An emblem of thy polish’d mind

Chapter one of ‘Repeats its love’: An emblem of thy polish’d mind [1]

Mavisbank survives as emblem of the polished mind. It should be a marvel to us all that ‘time past’ (as T.S. Eliot called it[2]) should survive in guises many – whether that guise represents everyday Scotland – such as the scattered stones of pre-improvement farming now mostly hidden as ankle-high history[3], or the folly on the hill that has lost its meaning. There is life in the stones of our past, not literally of course, but recreated in mind! Experience must teach us wariness of generalised history, and endeavour must be to return to the unique personhood lost, of which the stones, such as Mavisbank, might partly reveal.


Figure 1: Mavisbank as in Vitruvius Scoticus (1812) & Baron Clerk (1676-1755)

With Mavisbank we need reach back only a few hundred years; enough to gasp marvellously at the incredible scientific advance of man. As herald to such advance, Baron John Clerk (1676-1755) stands out from the catalogue of those gone. Iain G. Brown has listened (as scholar of Clerk’s diaries) to the Baron’s voice, captured in his words and surviving as an epiphany of individual enlightened thought. Yet Mavisbank is arguably emblem for what words alone cannot carry – the ephemeral nature of being – that we must live our life in the moment with as much joy and creativeness allowed by chance, shaping and nature.

In Baron Clerk, did we have that rare thing: the grounded polymath? His qualifications for the latter are certainly beyond dispute: advocate, politician, antiquary, architect, landscaper, man of letters, cultural virtuoso, scientific dilettante and all-round arbiter of taste. Clerk was, as argued by Iain G. Brown, the torch of enlightened Edinburgh – a torch that literally glowed in the minds of a world beyond. As to the grounded, John Clerk’s own words certainly reveal compassion, and sense of the everyday, reflected innately in his will for the common good. There has been a lot of drivel written about creative genius, which the likes of the aforementioned Dalrymple likes to expose! However much as we may enjoy Dalrymplian thought (he says what most will not), his overall take on humanity is surely rather too cynical to share ground with our Baron. Yet in shedding his pen-name, the retired doctor Dalrymple, (actually A. Daniels,) affirmed in a most eloquent summary, the ability to realise genius: the retired doctor of science and humanities that is Raymond Tallis.[4] He is mentioned only in connection with Mavisbank as today’s epitome of the grounded polymath.

The origins of Mavisbank, John Clerk’s ‘Country Seat,’ Scotland’s crucible of enlightened expression, go back to his father the first Baronet, who acquired the lands of Mossyhill (or Mossiehill) in Lasswade in 1694. The first Baronet had the Parisian flair of his grandparents, but was constrained by his native Calvinism. The Penicuik estate had been in the family since 1654, and by the time the Baronetcy was awarded by King Charles II in 1679, the house at Penicuik, known as Newbiggin was awash with continental art and artefact. Newbiggin always held a warm and sentimental place in the heart of John Clerk, our polymath and 2nd Baronet; it was after all his grandfather’s home, and had garnered all the culture since his family had left its ancient seat in Killihuntly (south of Inverness). When his father died in 1722, John said of Newbiggin ‘It shows an aged and wrinkled brow…’ Yet together with his father he had transformed the Penicuik estate into a magnificent park, planting over 3 million trees, all of which had been grown on the estate by their own hands. Clerk (as our polymath shall be referred to from now on) never really left Penicuik, but desperate to express inspiration continental, both in landscape and in stone, he bought in 1710, the estate of Cammo. Upon this Edinburgh estate, over the following decade, he designed a new landscape with ash and plane avenues, shaped banks and parterres and a grove laid out to the doocot. He also planted an orchard, embedded a Portuguese garden, and finished the whole by a canal leading outwards by allee to the summer house that he had himself built.


Figure 2: Newbiggin, Penicuik: ‘it shows a wrinkled brow.’

Today Cammo is once again a park but the house, so badly destroyed in fire before last century, is now only stub and doorway. However one only needs to return to 1976, when the house survived, roofless yes, but otherwise complete, as depicted in a special series of Scotsman photographs. That same year James Simpson wrote to Sarah Seymour of SAVE BRITAIN’S HERITAGE: “Cammo – another house incidentally in which you might be interested, is in a disastrous, possibly terminal condition, and previously on offer to the National trust of Scotland to whom it is a great embarrassment.”[5] Incidentally Robert Louis Stevenson based ‘House of Shaws,’ in his novel Kidnapped, on Cammo.

It is good to appreciate that Clerk was not pushed from home to learn, and that his school years were spent locally in the school at Penicuik under the Dominie Alexander Strachan, and it was only after such grounding did he leave home for Leyden where he studied Law. It was here he met Dr Herman Boerhaave, who became a lifelong friend, and who having first instilled medical pursuit in Clerk, subsequently trained two of Clerk’s sons. Indeed when Boerhaave died he left his entire library to Clerk much of which is still housed in Penicuik.

Clerk, for reasons not clear, was ‘passed over more than once for the office of Lord Chief Baron’ and this despite being one of the influential pursuers of the Union. Various explanations of such ‘pause’ have been given, but should be reserved to the field of pathography. However we can acknowledge the most obvious consequence: Clerk was then to serve 47 years as ‘Baron’ Exchequer for Court. This was a part-time job, 2 or 3 days a week at most, and paid handsomely for all that. This arrangement, whatever its basis, allowed Clerk to pursue his tastes. Of that we should be glad. It is in this vein that we must understand that Clerk pursued a highly elaborated neo-Roman lifestyle of Pliny – honestum otium.[6]

It was the time spent in Rome that most influenced Clerk, and along with Alexander Gordon (the mysterious man who was known as ‘Singing Sandie’) he became the greatest antiquarian of his epoch. The hot-bed of genius that flourished in his company circled in antiquarian pursuit, and it has been rather marvellous to discover that the circle drawn was around Mavisbank (but more of that later.) In 1725, Alexander Gordon, antiquary and humanist, regaled Clerk as Scotland’s Maecenas`. Classical scholars will know that Gaius Cilnius Maecenas 70BC – 8BC was a confidante and political advisor to Octavian who became the first Emperor of Rome as Caesar Augustus. As patron for the new generation of Augustan poets the name Maecenas became a byword for a wealthy, generous, and enlightened patron of the arts. Yes, this was indeed Clerk.

John-ClerkFigure 3: Baron, Sir John Clerk (1676-1755)

Clerk explained in 1727 that his readings of ‘the Classicks` had taught him that ‘the ancient Greek and Roman structures, or the designs of them by Palladio and others, ought to be standards fit for the imitation of our modern architects.’ Such realization was laid bare in a long poem that he compiled that very year; The Country Seat,’ [7]which set out all of his ideas on country house architecture and landscaping. The central argument of Clerk’s poem was that landed status and activity, must be expressed through a much more specialised graduation of house sizes than hitherto – in all cases, based on ‘how the ancients formed their rural Seats.’ There should, he argued, be four distinct types of house: the ‘Royal Palace,’ the ‘House of State,’ the ‘Useful House,’ and the ‘Villa.’

On one of the piers of Mavisbank’s principal façade, Clerk had ‘villa’ inscribed – a lovely understated touch that cannot presently be seen from the security fence that now encircles so forlornly.[8] Mavisbank was Clerk’s summer retreat – his villa suburbana – nearer to the city than Penicuik House, and nearer to his place of public duty. The analogy that Kay draws in his essay, that Mavisbank was always ‘somewhat akin to Clerk’s mistress’, carries a certain truth, but others might suggest that honestum otium was to Clerk more a way of life rather than an indulgent affair.  Clerk was surely guided by the precepts of Horace and Pliny: at Mavisbank Clerk wanted to retire and enjoy; to read his classical texts, and to display – a musaeum – his unrivalled antiquarian collection. Yes, undoubtedly an indulgence, but one in which Clerk never lost sight of taste simplified and the precept that this was his expression of the villa ideal; in Kay’s rather fine words:  ‘a place of the heart and the mind as much as it is finely cut stone, carved ornament and well-mixed lime mortar.’[9] Thus the argument is made, that Mavisbank survives not just as a beautiful building, a building that represents continentally revived taste, but more still, it survives as an idea and a way of life.


Figure 4: William Adam (1689-1748) the ‘Universal Architect of his Country’ and his tomb in Greyfriar’s, Edinburgh

Much has now been written about the working relationship between Clerk and William Adam ‘the Universal Architect of his Country’ and on this subject one must return to William Kay and Iain G. Brown. Whilst primary records, particularly the diaries of Clerk, have shed new light, it does seem quite clear that Clerk, whilst never an architect, had an unshakeable vision for his villa, and for much of the build, and as patron, his expression was dominant over his architect William Adam. Indeed at outset, he provided Adam with a copy of Palladio and the works of Jones. What Clerk most feared was the sort of ‘ideal’ that prevailed commonly in his country’s midst – the laird’s tower – typified indeed in a sketch by his father in an early 1696 design. In a carefully worded surmise, Adam described his Master’s initial design of Mavisbank as ‘a very small Box, and Genteel too,’ surely as a softening leader to his request to raise the house a further storey. However Clerk was adamant: ‘If I had complied, the fabrick wou`d have lookt like a Touer, and been quite spoiled, but however, the Architecture may please or displease, it is oueing chiefly to my self.’[10]

Adair-mapFigure 5: John Adair and his map of 1735

Correspondence reveals early debate between patron and commissioned architect. Clerk, a composer and virtuoso, privately taught by Corelli, was a very fine musician particularly on the harpsichord, and was said to hold his own in the finest musical circles of Europe. Eheu! quam diris hominis, for example, was written following a bout of smallpox, and Clerk fearing death, asked his doctor – Boerhaave – to write the words. Such musical gift is mentioned here most specifically, for in realms of proportion, musically, architecturally, or otherwise, Clerk had the finest measure.  Mavisbank as depicted in Vitruvius Scoticus[11] has, for many, the visual appeal of balance, proportion and simplicity, with the window-rhythm of 1-3-1, composed symmetrically within embracing pavilions, and ‘musically’ demoted through a downward scroll of the tied cornice. It should be clear that Clerk never intended to build the pavilions: this was on the insistence of Adam, and indeed interesting debate over this continued throughout the spring of 1725, with counter-arguments given on building aesthetics, landscape placement, and views out-with. Such debate between Adam and Clerk, should establish that ‘the polish’d mind’ should perhaps not be singular as expressed.

If you have walked its park, you will appreciate Mavisbank has a deliberate, yet unusual placing within its landscape: as it is sited on a platform at the foot of a hill looking north-east down the Esk valley. Clerk was determined on such placing, for he wanted his salon view to rest beside the tumulus that he had identified as a Roman Station. The tumulus, now covered by Rhododendrons most rampant, is still fun to climb, but if H.G. Wells, the exponent of degeneration[12], jumped upon his time-machine, he would chose to return to 1750 (in the years short of Clerk’s death) to help the old man take the “winding ascent up to (the tumulus), with hedges planted from the bottome to the top.” And then to look down upon the central avenue of the goosefoot, and beyond to the canal, and the doocot’ resting upon the horizon’s ridge.

The allees were planted by Clerk as avenues of elm or lime with the gliding angles between planted as wildernesses. This all sounds rather wonderful: a fresh admixture of nature, constrained through sophisticated manipulation of eye; contrasting soft wilderness with tapered restraining edge. Today, no such designed landscape survives in Scotland and for appeal alone, let alone historical significance, it would be lovely to see such planting recreated, complete with Clerk’s “winding path studded with inscribed pedestals through the wilderness” connecting, as it once did, the walled garden to Mavisbank House.

The central allee was formed for part of its length by a long narrow canal that much later was softened into a small lochan. The canal appears on the Strathtyrum painting (see page), though this romanticised picture is, of course, of too late a date to include Clerk’s son John – later the artist John of Eldin – playing boats in the canal. It is rather wonderful to consider that such innocent boyhood play, upon a designed canal long since forgotten, was to be pivotal to our empire. This is no flimsy exaggeration. Had that ‘very perfect gentle knight[13] been alive today, Commodore Clerk (10th of Penicuik) would have delighted in handing to us the ‘cork and wax models of ships’ with which his forefather played on Mavisbank canal, and from which came that brilliant Naval tactic of ‘breaking the line,’ a tactic that contributed, in no small degree, to the winning of battles from Dominica to Trafalgar. All the more remarkable in that John of Eldin was never a mariner!


Figure 6: The fire of 1899 that gutted Sir James Clerk’s Palladian House; John Adair’s map of Penicuik estate

Certainly it is no misapprehension that Edinburgh is understood as of Greek influence – long has our capital been celebrated as the Athens of the North!’ Mavisbank though was unquestionably epiphany of enlightened expression of Roman culture. In 1739 a visitor to Mavisbank, Roger Gale, remarked that:

 “We went for two days to Mavisbank, four miles distant from the City to the south. It is a seat of Baron Clerk’s built by himself . . . one of the most elegant villas I ever saw for structure, situation, woods and waters. Behind it on the top of a small steep hill was an ancient trench or agger not big enough for a town or camp but probably a place for Druid worship. This he has enclosed and made a winding ascent up to it with hedges planted from the bottom to the top. The kitchen garden is a great circle walled-in the bottom of a steep valley, surrounded with a fine rapid river, and gives a most beautiful prospect to the house and other gardens above it. You would think yourself rather in a valley rival Tivoli than Edenborough!”[14]

Of the two walled gardens the large oval plan garden has survived and contains two yew trees believed to have been planted by Clerk. The outer walls were built at the same time as the original house, using the same stone from Penicuik quarry. ‘Windows’ made in the east side of the wall were said to have been made to view the adjacent cricket ground! The oval walled garden must have been spectacular with its ponds, fountain and bronze statuary, particularly as looked down upon from the house and explaining perhaps why Roy depicted it as a perfect circle, when most clearly it is oval. Clerk’s surviving yews, emblems of longevity, carry a story about the hospitality of the mind’, the phrase Singing Sandie gave to our Baron. This story will be rehearsed in a later chapter.


Figure 7: General Roy’s map: Mavisbank, walled garden & goose-foot

Every artist, of any persuasion or creative lean, will carry doubts. Yet such candour is not easy to reveal, and rarely carries in time, let alone record; and so to discover that Clerk documented his doubts within his diary, may for some, add delicacy to his polish’d mind. Humanity, then or now, does not like to accommodate such uncertainty. In retrospect, Clerk held that Mavisbank had been too densely sculptural in its ornamentation; hard to consider now given the restrained beauty of the surviving building. Long before the build, Clerk a wealthy man, worried rather openly about the indulgence of his villa and ferme ornee. Neither Kay nor Brown, in their respective manuscripts, could decide the true basis of this conscience. It may simply have been straightforward concern for cost – for an example of the escalation of such; we only need consider the parliament built a decade ago! Cost was always at the fore in Baron Clerk’s letters to Adam, but it should not be forgotten that Clerk had an extended family to support, all his children and 13 siblings.


Figure 8: In 2003 Mavisbank appeared on BBC Television series ‘Restoration’ and came second.[15]

In the courtyard, embraced by Adam’s pavilions, Sir John Clerk penned a design for a formal garden of parterres though it is unclear whether this was ever realised. This leads to speculation: did Clerk retract his parterre hoping not to lose the balance of ‘nature enhanced by art?’ Today the only ‘ornamentation’ is the lingering iron debris from the cars brokered by the nasty rogue that was Archie Stevenson, who in the months following the (deliberate) fire of 1973 started a hopeless insurance claim for a new roof.[16] The photographs that cover the three decades of Archie and Caravan, with the courtyard of Mavisbank littered by wrecks, are now thanks to the BBC program ‘Restoration 2003’ starkly ingrained upon the consciousness of our nation.

Mavisbank-Archie's-wayFigure 9: Under the ownership of Archie Stevenson, Mavisbank is to be the roofless backdrop to his scrap-yard

The simple rhythm of the square that forms Mavisbank, divided by pediment, is beautifully restrained. Here again we must thank Adam, for he persuaded Clerk to abandon the idea of mounting within the rising, the coat of arms, advising that this would be better placed above the main door. Adam suggested a single oculus in the centre of the pediment, as it ‘will have the best Effect with a large piece of ffoliage On each syde, & that all the Leaff’s fflowers or ffruits be very Large as being farr from ye Eye, And for that end 6 inches of Rough stone be left Swelling without ye plain of the Pediment for Mr Silverstynes to work upon ffor the more the ffoliage rises and the darker the shades are, so much the better at that distance’.[17] Even in decay, Adam’s vision of the pediment retains a beauty that is lovely to behold though now added to by nature with crows perched and nesting, within the lead clock of the cracked oculus.

More-seedheads-(2)Figure 10: Oculus, crows and seed-heads (2009)

This year, 2009, preservation started upon the shell of Penicuik House, which has somehow survived roofless since the fire of 1899. Thomas Addyman has undertaken the task of revealing the lost designed landscape that, though long overgrown, must have been in its day one of Scotland’s 18th century glories. The scale of the Clerk Policies stretching through and beyond the North Esk is still something to marvel. One feature, currently being revealed, is Clerk’s 1751 folly Knights Law which crowns a wooded hillock within a copse of most ancient yews. It was designed by Clerk not just as skyline ornament, but as a useful place for rearing doves: the original doocot which was nearer the house ‘being much infested with hawks and gleds.’ Clerk’s ingenious feal-dykes maintain the view to countryside beyond yet still, most effectively, retain livestock.


Figure 11: Itinerarium Septentrionale: the 1726 guide to our Roman antiquities by Alexander Gordon [18]

The 11th Baronet now lives in the steading block converted many years back. This is no ordinary steading and has steeple tower, clock and O’on. Surely every visitor over two centuries has mused over the function of the stone dome (O’on) that dissects so beautifully the steepled steading. Many no doubt, like this writer, have ignorantly considered it as a stone observatory, appreciating of course the Clerk family’s special reach into science. This of course is not so, as any reader of Walter Scott’s first novel ‘The Antiquarian’ might just appreciate. Johnathon Oldbuck, the antiquarian in this novel was of course Alexander Gordon ‘Singing Sandie,’ the great friend of Clerk. He was a frequent guest at Old Penicuik House, where he had access to the splendid museum of antiquities, and accompanied Clerk on many Northumbrian explorations, as well as on others nearer home. The O’on at Penicuik was a replica of Arthur’s O’on at Stenhousemuir, the discovery that encouraged Alexander Gordon to form the ‘Equites Romani’ or the Roman Knights. This group, including Clerk and Gale, attempted to record all the Roman antiquities in Scotland. From this Alexander Gordon eventually published his Itinerarium Septentrionale but in the course of doing so betrayed his antiquarian friends by publishing private letters without asking. In 1741, Alexander Gordon left for Carolina. He was a mysterious man, notoriously haphazard in his affairs and incriminated in fraud. The traditions of the Penicuik family represent him as ‘a grave man, of formal habits, tall, lean, and usually taciturn.’ He died the year before Clerk, in North Carolina. Alexander Gordon to death, kept secret his true family of origin. He was born before 1692 in Aberdeenshire and studied Classics at MarischalCollege in Aberdeen before leaving to tour the continent as tutor in music and languages. It was probably on the continent where he first met Clerk.

HawthorndenFigure 12: Hawthornden castle, where Ian Rankin now writes and William Drummond

This section on Sir John Clerk ends with the words of his great-grandfather, the poet William Drummond (1585-1649) of Hawthornden:

Ye who so curiously do paint your thoughts,
Enlight’ning ev’ry line in such a guise,

That they seem rather to have fall’n from skies [19]

[1] Pringle, Dr John (1737) Sir John Clerk and Mavisbank: The Patron, his Family, his Cultural World and his Dream; National Archives of Scotland; GD18/5096/3; 24 December 1737

[2] T.S. Eliot (1936) Burnt Norton: (No. 1 of ‘Four Quartets’); Collected Poems 1909–1935

[3] BBC Radio Scotland (2009) Ankle high history: Rochteth, Jock’s Road, Glen Clova; the group led by Flora Davidson for Scotland’s Rural Past. Peter J. Gordon was an enthusiastic member of this group and wrote ‘I shall not want’ for the Leopard Magazine. Gordon, Peter J. (March 2008) Deeside Tales: the stories of a small glen; a book not published

[4] Daniels, Anthony (June 2009) Underrated: Raymond Tallis; Standpoint magazine

[5] Simpson, James OBE (2March 1976) Handwritten letter to SAVE BRITAIN’S HERITAGE. Original in Archive of Simpson & Brown, Architects

[6] Pliny – and his cultivation of honestum otium; the discovery of the ‘interior life’ through prolonged reflection, both in nature and culture

[7] National Archives of Scotland (1727) ‘The Country Seat’, a poem by Sir John Clerk; Reference GD18/4404

[8] National Archives of Scotland (18th century) Copy inscription on the front pedestal of Mavisbank House. GD18/4432

[9] Kay, Dr William (2004) William Adam and Mavisbank. A paper compiled for the Mavisbank Trust

[10] National Archives of Scotland; Papers of Clerk family of Penicuik, Midlothian 1373-1966; GD18

[11] Adam, W (1812) Vitruvius Scoticus: being a collection of plans, elevations, and sections of public buildings, noblemen’s and gentlemen’s houses in Scotland: principally from the designs of the late William Adam Esq., architect, Edinburgh

[12] Barnett, Richard (May 2005) Education or degeneration: E. Ray Lankester, H. G. Wells and The outline of history; Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London. This paper uses the friendship and collaboration of Edwin Ray Lankester (1847–1929), zoologist, and Herbert George Wells (1866–1946), novelist and journalist, to challenge the current interpretation of late Victorian concern over degeneration as essentially an intellectual movement with little influence in contemporary debates over social and political problems. Degeneration theory provided for Lankester and Wells the basis both for a personal bond and for an active programme of social and educational reform.

[13] Brown, Dr Iain Gordon (2002) Commodore Sir John Dutton Clerk of Penicuik (1917-2002), 10th Baronet; National Archives of Scotland; ‘The tenth baronet of Penicuik was truly ‘a very perfect gentle knight.’

[14] Bodleian Library; Correspondence and Papers of Roger Gale (1672-1744), antiquary

[15] BBC History Magazine Restoration (2003) A special preview Britain‘s historic buildings are at risk, London. Held at RCAHMS F.9.5.RES.P British Broadcasting Company; Restoration 2003; Presented by Gryff Rhys Jones; Mavisbank supported by Kirsty Wark.

[16] When the last owner, Archie, died, the house was left to four named people said to be living in the United States. But following an extensive search, it is now thought that Mr. Stevenson fabricated these names. The house is safeguarded by Historic Scotland under its designation as a ScheduledAncientMonument until the issue of ownership can be resolved.

[17] National Archives of Scotland (1723): The cartouche at the entry door. It is to support the coat of arms. Letter to Sir John Clerk from William Adam, architect, to introduce Mr Silverstyne, the carver, who is to do the work; GD 18/4726

[18] Gordon, Alexander (1726) Itinerarium Septentrionale: A journey through most of the Counties of Scotland and those in the North of England

[19] Drummond, William (1656) Ye who so curiously do paint your thoughts; as edited by Edward Philips, Drummond’s nephew

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