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Cairness House, Aberdeenshire: (not as executed) design for a portico for Charles Gordon, 1784 (2)


The design is for a Doric portico with two pairs of coupled columns and a balustrade, below the cornice is a blank tablet placed in the centre. Recent photographs show the portico with a pediment rather than a balustrade and with a full Doric frieze, that is, no label. A comparison with Playfair's elevations for the entrance front (SM 78/3/4,5,7) show variant designs for the portico, all pedimented and with Doric coupled columns. Ptolemy Dean (op.cit. below) wrote that 'Soane's chief modification to Playfair's design was to suggest the removal of the pediment above the entrance porch in order to admit more light into the entrance hall. This advice was ignored, with all the resulting problems that Soane anticipated, such as the ugly back of the pediment being visible through the fanlight from the inside [the fanlight has recently been filled-in]. But the detail of the columns (base roll mould without plinths) and the careful design for the steps, which neatly avoid blocking the basement windows, are all probable Soane refinements in execution.'

Robert Burn (1752-1815) was the original architect of Cairness built 1782-3 and then incorporated into the house designed by James Playfair (1755-1794), a Scottish architect who, by 1783 was established in London with an office in Bloomsbury. Playfair's remodelling and enlargement of Cairness was described by Colvin (op.cit. below) as 'remote and in some respects immature ... [but] remains as a remarkable testimony to his advanced architectural ideas'. Playfair's early death on 28 February 1794 aged 39 explains Soane's re-design for the portico that would have been one of the later elements to be built. Soane with Joseph Farington (painter and diarist, 1747-1821) 'helped his widow to dispose of his books and drawings, which were sold at Christies' on 10 January 1795 (catalogue in Soane Museum). It was then that Soane acquired the portfolio of drawings now in his Museum' (Colvin op.cit. below) that includes 11 drawings for Cairness, dated 1790 and (chimney details) 1793.

The RIBA Drawings Collection has twenty of Playfair's drawings including one for a lodge and gateway at Cairness, 1793 (see J.Lever, ed.), Catalogue of the Drawings Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects, O-R, 1976, p.77-79.

Literature. P.Dean, Sir John Soane and the country estate, 1999, p.185; H.Colvin, A Biographical dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840, 4th ed., 2008

Jill Lever, November 2012



Digitisation of the Drawings Collection has been made possible through the generosity of the Leon Levy Foundation

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Sir John Soane's collection includes some 30,000 architectural, design and topographical drawings which is a very important resource for scholars worldwide. His was the first architect’s collection to attempt to preserve the best in design for the architectural profession in the future, and it did so by assembling as exemplars surviving drawings by great Renaissance masters and by the leading architects in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries and his near contemporaries such as Sir William Chambers, Robert Adam and George Dance the Younger. These drawings sit side by side with 9,000 drawings in Soane’s own hand or those of the pupils in his office, covering his early work as a student, his time in Italy and the drawings produced in the course of his architectural practice from 1780 until the 1830s.

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Contents of Cairness House, Aberdeenshire: (not as executed) design for a portico for Charles Gordon, 1784 (2)