Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of an architect, possibly James Craig (1739-1795), seated in a room with a copy of ‘Palladio’, an architectural plan on the wall behind , c.1770

School Scottish 

Portrait miniature of an architect, possibly James Craig (1739-1795), seated in a room with a copy of ‘Palladio’, an architectural plan on the wall behind, School Scottish
Watercolour on ivory
18th Century
Oval, 2 ½ in. (64mm.) high
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This unusual portrait miniature of an architect by an unknown artist is thought to depict James Craig, famous for his design of the first New Town of Edinburgh.

He was born in Edinburgh and was the eldest son of a Scottish merchant, William Craig and his wife Mary Thomson, the sister of the poet James Thomson. Little is known about Craig’s early life but his first architectural design is thought to have been for a bridge crossing the drained north loch. This bridge would have encouraged businesses to develop north of the city however, Craig’s plans were rejected and a different bridge was built two years later.

In 1766 Craig won first prize in a competition to design the layout of the New Town in Edinburgh but his plans were significantly modified by an advisory council including John Adam and William Mylne, both contemporary architects. This did not deter Craig, whose greatest architectural achievement was the Physicians’ Hall for the Royal College of Surgeons on George Street in 1776, an ambitious Palladian style building with four Corinthian columns set in a portico. Initially the architectural plan depicted in this portrait miniature was thought to be the plan the for Physicians’ Hall, however, a contemporary account fails to mention a large octagonal or circular room in the centre of the building which makes this justification impossible.

The Royal College of Physicians had rejected several building plans for their new hall between 1750 and 1770, including two drawings by Robert Adam which proved too expensive. Although Craig’s plan for the hall was chosen and built, with an exterior and interior decorated with artwork, practically it was unable to fulfil the needs of the students studying there and was quickly demolished. The site was sold to Scotland’s New Commercial Bank that built a new project that still stands today.

Throughout James Craig’s career he never quite achieved the fame he deserved and was often undervalued by his clients. He died unmarried and penniless in 1795, he even had to pawn the Gold Medal that he won for the designs of the New Town of Edinburgh to look after his elderly mother and aunt. He was buried in an unmarked grave until 1967 when a plaque was laid on the site. After his death Craig’s library was sold, an extraordinary collection of architectural literature, where Palladio’s I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura, the book held by the sitter in this miniature, would have almost certainly had a place.

Only one portrait of James Craig survives, painted by David Allan at the height of the architect’s fame in 1781, now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Although it cannot be verified at this stage, the sitter in this portrait miniature, certainly an architect, looks remarkably like James Craig in Allan’s portrait. The architectural plan illustrated in this portrait miniature is based on Palladio’s Villa Capra la Rotonda, built in the 16th century in Vicenza, it provided the basis of fashionable 18th century neoclassical and Palladian architectural design.
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