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Robert Adam Biography

1728 - 1792

The work of Robert Adam in England marks a distinct change in public taste, the overthrow of most of what Chippendale stood for, and a return to Classic restraint and a greater delicacy of ornament. It is not difficult to understand this because both France and England were becoming weary of extravagance in design styles, whether, rococo or baroque, and the eyes of designers were turned upon Italy. The public had become familiar with the results of the excavations at Herculaneum after 1738, with those at Pompeii after 1748, and with the engravings of Roman designs by Giovanni Piranesi after 1748 and so people were becoming more familiar, and comfortable with, the Classic styles.

As a result, in France the revolt from the florid Louis XV style to the greater severity and restraint of Louis XVI furniture. In England, which largely followed France at this time, we find a corresponding change, during the late Georgian period, which was formulated and organized into current style by the Adam brothers.

Many English architects, decorators, and cabinetmakers followed their lead, and a Classic revival ensued. Chinese, Dutch, and rococo were banished together, and a new style in furniture and decoration caught the popular fancy. In this movement Robert Adam was the leader, and his influence, paramount from 1764 to 1784, persisted for half a century, strongly affecting the work of George Hepplewhite, Thomas Sheraton, and all their contemporaries.

Early Biography

Robert Adam, the most prominent of a gifted family, was the second of six children of William Adam, a Scotsman, of Maryburgh, the two youngest being daughters. The father was an architect of distinction, who designed Hopetoun House, the Royal Infirmary at Edinburgh, and other noteworthy buildings, and who held the appointment of King's Mason at Edinburgh. Robert was born July 3, 1728, at Kirkcaldy, County of Fife, Scotland. He was educated at the University of Edinburgh and later studied architecture in England.

About 1754 he started on a tour of the Continent. Historians differ as to the dates of his itinerary. It is generally supposed that he studied in France for a year or two under the French architect, Clerisseau, or at least became his friend, and he may have made several trips into Italy. Dated drawings now in London would indicate that he was at Nimes, France, in December, 1754, near Genoa in January, 1755, and at Rome in 1756. At any rate, in 1757 he visited Italy with Clerisseau and two draughtsmen, and made a number of drawings of Roman ruins. From Venice he went to Spalatro (Split in Croatia) in Dalmatia to study the ruins of the Palace of Diocletian there. Until this time, most travelling architects had studied the ruins of public buildings whereas Adam was more interested in Classical designs for homes and houses. His credentials were lacking and he was arrested as a spy, and later was released and visited the ruins. These he found in rather bad condition, but he made complete drawings of the fragments in five weeks. His journal of this trip was published in the "Library of Fine Arts".

He continued on his travels a few months longer and then, in 1758, returned to England, In London he established himself with his brother James as an architect, and was soon widely employed by the gentry and nobility, becoming a more popular architect than Sir William Chambers. He became a fellow of the Royal and Antiquarian Societies, and on December 2, 1761, at the age of thirty-five, he was appointed joint architect to the King and Queen with Chambers.

In 1764 he published a folio volume of engravings by Bartolozzi of his Dalmatian drawings, entitled "Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro". In 1768 he resigned his royal office to become a member of Parliament for Kinross.

In 1769 the four brothers started the building of the Adelphi, a huge collection of wharves, arches, and viaducts on the Thames, with access from the Strand, the first great office building in London. They overcame serious opposition, but the building was never a commercial success. In the end it was disposed of by lottery, and the brothers are supposed to have gained a substantial profit.

In 1773 the brothers Adam began the publication of their "Works in Architecture" in folio parts. Volume I, brought together in 1778, contained The Seat of the Duke of Northumberland at Sion, The Villa of Earl Mansfield at Kenwood, The Seat of the Earl of Bute at Luton Park, Public Buildings, and Designs for the King and Queen and Princess Dowager of Wales. Volume II, published in 1779, contained The House of the Earl of Derby in Grosvenor Square, The House of Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, Bart., in St. James's Square, The House of the Earl of Shelburne in Berkeley Square, The Seat of the Duke of Northumberland at Sion (continued), and Various Designs of Public and Private Buildings. The balance of the firm's more important drawings were brought out in a posthumous volume in 1822. The original designs of the firm are preserved in the Sloane Museum. There are thirty volumes of them, three of which are devoted to Adam furniture. Miscellaneous drawings have been collected and published from time to time since.

On March 3rd, 1792, Robert Adam burst a blood vessel in his stomach and died at his home in Albe-marle Street, London. He was buried with high honours in Westminster Abbey.

Adam Brothers

Robert's brothers all achieved distinction. John, the oldest, remained in Scotland, where he succeeded his father as King's Mason in Edinburgh. The others all went to London. Robert was always the dominant figure, William, the youngest, being little more than his assistant.


James, however, would have been an architect of note in any event, and his name is often associated with Robert's in giving credit for the Classic revival. The two worked together on almost all the important works, and any discussion of the style must refer to their joint product.

James studied abroad shortly after Robert's return to England. In company with Clerisseau and Zucchi, he visited, in 1760-1, Verona, Padua, Vicenza (where he studied the works of Palladio), Venice, Florence, Pisa, Rome, Pompeii, and Naples, taking notes and measurements, and making drawings. He was appointed Master Mason of the Board of Ordnance for North Britain, and on Robert's death succeeded him as royal architect. He was the author of "Practical Essays on Agriculture" and was writing a history of architecture when he died of apoplexy at the house in Albemarle Street on October 20, 1794.

Late Work

The brothers were always active in their profession, and during the year preceding Robert's death they designed no less than eight public and twenty-five private buildings. Their work included the restoration of part of Whitehall, the building for the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce in John Street, work on the royal palaces, the parish church at Mistley, Essex, the Hall of Records or Registry Office in Edinburgh, the British Coffee House, London, the alteration and redecoration of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, new buildings for the University of Edinburgh, White's Club, Caenwood near Hamp-stead, Osterley near Brentford, Lansdowne House in Berkeley Square, Luton House in Bedfordshire, the Infirmary at Glasgow, and numerous town houses in Portland Place, Stratford Place, and Fitzroy Square. The house at 25 Portland Place was built and fitted up for Robert Adam's own use. Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, in spite of a peculiar arrangement, possesses unusual merit, being an adaptation from Palladio. Perhaps the firm's most celebrated designs are those of the college buildings and Registry Office at Edinburgh. They are well balanced and true to the best Classic traditions.

Adam was an architect of the first rank and a creator of the Georgian style. His exteriors followed Palladio in effect, being rather formal in their classicism and lacking the grace that distinguished the work of Sir Christopher Wren. He patented a stucco for covering brick walls, which he used with greater success than did the architects of a later period.

Adam's Achievements & Critics

While James Adam should not be deprived of the credit due him for his part in the work of the firm and the development of the Adam style, nevertheless the interest of biographer and critic finds itself fixed inevitably on the life and achievements of Robert. He was not as scholarly as Chambers, not as deep a student of architecture, but his touch was more graceful and the tendencies of his original creations were better directed. The defects of his architectural style were many and obvious, but he possessed in a marked degree a fine sense of proportion, symmetry, balance, and distribution of ornament, and he formed a style notable for its Classic restraint and elegant taste. Like Chippendale, he was a wide borrower, borrowing, indeed, from Chippendale himself, and, like Chippendale, he was a clever adapter, with a greater sense of artistic propriety than Chippendale possessed.

Adam's critics differ somewhat widely in their appraisal of his work, but all agree as to the importance of his introductions in the development of English style. As one critic says, he turned the tide of style single-handed, postponing for half a century the decline and fall of good taste, in the early Victorian era. His estimate of his own work, as expressed in the preface to his book, was to the effect that his style had brought about, in this country, a kind of "revolution in the whole system of this elegant and useful art", an ambitious statement but literally true.

Another critic asserts that Adam rang the changes on a few motives, and that his style, though full of lightness and elegance, was un-English and lacking in familiar charm. There is something in this undoubtedly, and it may be further admitted that much of Adam's ornamental work was over-refined and lacking in the sturdiness and virility that we look for in an artistic contribution of permanent value. But the fact remains that Adam's influence on the designers, architects, decorators, and cabinet-makers of his day, even to the greatest of them, was of the highest potency, and we are always in deep debt to any master whose leadership is in the direction of restraint and away from extravagance.

Still another critic, referring to Adam as the most celebrated architect of his day, points out the defects and inequalities in his style. Many of Adam's designs, he says, were tawdry and flimsy, but they had also many excellencies. He possessed genuine inventive genius. His exterior architecture was often petty and commonplace, his real forte being interior decoration. England is indebted to him, this critic concludes, for much of the comfort combined with elegance which characterizes her homes today.

A writer in the "Dictionary of National Biography", speaking of the brothers Robert and James, sums up their merits as follows: "Of their decorative work generally, it may be said that it was rich but neat, refined but not effeminate, chaste but not severe, and that it will probably have quite as lasting and beneficial effect upon English taste as their architectural structures".

Finally, to quote a contemporary, the Gentlemen's Magazine for March, 1792, said: "Mr. Adam produced a total change in the architecture of this country; and his fertile genius in elegant ornament was not confined to the decoration of buildings, but has been diffused into almost every branch of manufacture".


From John Swarbrick and Adam's other biographers, we are able to gain a fairly vivid idea of his personality. In the first place he was a man of natural good taste and with a decided talent for design. Incidentally he enjoyed a considerable reputation as a landscape painter. His canvases showed a rich appreciation of composition, and of light and shadow. In the second place, he was well educated and enjoyed greater opportunities for travel and study than most of his contemporaries. Intellectually he was a broader man than Chambers.

He was a practical man, an artist but no dreamer. The material and artistic sides of his nature seem to have been equally developed, and he was a successful business man. Even his Spalatro book was published at a profit. And he achieved his success in spite of his Scottish parentage, at that time not a popular asset in London, He was undoubtedly lucky and presented his ideas at an opportune moment, but he had the enterprise, force, and vision to make the most of the situation.

He attracted notable friends from the first and must have had a magnetic personality as well as a dynamic character. He is said to have had pleasing manners and a reputation for moral integrity. He was self confident and pushing, doubtless conceited, all of which contributed to his remarkable success.


He was not a pioneer like Inigo Jones; his genius could not be rated in the same class as that of Sir Christopher Wren; but, considering the whole of his character and achievements, he was probably the foremost figure of the Georgian period in the development of style and in artistic leadership.

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