Robert Adam, Designer for the Ages

Victoria here, recently home from an antique show in 2011 Naples, Florida — where there was a great deal of attention to the designs of an 18th century Scotsman, the renowned Robert Adam. I stopped counting how many tables, chairs, commodes, candlesticks and more were labeled “in the style of Adam.” More than 200 years after he lived, Adam’s designs are the standard by which all others are measured.

We’ve had many posts on Adam houses here (3/29/10, 3/31/10,4/3/10,6/5/10, 1/16/11) and there will be more soon.

Robert Adam (1728-92) and his brother James (1730-1794) both gained prominence as architects, though it is Robert who has the more brilliant reputation. Today, Adam style is popular and instantly recognizable, whether in a fireplace, a chair or decorative arts.

Sons of William Adam, a leading architect in Edinburgh, the Adam Brothers were contemporaries of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Gainsborough, Capability Brown, the great landscape designer, and Thomas Chippendale, whose furniture graces many Adam designs. Adam and his brothers worked in their father’s business and also attended school in Edinburgh. The elder Adam was not only an architect; he was a man of learning and his home was the scene of conversations among some of the leading intellectuals of his day such as Adam Smith, Alexander Carlyle, and David Hume. This atmosphere influenced his
sons as they grew up.

The library at Mellerstain House in Scotland is an example of designs begun by William Adam and finished later by son Robert. The firm continued under the brothers after the father died and they had received a number of commissions before Robert Adam left for his Grand Tour of Italy at the age of 26.

Clearly Robert had aspirations as a gentleman and prided himself in letters home on his acquaintances among the British gentry and aristocracy whom he met in Italy. Adam studied with the painter Panini, Piranesi and others who honed his knowledge of classical art. He became a friend and competitor of William Chambers, who gained fame as the architect of Somerset House, the Strand, London.

Robert Adam returned to England in 1758 and took up his practice, cultivating clients among the highest circles. Many of Adam’s greatest accomplishments were in remodeling or adapting the original plans for buildings under construction; he was not without enemies.

At left, the Oval Staircase at Culzean Castle, also in Scotland.
Adam’s work is known for its sense of scale, of the human dimension in design. He adapted neoclassical, baroque and rococo themes in forms that delighted the eye without overwhelming the senses. His style has been repeated over and over in various “revivals.”

Adam designed houses with layouts suitable for various kinds of parties, with rooms set up for promenading, greeting friends, and engaging in various activities. One room might be reserved for cards, another for dancing, another for conversation. Adam liked to emphasize the drama of the house by changing design themes and colors from room to room. Recurring elements of design such as the acanthus leaf were woven throughout, giving the rooms a feeling of unity.

Ceiling designs were reflected in the carpet patterns. From time to time he chose special themes drawn from his experiences and from the popular design books that circulated in the period. For example, the ruins at Pompeii had been excavated in the 18th century and the wall paintings reproduced and published.

While the major elements of Adam design grew out of Palladianism and its inspiration in Italy, one can also identify the influences of French artists such as Claude and Poussin, whose paintings of idyllic classical scenes featuring ancient ruins, were very popular in the 18th century.

Adam was an architect who wanted to control all elements of the design interior and exterior. He hired excellent furniture makers, such as Chippendale, and employed the most respected artists for interior decoration, such as Antonio Zucchi and Angelica Kauffman.

Dozens of volumes have been written about Adam, his buildings, his interior designs, his artistic theories and his lasting influences.  You could easily spend your life learning about and visiting his creations. We’ll be looking at a few more very soon right here.

In the meantime, we start with the sublime.  This is the Adam-designed Pulteney Bridge in Bath across the  Avon. Truly a beautiful structure.

And to descend to the ridiculous, here is an over-the-top effort to convert a modern bathroom to the ideas of Adam’s style.  What do you think?  Would you prefer a chandelier in your loo? 

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