William Henry Playfair’s early 19th century architecture is interwoven into the city of Edinburgh, following on from the influence of Robert Adam in the 18th century. His City Observatory crowns Calton Hill, around which several of his residential terraces parade, leading to the unfinished replica of the Parthenon, the National Monument, while at the heart of the city his neoclassical temples house the National Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy, now joined underground by the modern extension that bears his name, and behind which stands his New College, unusually in Scots Gothic style.
On South Bridge, another neoclassical temple, his Royal College of Surgeons, stands a short distance from the Old College of Edinburgh University, started in 1789 to designs by Robert Adam, but halted in 1792 due to Adam’s death and the impact of the Napoleonic Wars. Playfair took over as architect in 1817 when work recommenced, with his designs including the splendid interiors of a natural history museum to house the University’s growing collection of zoological specimens.
Edinburgh University, like many ancient universities, has over the centuries built up huge and diverse scientific, art and library collections as a teaching and research resource. Lucy Skaer’s exhibition for the 2018 Edinburgh Festival explores the irrational and the serendipity nature of collections (often developed as a result of dispirit benefactions) and of connections between collections at the Talbot Rice Gallery at the University which today also includes Playfair’s natural history museum as its Georgian Gallery, a magnificent space built to house collections.
In her exhibition ‘The Green Man’, Skaer has done what university art galleries do best. She has combined work from contemporary artists, including herself, Fiona Connor, H.D., Will Holder, Rosalind Nashashibi and Hanneline Visnes, with objects, musical instruments, books and manuscripts from the University’s own collections, including a drawing by William Henry Playfair himself in 1817 for the new museums building.
The art has been carefully integrated into the architecture of the spaces, both historic and modern, and Fiona Conner has taken the architecture and made it art by removing doors and hanging them in the most unlikely places, in doing so opening up dark nooks and crannies that visitors are not meant to see showing hidden and confusing collections of debris and clutter.
It is in Playfair’s Georgian Gallery that it all comes together, with the upper level Round Room showing the early-20th century Dermatome Man in front of prints of seaweed, the walls of the upper balcony hung with Skaer’s adaptations of Henry Bradbury’s 19th century illustrations of ferns, and the floor covered in 8 paired “Sticks and Stones” made of different timbers and stone, along with ceramic and paper-pulp, one pair referring back to the previous one, with a balance between the natural form of the material and the refinement of the artist, into which are inserted different items from the artist’s studio which might otherwise have been discarded, thus taking on a life of its own and building collections for the future.