to the creation of the 'Athens of the North' as the building of the New Observatory on Calton Hill was due in large part to his efforts as the first President of the Astronomical Institution of Edinburgh, founded in 1811. He was also responsible for bringing his orphaned six year old nephew, William Henry Playfair, to Edinburgh in 1794. He adopted William who went on to be the most influential Edinburgh architect of the 1800s and played a leading role in shaping much of today’s World Heritage Site.

Even shortly after his burial, his friend Francis Jeffrey, editor of The Edinburgh Review wrote: "It has struck many people, we believe, so very extraordinary that so eminent a person as Mr Playfair should have been allowed ro sink into his grave in the midst of us, without calling forth about so much as an attempt  to commemorate his merit even in a common newspaper."

James Playfair
Throughout his short professional life, James Playfair, architect, produced designs for over sixty projects, including castles and large country houses, churches and civic buildings and concepts for new towns. Seven of his distinctive buildings survive today, with the neoclassical masterpiece, Cairness House in Aberdeenshire, his enduring monument.  At the age of twenty eight, he had established a practice in London and was exhibiting regularly at the Royal Academy. However, perhaps through over work, he died aged only 38. After his early death James’ young son William was adopted by John Playfair in Edinburgh. William went on to become one of Scotland’s greatest architects, responsible for many of Edinburgh’s finest public buildings.


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