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Robert Adam: a genius contribution to the neoclassical style

23 April 2021

Robert Adam was not only the foremost architect of his age, but one of the most influential architects of all time.

Born in 1728, Robert helped pioneer neoclassicism with contributions to architecture, interior design and furniture design throughout his lifetime.

The neoclassical style drew inspiration from the art and culture of Ancient Greece and Rome. Transforming Palladian Neoclassicism in England, Robert, alongside his brother James Adam, led the first phase of the classical revival in England and Scotland.

Adam’s era saw mansions with immaculate design details sought after by wealthy politicians, having benefited from the union of Scotland and England in the 18th century.

Robert Adam fit the bill perfectly with his intense eye for detail and somewhat stubbornness to complete all designs himself, from grand buildings to small individual objects.

As such, Robert’s designs had a sense of ‘flow’ that hadn’t been seen previously, making him one of the most highly sought-after architects of his day.

Adam’s family history

Robert was born at Gladney House in Kirkcaldy, Fife on 3 July 1728. Being the son of renowned architect William Adam (1689-1748), Robert was born into the profession.

The Adam children were brought up in a well-connected 18th-century family in a highly stimulating and intellectual environment.

William Adam’s position as Master Mason to the Board of Ordnance saw him supervise the construction of country houses and military buildings in the Palladian style.

William was truly influential in his children’s career, having Robert and all his brothers work in the family business, making the Adam practice truly a family affair.

However, it was Robert that stood out from the siblings, blessed with a high level of determination coupled with the confidence to push the boundaries beyond the limitations of 18th century architecture.

Early years

Robert’s initial interest was more tailored towards becoming an artist rather than an architect

From 1734 and at the age of six, Robert Adam attended Royal High School Edinburgh; the curriculum was highly focused on Latin, exposing Robert to the culture of Ancient Rome from an early age.

He then went on to matriculate at The University of Edinburgh (then Town’s College) in 1743.

His studies were cut short after two years due the 1745 Jacobite rising as well as a serious illness which lasted several months.

After overcoming illness in 1746, Robert trained under his father in the family business as an apprentice; assisting on projects such as the building of Inveraray Castle and more famously Hopetoun House.

Interestingly, Robert’s initial interest was more tailored towards becoming an artist rather than an architect.

Death of William Adam

Robert was only 20-years old when his father died in 1748. His older brother John took over the family business, quickly creating a partnership with Robert, and the ‘Adam Brothers’ name was born.

Importantly, John upheld his father’s position on the Board of Ordnance which subsequently provided lucrative work for Adam Brothers through the continuance of architectural and contracting business.

Their first major commission involved the interior of Hopetoun House, followed by a private commission to build Dumfries House.

Following on from the failed Jacobite rebellion, the Adam Brothers picked up work on reconstructing numerous Highland forts; noticeably Fort George in 1750 which heavily influenced the brothers’ foundational knowledge in practical building.

The partnership quickly became profitable and by 1754, Robert had saved £5000 which allowed him to take up the offer of accompanying the Earl of Hopetoun’s younger brother, Charles Hope, to Italy.

Grand tour

Piranesi was a great architect and engraver and his meeting with Robert Adam proved a monumental moment in his career

Robert Adam’s grand tour of Europe (1755-1757) allowed him to see the greatest sights of the Roman Empire and the architecture of the Renaissance.

He spent a notable amount of time in Italy, undertaking intense professional training; learning drafting and drawing skills by admiring Roman ruins and developing his own unique style.

Whilst in Rome, Robert and Hope fell out over travelling expenses and the pair split; Robert stayed on without him, accompanied by two tutors; Charles-Louis Clérrisseau and Giambattisto Piranesi.

Piranesi was a great architect and engraver and his meeting with Robert Adam proved a monumental moment in his career.

He taught the aspiring architect a great many things about classicism and draughtsmanship, and their friendship allowed Robert to embrace uniqueness and not be restricted by cultural or academic tradition.

Piranesi published his Diverse Maniere d’adornare i cammini, after Adam’s visit, his final polemical work. It included designs for interior fittings, including chimneypieces, and was of great importance to the Adam architectural practice.

Robert wrote many letters to his family whilst on the Great Tour. The content suggests Robert was incredibly driven to become the most prominent architect in Britain as well as a ruthless social climber.

During his two years away, Robert placed great emphasis on pursuing contacts which would be beneficial to him and his brother, James, when setting up their London office on his return.

The ‘Adam Style’

Robert swayed from the traditional Palladian style, taking inspiration from Greek, Byzantine and Italian Baroque styles

After returning from his tour, Robert Adam moved to London in 1758 where he established a practice with the help of his younger brother James.

The time couldn’t have been more fitting for Robert as interest in classical architecture swept across England, with the wealthy being drawn to the style and proportions of buildings of Ancient Rome.

The Adam brothers designed numerous country houses in this style and it only took Robert five years to become a highly recognised architect of the high society set.

However, in a somewhat rebellious manner, Robert swayed from the traditional Palladian style, taking inspiration from Greek, Byzantine and Italian Baroque styles.

The ‘Adam Style’ had an air of lightness, freedom and elegant lines which were unbound by strict classical proportions. This can be seen in well-known buildings today such as Portland Palace, London.

Focus on interiors

He had very few opportunities for large-scale design, with much of his work throughout the early 1760s being the remodelling of existing houses

By the time Robert returned from his tour, many of the Whig aristocrats had already built their large homes and were largely looking for Robert to design the interiors.

Therefore, he had very few opportunities for large-scale design, with much of his work throughout the early 1760s being the remodelling of existing houses.

Robert still managed to place his own architectural flare on his interiors; designing everything from ceilings down to the tiniest details, such as door fittings - every surface was treated as part of the bigger picture.

He was stubborn in that he wanted to design everything himself, however this resulted in a great sense of unity and flow throughout his projects.

The furniture designed by Adam had the purpose of blending the design of houses; his furniture style was made popular by cabinetmaker George Hepplewhite.

The ‘Adam Style’ uses few ornaments, carefully designed from ancient and Renaissance sources, wall paintings and room decorations. Carpets were designed to match the ceiling above and everything was custom designed, down to the very smallest of details.

See below an example of a small early 19th century cast iron antique hob grate which was designed in the style of Robert Adam.

Robert did, however, have the chance to build a few exteriors; Bowood House and Admiralty Arch being the best surviving examples.

Adam Brother’s projects

The brothers’ first major commission was the continuation of Hopetoun House, Queensferry which their father began. This was eventually completed in 1767.

Another early project undertaken by Robert in London was the Admiralty Screen (c.1760). The brothers began their first completely new house, Mersham-le-Hatch, in 1762, completed in 1772.

Other large-scale projects include the interior designs for Syon House (1762-69), London. The brothers also designed a variety of romantic neo-Gothic castles in Scotland, such as Dalquharran Castle (1777-90).

See below a very rare, early Georgian Portland stone fireplace designed by Robert Adam specifically to be used in Dalquharran Castle.

Robert was tasked with designing The University of Edinburgh in 1789; possibly his most impressive exterior. However, by this point his popularity was beginning to decline.

Robert Adam: legacy and death

On 3 March 1792, Robert Adam died suddenly in his London home at the age of 64 after a blood vessel or ulcer burst in his stomach. He was later buried in Westminster Abbey.

Having never married, Robert left his estate to his sisters Elizabeth and Margaret Adam. He left nearly 9,000 drawings of which the majority were purchased by architect John Soane in 1833 for £200 (now displayed at the Soane Museum, London).

His designs can also be seen in the two volumes that Robert and James Adam published in Works in Architecture from 1773.

Robert Adam truly brought his own distinct classical style to European architecture and the ‘Adam Style’ will always have a lasting influence on British architecture and interior design.