John Playfair, by Sir Henry Raeburn, circa 1811 - NPG 840 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

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John Playfair

by Sir Henry Raeburn
oil on canvas, circa 1811
49 3/4 in. x 39 1/2 in. (1264 mm x 1003 mm)
Purchased, 1890
NPG 840

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John Playfair

6 March 2018, 15:17

Professor John Playfair FRS was Professor of Mathematics and of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University. The Eldest son of the Rev. James Playfair, he was born at Benvie in 1748. He became Bursar of St.Andrew's University at the age of 14 and graduated in 1765. As a student he was chosen to deliver lectures for the sick Professor of Natural Philosophy. While still only 18 he contested the Chair at Marischal college, Aberdeen. Although unsuccessful only 2 of the 6 rival candidates were judged to have excelled him. He completed his theological studies at St. Mary's College, St.Andrew's and went to Edinburgh until his father's death in 1772, when he returned to Perthshire to look after his younger brothers and sisters. He was licenced to preach by Dundee Presbytery in 1770 and was ordained Minister of Liff and benvie in succession to his father in 1773.. He became Moderator of the Synod of Angus and Mearns before resigning the living in 1782 to move to Edinburgh where he became tutor of the 2 sons of Ferguson of Raith 1783-7. During all this time he never neglected his own Philosophical research and study. in 1774 he went to Shiehallion, Perthshire to conduct experiments with the Astronomer Royal Dr Maskelyne, who became a lifelong friend and introduced him to the leading Scientific men of the day . In 1779his first contribution to science appeared in the Royal Society's Transactions for the year. ' On the Arithmetic of Impossible Quantities ', which is said to exhibit a greater taste for purely analytical investigation than shown by any of the British Mathematicians of that time. In 1785 he was appointed joint Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh University, and in 1805 he exchanged this chair for that of Natural Philosophy, which he held until his death. He published a number of important works. Described as 'one of the greatest ornaments of the University of Edinburgh ', he was one of the original Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783 and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1807. In 1815 he began a 17 month 4,000 mile geological tour of Europe to gather material for a new work , but fell ill soon after returning to Edinburgh, where he died unmarried in 1819. At his burial in the Old Calton burial ground there were some 500 mourners. In Edinburgh he lived with his mother until her death in 1805, when he moved to Albany Row in the New Town. Many students lodged with him and benefited from his wise counsel and warm friendship, including his nephew, the architect William Henry Playfair and the future Prime Minister, Lord John Russell ' to whose counsel Lord John expressed deep indebtedness'. John Playfair's portrait was painted at least 4 times by Sir Henry Raeburn, a personal friend - one is owned by Edinburgh University, another hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London and a third is in Canada.A bust was made by Sir Francis Chantry and a monument to his memory, designed by his nephew William Henry Playfair was built on Calton Hill in Edinburgh in 1826. Craters on the Moon and on Mars have been named after him. But his greatest work is his 'Illustrations on the Huttonian Theory of the Earth ' ( Edinburgh 1802 ) Although Hutton is regarded as the 1st great British geologist , it was John Playfair who made his work known. In the words of the DNB, 'It not only gave popularity to Hutton's theory, but helped create the modern science of geology ' His biography of Hutton was regarded a century later as ' a work which for luminous treatment and graceful direction stands still without rival in English Geological Literature'. There can be no doubt that Professor John made a great impact as a teacher and , writer, possessing a ' cordial combination of the 2 aristocracies of rank and letters' One of his pupils described him as a ' charming teacher, so simple, unaffected and sincere in manner, so chaste in style , so clear in demonstration'. It was said ' He possessed, indeed, in the highest degree, all the characteristics both of a fine and powerful understanding - at once penetrating and vigilant - but more distinguished , perhaps, for the caution and sureness of its march than for the brilliancy or rapidity of its movements' And again, ' Though the most social of human beings, and the most disposed to encourage and sympathise with the gaiety and joviality of others, his own spirits were in general rather cheerful than gay, or at least never rose to any turbulence or tumult of merriment...his own satisfaction might generally be traced in a slow and temperate smile , gradually mantling over his benevolent and intelligent features, and lighting up the countenance of the Sage with the expression of the mildest and most genuine philanthropy'. Similar testimony comes from Lord Cockburn's ' Memorials of His Time ', ' No one who knew Playfair can ever resist basking in his remembrance. The enlargement of his popularity after he began to verge towards age , was the natural result of the beautiful process by which the delightful philosopher increased in moral awareness as he declined in years. Admired by all men, and beloved by all women, of whose virtues and intellect he was always champion, society felt itself the happier and the more respectable from his presence.
Works :
Illustration of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth 1802
Biography of Hutton 1803
Outlines of Natural Philosophy 2 Vols. Edinburgh 1812,1816
Elements of Geometry . Edinburgh 1795
Bibliography: Dictionary of National Biography
Biographical Dictionary of Scientists Challinor published by Black 1969

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