Robert Adam (3 July 1728 – 3 March 1792) was a Scottish neoclassical architect, interior designer and furniture designer. He was the son of William Adam (1689-1748), Scotland's foremost architect of the time, and trained under him. With his older brother John, Robert took on the family business, which included lucrative work for the Board of Ordnance, after William's death.
In 1754, he left for Rome, spending nearly five years on the continent studying architecture under Charles-Louis Clérisseau and Giovanni Battista Piranesi. On his return to Britain he established a practice in London, where he was joined by his younger brother James. Here he developed the "Adam Style", and his theory of "movement" in architecture, based on his studies of antiquity and became one of the most successful and fashionable architects in the country. Adam held the post of Architect of the King's Works from 1761 to 1769.
Robert Adam was a leader of the first phase of the classical revival in England and Scotland from around 1760 until his death. He influenced the development of Western architecture, both in Europe and in North America. Adam designed interiors and fittings as well as houses. Much of his work consisted of remodelling existing houses, as well as contributions to Edinburgh's townscape and designing romantic pseudo-mediaeval country houses in Scotland.
On his recovery from illness in 1746, he joined his elder brother John as apprentice to his father. He assisted William Adam on projects such as the building of Inveraray Castle and the continuing extensions of Hopetoun House. William's position as Master Mason to the Board of Ordnance also began to generate much work, as the Highlands were fortified following the failed Jacobite revolt. Robert's early ambition was to be an artist rather than architect, and the style of his early sketches in the manner of Salvator Rosa are reflected in his earliest surviving architectural drawings, which show picturesque gothicfollies. William Adam died in June 1748, and left Dowhill, a part of the Blair Adam estate which included a tower house, to Robert.
Architectural practice in Edinburgh
Entrance front of Hopetoun House, designed by William Adam and modified by the Adam Brothers
On William Adam's death, John Adam inherited both the family business and the position of Master Mason to the Board of Ordnance. He immediately took Robert into partnership, later to be joined by James Adam. The Adam Brothers' first major commission was the decoration of the grand state apartments on the first floor at Hopetoun House, followed by their first "new build" at Dumfries House. For the Board of Ordnance, the brothers were the main contractor at Fort George, a large modern fort near Inverness designed by military engineer Colonel Skinner. Visits to this project, begun in 1750, would occupy the brothers every summer for the next 10 years, and, along with works at many other barracks and forts, provided Robert with a solid foundation in practical building.
In the winter of 1749-1750, Adam travelled to London with his friend, the poet John Home. He took the opportunity for architectural study, visiting Wilton, designed by Inigo Jones, and the Queens Hermitage in Richmond by Roger Morris. His sketchbook of the trip also shows a continuing interest in gothic architecture.
Adam and Hope travelled on to Italy together, before falling out in Rome over travelling expenses and accommodation. Robert Adam stayed on in Rome until 1757, studying classical architecture and honing his drawing skills. His tutors included the French architect and artist Charles-Louis Clérisseau, and the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Here, he became acquainted with the work of the pioneering classical archaeologist and art historian, theorist Johann Joachim Winckelmann. On his return journey, Adam and Clerisseau spent time intensively studying the ruins of Diocletian's Palace at Spalatro in Dalmatia (now known as Split, in modern Croatia). These studies were later published as Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia in 1764.
Architectural practice in London
Admiralty Screen 1759-61, Whitehall, London, one of Adam's first executed buildings after his grand tour
He returned to Britain in 1758 and set up in business in London with his brother James Adam. They focused on designing complete schemes for the decoration and furnishing of houses. Palladian design was popular, and Robert designed a number of country houses in this style, but he evolved a new, more flexible style incorporating elements of classical Roman design alongside influences from Greek, Byzantine and Baroque styles. The Adam brothers' success can also be attributed to a desire to design everything down to the smallest detail, ensuring a sense of unity in their design. In Adam interiors, all the furnishings were custom designed to accord with the decoration of the room in a unified harmony. Often the carpets were woven to match the intricate patterns of the ceiling above, while every fitting including sconces, mirrors, and doorknobs also received a custom design emulating the motifs of the room.
Adams' practice was not without mishap, however. In 1768 the Adam brothers purchased a 99-year lease for a marshy plot of land beside the Thames in Westminster, where they built a 24-house terrace development known as the Adelphi. The project was very ambitious and is the first instance where terraced houses were designed individually to give unified harmony to the whole development (previously terraced houses were built to one replicated design side-by-side, around a square). However, the project became a white elephant for Robert and his brothers, with uncertain financing and costs spiralling out of control. The houses were built on a huge artificial terrace resting on vaulted substructures on the level of the Thames, which Robert Adam was certain could be leased to the British government as warehouses. However, this interest failed to materialize, and the Adam brothers were left with huge debts and in 1772 had to lay off 3,000 workmen and cease building. Adam himself moved into one of the houses in the Adelphi, along with supportive friends like David Garrick and Josiah Wedgewood, who opened a showroom for his ceramics in one of the houses. In 1774, a public lottery was held to raise funds for the brothers, which allowed them to avert bankruptcy.
Adam rejected the Palladian style, as introduced to England by Inigo Jones, and advocated by Lord Burlington, as "ponderous" and "disgustful". However, he continued their tradition of drawing inspiration directly from classical antiquity, during his four-year stay in Europe. Adam developed a new style of architectural decoration, one which was more archaeologically accurate than past Neoclassical styles, but nonetheless innovative and not bound only by ancient precedents. In Works in Architecture, co-authored with his brother James, the brothers stated that Graeco-Roman examples should "serve as models which we should imitate, and as standards by which we ought to judge." The discoveries in Herculaneum and Pompeii ongoing at the time provided ample material for Robert Adam to draw on for inspiration.
The Adam brothers' principle of "movement" was largely Robert's conception, although the theory was first written down by James. "Movement" relied on dramatic contrasts and diversity of form, and drew on the picturesque aesthetic. The first volume of the Adam brother's Works (1773) cited Kedleston Hall, designed by Robert in 1761, as an outstanding example of movement in architecture.
By contrasting room sizes and decorative schemes, Adam applied the concept of movement to his interiors also. His style of decoration, described by Pevsner as "Classical Rococo", drew on Roman "grotesque" stucco decoration.
Adam designed bookcase 1776, probably built by Thomas Chippendale
Adam's work had influenced the direction of architecture and design across the western world. In England his collaboration with Thomas Chippendale resulted in some of the finest neoclassicist designs of the time, most notably in the Harewood House collection of Chippendale's work. In North America, the Federal style owes much to neoclassicism as practised by Adam. In Europe, Adam notably influenced Charles Cameron, the Scotsman who designed Tsarskoye Selo and other Russian palaces for Catherine the Great. However, by the time of his death, Adam's neoclassicism was being superseded in Britain by a more severe, Greek phase of the classical revival, as practised by James "Athenian" Stuart. The Adam brothers employed several draughtsmen who would go on to establish themselves as architects, including George Richardson, and the Italian Joseph Bonomi, who Robert originally hired in Rome.
During their lifetime Robert and James Adam published two volumes of their designs, Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam (in 1773-1778 and 1779; a third volume was published posthumously, in 1822).
It is somewhat remarkable that the Arts should be deprived at the same time of two of their greatest ornaments, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Mr Adam: and it is difficult to say which of them excelled most in his particular profession...
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 to every branch of manufacture. His talents extend beyond the lie of his own profession: he displayed in his numerous drawings in landscape a luxuriance of composition, and an effect of light and shadow, which have scarcely been equalled...to the last period of his life, Mr Adam displayed an increasing vigour of genius and refinement of taste: for in the space of one year preceding his death, he designed eight great public works, besides twenty five private buildings, so various in their style, and so beautiful in their composition, that they have been allowed by the best judges, sufficient of themselves, to establish his fame unrivalled as an artist.
He left nearly 9,000 drawings, 8,856 of which (by both Robert and James Adam) were subsequently purchased in 1833 for £200 by the architect John Soane and are now at the Soane Museum in London.