A Very Big Collection

Posted by in General Collections, Skills for the Future

Oh dear, this blog has been a little quiet recently – but with good reason. For the last few weeks we have been completely immersed in the world of the 19th Century Edinburgh Architect, William Notman. The large collection of drawings, sketchbooks, textbooks, building specifications and letters was in dire need of sorting and we were given the task of making sense of it all.

The name ‘Notman’ is well-known ’round these parts. Apparently many have tackled the collection in the past but for various reasons – probably just the sheer number of items coupled with the fact that there is little known about the architect – no one was ever able to complete it.

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The collection was challenging to say the least. Firstly, the vast majority of drawings were in very big rolls within large cube tubes and in no particular order. To find the space to actually role out each drawing to try to identify it was tricky, not to mention having to move every box to whatever room we were using and then put them all back in the Main Store at the end of each day – quite the workout. This probably explains a lot to our colleagues here at John Sinclair House who have been watching, with bewilderment, us trying to maneuver boxes up and down stairs and in and out of doors for the last few weeks.

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Aside from the tricky logistics of moving a collection this big, our second challenge was trying to identify buildings, people, handwriting, etc. As with our last project, the Mary Syme Boyd Collection, we had to carry out a lot of detective work to start putting the collection into a coherent order. This meant carrying out many phases of sifting through every box until we had narrowed it down enough to start compiling projects. We relied on the Dictionary of Scottish Architects for much of our information and the NLS georeferenced maps were extremely useful for locating obsolete street names and also for dating buildings.

Unsurprisingly we were faced with, you guessed it, another challenge! This time in the form of what we like to call ‘mystery boxes’! One day, whilst moving part of the collection out of the Print Room to investigate more drawings Anna spotted a box labelled ‘Notman’, and then another, and another, and another. Four new boxes to add to our already extensive hoard. What a treat! This was admittedly a little disheartening but nevertheless the show must go on.

In the end the collection proved to be immensely enlightening. It allowed us to better understand the development of parts of Edinburgh but it also crucially gave us the opportunity to hone our cataloging and rehousing skills, as well as our problem solving skills.

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A little bit about William Notman, 1809-1893

William Notman is my name

and Scotland is my nation. Northfield is

my dwelling place a pleasant habitation.

William Notman was born in Kirkurd, Peebleshire to John Notman and Margaret Kemp. He was brought up in the Bonnington/Newhaven area of Edinburgh and for most of his life and career was based at Northfield Cottage on Newhaven Road. His father acted as Clerk of Works to the Duke of Atholl and his cousin, another John Notman, was born in Edinburgh and also became an architect but migrated to Philadelphia, USA in 1831. Confusingly both William and his cousin John worked in the office of the eminent William Henry Playfair and the collection was thought to have contained work by all three of the Notmans as well as Playfair himself. We uncovered many drawings signed by William Notman, as well as a substantial amount of drawings relating to Dunkeld Cathedral, which we know John Notman Sr. assisted Archibald Elliot on. There were also a number of drawings and specifications signed by W.H. Playfair, George Angus, John Watherston and William Burn but there appeared to be none by Notman’s cousin John.

The drawings purporting to come from John Notman Sr.’s hand show a gift of draftsmanship that he clearly was to pass on to his son as we began to instantly recognise William’s style by it’s crisp lines and extremely beautiful shading and colouring. Additonaly, he obviously had a fascination and propensity for calculations and accuracy as the collection contains a sizable amount of full-scale detail drawings of mouldings – not the easiest to role out when space is limited!

As apprentice to Playfair, Notman appears to have worked on a considerable amount of renowned buildings including:

  • George Heriot’s Hospital
  • Surgeon’s Hall
  • Advocate’s Library
  • The Royal Scottish Academy
  • Floors Castle
  • Donaldson’s Hospital

As a private practitioner Notman was prolific and varied in his projects. Some of the first drawings in his own name are of a series of houses at Haymarket Mills in 1852 as well as the main scheme for the Haymarket Mills and the adjacent Caledonian Distillery (1855). He worked on a number of projects in Hawick and even a hotel, the Star Inn in Moffat, probably his signature building – and also the world’s narrowest hotel! He designed shops throughout Edinburgh, villas in The Grange, including The Elms at Whitehouse Loan, and also a handsome warehouse for Trotter furniture makers on Market Street, which survives in part today. The collection also holds a considerable amount of plans and elevations for New Town tenements.

Proposal for alterations to Middleton Hall, East Lothian 1843

Proposal for alterations to Middleton Hall, East Lothian 1843

Unfortunately Notman seems to have been fairly unsung at the time of his death in 1893. There was no death notice in the Scotsman, nor was there an obituary. However, he has left his mark on Edinburgh, most notably the 140ft landmark chimney at Haymarket (although probably since extended) and The Elms in Whitehouse Loan – his masterpiece in the Scottish Baronial Style. He does receive one mention though, albeit under the shadow of his mentor, in The Hawick Advertiser (15 August 1857) regarding the Wool Store he designed for a Mr. Wilson:

…the architect of this immense building is Mr. Notman of Edinburgh who was long assistant to the late eminent Mr. Playfair, who is noted as the best living architect in this country for the construction of large buildings.

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