Cairness House, Aberdeenshire: (not as executed) design for a portico for Charles Gordon, 1784 (2)
Charles Gordon (1749-96) of Buthlaw and Cairness was an absentee plantation owner. He purchased the Georgia estate of Trelawny, Jamaica in c.1778, subsequently visiting occassionally. He built Cairness House reportedly using the profits from the Georgia estate and the enslaved people on it.
Soane's 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; Legacies of British Slavery database, UCL: www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs