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date: 07 July 2022

Adam, Robertfree


Adam, Robertfree

  • A. A. Tait

Robert Adam (1728–1792)

attrib. George Willison, c. 1770–74

Adam, Robert (1728–1792), architect, was born at Kirkcaldy in Fife on 3 July 1728, the second son of William Adam (bap. 1689, d. 1748), architect, and his wife, Mary Robertson (1699–1761), the daughter of William Robertson of Gladney. He was educated at the high school of Edinburgh and in 1743 matriculated at Edinburgh University, which he left in 1745–6 to join his father's architectural office. His younger brother, James Adam (1732–1794), architect, was born at North Merchiston, Edinburgh, on 21 July 1732, and was also educated at Edinburgh University, where he matriculated in the autumn of 1751, and was part of the firm by 1754. He died, unmarried, at 13 Albemarle Street, London. His elder brother, John Adam (1721–1792), also an architect, is noticed separately.


Robert Adam and his brother James were notable products of the great eighteenth-century force of the Scottish Enlightenment, an intellectual fraternity which included the historian William Robertson, David Hume, and Adam Smith, all of whom moved in the close Adam circle. Its characteristics of logic and common sense, independence, curiosity, and pragmatism were mixed in Adam's case with less cerebral emotions and a strong visual sense. During his time at the university Adam probably attended one of the local drawing schools, for he then had ambitions to be a painter. This was balanced by the influence of his father's extensive library which had been assembled at the family home of Blair Adam in Fife. Apart from the conventional histories and classical texts, there was a working collection of illustrated architectural books in English, French, and Italian, and a series of manuals on architectural draughtsmanship. Possibly the most visually stimulating part of the library was a small collection of prints, mostly Dutch and many of landscapes: these encouraged Adam in his more sophisticated experiments in composition and perspective. Several of his copies after Gaspar Dughet and Marco Ricci were made in the 1750s and remain in volume 56 of the Adam volumes in Sir John Soane's Museum, London.

On William Adam's death in 1748 Robert Adam went into partnership with his elder brother, John, undertaking the building and rebuilding of the highland forts after the conclusion of the Jacobite rising of 1745. These projects brought to Scotland a team of draughtsmen from the Board of Ordnance which included the brothers Paul and Thomas Sandby. Though the board was concerned principally with the repair and expansion of the existing system of forts such as forts William and Augustus, it was professionally connected with the Adam family; they as royal master masons, were the contractors for the building of the ambitious Fort George, outside Inverness. Mapping and recording such installations was part of the programme and Paul Sandby's composite sheet of plans and views of Duart Castle, of 1748, exploited the Picturesque qualities of the castle and its setting. This Picturesque style greatly influenced Adam: the Sandbys taught him the artistic potential of the ruin and also the drawing and wash technique necessary to transfer it successfully to paper. This aesthetic education was balanced by his more practical experience at Fort George, where paper drawings were swiftly turned into masonry and joinery work. Moreover as an eighteenth-century fort, it was the culmination of a military tradition stretching to antiquity and offered the imaginative Adam a visual overview of the history of forms and functionalism. His castle apprenticeship gave Adam an insight into the origins and survival of such archaic forms as the battlement and turret and the adaptability of others, such as the fosse, which had evolved into the ha-ha of garden architecture. Much of this consciousness of tradition appeared in the small pen drawings he made around 1752, probably while he was at Fort George; the conservative cast of these designs fits well with the character of the major architectural work undertaken by the brothers at Hopetoun House, near Edinburgh, where they continued to work in the style introduced by their father when he gained the commission in 1725.


The next critical stage in the development of Adam and his brother James was their Italian tours of 1755–7 and 1760–63 respectively. Robert departed for Italy in 1754 to undertake a modified and idiosyncratic form of the grand tour, and reached Rome in 1755; it was in every way a period of intense professional training during which the skills learned in Scotland were tested and given an international gloss by the Roman circle in which he now moved. The intellectual centre of this new world was the French Academy in the Palazzo Mancini on the Corso. This Francophone group was dominated by Charles-Louis Clérisseau, pensionnaire until 1754, who provided Adam with associates such as Jean-Baptiste Lallemand, Laurent-Benoit Dewez, and the architect–engraver G. B. Piranesi. In more practical terms Clérisseau was the visual force behind Adam's travel book The Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro (1764), in which the style of the architectural views was very much of his making. For the more formal aspects of his training, especially for figure drawing, Robert Adam took lessons in one of the Roman drawing academies, that of Pompeo Batoni, a portrait painter with a large British clientele (he later painted James Adam in 1763). In following such an individualistic training—more that of the talented dilettante than the professional artist—both Adam and, later, his brother James were careful to be seen as amateurs who collected, saw the sights, and took professional drawing lessons. Robert wrote candidly to his family in Scotland that he was certain that 'my being an artist if I am discovered to be such may do me hurt' (Clerk of Penicuik MSS, GD 18/4806), and he was prepared to invent a family history and role to support gentlemanly pretensions—'A good lye well timed does well' (ibid., GD 18/4807). Such dilettantism was reinforced in his tour to Naples and the adjoining antique sites, which he and Clérisseau made in the April of 1755. It was Clérisseau, as the traditional cicerone, who established the itinerary and the sites to be sketched, and each day he and Adam produced at least three acceptable views, often of the same scene, despite the hot and humid weather. The same route was again followed visually and factually in 1761, when Clérisseau took James Adam to the area. The sites visited and drawn were largely those by Clérisseau that appeared in the later engravings of the Abbé de Saint Non, Le antichiti di Pozzuoli, Baja e Cuma, in 1769. James Adam's own rather dull account of the tour was published anonymously in The Library of the Fine Arts, in 1831.

In the composition of architectural scenery Robert Adam was in the hands of Lallemand. Instruction seems to have been by imitation and variation, after using Lallemand's chalk drawings as source material. His crumbling terraces and overgrown villa gardens, often filled with fragments of antiquity, were copied and collected by Adam throughout his Roman period. His association with Lallemand was complemented by time spent with Dewez, studying basic architectural composition. Three years Adam's junior and probably 'much attached' to the circle around the Roman office of the architect Luigi Vanvitelli, Dewez proved to be such an able and agreeable companion that Adam took him to London with him in 1758. His method of teaching seems to have been based on theme and variation: a simple geometric shape was chosen and developed by both men with as much attention paid to technique as to composition. A run of such compositions remains in the Soane Museum, notably in Adam volume 55. Much of this work suggests a meeting of like minds rather than a conventional pupillage arrangement in which copying the classical orders and their details was the rule. A third and rather less professional member of this loose group was Piranesi, who powerfully influenced Adam's vision of the past. His ideas, later expressed in his Parere su l'architettura (1765), on the importance of the freedom of the unfettered imagination were ones which Adam shared, though the drawings he made alongside Piranesi fell short of the latter's brilliant invention.


During these two Roman years Adam succeeded in transforming himself from a provincial and rather green Scottish architect into a cosmopolitan figure, ready indeed to put into effect 'the Antique, the Noble & Stupendous' (Clerk of Penicuik MSS, GD 18/4764). There was no question of a return to the Scottish practice of John Adam in Edinburgh and he settled down in London, arranging around himself his collection of pictures and antique fragments which advertised his taste and judgement and through them the Adam style. The practice itself was housed in Lower Grosvenor Street and remained there until its removal in 1772 to Royal Terrace in the great Adam development besides the Thames, the Adelphi. The opening years of the office, that is the period until James Adam returned from Rome in 1763 and became a partner in the practice, set a pace and style which lasted into the mid-1770s. The new, post-Roman style was reflected in the drawings of the period: here the rococo classicism, seen in the interiors of his work at Hatchlands, Surrey (1758–61), and Shardeloes, Buckinghamshire (1759–63), of the early 1760s, quickly gave way to a more complex and obviously antique manner as Adam's often imported draughtsmen watered down the style demanded by the brothers. Of these émigré figures Giuseppe Manocchi was possibly the most significant: although his association with it was short (1765–6), he decisively introduced stronger and bolder colours to the London office. The use of dark backgrounds for Adam's Etruscan style in the interiors of Derby House, London, Osterley Park, Middlesex, and Home House, London, may be traced back to him. Such enthusiasm for colour elevated it to an essential element in the Adam interior, where it assumed a role as vital as that of the pilaster or cornice. Indeed, the fusion of such elements was continued on the exterior of his buildings, where the delicate relief sculpture echoed (if it did not repeat) the interior. In certain instances, as at Harewood House, Yorkshire, and Kenwood House, Hampstead, Adam managed by this continuity of decoration to bind together buildings where his contribution was not the only one. This hallmark of the Adam style became one of the major targets of critics of the brothers' work.

The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam

The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam appeared in several sections between 1773 and 1778 and were reissued as two volumes in 1786 with a third, posthumous, volume in 1822. The book marked a decisive watershed in the Adam practice and the brothers' careers. The comparative failure of their speculative building venture at the Adelphi and the adverse attention it attracted made it necessary for the brothers to rehabilitate their reputation and reassess their future. This was the role of The Works, setting out what had been achieved and planning what was to come. The Adelphi, begun in 1768, was a huge speculative scheme to build an elevated terrace of twenty-two private houses, with the space below let as warehouses, adjacent to the north bank of the Thames. The national credit crisis of 1772 led to its abandonment and to near financial ruin for Adam. The period of the 1770s was difficult: as Adam candidly admitted in April 1780, 'For some time past the very particular state of affairs in this country, has prevented the expensive Art of Architecture from being cultivated as it was formerly. So that my brother and I have for many months found ourselves far from being fully employed' (Clerk of Penicuik MSS, GD 248/3395/1). The Works had to an extent anticipated such a situation and was published to encourage the expansion of the practice and to set out new directions to be followed. The plates themselves broke new ground: they showed individually a mixture of furniture, chimney-pieces, and decorative details set out in the form of a balanced composition, and this novel form was strengthened by the changing sequence of the prints themselves, from flat elevation to deep perspective. There could be no more effective advertisement for the Adam style, where movement, variety, and irregularity of plan and elevation were all subsumed in the evocative spirit of the Picturesque. Such a spirit was to characterize the later Adam practice, where a distinction was made between what Adam termed the architectonic (basic architecture) and the wider-ranging, more associative style of the Picturesque.

Architectural work

Adam's work in the thirty years of the practice after 1760 was more or less evenly divided between his roles as a country house and a town architect. Apart from the different settings, the grand town house and the country house shared much the same purpose as a centre for the display of wealth and conspicuous consumption: Norfolk House, Northumberland House, and Devonshire House were not unlike some country mansion come to town, though they all presented a strong contrast with the more humdrum terrace house found in the smaller London squares. However, even the dullest terrace block could in Adam's hands be transformed into some Parisian palace quarter, as was demonstrated in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, or in his more complex schemes for Portland Place, London. It was with them in mind that the arch Georgian revivalist Sir Albert Richardson wrote that 'Robert Adam became a master of elevational design: he could make several frontages look like a single palace and could produce the effect of a dominant idea when called upon to design a house in the midst of others' (Richardson, 86). It was in them that Adam effected the most brilliant part of his revolution, fully publicized in The Works.

The town house

Adam's most brilliant exercise in manipulating the internal space of the terrace house was Derby House in Grosvenor Square. Built in 1728 (dem. 1861) and acquired by Edward Stanley, eleventh earl of Derby, in 1750, it was a typical town house; it had a parlour–drawing room downstairs with a first and second front room and drawing-room above. Little of this could be changed, so Adam was faced in 1773 with remodelling a narrow building, a task which required imagination and ingenuity in equal parts. The original two front rooms were probably bedrooms, as in most houses in the square; Adam moved them to the rear, arranged on two floors. These became the private apartments of Lord and Lady Derby, one above the other, connected by their own stair and with Adam's mezzanine for a servant between them. Here he was reworking his designs for Wynn House in St James's Square of two years earlier (extended 1936). In such arrangements, as Adam freely admitted, he was adapting the grander system of the contemporary French petits appartements, where a distinction was made between private and public rooms and the intimate and formal. He combined the French concept of the enfilade (succession of rooms) with the traditional English circuit, popular since the 1730s, where the staircase led to an interconnected group of reception rooms. Because of the narrowness of Wynn House and Derby House as terrace constructions, the Adam circuit was irregular and asymmetrical and produced what may be termed a Picturesque plan.

In several ways the plans of Derby House and Wynn House followed from Adam's earlier commission at Lansdowne (originally Shelburne) House, where he and James Adam had collaborated from 1762 until about 1771. Begun for John Stuart, third earl of Bute, who sold it before completion to William Petty, second earl of Shelburne, it represented the alternative to the terrace house in its scale and almost rural setting at the bottom of Berkeley Square. It was further distinguished as a building in that Adam had started it from scratch. His design was for a large villa with short, contracted wings, a three-bay Greek Ionic centrepiece and with the principal rooms, including the huge library (never finished), all on the ground floor with bedrooms above in the true villa tradition. The arrangement of the bedrooms of Lord and Lady Lansdowne, one above the other, was repeated on a more intimate scale at Wynn House and Derby House.

In terms of their contribution to eighteenth-century architecture there can be little doubt that Derby House and Wynn House and the interiors of Home House (1773) in Portman Square set a new standard of brilliance, movement, and informality. The relatively small sites of such buildings made demands upon Adam's ingenuity and capacity to create a space which satisfied the same fastidious society which crossed the more ample threshold of Lansdowne House. His very success in devising such interiors ensured his damnation in the nineteenth century. As early as 1821 the classical architect C. R. Cockerell dismissed Adam as 'not an artist of any force nor of very sound judgemt', whose

plans are a labyrinth. He did not acknowledge the effect of the vista nor the good sense of it. In the obvious & palpable disposition of the house your way is never direct sometimes sideways like a crab, sometimes thro' alcove or corner you come into a magnificent room you know not how.

D. Watkin, C. R. Cockerell, 1974, 60

Country houses

Robert Adam's country house practice was large and varied. He worked in England, in Scotland, and in Ireland at Headford (1772–5) and Castle Upton (1788–90). But for all his energy and ambition, he failed to build the great country house of his Roman dreams. His early commissions for Osterley, Harewood House, Yorkshire, and Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire—however grand—were all for remodelling or adapting the works of others: at Harewood, John Carr of York, at Kedleston, James Paine and Matthew Brettingham. At Witham Park, Somerset, work on a new house came to an end with the sudden death of William Beckford, lord mayor of London, and even at Syon House, Middlesex, Adam's thorough reconstruction of the courtyarded interior was radically curtailed. Perhaps his grandest house was Luton Hoo of 1766 for the prime minister, the third earl of Bute. Here Adam incorporated what remained of an earlier building into his uncompromisingly neo-classical design. Yet even this prize eluded his grasp and the house was never fully completed. Instead, a late work, Gosford House, East Lothian (begun in 1791; now much altered), remains as virtually the best example of a large and original country house by Robert Adam.

In the most typical of Adam's early country houses of the 1760s there was a strong expression of the orthodox Palladian villa, popular in the opening decades of the century and exemplified by Lord Burlington's Chiswick House, London. Mersham-le-Hatch, Kent, and Witham Park, both begun in 1762, showed contrasting solutions to the form of block and flanking wings, derived from Palladio in the 1630s and revived by the early eighteenth-century Palladian architects. Mersham reflected this type in perhaps its starkest form, underscoring the more self-conscious academicism of the double pediments and Diocletian windows of the much grander Witham Park. Such compositions make a dramatic contrast with both Adam's early villa designs of the 1750s, where such restrained classicism was absent, and his villa compositions towards the end of his career. His triangular-plan villa at Walkinshaw, Glasgow, of 1791 (dem. 1927) was typical of these and perhaps came closest to the European neo-classicism of Claude-Nicholas Ledoux, Friedrich Gilly, and Gianantonio Selva. Walkinshaw was based on the small design which Adam had produced in 1789 for a guard house to his Register House (1774) in Edinburgh: the source for both plans probably lay in the geometric designs in Jean François de Neufforge's Recueil élémentaire d'architecture (1757–77), one of several French treatises that Adam owned.

The importance of patronage from the earl of Bute for Adam's early career is often overlooked; Adam relied throughout his life on his Scottish connections and remained loyal to them. At a time when Bute was bitterly unpopular Adam bravely publicized in The Works his gratitude for the earl's protection and friendship. As well he might: Bute had provided Adam with the key commission for Lansdowne House in 1762, as well as Highcliffe Castle, Hampshire (1773), improvements at South Audley Street, London, and of course Luton Hoo. He had also ensured that Adam was appointed, with Sir William Chambers, as royal architect in 1761, and it was to Bute that James Adam looked to realize his scheme for the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament, on which he had laboriously worked in Rome in 1762–3. In much of this the Adam brothers were disappointed and in 1774 Luton was still incomplete, although this was disguised in The Works. The plates there showed none of the existing house and instead set out, especially in elevation, a building almost aggressive in its severity and simplicity and considerably more advanced stylistically than Kedleston or Harewood. The disappearance of much of Adam's house after the fires of 1821 and 1843 and its rebuilding in the twentieth century virtually eliminated one of Adam's most important buildings and much of his standing as a neo-classical architect.

Picturesque style

The change of direction in the Adam practice during the mid-1770s stemmed partly from Adam's enthusiasm for the Picturesque. During the 1770s and the following decade he explored—through his countless wash and watercolours—how this literary and visual movement could find an effective architectural expression. This interest he shared with James Adam, who had succeeded his brother as architect of the king's works in 1769. He also developed an interest in agriculture, acquiring an estate in Essex in the 1770s and publishing the prosaic and down-to-earth Practical Essays on Agriculture in 1789, with a further edition in 1794. Robert Adam began to experiment more ambitiously with the complicated relationship between a building, its setting, and a sense of history. Typical of this was his scheme for an office court at Brampton Bryan in Herefordshire (1777), cast as an abandoned and decayed Roman camp, and the equally extraordinary office court proposed for Kirkdale, Kirkcudbrightshire, in 1789. Even though such drawings do not always relate to an identifiable commission, they illuminate Adam's visual thinking and give the source for his cottage and lodge designs, and the hybrid and revival styles of his country houses. Possibly the most extreme creation of this Picturesque phase was Adam's clifftop castle at Culzean in Ayrshire (1777). It stands isolated on a promontory, reached only by a causeway viaduct, in a ruined castle style, which served as a viewing platform for the surrounding informal landscape. The asymmetrical form and the mixture of classical and Gothic details on the castle's exterior reflected similar ideas to those with which Adam had experimented in his designs for The Oaks in Surrey (1777). In theoretical terms such buildings belonged to Richard Payne Knight's 'mixed style', explained in his later An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste. Adam's interiors at Culzean were classical and of these the oval double staircase and circular drawing-room, with its seaward views, were a remarkable expression of the Picturesque ideal. None of the other seaside castles, such as Highcliffe or Seaton, East Lothian (1790), matched this marriage between setting, plan, and elevation.

It is essential to appreciate both the discipline and the range of Adam's mature Picturesque style. It left behind the Chinese and various extravagances associated with the rococo, and offered instead a sustained meditation on the fundamental themes of Western architecture, represented for Adam in the classical and Gothic styles, which he saw as integral parts of the same continuous tradition rather than as conflicting forces. His vision of classicism extended from the Antique to the Renaissance and the cinquecento, and he grasped the often subtle evolution of the style. He sought a common ground between his designs in the style of Michelangelo for Luton, his grotesque work after Raphael's Vatican Loggie, and the newly discovered forms at Herculaneum. The same flexibility was apparent in his Gothic, which developed from classical military forms into the Romanesque and the Scottish vernacular. Whether he worked in a medieval or a classical idiom, Adam tempered his archaeological learning to achieve a stylistic originality: no one confused his south front of Kedleston with a Roman triumphal arch and no one was expected to confuse Culzean with a Welsh castle such as Harlech. At Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, in the 1770s, where he replaced James Paine, a clear and unmistakable distinction was drawn between his work in a late Gothic style and the surviving medieval work.

Public architecture

In his introduction in 1764 to The Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian Adam wrote that 'Public buildings are the most splendid monuments of a great and opulent people.' He felt too that such commissions were a judgement on an architect's career, and his own comparative lack of success was a source of bitter disappointment. Matters had opened well enough for him with his joint appointment with Chambers as architect of the king's works in 1761. This should have led to greater things but, apart from minor works on the royal palaces, his most important commission was the Admiralty screen of 1760 and the remodelling of the paymaster-general's house (1771), both in Whitehall. He was effectively excluded by Chambers from work at the royal palaces at Richmond and Windsor; the plum official commission at Somerset House went to Chambers as well. To fill this vacuum Adam resorted to speculative building and to the expansion of his Scottish practice. His work in Edinburgh on the Register House of 1774, and later at the university (1789), Bridewell prison (1791), and the South Bridges scheme (1790), and in Glasgow on the infirmary and university (1790s), all came towards the end of his career and were completed by James Adam after 1792. In the speculative field, his ambitious rebuilding of whole quarters of London, at the Adelphi (1768–72), Portland Place (1776–90), and Fitzroy Square (1790–94), and in Scotland at Charlotte Square, Edinburgh (1791), all showed what Adam could achieve independent of 'princely patronage'. In his bid for extending King's College, Cambridge, and the adjoining university library (1788) he attempted to manipulate the college's finances so that his scheme—'one of the best & most simple of my inventions'—might be undertaken (A. Doig, The Architectural Drawings Collection of King's College, Cambridge, 1979, 31).

Adam's virtual exclusion from official patronage had less to do with the failure of influence than with his reputation as a poor administrator, especially weak in the area of finance. The repercussions of the relative failure of their enterprise at the Adelphi, where Adam was saved by an act of parliament promoting a lottery—using unfairly, it was thought, his position as member of parliament for Kinross-shire (1768–74)—the further unattractive lawsuit over the Liardet patent (for the composition of stucco) of 1774 turned such influential figures as his patron Lord Lansdowne against him. There was the growing acceptance in professional circles that he lacked sound financial judgement, indicated by the sales from the Adam collections of 1773 and 1785. Earlier his client at Harewood had ominously warned that everything should be done properly 'mais pas trop'; at Brasted, Kent, in 1788, the villa cost £9500, instead of the agreed maximum of £5000. As Adam candidly admitted, he had 'an abhorrence of all manner of calculations' (Innes and Clerk MS 3070, Guildhall Library, London).

Churches and theatres

Church architecture was a further branch of public building; unfortunately, the scale and number of commissions offered in Britain was significantly less than in other major European (and Catholic) countries. Here again Adam's patronage was limited and the most eye-catching—and quite deliberately so—of his churches was at Mistley in Essex (1776). Like all Adam's ecclesiastical buildings, it was conceived more for its scenographic impact than for its effectiveness as a religious building. The interior of the rectangular structure of 1735 was taken over and little changed by Adam, apart from galleries added to take an increased congregation from the expanded resort. The addition of the twin towers to the east and west, and twin porticoes at the north and south, were all designed for the external spectator rather than the devout. The church was to mark the centre of the new spa town, to catch the eye from the sea and country, and provide a dramatic silhouette from the windows of the remodelled house of his client Richard Rigby. The same emphasis on the church as a landmark was evident in his larger but incomplete scheme for the Edinburgh church of St George's in Charlotte Square. The church was planned to close the vista down George Street in much the same fashion as his Register House terminated a similar view from the university, on the edge of the Old Town. In all of them, and as at Mistley, he used the theme of a Pantheon-style dome and campanile, though much of the vigour of his design for St George's (1791) was lost in the adapted scheme of 1811. When the church was opened three years later, the Scots Magazine unhelpfully remarked that 'It is certainly a pity that the Adam design was not used' (J. Gifford, Buildings of Scotland: Edinburgh, 1984, 291).

The same scenographic element was strongly and appropriately present in Adam's work as a theatre architect. His scheme for the Haymarket Opera House, London, of around 1789 was perhaps the most ambitious and complex of his later public buildings. No design showed better his mastery of space, his sense of movement, and his capacity for variety than this projected building. Adam quite deliberately contrasted, in the surviving drawings in the Soane Museum, the different public spaces. The green room and the tavern were domestic in comparison with the scale of the assembly room and public auditorium. Such an expression of variety was continued in the long façade to the Haymarket, in which five palace fronts moved restlessly back and forward to emphasize the asymmetry of the composition. In some ways the sheer invention of these designs was a return to Adam's Roman studies of the 1750s and a studied contrast with the subdued monumental elevation of his Lincoln's Inn scheme of 1772. Adam was reviving here his youthful boast to build 'such a palace as Inigo [Jones] would stare at with amazement: make Palladio look blanc, & make the Nation wonder' (Clerk of Penicuik MSS, GD 18/4815). If Lincoln's Inn evoked legal gravitas, the opera house, in the liveliness of its decoration and the rapidity of movement, reflected the theatre.

The opera house was Adam's swansong as an architect of public buildings in London. That it was never realized can hardly have cheered him in his final years. His disappointment was perhaps tempered by public works in Glasgow and Edinburgh, where something of his grandeur of temperament was stamped on the neo-classical enclaves he gave to both cities. He wrote of his Edinburgh University commission that 'Though the Money is no indifferent object to me, I am conscious I have been infinitely more activated by the motive of leaving behind me a monument of my talents, such as they are, than by any hope of gain whatever' (A. G. Fraser, The Building of Old College, 1989, 96).


In all of the Adam brothers' work little could have been achieved without the effective support of a well-organized office. Such an office turned projects into buildings, trained future draughtsmen and architects, such as Joseph Bonomi and George Richardson, and housed the reference collection of drawings which is now in the Soane Museum. Located in Lower Grosvenor Street, the office was established immediately after Robert Adam's return from Rome in 1758; he was joined there by James Adam in 1764. The years of 1758–9 were critical. Adam had originally intended to bring Clérisseau back with him from Rome '& give him the Inspection of our Drawing Room, & so put things in perspective & make views of all the principal places in England & get him to oversee anything one intends to publish' (Clerk of Penicuik MSS, GD 18/48 11). This did not happen, and instead Adam had to make do with Agostino Brunias and Laurent-Benoit Dewez, who were a far cry from his Roman establishment, where he had 'three or four lads constantly working for me'. With Dewez's defection from the office in 1759, Adam had only one experienced draughtsman at his disposal. The difficulties of the situation were candidly discussed in a letter of November 1758 to James Adam, where an employee imported from John Adam's office in Edinburgh was seen as lacking the 'least fire or ambition to become equal to his Neighbours as he never touched a pen but in the Drawing room where he was quite awkward & insufferably slow' (Clerk of Penicuik MSS, GD 18/4853). The situation changed for the better by about 1767, when there were between ten and twelve clerks at least in the office, under the direction of Robert Morison, one of Adam's experienced draughtsmen. Such an office was not a cheap concern, for any reasonable draughtsman was paid about £40 per year, with boarding running to an additional £40. Both Bonomi and Richardson, Adam's right-hand men, were paid between £40 and £60 p.a. during their period in the office in the 1760s and 1770s. To put these sums in perspective, Adam paid his copyist in Rome a shilling a day.

Two of Adam's most distinguished Italian imports to the office were Antonio Zucchi, who returned with James Adam, and Giuseppe Manocchi, another James Adam protégé, who appeared on the payroll in 1765. Both were decorative artists and each had a quite specific influence on both the office and the Adam style. Manocchi was the important colourist, Zucchi a figure artist whose sphere of work extended from arabesque to the iconographical figures in Adam's roundels and panels, and even the frontispiece of The Works in Architecture itself. Of the decorative painters employed by the office, G. B. Cipriani had an early involvement with both Adam and Chambers, Peter Borgnis with the later Adam office, and Biagio Rebecca with James Wyatt and Henry Holland as well as Adam. The speculative building element of the Adam practice involved Daniel Robertson, Robert Morison, and John Robertson, the office clerk during its final years in 13 Albemarle Street. In all aspects of drawing Adam demanded a recognizable degree of uniformity from his assistants, and encouraged them to develop within the strict confines of the Adam style. The brothers were proprietorial about their designs: all office drawings were Adam property and office drawings were signed as such. It was this collection, magnificent in its range and intimacy, which appeared privately on the market after the suicide of William Adam (1738–1822), the youngest brother of Robert and James.

The Adam collection of drawings

The idea of disposing of the drawings collection surfaced in 1802 and sales from it were made in the more general Adam auctions of 1818 and 1821. The death of William Adam left the entire collection in the hands of Adam's niece Miss Clerk. Some time between her arrival in London to act as a housekeeper for William Adam in 1810 and his death in 1822 the collection was catalogued and insensitively arranged according to type in at least fifty-four volumes, although two of them, volumes 7 and 26, contained specifically drawings by and collected for James Adam. The whole was offered for sale to the British Museum in 1822 and turned down. At this point the collection was described by Miss Clerk as comprising fifty-four large folios, 'a great number of them beautifully finished & coloured'. She added perceptively:

But what is reckoned more valuable than any of the furnished drawings, is an infinite number of sketches of all the different kinds of buildings, decoration & furniture. I have mentioned a great number of them in black chalk & though evidently hastily done, they show in a still greater degree the fertility & variety of Mr Adam's genius.

Tait, The sale, 453

The significance of the sketches was again emphasized in the correspondence about the Edinburgh sale of 1833, where it was stressed that the collection was notable for 'sketches of first ideas—working plans of various designs—& drawings of innumerable Chimney Pieces, Ceilings & ornaments of all sorts—many of which are coloured in the way they were to be executed'. Sir John Soane was approached in early 1832 to buy the collection but declined, largely because he had not fully established his architectural museum in Lincoln's Inn. After he did so in 1833 with a private act of parliament, there was a rapid expansion of his collecting activities, which included the purchase of the Adam collection: there was at the time considerable fear that the collection would be acquired by a bookseller who 'we believe intended to break up & disperse the collection for profit' (I. G. Brown, Robert Adam's Drawings, Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, 1992, 31). In preserving the collection Soane showed the same understanding of architectural drawing and the complementary nature of the collection at which Miss Clerk had hinted. Such an understanding was not universal: as late as 1912 Reginald Blomfield wrote in his Architectural Drawing and Draughtsmen that the drawings were not 'particularly stimulating, nor are they suggestive. Nothing is left to the imagination; everything is finished with laborious completeness, and the effect is depressing and even paralysing' (Blomfield, 79–80).

Last decade

Adam's principal London enterprise during the last decade of his career was the development of Fitzroy Square (1790–94); he built little of significance in England beyond London after his work at Mistley in Essex in the 1780s. His energies were mainly directed towards Scotland, where he enjoyed a healthy country-house practice as well as several public commissions in both Glasgow and Edinburgh. Not only did his country-house practice bloom there in the 1780s, but his visual imagination too was clearly drawn back to his Scottish roots, as his Picturesque compositions hauntingly demonstrate. The scenery and castles which he had sketched with the Sandby brothers some thirty years earlier were revived and reinvented in these watercolours. In the same spirit, the conceptual grandeur of the Adelphi scheme was repeated in his urban developments in Glasgow and Edinburgh, compensating for the lost opportunities of the Haymarket Opera House, London, of about 1789, and at Lincoln's Inn, where Sir Robert Taylor was preferred for the expansion of 1774–80.

Adam's account book for the year 1791–2 has survived in the National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh. It demonstrates the energy he showed in directing buildings virtually across the breadth of Scotland, while his base remained in Albemarle Street in London. It was virtually a one-man operation, for James Adam had little to do with the practice in the 1780s, a situation summed up by his sister in 1792, when she wrote 'about the different articles of business which Jamie is a stranger to as he lived so much in the country & had not an opportunity of knowing much of what was doing in the architecture part of the business' (Clerk of Penicuik MSS, GD 18/4961). A price was paid: Robert Adam had been ill in 1787 and in 1789, suffering from 'the complaint in his stummach, which has been so long a tiresome complaint to him'. It proved fatal three years later, on 3 March 1792. William Adam wrote to the family in Scotland from 13 Albemarle Street, where Robert died, describing the death scene straightforwardly:

he sleeped very composedly the first part of the night but all at once the vein opened up again. Then at 4 oclock this morning when he threw up a vast quantity of blood that weakened him to that degree he appeared then to be quite gone, his pulse being totally gone, he however recovered again but in so low & exhausted a state that he only struggled for life in very great Pain till 2 oclock when he became quiet & went off very easily.

Clerk of Penicuik MSS, GD 18/4972

Adam, who was unmarried, was buried privately in the south side of Westminster Abbey: his pallbearers—the duke of Buccleuch, earl of Coventry, earl of Lauderdale, Viscount Stormont, Lord Frederick Campbell, and Mr Pultene—testify to Adam's patronage and gift for friendship.

It can be accepted that Robert Adam was a man of great charm and ability, both of which were sufficiently deep to inspire loyalty and respect in all circumstances. His leading draughtsman, Joseph Bonomi, spoke kindly of him when perhaps he had little reason to do so, his contemporaries compared him favourably with the pompous Chambers. Nothing could possibly be more in his favour than a letter written by one of his clients (at Brasted in Surrey) in 1788, when he had received a bill for virtually double the estimated cost for his modest country house. The client, Dr John Turton, wrote that:

I have ever admired you as an ingenious, I have ever esteemed you as an honest man. You have been woefully mistaken in your calculations. You have led me into difficulties, but it never hath, or I trust will shake my good opinion of you—I shall ever follow you with my good wishes & rejoice in every good that may happen to you.

Innes and Clerk MS 3070, Guildhall Library, London

Eighteenth-century criticism

Turton's generous view of Robert Adam was not generally held: success and self-confidence had bred instant and often implacable enemies. Criticism of the Adam style began early and indeed was well advanced before his death. The pamphlet The Exhibition (c.1779), purporting to be by a Roger Shanhagan but in reality by William Porden and the elder Robert Smirke, set the tone. Cast in the form of notes to a fictitious academy exhibition and ironically pre-empting that of the Royal Academy in Somerset House of 1780, it described three Adam schemes: 'A Temple for Northern Patriotism', one of 'Virtue', and a 'Section of a Lady's Dressing Room'. All three were jibes at Adam buildings and his patrons. 'Northern Patriotism', according to Shanhagan's commentary, was 'very like the building opposite the Admiralty', that is to say, the paymaster-general's office rebuilt in 1771 during Lord North's premiership and seen as a piece of cronyism; that of 'Virtue' was almost a copy 'of Lord Stormont's house in Portland Place', and referred to Kenwood, rebuilt for the lord chief justice, Lord Mansfield, who had found for Adam in the Liardet stucco case of 1778 in a judgment that was widely held as favouritism—hence the ironic 'virtue'. The 'Lady's Dressing Room' represented Drury Lane Theatre and its dressing-rooms, of 1776, conspicuous for the extravagance associated with the Adam style. These were used to mount a superficial and unsubtle attack on Adam. The prefaces to The Works in Architecture were also criticized as arrogant and lacking in humility or diffidence—'no writer ever there was so arrogant as the Adams' (Shanhagan, 28–30)—and the architect was also blamed for his conspicuous failure to distinguish between decoration appropriate to the interior and exterior.

James Peacock followed Shanhagan's assault in 1785. In his small book Nutshells he attacked the Adam style of decoration as, 'this adamantine fetter', and speculated where 'our great buildings may escape being debauched, and having their magnificence eclipsed by the superlative nicities of modern proportion and modern decoration'. Peacock also disliked the perspective drawing that Adam had made very much his own, as The Works in Architecture showed. He asserted that 'the artist, indeed, who should have occasion to build a palace in an alley, may very rationally have recourse to perspective illustrations, in case a spectator, once or twice in a century, should be invited to take a break-neck view' (Peacock, 72). In the face of such negative criticism Soane's opinion of 1810 was much more understanding. As he saw it, such supposed failings had little to do with Adam's standing as an architect of imagination and versatility who had banished from interior decoration what Soane termed 'the heavy architectural conceits which prevailed in all buildings before this time'. However, Soane added that he may have 'sometimes indulged in the extreme of fancy and lightness' (Lees-Milne, 154). In fact, Soane went as far as to admire the interior of Drury Lane as showing

what the architecture of the interior of a theatre should be; and what it could be, when directed by the mind of genius. The decoration displayed a lively, rich fancy, and correct application of that lightness and variety so peculiarly adapted to theatrical architecture, which distinguished every part of the work.

D. Watkin, Sir John Soane, Enlightenment Thought and the Royal Academy Lectures, 1996, 87

It was, of course, exactly the opposite opinion to that expressed in Shanhagan's fictional catalogue entry.

Later criticism

A similar sympathetic understanding of Adam was apparent in the review of Allan Cunningham's Lives of the most Eminent British Architects that appeared in The Library of the Fine Arts in 1831. The anonymous reviewer had taken exception to Cunningham's omission of Adam from the Lives and set out his own lengthy analysis of Adam and the Adam style. As it set much of the mood of nineteenth-century criticism, it is worth quoting at some length. The reviewer maintained that:

there are, nevertheless, numerous redeeming points in his style; and—though almost invariably neutralised by his own infelicity, many real excellencies. Invention he certainly possessed; and his designs abound with ideas capable of furnishing far more beautiful compositions than any of his own: this is surely some merit.

Leigh, 1.99

The review continued:

his external architecture was, we grant, generally pretty: he seems to have depended by far too much on merely adscititious embellishment, covering even his architraves with carving, while the windows are altogether naked. His forte lay in the arrangement and decoration of interiors: nor is it too much to affirm, that it is to him we are indebted for much of that comfort combined with elegance, which is so peculiarly the characteristic of an English house.


Such an interpretation was altogether fairer and more sophisticated than the description of Adam's works as the 'depraved composition of a corrupt eye' which appeared in George Gwilt's Encyclopaedia of Architecture of 1842.

The interpretation of Adam as a sort of flawed genius remained for most of the nineteenth century and was reflected in the Adam revival in the 1870s. It followed the thinking of The Library of the Fine Arts that the fault of Adam 'exuberance' could easily be corrected 'by paring away his redundancies and omitting his superfluities' (Leigh, 1.99), a process that called into being several lifeless and repetitive interiors. In a sense, the Adam style remained popular as a caricature during the century, where the terraced houses of London, Dublin, and Edinburgh all contained 'a single “Adam” fanlight or a portico, with inside an “Adam” stairway, an “Adam” grate, or just an “Adam” frieze' (Lees-Milne, 169). There was also the snobbish antiquarian attitude to architecture which encouraged a neglect of the immediate past. Such an attitude became less tenable with the publication in two folio volumes of The Architecture of Robert and James Adam by Arthur Bolton in 1922. As curator of the Soane Museum, Bolton used the Adam drawings to establish a new and scholarly interpretation of both Adam and his buildings, and one which has largely stood the test of time. Bolton rightly concluded his preface with the unequivocal statement:

Comparatively few people have ever seen a really first class Adam building inside and out, and their ideas of Adam work are too apt to be based on the exterior of the much altered Adelphi, the incomplete designs of Portland Place, Fitzroy Square, and possibly the Coffee Room of some hotel ‘in the Adam style’. To such it is hoped that this work will be a revelation of the personality of a great architect, a stylist and decorative artist of the first order.

Bolton, 1.viii


  • NA Scot., Clerk of Penicuik MSS
  • Sir John Soane's Museum, London, Sir John Soane's MSS
  • R. Adam, The ruins of the palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia (1764)
  • R. Adam and J. Adam, The works in architecture of Robert and James Adam / Les ouvrages d'architecture de Robert et Jaques Adam, 2 vols. (1773–8)
  • R. Shanhagan, [W. Porden, and R. Smirke], The exhibition (1779)
  • Jose Mac Packe [J. Peacock], Nutshells (1785)
  • J. M. Leigh, ed., The library of the fine arts, 3 vols. (1831)
  • W. Young, Town and country mansions and suburban houses (1874)
  • R. Blomfield, Architectural drawing and draughtsmen (1912)
  • J. Swarbrick, Robert Adam and his brothers (1915)
  • A. T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 2 vols. (1922)
  • J. Summerson, Georgian London (1945)
  • J. Lees-Milne, The age of Adam (1947)
  • J. Fleming, Robert Adam and his circle (1962)
  • A. Richardson, An introduction to Georgian architecture (1949)
  • D. Stillman, The decorative work of Robert Adam (1966)
  • D. Stillman, English neoclassical architecture, 2 vols. (1988)
  • E. Harris, The furniture of Robert Adam (1963)
  • E. Harris and N. Savage, British architectural books and writers, 1556–1785 (1990)
  • A. Rowan, Robert Adam: catalogue of architectural drawings in the Victoria and Albert Museum (1988)
  • D. King, The complete works of Robert and James Adam (1991)
  • A. A. Tait, Robert Adam: drawings and imagination (1993)
  • J. Harris, Headford House and Robert Adam (1973)
  • J. Harris, Sir William Chambers (1970)
  • T. McCormick, Charles-Louis Clérisseau (1990)
  • J. Wilton-Ely, The mind and art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1978)
  • J. Fleming, ‘A retrospective view by John Clerk of Eldin’, Concerning architecture, ed. J. Summerson (1968)
  • A. A. Tait, ‘The sale of Robert Adam's drawings’, Burlington Magazine, 120/904 (July 1978), 451–4
  • M. H. B. Sanderson, ‘Robert Adam's last visit to Scotland, 1791’, Architectural History, 25 (1982)
  • M. H. B. Sanderson, Robert Adam and Scotland (1992)
  • A. Rowan, Designs for castles and country villas by Robert and James Adam (1985)
  • E. Harris, The genius of Robert Adam (2001)


  • Blair Adam, Fife, MSS
  • CKS, letters and accounts to Sir Edward Knatchbull
  • Essex RO, Chelmsford, accounts, day books, etc., relating to Audley End
  • GL, letters relating to business affairs of Adam brothers
  • NA Scot., Clerk of Penicuik MSS
  • NA Scot., family corresp.; papers relating to Monymusk House
  • Northumbd RO, Newcastle upon Tyne, accounts for work for Sir J. H. Delaval
  • NRA Scotland, priv. coll., corresp. and papers relating to the Adam brothers


  • A. Ramsay, portrait, 1754 (James Adam)
  • M. Ramsay, portrait, 1754
  • L. Pecheux, miniature, 1755, Blair Adam, Fife
  • P. Batoni, portrait, 1763, priv. coll.
  • P. Batoni, portrait, 1763 (James Adam)
  • attrib. G. Willison, oils, 1770–1774, NPG [see illus.]
  • J. Tassie, paste medallion, 1792, Scot. NPG
  • J. Adam, portrait
  • R. Adam, self-portrait
  • F. Cotes, portrait (James Adam)
  • attrib. D. Martin, portrait, NPG

Wealth at Death

sale of collection and possessions (1818 and 1821): Bolton, Architecture, vol. 2, pp. 338–9

Page of
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
Page of
National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh
Page of
Northumberland Record Office, Newcastle upon Tyne
Page of
Centre for Kentish Studies, Maidstone, Kent
Page of
H. M. Colvin, , 3rd edn (1995)
Page of
private collection
Page of
Essex Record Office, Chelmsford
Page of
National Portrait Gallery, London
Page of
Guildhall Library, London