Putney Common, designs for a house for James Macpherson, c1785, unexecuted (6)
James Macpherson was born on 27 October 1736, the son of Andrew Macpherson, a farmer in Ruthven, Invernesshire and his wife Ellen. Both of James’s parents were relatives of the Chief of Clan Macpherson. James was educated at a school in Badenoch, Invernesshire and from 1752 he attended King’s College, Aberdeen. By 1755 he was a student of Marischal College and from 1755 to 1756 he was a divinity student at Edinburgh University. On leaving university Macpherson briefly ran a charity school in Ruthven, before becoming a family tutor.
Macpherson was particularly acknowledged for his literary achievements, with his works largely inspired by the Gaelic songs and ballads of his childhood. In 1758 he published his poem ‘The Highlander’ followed in 1762 by ‘Fingal’, which received considerable public attention. This was followed by his ‘Temora’ in 1763. Macpherson also published a translation of the poems of 'Ossian', but their authenticity was questioned within literary circles. Following Macpherson’s death it was discovered that the original texts had been considerably altered and included passages of Macpherson’s own work.
In 1761 Macpherson moved to London and in 1764 he took up the role of Secretary to the Governor of West Florida. He later became the London-based agent for John Macpherson, Governor General of Bengal. In 1780 he was elected MP for Camelford in Cornwall, a seat he held until his death in 1796. Politically, he supported his relative John Macpherson, who sided with the opposition during the Regency Crisis of 1788-89 and from 1790 Macpherson made several attempts to join the Prince of Wales’s circle.
In later life Macpherson returned to Invernesshire and acquired land near Kingussie where he intended to build a substantial house, ‘Belleville’. Macpherson died in February 1796 before Belleville was completed. Thorne notes comments made by Mrs Grant, a neighbour to his highland estates. She stated that Macpherson’s ‘heart and temper were originally good’ and that he showed ‘great inclination to be an indulgent landlord and very liberal to the poor’.
Macpherson died unmarried, but left behind five children for whom he made considerable provision. His son James succeeded to his father’s estates and he was later followed by his sister Juliet. Macpherson left £500 in his will for a monument to be erected, alongside a request to be buried in London, ‘the City where I lived and passed the greatest and best part of my life’. He was interred in the south transept of Westminster Abbey next to Robert Adam, who had died four years earlier.
Robert Adam’s designs for Macpherson’s villa on Putney Heath are one of three schemes produced by the office for the client. Later designs were also made for Macpherson’s Belleville House, Badenoch, Invernesshire (SM Adam volume 31/63-76) along with a further undated scheme for Tully Soul, Perthshire (SM Adam volume 46/7).
These unexecuted designs for Putney Heath are for a new house in the castle style. The exact location of Macpherson’s Putney villa is uncertain, however a local newspaper report dating to 1915 links Gifford House to James Macpherson. Gifford House was a classical-style villa constructed in c1760 and bordered by Putney Heath and Tildesley Road. The house was demolished in c1950 to make way for a new housing estate.
A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume II, Index pp. 3, 26, 30, 79; ‘James Macpherson’, www.westminster-abbey.com; R.G. Thorne, ‘Macpherson, James (1736-96) of Putney Heath, Surr. and Belville, Inverness, www.historyofparliamentonline.org; D.S Thompson ‘Macpherson, James (1736-1796), September 2004, www.oxforddnb.com; ‘Gifford House Putney Heath- c1895: front view’, www.boroughphotos.org/wandsworth; ‘Gifford House, Putney Heath- 1947: front view showing Palladian portico’, www.boroughphotos.org/wandsworth; 17th September 1915, The Wandsworth Borough News, www.wandswortharchives.wordpress.com (accessed February 2021)