Issue Number: 96
Peter Murray brings to light the grand designs of Robert Adam, who made classical architecture much more fun
The neoclassical architect Robert Adam, along with his brothers James and John, were products of the Scottish Enlightenment and of a burgeoning economy that brought wealth to Britain, particularly London. Their father William designed the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, and his sons brought the family business to the growing English capital, developing and designing buildings and selling construction materials from timber and paving slabs to bricks.
For the wealthy and talented young Robert Adam, a Grand Tour of Italy, culminating in Rome, completed an education that steeped him in sober virtues, ambition and a desire to make money. His appreciation of what he called ‘the true Simple and Grand Architecture’ had been transformed by the discovery of Herculaneum in 1738, an ancient city that revealed how Romans actually lived. T
he elegant simplicity of Roman frescoes and furniture became an essential component of the most sophisticated architecture of the late eighteenth century, and the ‘Adam Style’, which incorporated classical decorative motifs, embodied the spirit of the age.
London during these years was dominated by immensely talented Scots, including William Chambers RA, Surveyor General of the King’s Works and architect of Somerset House, and a great rival of Robert Adam. The First Lord of the Treasury, ‘Jack’ Bute installed friends in key posts, such as the Scot Allan Ramsay, who became court painter to George III.
In 1768, the Adam brothers embarked on a scheme to develop a brown-field site overlooking the Thames. Inspired by a trip to the ruins of Split, the scheme was called ‘Adelphi’, based on the Greek word for brothers. Robert Adam designed the splendid interior of the house of actor David Garrick there, as well as a number of streets commemorating the various brothers, including John Adam Street – now home to the Royal Society of Arts, which he also designed.
Going on to develop Portland Place, and Fitzroy Square, at its height William Adam & Company had an astonishing 3,000 employees. When it closed in 1801, it made way for an eclectic, industrialised age which had little time for the coherent, classical architecture of the Adams.
Fortunately, Sir John Soane RA, a great admirer, bought 9,000 of the firm’s drawings. Some of these are now on display in a remarkable exhibition at the Soane Museum, celebrating the Adelphi project, whose few remaining buildings are a ten-minute stroll away.
Vaulting Ambition, Sir John Soane Museum, London (020 7405 2107; www.soane.org), 14 Sep–12 Jan 2008