Several names recur through the architectural history of Edinburgh - William Playfair and Robert Adam are probably the best known of the city's stylists, along with Thomas Hamilton and David Bryce. William Burn was similarly influential with his major contributions to the city, along with his connections to several other figures who would be significant architects in their own right.
Burn was born in December 1789, one of the 16 children of another architect, Robert Burn, and his wife Janet Patterson. Robert Burn had been responsible for several of Edinburgh's landmarks, including St Cuthbert's church, the Nelson Monument, the Hermitage of Braid, and the original gravestone of Robert Fergusson in the Canongate Kirkyard.
Doubtless inspired by his father's work, young William was sent to London to train, and returned to Scotland in 1812 to begin his own career.
Burn lodged an application to take over Robert Adam's unfinished project to build Old College for the University of Edinburgh, in 1816, but lost out instead to William Playfair. Frustrated at this missed opportunity, and with no love lost between himself and Playfair, Burn turned his hand instead to commissions of large country houses which would help secure his status and reputation as a grand designer.
Within Edinburgh, Burn followed in his fathers footsteps to create some significant structures in a variety of styles, notably the Scots Baronial form. He would later act as a tutor to a variety of other architects, including:
- David Bryce, who would redesign the Bank of Scotland building and under whose practice Scots Baronial became iconic;
- John Lessels, who with David Cousin would develop what became the default tenement style of the Victorian 'improvements' of Old Town;
- and George Meikle Kemp, who would go on to design the Scott Monument on Princes Street.
Here are four of William Burn's structures which survive in Edinburgh to this day.
John Watson's Institution / National Galleries of Scotland Modern One
When John Watson, an Edinburgh solicitor, died in 1762, he left a bequest to establish an institution to provide care and education to 'faitherless' children in the city. In 1825, the institution commissioned William Burn to build a home to accommodate the children they worked with.
Watson's Institution closed in 1975, and in 1984 the grand building at Belford, to the west end of the New Town, was acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland. Today the building houses Modern One, a gallery of contemporary art and sculpture.
One of Edinburgh's castles (which aren't Edinburgh Castle), Lauriston Castle was at one time home to the Napier family, and in 1827 William Burn was commissioned to design a new wing for the sixteenth-century building.
Rather than imposing the Scots Baronial style on the much older building, Burn drew on original period details to create a Jacobean-styled extension for the house.
St John's Church
Located at the west end of Princes Street, and directly adjacent to St Cuthbert's, which his father had rebuilt nearly fifty years previously, St John's church was built in 1818 at a cost of £18,000.
It continues to operate as a church with a degree of social consciousness, as well as hosting a huge contemporary craft market every summer.
One of the largest monuments in the New Town can be found in the centre of St Andrew Square, and commemorates not St Andrew himself but a corrupt politician named Henry Dundas.
Burn was commissioned in the 1820s to produce the huge column that dominates the square, although the statue of Dundas at the top of it was added later by another artist, Robert Forrest.
Burn is presumed to have designed the mausoleum for his father which stands in the Old Calton Burial Ground (shown above) and also designed the Edinburgh Academy building on Henderson Row, to the north of the New Town, which remains actively used as a school, and featured as the Marcia Blaine school for Girls in the 1969 film adaptation of Muriel Spark's novella, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
The popularity of Gothic revival architecture - which evolved into Scots Baronial - can be partially attributed to Burn's use of it in his work, not only in Edinburgh but across the whole of the UK.
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