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PLAW, JOHN, architect and surveyor; baptized 8 Jan. 1746 in Putney (London), England, son of John Plaw and Mary – ; d. 24 May 1820 in Charlottetown, P.E.I.

John Plaw, one of the first important architects to immigrate to British North America, received training for his chosen career by being apprenticed to Thomas Kaygill, a member of the Tylers’ and Bricklayers’ Company of London. His term began in September 1759 and lasted until January 1768 when he gained freedom by service. In 1763, while still an apprentice, Plaw had received an architectural award, or premium, given each year by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. His submission was a detailed drawing of the Banqueting House, Whitehall, and provides evidence that he had studied the work of Inigo Jones and the Palladian movement. Plaw’s architectural drawings were accepted for showing in 13 exhibitions of the Royal Academy of Arts, beginning in 1775. He was a long-time member of the Incorporated Society of Artists and in 1790 was its president.

Although Plaw became an established builder and architect in Westminster, many of his commissions were for country buildings and these became his specialty. His most famous surviving structure is the circular villa on Belle Isle in Lake Windermere built in 1774 for Thomas English, a coffee merchant of London. Several later circular houses were based on this plan, including Ickworth House in Surrey, designed by Francis Sandys, and La Gordanne, a villa in Switzerland on the north shore of Lake Geneva. Another of Plaw’s more significant buildings is the Church of St Mary, Paddington (London), designed in 1788. Justly esteemed in his day, it was included in a book of selected drawings published by the contemporary German architectural historian Christian Ludwig Stieglitz.

Around 1795 Plaw moved to Southampton, attracted there, it, appears, by the prospect of building military barracks; a major source of employment for architects in the second half of the 18th century. He did receive commissions to erect barracks there and on the Isle of Wight. During the 12 years he spent in Southampton he designed houses for a planned residential area called Albion Place and received some work from nearby estate owners.

While still in England Plaw published three books, and through his writings made his main contribution to architecture. Rural architecture; or designs, from the simple cottage to the decorated villa appeared in 1785 and was followed by Ferme ornée; or rural improvements (London, 1795), and Sketches for country houses, villas, and rural dwellings (London, 1800). The first had six reprintings and was widely read by architects, master builders, and members of the gentry in Britain and on the continent. In North America, architects such as Philip Hooker and, later, George Browne* were also familiar with Plaw’s work.

In the early 1800s Plaw apparently became “discouraged and disappointed in his art” and began to seek other opportunities. Possibly drawn by the fact that Prince Edward Island urgently needed public buildings he immigrated there in 1807 with his wife Mary, her sister Betsy Ball, and nephew Joseph Ball. As architect to the Island’s government he submitted plans for a new jail in 1809, several designs for a proposed court-house in 1810, and “sundry plans and designs for roads.” He was also acting surveyor general during Thomas Wright’s absences. Although Plaw’s design for the jail was accepted, the project was abandoned in January 1810 because no builders could be found to undertake it. The following April his plan for a court-house was selected and bids were received in May. Construction began in the spring of 1811. Though unfinished, the building, on Queen Square in Charlottetown, was used for the first time on 15 July 1812 when Chief Justice Caesar Colclough*, after ordering workmen to clean it, invited Bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis* to celebrate mass there. The House of Assembly began using it in August but even then it was not finished. In December 1813 Plaw listed the details yet to be completed, saying that the cost would not exceed £100. The Court House served its intended purpose until 1847 and then became in turn a flour and meal market, a city hall, and a police court before being moved off the square in the winter of 1872–73. It was demolished in 1972.

Plaw visited Halifax, N.S., in 1813 and offered to design public and private buildings. While there he prepared plans for the admiral’s residence. These were accepted locally and tenders were called. His plan for a wooden building, however, was not accepted by the Admiralty in London and a design for a brick building drawn by their own architects was acted upon.

In 1814 Plaw returned to a favourite theme by designing yet another circular building, this one as a store for Waters and Birnie, a London-based firm doing business on Prince Edward Island from 1810 to 1820. It is not known whether the design was ever carried out but the theme was employed again in 1819 when Lieutenant Governor Charles Douglass Smith* obtained plans and estimates from him for a new market-house. The plan was for a 16-sided building surrounded by a colonnade of the Tuscan order and surmounted by a cupola. The market-house was not built until 1823, three years after Plaw’s death, when the plan was retrieved and executed by three prominent Island builders, Isaac Smith, Henry Smith, and Thomas Hodgson.

Plaw was a competent architect who in 1810 had advertised in Charlottetown that he would give evening lessons to “carpenters and others” in the principles of geometry and architectural drawing. It seems probable that his influence spread in this way and that the precision and attention to detail found in the colony’s early houses are due to his example and teaching. Unfortunately, the scarcity of records for the period he lived in America makes it difficult to assess his work. Fur example, until quite recently it was thought that his design for the market-house was the work of Isaac Smith, the Island’s foremost builder and architect from 1830 to 1850. The hope always remains that an existing building in Charlottetown or Halifax may yet be identified as his work, and that the prints, drawings, and plates sold after his death will surface.

Irene L. Rogers

[John Plaw is the author of Rural architecture; or designs, from the simple cottage to the decorated villa . . . (London, 1785), Ferme ornée; or rural improvements . . . (London, 1795), and Sketches for country houses, villas, and rural dwellings . . . (London, 1800). They enjoyed frequent reprintings and, according to Howard Colvin, “were among the earliest of the cottage and villa books which became so popular during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.”

Although recent research on Prince Edward Island has added to our knowledge of his career there, the standard study remains Colvin’s A biographical dictionary of British architects, 1600–1840 (London, 1978). The DNB seems to have based its mention of Plaw’s Canadian activities on material published in England around 1824; the Prince Edward Island Register (Charlottetown) reprinted that account in its issue of 29 Dec. 1824. Speculation that Plaw might have had one or two daughters appears to be based on entries for painters with that surname in the three works by Algernon Graves cited below; Plaw’s will, however, held at the Supreme Court of P.E.I. in Charlottetown (Estates Division, Tiber 2: f.9), makes no mention of children.

Plaw’s designs of 1809 for a proposed jail in Charlottetown are not extant, but his plans for the Court House (1810) and the delightful front elevation and floor plan prepared for Waters and Birnie (1814) are at PAPEI, Acc. 2333. A plan and specifications for the Charlottetown round market done in Isaac Smith’s. handwriting are held at PAPEI, Acc. 2702, Smith–Alley coll., Isaac Smith papers, 555, 560, 973, and 979; Plaw’s originals have not survived. The plan and specifications Plaw prepared for the admiral’s house in Halifax (1813) are at the PRO in ADM 1/504 (MPI 166). A drawing and a photograph of the market-house are in M. K. Cullen, “Charlottetown market houses: 1813–1958,” Island Magazine, no.6 (spring–summer 1979): 27–28. Unfortunately, photographs of the Court House, including those published in Cullen, A history of the structure and use of Province House, Prince Edward Island, 1837–1977 (Can., National Hist. Parks and Sites Branch, Manuscript report, no.211, Ottawa, 1977), 237, 275, do not adequately represent Plaw’s design because the building had been much altered by the time it was photographed. Plaw’s tombstone at the Elm Avenue cemetery in Charlottetown is illustrated in C. B. Chappell, “The burial place of John Plaw,” Architectural Rev. (London), 45 (1919): 130–31.

Marianne Morrow’s contribution to this biography is gratefully acknowledged.  i.l.r.]

Guildhall Library (London), Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials for the parish of Putney (London), 8 Jan. 1746. PAPEI, Acc. 2987; RG 3, House of Assembly, Sessional papers, 1813, “Report of survey of the state of the Court House at Charlotte-town, Dec. 6, 1813”; RG 5, Minutes, 23 June 1808; 15, 16 Jan., 7 April, 4, 10, 29 May, 25 Aug. 1810; 18 Feb. 1811; 7, 14 June, 2 Aug., 6 Dec. 1814; 7 April 1819; 11, 25 March 1823; RG 16, Land registry records, Conveyance reg., liber 15: f.337 [This document is a power of attorney issued 30 April 1807 by London merchant Samuel Yockney authorizing Plaw, who was on the eve of departing for Prince Edward Island, to collect a debt from John Cambridge*.  i.l.r.]; RG 20, 1 (Council minutes), 20, 22 Aug., 21 Dec. 1855; 36 (letterbook, 1856–77), Peter MacGowan to John Currie, 28 Oct. 1873. PRO, CO 226/21, Selkirk to Auckland, 4 July 1806; CO 226/26: 5–7 (mfm. At PAPEI); CO 229/3, 18, 20 April 1809 (mfm. at PAPEI). Royal Academy of Arts Library (London), SA/43/1–56 (Soc. of Artists papers, misc.). P.E.I, House of Assembly, Journal, 18, 25 Aug. 1812. C. L. Stieglitz, Plans et dessins tirés de la belle architecture . . . (Paris, 1801). Nova Scotia Royal Gazette, 13, 20 Oct. 1813. Prince Edward Island Gazette (Charlottetown), 14 June 1820. Weekly Recorder of Prince Edward Island (Charlottetown), 24 Dec. 1810; 16, 25 March 1811. A dictionary of artists who have exhibited works in the principal London exhibitions from 1760 to 1893, comp. Algernon Graves (3rd ed., London, 1901; repr. Bath, Eng., 1970). Algernon Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts (8v., London, 1905–6; repub. in 4v., East Ardsley, Eng., 1970); The Society of Artists of Great Britain, 1760–1791; the Free Society of Artists, 1761–1783; a complete dictionary of contributors and their work from the foundation of the societies to 1791 (London, 1907; repr. Bath, 1969). Erik Forssman, “Ein Pantheon am Genfer See: die Villa La Gordanne in Perroy,” Kunst als Bedeutungsträger Gedenkschrift für Günter Bandmann, ed. Werner Busch et al. (Berlin, 1978), 345–66. Emil Kaufmann, Architecture in the age of reason; baroque and post-baroque in England, Italy, and France (Cambridge, Mass., 1968). John Woodforde, Georgian houses for all (London, 1978). Benjamin Davies, “The old church and old times,” Daily Examiner (Charlottetown), 6 April 1896: 3. Island Argus (Charlottetown), 19 Nov., 10 Dec. 1872. D. R. Kent, “Hyde Hall, Otsego County, New York,” Antiques (New York), 92 (August 1967): 188.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Irene L. Rogers, “PLAW, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 21, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/plaw_john_5E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/plaw_john_5E.html
Author of Article:   Irene L. Rogers
Title of Article:   PLAW, JOHN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   June 21, 2024