Adam settled in London in 1758, was joined by his brothers James and William (1738–1822), and set out to establish himself as the leading architect in Great Britain. From that time Robert was the dominant director of the family firm, assisted by James and William, while John helped out with capital. His fellow-Scots the Duke of Argyll and the Earl of Bute supported him, and in 1761 he obtained one of the two posts of Architect of the King's Works. He began to change domestic architecture (dominated then by Burlingtonian Palladianism) by providing a fresh vocabulary of Classicism with elements drawn from a range of sources from Antiquity to the Cinquecento. He advertised himself as an authority on Antique Roman architecture, and in 1773 the first sumptuous volume of the Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam appeared, in which the brothers staked their claim to have ‘brought about … a kind of revolution’ in English architecture. At Kedleston Hall, Derbys., for example, the Adam Brothers took over and completed the house after Matthew Brettingham and James Paine had started the central block and the quadrants: the Adams were responsible for the noble, domed Pantheon-like saloon and the triumphal arch applied to the south front, while the Palladian marble hall was a reworking of Paine's version of Palladio's reconstruction of Vitruvius's Egyptian hall. Indeed, it was in interior design that the Adam Brothers had their greatest influence: essentially, they eschewed a violent change of established canons, but they succeeded in evolving a Neo-Classical style that avoided Greek severity or old-fashioned Palladianism by expanding the available ranges of decorative elements and by inventing a sumptuous and elegant array of details drawn from various sources. Their ceilings were often enriched with painted panels by talented Italian artists, while Joseph Rose sen. (c.1723–80) and jun. (1745–99) realized their designs for plasterwork. The firm employed several draughtsmen to facilitate its enormous practice: among them were George Richardson, Joseph Bonomi, and Antonio Zucchi (1726–96). The Adams juxtaposed room-plans of various shapes and forms that had their origins in Antique interiors from Spalato and from the Roman thermae. Such variations of form and the judicious use of apses, niches, and colonnaded screens created spatial complexities that were a welcome contrast to the older Palladian arrangements.
At Syon House, Isleworth, Middx., the remodelled interiors (1762–9) demonstrate the exploitation of varied geometrical forms, although the projected central Pantheon-like rotunda was not executed, but the anteroom (which was built) displays an eclectic Neo-Classical polychrome treatment incorporating detached Greek Ionic columns (with capitals based on those of the Athenian Erechtheion) supporting an elegant entablature, over which are gilded statues. To whet the client's appetite for Antique authenticity, the blue-grey marble column-shafts are Roman, rescued from the bed of the River Tiber. Other fine Adam interiors include Osterley Park, Middx. (1763–80), Newby Hall, Yorks. (c.1770–c.1780), Derby House (later 26), Grosvenor Square, London (1773–4—demolished 1861), and the beautiful Library at Kenwood House, Hampstead (1767–9). As far as ingenious planning is concerned, the most intricate examples are at two London houses: 20 St James's Square and 20 Portman Square, although the decorative details are thin and shallow compared with earlier works.
Perhaps because of a frustrated desire to ‘raise a great public building … in the monumental manner’, the brothers in 1768 began their scheme to erect 24 first-rate houses between the north bank of the Thames and The Strand, the whole set on a mighty podium of vaulted areas intended as warehouses. Called The Adelphi, the speculation was ruined by a national credit crisis, and the brothers were forced to stave off bankruptcy by disposing of the property in a lottery. Later, James Adam designed the unified façade of Portland Place incorporating stucco details for the central elements of each block on either side. Other unified terrace-house designs include Charlotte Square, Edinburgh (1791–1807), and the south and east sides of Fitzroy Square, London (1790–4)—the latter with elegant attenuated Grecian detail.
In the last years of his life Robert Adam obtained a number of commissions for large buildings, including the Register House, Edinburgh (1774–92), Edinburgh University (1789–93), and the large Picturesque houses in the Castle style (that is, with elements derived from medieval castle architecture, but with Classical interiors), including Culzean Castle, Ayrshire (1777–92), and Seton Castle, East Lothian (1790–1). Adam also designed distinguished mausolea, among which may be cited the rectangular Templetown mausoleum, capped with an urn and two ash-chests, at Castle Upton, Co. Antrim (1789), and the Doric drum of the Hume monument at Calton Old Burying Ground, Edinburgh (1778).
The Adam firm was wound up in 1794, although William Adam produced unsuccessful designs for the completion of Edinburgh University in 1815. William went bankrupt in 1801, and between 1818 and 1821 sold all his brothers possessions. While the Works … provided a definitive vocabulary of what became known as the ‘Adam style’, details designed by Robert and his brothers were pirated even during their lifetimes, and there was an Adam Revival dating from 1862 which still goes on, though often as a travesty.
R. Adam & and J. Adam (1975);
J. Fleming (1962);
E. Harris (2001);
King (1991, 2001);
Rykwert & and Rykwert (1985);
Stillman (1966, 1988);
Summerson or Summerson (ed.) (1993);
Jane Turner (1996)
Robert and James Adam
Robert and James Adam
The British architects Robert (1728-1792) and James (1730-1794) Adam were the leading practitioners of the neoclassic style in the late 18th century. Their graceful, elegant work is based chiefly on ancient Roman and Renaissance motifs.
Robert Adam was born on July 3, 1728, at Kirkcaldy, Fifeshire, Scotland. James Adam was born in Edinburgh on July 21, 1730. They were the second and third sons of William Adam (1689-1748), a prominent Scottish architect. There were two other sons—John, the oldest of the children, and William—and six daughters. Robert was educated at Edinburgh High School and the university and received a sound architectural training from his father.
About 6 months before their father's death, John and Robert took over control of the family business. John practiced little as an architect, confining his attention more to the business side of the firm. One of the daughters, Elizabeth, became an efficient member of the business.
Robert's principal work from 1750 to 1754, in collaboration with James, was the completion of their father's masterpiece, Hopetoun House, West Lothian, Scotland. They reacted against the ponderous moldings and robust decoration of the Palladian school and introduced in the Yellow and Red Drawing Rooms (the latter not finished until 1758) a fresh note of rococo lightness and elegance in the ceiling plasterwork in accordance with the French taste then fashionable in England. Robert also redesigned the outlying pavilions of the house in a manner that anticipates his mature neoclassic style.
His first independent work was the design of Dumfries House, Scotland (1751-1754), again with remarkably fine rococo ceiling decorations. It was probably here that the cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale commenced his long association with Robert in the furnishing of Adam houses.
In 1754 Robert traveled to Rome; during 4 years' study there under the guidance of the artist C. L. Clérisseau, Robert made thousands of drawings of classical and Renaissance buildings and monuments, of decorations in the ancient tombs, and of the "grotesques" in the Loggias of the Vatican painted by Raphael and his pupil Giovanni da Udine. After an excursion to Dalmatia, Robert published The Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro (1764).
On his return to Britain in 1758, Robert set up an architectural practice in London with James. Robert executed new interiors at Hatchlands, Surrey (1758-1761), for Admiral Boscawen. Through the same patron's influence, Robert was employed to design the new screen and gateway to the courtyard of Admiralty House, Whitehall, London (1760). In 1759 he revised the plans of John Carr of York for Harewood House, Yorkshire, and designed all the interiors, which were carried out during the following 12 years.
The interior decorations of these houses mark the breakaway from the fashionable Palladian and rococo taste and the rise of the neoclassic style, which was to be popular for the next 30 years. The style was based on the enormous repertoire of classical motifs that Robert had built up in Rome: festoons of husks and bellflowers, swags and garlands, vines, vases, tripods, gryphons, sphinxes, paterae, formal arabesques, and scrolls of foliage. Many of these motifs had been used earlier by Sir Christopher Wren, James Gibbs, William Kent, and other architects, but the freshness of the Adam style lay in the highly personal refinement, delicacy, and elegance that Robert gave them. He attenuated the height of columns beyond the proportions laid down by the Roman architect Vitruvius and by Andrea Palladio (Osterley Park House, Middlesex) and combined both Roman and Greek elements in a single Ionic capital (Syon House, Middlesex), thus giving it the dignity of one and the elegance of the other. Robert scaled down the elements of a design to give it a lightness and grace unknown in the early Georgian age.
In 1773 the brothers published the first volume of The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, the second volume followed in 1779, and the third was published posthumously in 1822. In the introduction to this work, they claimed "to have brought about … a kind of revolution in architecture and decoration, against the pretensions of numerous imitators" and "by means of a series of delicate ornaments and mouldings" to have recaptured "the beautiful spirit of antiquity."
Robert died in London on March 3, 1792, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. James died in London on Oct. 20, 1794. Some 3000 drawings by Robert and other members of his firm are preserved at Sir John Soane's Museum in London.
Architecture and Furniture
The work of Robert Adam falls roughly into three phases of stylistic development. His early exteriors, as at Bowood, Wiltshire (1761-1767), and Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire (1765-1770), are composed of boldly projecting masses with giant orders of Roman character, heavy architraves, entablatures, and pulvinated friezes. At Kedleston, Robert again took over from another architect, in this case, as at Nostell Priory, Yorkshire, from James Paine. The south front of Kedleston, with the bold convexity of its dome contrasting with the concave curve of the sweeping perron below, illustrates the quality of "movement" which Robert expressed powerfully in his early work: "the rise and fall, the advance and recess, with other diversity of form in the different parts of a building, so as to add greatly to the 'picturesque' of the composition." In this early work Robert displays much influence of Sir John Vanbrugh and Kent, two architects whom he greatly admired. Similar bold characteristics appear in Robert's early interiors, such as the Marble Hall and Saloon at Kedleston (1765); the Anteroom at Syon (1759), where he achieved a sense of Roman magnificence; and the Drawing Rooms at Kedleston and Saltram House, Devonshire. The ornament of his early ceilings is bold and sparse and sometimes of compartment form (Croome Court, Worcestershire, 1760; Syon, 1759). His fireplaces are bold in scale, with fully sculptured caryatid figures (Hatchlands, 1758-1761; Harewood, 1759-1771; Kedleston, 1765-1770).
Robert's later exteriors, as in his London street houses (ca. 1769-1780), lose the three-dimensional quality and become more flat and linear, with shallow relieving arches, flush windows, and recessed porticoes. His interiors likewise at this time lose their bold ornament in favor of fine-scale motifs in shallow relief but still of satisfying quality, as in the Galleries at Harewood and Syon (1759). After 1780 his ornament became more finicky in character and crowded closely into the containing spaces, as in the later rooms at Osterley (1761-1780). His later fireplaces became smaller in scale; they had formal neoclassic ornament in shallow relief or were merely inlaid in colored marbles.
The same development is apparent in Robert's furniture designs, from the bold character of the early Syon side tables with straight, square, tapering legs to the mature form of the Osterley Drawing Room side tables and eventually to the excessively attenuated forms of the late designs, especially for looking glasses (Apsley House, London, ca. 1775). Chippendale is proved by bills to have made furniture to Robert's designs for Sir Laurence Dundas (1765), and Chippendale absorbed the neoclassic spirit so successfully that he continued to supply furniture in the new idiom for most of Adam's important houses (Nostell; Harewood; and Newby Hall, Yorkshire).
The final phase of Robert's career was that of large-scale public works. Examples are the Register House, Edinburgh (1772-1792), and Edinburgh University (1788-1792).
James Adam assisted his brother, especially in his later commissions. James's important independent works were the facades of Portland Place, London (1776), and Glasgow Infirmary (1792-1796).
Influence of the Adam Style
Although the Adam style was much criticized by Sir William Chambers, Horace Walpole, and other architects, it was universally adopted not only throughout Great Britain and Ireland but in the United States (by Charles Bulfinch and Samuel McIntire), Russia, and Sweden. The imitation of Adam ornament of excessively fine scale and finicky character in poor materials such as papier-mâché contributed toward the discrediting of the style after 1780 and the consequent reaction in favor of plainness and severity of decoration as expressed in the work of Henry Holland and James Wyatt. But at the height of its vogue, and later in Victorian, Edwardian, and modern times, when Adam revivals took place, the style was recognized as achieving a distinctive beauty, charm, and elegance unsurpassed in the history of architecture and decoration.
The primary work on the Adam brothers is their own The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam (3 vols., 1773-1822; facsimile reproduction, 1959). The first monograph is John Swarbrick, Robert Adam and His Brothers (1915). The most complete study of the brothers, their drawings, and their works is Arthur T. Bolton, The Architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1758-1794 (2 vols., 1922). Both Swarbrick and Bolton include photographs of Adam buildings and interiors that no longer exist.
A valuable general work is James Lees-Milne, The Age of Adam (1947), covering the development of the Adam style, its antecedents, and its influence abroad. An account of the early life and tours abroad of the two brothers, based on letters, drawings, and family papers, is admirably presented in John Fleming, Robert Adam and His Circle in Edinburgh and Rome (1962).
The interior style is exhaustively studied in Damie Stillman, The Decorative Work of Robert Adam (1966). The first systematic study of the furniture designed by Robert Adam is Eileen Harris, The Furniture of Robert Adam (1963). The most comprehensive general work on the furniture, including neoclassic work by Chippendale, is Clifford Musgrave, Adam and Hepplewhite and Other Neo-Classical Furniture (1966). For discoveries in connection with the authorship of Adam furniture see the remarkable monograph by Anthony Coleridge, Chippendale Furniture (1968).
For the history of the neoclassic movement in architecture see Mario Praz, On Neoclassicism (1940; trans. 1969); John Summerson, Architecture in Britain, 1530 to 1830 (1953; 4th ed. 1963); and Hugh Honour, Neo-Classicism (1968). A short biography and lists of works are contained in H. M. Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of English Architects, 1660-1840 (1954).
Rykwert, Joseph, Robert and James Adam: the men and the style, Milano: Electa; New York: Rizzoli, 1985. □
Robert Adam, the man who revolutionized English classical design in the course of the eighteenth century, was born into a family of educated Scots in Edinburgh in 1728. Adam's father was also a successful architect, and the young Adam mastered the skills of this trade early in life, joining his father's firm for a time in the years immediately after he finished university. When his father died in 1748, Adam continued the practice with his brother John, and together they undertook many successful commissions throughout Scotland. These included buildings constructed in the then-popular Gothic Revival style as well as forts and other military fortifications intended to quell recent uprisings in the country. With his fortune strengthened, Adam embarked on his Grand Tour in 1754, making a circuit similar to other cultivated British gentlemen of the age. His journey lasted four years, a large portion of which he spent in Italy. In Rome, he came into contact with the discoveries that were being made about ancient architecture from excavations underway in Pompeii and Herculaneum, the ill-fated towns destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 c.e. In 1758, Adam returned to Britain from his journeys and settled in London, where he soon became a fashionable designer of interiors and structures for the English aristocracy and gentry.
Commissions came slowly at first for Adam in London, although his business quickly improved with his election to the Royal Academy in 1761 and his selection, together with his rival William Chambers, to serve as co-architect of the King's Works. By 1763, his practice was successful enough to accommodate his two brothers, who joined the firm in London. During the years between his arrival in the capital and 1765, Adam mastered the Neoclassical style, and in his later life he seldom designed buildings in the Gothic Revival style that he had practiced in his youth. One of his chief achievements from the early years in London was the completion of the remodeling of Syon House, a Tudor-era convent located outside London. Over the previous generations, this building had been remodeled to increase its comfort as a private house. Adam, however, cleared away many of the previous additions, and in their place designed classical rooms notable for their severity and restraint. He laid out these spaces in an unusual configuration of patterns drawn from his knowledge of Roman baths, and he made use of dramatic contrasts of color. The impressive designs he realized at Syon House earned him great acclaim and Adam received many new commissions for remodeling and new structures at the end of the 1760s. Chief among the many country houses he designed at this time were Osterley Park in Middlesex, and Kenwood House, a brilliant little gem of Neoclassical architecture located on Hampstead Heath on the fringes of London. Osterley Park was a pre-existing Tudor house that Adam redesigned to fit with the Neoclassical fashion. To do so, he built a dramatic classical portico around the structure's courtyard, raising the vertical lines of the house to a new, more dramatic height and decorating the rooms with a series of motifs drawn from Antiquity. These included coffered Roman ceilings, apses, pilasters, and even ancient grotesques. One of the most distinctive elements of his remodeling at Osterley Park was his inclusion of an Etruscan dressing room. The Roman architect Piranesi had done much to popularize the style of the ancient Etruscans—the civilization that had preceded the Roman Empire in Italy—and Adam's use of the style is among the finest eighteenth-century adaptations to survive. At Kenwood House, he created a small-scale classical country house that made use of new techniques in the execution of stucco. He decorated the garden façade of this structure with pilasters crafted from a recently discovered technology that allowed for greater delicacy of execution. The vaulted library of Kenwood has often been hailed as one of Adam's most beautiful creations. With its gentle palette of blue offset by white columns and touches of gilt, it manages to achieve a delicacy and sophistication unknown to the age except in its finest porcelains.
Even as Adam left his imprint on the country landscape of Britain, he was busy remodeling and redesigning urban houses in London. His commissions for these projects rose quickly around 1770, and a number of examples of the innovations that he made in interior design still survive in London. London houses presented a special challenge to an architect. Instead of the vast spaces that many country houses afforded, the typical London townhouse sat on a narrow lot and stretched back from the street. The grand entertaining that became increasingly common during the London season in the eighteenth century demanded interiors that were handsome and well proportioned. Adam's created spaces were models of refined elegance in these houses, relying on attenuated lines to grant his drawing rooms a feeling of greater spaciousness when expansion was impossible. Besides his work for the king, Adam also undertook the design of many public-planning projects, laying out squares in London and other British cities. His innovative plans for the expansion of the town of Bath, a major resort city at the time, were not to be followed, nor was a proposal that he presented for the reconstruction of the Portuguese capital of Lisbon following the city's destruction in a devastating earthquake in 1755. Adam generated the majority of his revenues from residential projects, a sign of the increasing importance that the eighteenth century accorded domestic architecture.
As one of the king's directors of the Royal Works, Adam had special responsibility over royal projects in Scotland. In addition to his success in England, the architect continued to produce numerous designs for houses and urban projects in Scotland. Most notably, his influence can be seen today in the city of Edinburgh, where Adam designed many structures and decorated many interiors in the New Town, Edinburgh's massive eighteenth-century expansion project. Adam was also an important figure because of his methods of creating architectural designs. Like a modern architectural firm, his London practice employed numerous draftsmen and assistants who executed ideas set down by Adam and his brothers. In this way the Adam style proved to be easily reproducible and adaptable to many different architectural situations. The architect's firm also played the role of a general contractor, as Adam and his associates kept employed a regular group of craftsman who were familiar with his work and were thus able to execute the office's plans quickly and with a minimum of retooling. In all these ways, Adam modernized the practice of construction in eighteenth-century England and he set patterns for architectural practice that persisted in the English-speaking world until modern times.
Geoffrey Beard, The Work of Robert Adam (New York: Arco, 1978).
Damie Stillman, English Neoclassical Architecture, 2 vols. (London: A. Zwemmer, 1988).
Emanuel (ed.) (1994);
D. Watkin (2001)