Robert Adam, neoclassical architect, furniture and interior designer, was born on the 3rd of July, 1728.
The 18th Century was a great period in British Architecture, but nowhere was this more apparent than in Scotland, where the Act of Union allowed for greater prosperity and led to new buildings in both private and public sectors. The most important British Architects of this age were Scots and the foremost of those was Robert Adam. He is regarded as the leading exponent of the neoclassical revival, the Classical Georgian style, in the latter part of the 18th Century and is equally well-regarded for the interior designs of his buildings as he is for the exteriors. This remarkable Scotsman had a guiding influence on Georgian art, but the influence of this great British architectural genius also extended internationally. The Old Quad of the University of Edinburgh is a good example of his work in Scotland as is the mock medieval Culzean Castle, which perches above a raised beach on the south-west Scottish coast. Together with William Chambers, another Scots architect, Adam became ‘Architect of the King’s Works’ to King George III.
Robert Adam was born on the 3rd of July, 1728, in Kirkcaldy, in the Kingdom of Fife. Either that same year or when he was eleven, depending on which biography you read, his family moved to Edinburgh, where he attended Edinburgh High School. Robert went to Edinburgh University in 1743, but he never managed to graduate, because of illness and ‘The ’45’, the Jacobite Rebellion (or Rising), which interrupted many a life. In 1746, the same year as Rising petered out after Culloden, Robert joined his brother John as an apprentice architect to his father, William Adam. Robert’s father, who was King’s Mason and had also designed the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, died in 1748 and after that, Robert and John became partners in the Adams’ family business. Their first major commission started, in 1750, at Hopetoun House, west of Edinburgh. His mother’s name wasn’t Morticia, by the way.
In 1754, Robert left on an extensive ‘Grand Tour’ of France and Italy. This wasn’t a foppish indulgence, such as a lot of gentry entertained; it was a practical exercise. Adam devoted his time, four years of it, to studying classical Roman ruins and learned drafting and drawing skills. He returned extremely well versed in classical and Italian Renaissance architecture and immediately moved to London. He set himself up as a practicing architect and within a few short years, five at the most, he had become ‘the’ fashionable architect to Britain’s wealthy aristocracy. Two of his three brothers, James and William, joined him as architects in this London-based Adams family practice.
The ‘Palladian’ movement as the big deal at that time, which began with a surge of interest in classical architecture and was named after the Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio. He had tried to recreate the style and proportions of the buildings of ancient Rome and Robert Adam built upon this momentum, taking it much further. However, drawing on studies from his travels, Adam soon evolved a style of his own, which can best be described as ‘neo-classical’, according to folks that should know. Oor Adam was something of a rebel against the Palladians, who insisted on following strict Roman lines and proportion. Whereas the Palladians copied the Romans, Robert Adam experimented and innovated. He borrowed from the Greeks, and from Byzantine and Italian Baroque styles. The results were spectacular and produced a body of work that approached genius.
Adam was a success in part because he insisted on designing everything himself, down to the tiniest interior detail, which meant that his work had an overall unity or continuity of style. The Adams Brothers firm was responsible for Admiralty Arch at Whitehall and the Adelphi scheme, built in Westminster between 1768 and 1772, and based on a Thames-side terrace with a parallel row closer to the Strand, and with a ladder of side streets in between. Unfortunately, it that was largely demolished in the 1930s, however, a few streets do remain, including Robert Street. The Royal Society of Arts, on John Adam Street, with its elegant frontage, and the south and east sides of Fitzroy Square were also designed by Robert Adam and his brothers.
Quite a lot of Adam’s work was on large country houses, usually alterations, which meant focusing on the inside more so than the outside. It is partly for that reason that he is as well known today for his opulent and elegant interiors as he is for his buildings. A wonderful example of that is Osterley Park in Hounslow and there is also Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath, which houses the Iveagh Collection of paintings. Among the artists employed by Adam to decorate his interiors were the painter Angelica Kauffman, the sculptor John Flaxman, and the Italian painters Antonio Zucchi, whose work can be seen at Osterley and Kenwood, and Giovanni Cipriani, who ‘did’ Syon House.
Of course, another reason Robert Adam is well known to many people is because of his fireplaces. Drop into any DIY store in the UK and you will find replicas of the ubiquitous Adam fireplace. You can also find rather expensive reproductions in trendy establishments. Yes, indeed, it is truly an enduring symbol, an iconic image, that began as the solution to a problem faced by the Adam Brothers renovating the great country houses of Georgian Britain.
Basically, the carvers of ornamental marble chimneypieces couldn’t keep up with demand, because of the time needed to make each one. They couldn’t be mass produced and were also expensive. So Adam developed an ingenious method of casting timber fittings from copper or boxwood moulds. The timber was a composite made to the Adams’ secret formula, which produced a resilient product that could take all manner of treatments, including the familiar, waxed raw timber finish. Not only did Adam solve the production problem, he introduced an international style that folks copy to this very day.
Robert Adam died at his home at 11 Albermarle Street, in London, on the 3rd of March, 1792, and he was buried at Westminster Abbey.