(1728 – 1792)
Robert Adam the man who revolutionized English classical design in the course of the eighteenth century, was born into a family of educated Scots in Edinburgh in 1728. Adam’s father was also a successful architect, and the young Adam mastered the skills of this trade early in life, joining his father’s firm for a time in the years immediately after he finished university. When his father died in 1748, Adam continued the practice with his brother John, and together they undertook many successful commissions throughout Scotland. These included buildings constructed in the then popular Gothic Revival style as well as forts and other military fortifications intended to quell recent uprisings in the country.
With his fortune strengthened, Robert Adam embarked on his Grand Tour in 1754, making acircuit similar to other cultivated British gentlemen of the age. His journey lasted four years, a large portion ofwhich he spent in Italy. In Rome, he came into contact with the discoveries that were being made about ancient architecture from excavations underway in Pompeii and Herculaneum, the ill fated towns destroyed by the eruptionof Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E. In 1758, Adam returned to Britain from his journeys and settled in London, where he soon became a fashionable designer of interiors and structures for the English aristocracy and gentry.
Commissions came slowly at first for Adam in London, although his business quickly improved with his election to the Royal Academy in1761 and his selection, together with his rival William Chambers, to serve as co-architect of the King’s Works. By 1763, his practice was successful enough to accommodate his two brothers, who joined the firm in London. During the years between his arrival in the capital and1765, Adam mastered the Neoclassical style, and in his later life he seldom designed buildings in the Gothic Revival style that he had practiced in his youth. One of his chief achievements from the early years in London was the completion of the remodeling of Syon House, a Tudor-era convent located outside London.
Over the previous generations, this building had been remodeled to increase its comfort as a private house. Adam, however, cleared away many of the previous additions, and in their place designed classical rooms notable for their severity and restraint. He laid out these spaces in an unusual configuration of patterns drawn from his knowledge of Roman baths, and he made use of dramatic contrastsof color. The impressive designs he realized at Syon House earned him great acclaim and Adam received many new commissions for remodeling and new structures at the end of the 1760s. Chief among the many country houses he designed at this time were Osterley Park in Middlesex, and Kenwood House, a brilliant little gem of Neoclassical architecture located on Hampstead Heath on the fringes of London. Osterley Park was apre-existing Tudor house that Adam redesigned to fit with the Neoclassical fashion. To do so, he built a dramatic classical portico around the structure’s courtyard, raising the vertical lines of the house to a new, more dramatic height and decorating the rooms with a series of motifs drawn from Antiquity. These included coffered Roman ceilings, apses, pilasters, and even ancient grotesques.
One of the most distinctive elements of his remodeling at Osterley Park was his inclusion of an Etruscan dressing room. The Roman architect Piranesi had done much to popularize the style of the ancient Etruscans the civilization that had preceded the RomanEmpire in Italy and Adam’s use of the style is among the finest eighteenth century adaptations to survive. At Kenwood House, he created a small scale classical country house that made use of new techniques in the execution of stucco. He decorated the garden façade of this structure with pilasters crafted from a recently discovered technology that allowed for greater delicacy of execution.The vaulted library of Kenwood has often been hailed as one of Adam’s most beautiful creations. With its gentle palette of blue offset by white columns and touches of gilt, it manages to achieve a delicacy and sophistication unknown to the age except in its finest porcelains.
As one of the king’s directors of the Royal Works, Adam had special responsibility over royal projects in Scotland. In addition to his success in England, the architect continued to produce numerous designs for houses and urban projects in Scotland. Most notably, his influence can be seen today in the city of Edinburgh, where Adam designed many structures and decorated many interiors in the New Town, Edinburgh’s massive eighteenth-century expansion project. Robert Adam was also an important figure because of his methods of creating architectural designs. Like a modern architectural firm, his London practice employed numerous draftsmen and assistants who executed ideas set down by Adam and his brothers. In this way the Robert Adam style proved to be easily reproducible and adaptable to many different architectural situations. The architect’s firm also played the role of a general contractor, as Adam and his associates kept employed a regular group of craftsman who were familiar with his work and were thus able to execute the office’s plans quickly and with a minimum of retooling. In all these ways, Robert Adam modernized the practice of constructionin eighteenth century England and he set patterns for architectural practice that persisted in the Englishspeaking world until modern times.