From 1702-7, Sir John Clerk of Penicuik represented Whithorn in the Scottish Parliament. This seat was doubtless gained through the influence of his first wife’s brother, the Earl of Galloway, and her cousin the “Union” Duke of Queensberry. Politically a Whig and Anglophile, Clerk was in 1706-7 a commissioner for the Act of Union and was returned the member for Whithorn to the first Parliament of Great Britain. In the following year he was made a Baron of the newly constituted Court of Exchequer of Scotland. This administered the financial affairs of Scotland and it brought him a salary of £500 per annum – such a parcel of rogues in a nation. But Clerk defended his salary, “I have always thought that my salary as a Baron of the Exchequer was publick money and a gratification I owed to my Country, and therfor I laid out the whole of it and some of my privat patrimony for the Improvement of my Country…”
Clerk was born in 1676, and educated first at Glasgow and then at Leyden University where he studied law. Whilst at Leyden he suggested to his father that he should be permitted to visit Italy to see its art and architecture since “all the world are but imitators of the Italian masters”. His two year Grand Tour, during which he visited Germany, Austria, Italy and France was begun in 1697. At Rome he pursued the study of antiquity under the guidance of Champini, music with Corelli, and architecture under a drawing master.
On his return Clerk was enthusiastic patron of the arts in the early years of the Scottish enlightenment. He was friendly with the poet Allan Ramsay and was an early patron of William Adam, one of Scotland’s leading architects and builders. Adam, described by Clerk as “the Universal Architect of Scotland”, had an extensive practice working for many of the leading Whig aristocracy. His business included contracting and building work as well as design, and was continued after his death by his sons John, James and Robert. Robert Adam subsequently became the most famous architect of the 18th century.
It was to William Adam that Clerk turned in 1722 when he set about building his own house of Mavisbank. This is the ‘little villa’ of Clerk’s poem The Country Seat, to which Adam’s book of designs, Vitruvius Scoticus, is closely related. The importance of the partnership between Clerk and Adam to the development of Scottish architecture cannot be overstated. Built in the classical style, the main house is linked by screen walls to flanking pavilions. A fire in 1973 destroyed the roof and the house is currently a shell.
Mavisbank shot to fame in 2003 by becoming one of the finalists in the first series of BBC2’s Restoration. Selected as one of six Scottish sites in the competition, Mavisbank captured the Nation’s heart, winning votes not just from Edinburgh region, but from supporters throughout the UK. Sadly, the house fell short of gaining the number of votes needed to win the competition, missing out on an estimated £3.5 million prize. Mavisbank’s inclusion on the World Monument Fund’s 2008 list of the 100 most endangered historical sites in the world has provide further impetus to the effort to restore the house and its designed landscape.
The master mason at Mavisbank was John Baxter Senior. His son, also John Baxter, bacame something of a protégé of Clerk and subsequently, with Clerk’s advice, designed and built Galloway House a few miles from Whithorn, for Clerk’s friend Lord Garlies.
Whithorn Tolbooth, then standing in the centre of George Street, was rebuilt in 1708-9. Perhaps Sir John Clerk also had some say in the design of this building with its “good hall for public meetings, adorned with a spire and turrets, and provided with a set of bells”?
First Published August 2009