In 1695, John Clerk (1) acquired the Barony of Lasswade and purchased Mavisbank farm, and had plans to build a 'small' house from which he could supervise his local coal mining operations more easily than from the family home in Penicuik, however, the plans were not realised. In the previous year his son, John Clerk (2), had gone to Leiden to study law, latterly undertaking the Grand Tour (1697-1698) and learning French, Dutch and Italian and studying music in Rome. On his return, he was admitted to the Scottish Bar in 1700 and appointed Commissioner to the Union with England in 1705. Following the Union of Scottish and English parliaments in 1707, he represented Scotland in the first parliament of Great Britain and was appointed a year later as one of the Barons of the Exchequer.
In 1709, John Clerk (2) married his second wife, Janet Inglis, daughter of John Inglis of Cramond, whose father-in-law was Adam Cockburn, an influential early landscape improver and chief justice of Scotland. Two years later having acquired the Cammo estate (qv), he began to explore ideas of estate improvement and spent eight years laying out the designed landscape. From this time on a large number of encounters and visits, faithfully recorded in his memoirs, would have influence on his eventual approach at Mavisbank. For example, in 1717 William Stukeley, creator of antiquarian group, 'Equites Romani' or Roman Knights, visited John Clerk (2) at Penicuik, remaining in regular contact, Clerk being referred to as 'Agricola' in the subsequent correspondence. In 1720 there was an influential visit to the Earl of Glencairn's estate at Finlaystone in Renfrewshire, which may have influenced Clerk's approach to a rural form of gardening. A year later, while John Clerk (2) was managing the affairs of Duke of Queensberry at Drumlanrig, he would learn of the incorporation of an iron age fort in the Duke's landscape layout for Amesbury, in Wiltshire. Throughout this time, Clerk would also have known of the Roman Station at Cramond, part of his father-in-law's grounds.
The first baronet died in 1722 and Clerk (2) inherited the family estates, turning his attention to Mavisbank farm, acquired by his father 30 years earlier. Clerk, now second baronet, collaborated with William Adam to develop designs for a small villa at Mavisbank, at the same time shaping ideas for the landscape. The project, which indulged Clerk's love for Palladian architecture, would prove inspirational to both, giving full expression to Clerk's vision described in his poem 'The Country Seat' and celebrated by William Adam in 'Vitruvius Scoticus'. This house would be a summer residence, a pied-a-terre when working in Edinburgh, as well as a place to house Clerk's art collection and indulge his love of the classics. The Arcadian landscape of the River North Esk valley which echoed, in small scale, that of the Villa Adriana at Tivoli, gave Sir John Clerk the opportunity to realise his vision to bring the Roman Villa ideal to the lowlands of Scotland. Possibly the earliest use of the word 'villa', in the accepted eighteenth century context, occurs in a Latin inscription cut into one of the piers of the principal façade by Sir John Clerk.
The foundations of the house were laid in 1723, the site deliberately chosen by Clerk to integrate what he believed to be a 'Roman station' into the layout of the garden. The axis connecting both subsequently controlled the arrangement of the designed landscape, in this resembling similar layouts at Amesbury Court, Downton Moot, Wilton and Blaise. By 1724 the walled garden was built and fruit trees planted. Realising the villa to be too small, Clerk commissioned a south pavilion, for use as a stabling and coach house, which was completed in 1725. A year later the drive from Mavisbank to Loanhead was established, following the course of a former stream. By 1728, with building work virtually finished, the north pavilion completed the symmetry of the house, adding emphasis to the axis linking the 'Roman Station', Mavisbank House and courtyard and the arrangement of the designed landscape as a pate d'oie or 'goosefoot', north east of the house. This was expressed as three allees radiating from the front elevation of the house, controlling vistas to and from Mavisbank House, avenues of elm or lime trees flanking the allees, the wedges between planted densely with trees as wilderness. A doocot, epitomising the character of the rural idyll, was built in 1738, positioned in a prominent position on the rim of the valley, terminating the view along the central axis of the goosefoot. Similar features may have terminated the north and south allees.
Clerk continued to visit many estates including Wilton, Chiswick, Castle Howard, Houghton and Woolerton, keeping up-to-date with contemporary trends and approaches in garden making and seeking innovative ideas to explore at Mavisbank. The visits were faithfully recorded in his journals, which continue to provide a unique insight into his tastes and an understanding of the influences on Mavisbank. In 1746, Sir John Clerk recorded in his memoirs that Mavisbank was completed.
The resulting composition was an example of a ferme ornee, a style advocated in the 1720s and 1730s by Stephen Switzer, an early exponent of the English landscape garden, and Charles Bridgeman, pioneer of the jardin anglais which was spreading through Europe in the 18th century. In the ferme ornee the economic and pleasurable aspects of agriculture and garden making merged, pleasure ground and rural gardening combining within a formal structure. Parkland for grazing, woodlands for timber and shelter to the main house and water bodies stocked with fish, epitomised the functional benefits of the ferme ornee. The harmonious relationship of the designed landscape and the principle building gave full expression to the aesthetic beauty of this style. Emphasis was given to formal geometry of axial walks, regular enclosures and canals and the use of low maintenance functional elements such as hedgerows for ornament and interest, in contrast to labour intensive parterres. By the mid 18th century, the valley of the River North Esk was becoming increasingly industrialised with the establishment of the first Lasswade paper mill and the expansion of coal mining. Clerk advised his wife that she should 'at no time depend it for the chief residence of my family.' Sir John Clerk died in 1755, when the designed landscape was at its peak.
He was succeeded by the third baronet, his eldest son, James. After the death of his mother, James focused attention on Penicuik. In 1761, he passed part of the barony of Loanhead containing the Mavisbank estate to his cousin, Robert Clerk. On a plan of the Barony of Loanhead, dated 1786, commissioned by Sir John Clerk, Mavisbank house and policy are excluded. A painting of Mavisbank, dating from around 1786, shows the landscape in a state of transition. Although the central axis is still prominent, the enclosing walls of the courtyard have been removed, the courtyard parterre replaced by grass and an elegant looped drive introduced. The woodland and wilderness areas appear to have been thinned. In 1815 Graeme Mercer, who was the East India Company's resident surgeon and secretary to the Marquis of Wellesley in India, bought Mavisbank and took up residence on his return.
During the period 1815-1840, the changes begun by Robert Clerk's introduction of an elegant carriage circle in the forecourt of Mavisbank House, continued through easing the geometry of the ferme ornee and the romanticising towards a more naturalistic landscape park. The formation of an approach drive from the east, Kevock, end of the designed landscape transformed the experience of approach to the house. In contrast to the dramatic experience of Sir John Clerk's approaches from the north, of plunging steeply through woodland to a sunlit terrace and the microcosmic world and intimate harmony of Mavisbank and its landscape setting, the east approach was long and leisurely, through well established woodland affording glimpses and long views, building to the climax of arrival at the house itself.
Other changes may have accompanied the transformation from ferme ornee to romantic landscape: the canal was enlarged from a narrow rectilinear shape to a wider informal lochan; the wilderness between the lake and villa was cleared creating an arc of open ground affording open views to the lochan, framed by the introduction of parkland trees; extensive tree planting at the east end of the designed landscape; new stables were established south of the walled garden near the confluence of the River North Esk and Bilsten Burn; the south drive was realigned south of its original route; the introduction of apartments to the rear of the original villa required realignment of the north drive and the introduction of retaining walls to create flat platforms for the building extensions; the weirs within the North Esk may have been formed at this time. Mercer died unmarried aged 77 and Mavisbank was sold. End notes to the memoirs states that a George Clerk Arbuthnot, a Liverpool merchant, acquired Mavisbank in 1842.
By the Ordnance Survey (County Series) 1:10560 (6”), surveyed 1852, published 1854, there is little evidence of Sir John Clerk's three allees, new stables have been built, two new bridges adjacent to the stables over the North Esk established, the south approach skirts the walled garden and north and south wings added behind the house quadrants. Clerk Arbuthnot family photographs from the 1860s characterise a Victorian designed landscape and lifestyle: from the west, parkland rolling up to the villa, with short meadow grassland spattered with wildflowers and mature parkland trees; from the east, the sculpted slopes of the 'Roman Station' forming a grassy amphitheatre north and west of the villa; to the south and east the grass is shaved lawn and groups of rhododendrons suggest that John Clerk's wilderness had been replaced by a Victorian shrubbery by 1860.
In 1877 Mavisbank House was sold to 'Heritages Association Ltd' and then purchased by the Mavisbank Company Ltd. It became a private asylum and its name changed to New Saughton House. A contemporary plan, possibly part of a condition survey at that time, shows the modifications and alterations made to the house and designed landscape by the late 19th century including: various accretions around Mavisbank House; the north, south and east drives were still extant; a variation on the carriage circle is shown and the courtyard between two enlarged pavilions appears to be paved; the three drives meet east of the north pavilion, the final 100 metres on approach to the villa runs south of the north pavilion and a service road ran parallel but led to a courtyard north of the north pavilion; the lochan, fed by springs along its north bank, has been widened to the north, incorporating an island; the plan shows woodland densely planted on rough ground north of the lochan, some tree planting less dense, in rows, south-east of the lochan and some woodland, sparse, planted on rough ground north and west of the villa.
The Ordnance Survey (County Series) 1:2500 (25”), re-surveyed 1892-3, published 1894, shows that by the 1890s partially planted terraces had been constructed across the east front of the villa. According to the Mavisbank Company balance sheet, a large sum of money was spent on improvements, sanctioned by Sir John Barry Tuke, then a prominent figure in health care. The Ordnance Survey (2nd edition) 1:2500 (25”), revised 1905-6, shows a much enlarged Mavisbank House facing onto terraces framed by close mown lawns. The Ordnance Survey (County Series) 1:2500 (25”), re-surveyed 1893, revised 1912, published 1914, shows the landscape had been modified to accommodate extensive new wings, the terraces by then replaced by a gentle slope. The final approach was realigned to the centre of the slope, curving gently from the north, terminating in a circular turning head in front of the entrance steps, as today.
In 1953 the Mavisbank Company went into voluntary liquidation and the house was sold to Dr WM Harrows, the former superintendent of the asylum. He received a grant in 1954 from the Ministry of Works to demolish the mid 19th century apartments and former hospital wings. This restored the original appearance of the house and the original name of Mavisbank was reinstated. The house was sold in 1954 to Archie Stevenson. In 1971 a number of architectural features were listed including Mavisbank House, the walled gardens, gazebo and game larder. In 1973, Mavisbank House was gutted by fire, destroying the interiors and roofs and the landscape too fell into a subsequent decline. The shell of the house has remained in a derelict condition ever since. Mavisbank House and its policies were designated a conservation area by Midlothian District Council in November 1977 and subsequently enlarged in 1992 to include land on the south side of the valley.
In 1979 the house was sold to Mr Stevenson's daughter who, in 1981, further sold the house in three parts to three owners, while retaining ownership of 66 acres of land. In 1985, British Coal announced an intention to extract coal from seams lying near and directly under the house and Scottish Office engineers advised on the possible effects of subsidence. When, in 1987, Midlothian Council announced its intention to demolish the property, the Secretary of State issued an Emergency Repairs Notice under Section 97 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act. The condition of the buildings had deteriorated, due to the impact of mining subsidence. In April 1987, the Historic Buildings Branch of the Scottish Development Department made the house safe and in 1989 the Lothian Building Preservation Trust undertook a feasibility study to restore Mavisbank House. The policy grounds were acquired from Mr Stevenson's daughter in 1995 by Historic Scotland and in 1991 the earthwork, which had been previously been scheduled in 1935 as a fort, together with the remains of the house and its policies were scheduled.
In 1992 Historic Scotland commissioned the Debois Landscape Survey Group to record what survived of the designed landscape as a preliminary to a landscape management plan. In 2002, a Feasibility Study and Economic Market Analysis were commissioned by the Edinburgh Green Belt Trust, funded by the Architectural Heritage Fund and Midlothian Council. In 2005 the Mavisbank Trust, a subsidiary of the Edinburgh Green Belt Trust, commissioned and developed a detailed Project Planning Submission, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), the Architectural Heritage Fund and Midlothian Council, as part of an HLF bid to renovate the house for use as a public venue and to restore the designed landscape to its former glory. In 2011, Historic Scotland prepared a Landscape Management Plan 2011-2016 for the area of land under the ownership of Scottish Ministers as managed by Historic Scotland, which represents the core of the designed landscape excluding a number of peripheral areas now in private ownership. There are no formal arrangements for public access.