Vintage View: Why Robert Adam is a rock star of architecture

Vintage View: Why Robert Adam is a rock star of architecture
The original dining-room, Lansdowne Road, London c.1768 to a design by Robert Adam. Now in the Museum of Modern Art, NY. Furniture is reproduction and wasn’t saved.

Kya deLongchamps explains why Robert Adam is a rock star of architecture.

GAZING out of the famous portrait by George Willison of around 1770, Robert Adam is something of a Ralph Fiennes-like, Georgian dish.

He’s shown examining a book of drawings, presumably his own, and exudes the confidence of a creative king at the height of this powers and social success. Most of us know the term Adam-style, but why is it so important in the timeline of furniture design?

Robert was born to a wildly popular Scottish architect, William Adam (1699 – 1748) in 1728. He and his brother James were ahead of the game in privilege and profession, taking over their father’s practise and ongoing public commissions on William’s death in 1748.

In 1754, at the age of 26 Robert took a prolonged trip to immerse himself in the ancient world that formed the cultural bedrock of an English gentleman’s education and to follow the design discussions taking place in Paris and Rome.

By the time he crashed out of Edinburgh University due to illness Adam would have had had at least two years of a classical education of the Enlightenment. Virgil, Cicero and Horace were not dusty names of academia, but crisp, living voices to every upper class schoolboy from the nursery forward.

With a painful interruption to his formal education, the trip to Europe was less of a grand tour, and more of a self-elected doctorate. He wandered through the art, antiquities and legendary landscapes he had known only through lectures, paintings, engravings and stories.

His intellectual curiosity was matched by an ambition to pursue and interpret the emerging neoclassical style in his own terms. Adam was spellbound by the great archaeological draughtsman Charles-Louis Clerisseau, who he met on the Florence leg of his travels in 1755, and the two returned to Paris together. Robert determined on writing a seminal work to take back to England surveying the fabulous third century ruins of the Diocletian (Roman) palace in modern day Split in Croatia.

Robert Adam: In 1754, at the age of 26 he took a prolonged trip to immerse himself in the ancient world.
Robert Adam: In 1754, at the age of 26 he took a prolonged trip to immerse himself in the ancient world.

It might sound a large yawn today, but ‘Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia’ (London, 1764) documenting the superbly preserved buildings on the Adriatic Coast, was a sensation.

The drawings, measurements, and 1,400- year-old aesthetic principles materialised in this fantastic complex of buildings, would energise a growing movement in 18th century design and would personally establish Adam as a respected architect and thrilling designer in high-society circles.

Engaging Adam having poured over his drawings or seen a building he had already created, became a status move enhancing the appearance of exquisite cultivated taste for his client. This college dropout would rise to the status of architect of the King’s Works by 1761, a post he would retain for eight years, when the post was pipped by his brother James.

Adam’s style borrowed, refined and played boldly with the proportions, contrast, line and ornament of Palladian, Baroque, Roman and even Byzantine architecture. His buildings were one of ‘total design’ where everything from the columns outside to the door-handles, rugs, ceiling and wall stucco plaster and principal furnishings were to the architect’s specifications.

He encouraged the idea of sparring styles room to room and throwing elements of different architectural streams together as part of this concept of ‘movement’. You might step from French Rococo to a Chinese wonderland in one run of stately rooms. It worked only because the marriages and spatial contrasts were distilled through his eye — the sparseness of ornament, visual balance, the beauty and sheer lightness of the work was faultless.

Adam was moved (as I was in my own naive way traipsing the streets, near to tears last year) by the discoveries at Herculaneum and Pompeii near Naples. Fizzing with sources and a restless ingenuity, he would go on to commission work from Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779) dubbed the Shakespeare of English furniture.

The east bedroom, Harewood House, Robert Adam/ John Carr c 1759-1771. One of the locations for Downton Abbey.
The east bedroom, Harewood House, Robert Adam/ John Carr c 1759-1771. One of the locations for Downton Abbey.

The self-made Yorkshire cabinetmaker and interior designer, was by then set up in St Martin’s Lane in London. He had published The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Directory in 1754 when Robert was just boarding ship for France.

Adam could shop from the selection of 160 pieces in the directory to suit his palatial interiors. The fusion of Adam’s architecture and Chippendale’s superb quality work in 12 key bespoke projects, would make the maesthetic super stars with a reach from the Russian court to the Americas.

Harewood House c.1767 near Leeds in West Yorkshire, shows the masters’ lavish collaboration to the full (Lascelles family seat) built with Yorkshire architect John Carr (1723-1807). The interiors and furniture at Harewood would end up costing more than the house itself. Recently the house was used during the filming of BBC’s Downton Abbey.

Chippendale was his own man, and there is actually only one instance where he actually made furniture directly to an Adam’s design for Lawrence Dundas’s townhouse at 19, Arlington Street in London: four sofas and eight armed chairs with ancient motifs in lime wood.

You can find one of the Dundas chairs in the V&A. At the time it cost the buyer £5 for the watercolour of the chair and a massive £20 a chair which was the most Adam had ever charged and around £3,300 (€3,630) today. A skilled housekeeper in a fine house made around £15 a year in the mid 1700s, so eight chairs at £20 was 10 years of her life in gilt and damask.

There is only one house in Ireland with wall and ceilings designs by Adam: Headfort in Co Meath. His vision survives in a suite or rooms including the entrance, staircase and eating parlour, the stucco work of which was partially completed to Adam’s specifications and partially restored with help from the World Monuments Fund in recent years.

Today, the house is a private primary school so sadly the work is largely tucked out of public sight but is regarded as a vitally important part of our built heritage, and an utter treasure by Adam scholars. His drawings have also survived for Headfort and are part of the Mellon Collection in Yale University in the US.

Further reading: Country House Design, Decoration and the Art of Elegance, Jeremy Musson and Simon Jenkins, 2017 Rizzoli

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