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Robert Adam

Scottish, 1728 - 1792

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Robert Adam was the second of four sons of William Adam, the foremost architect of his generation in Scotland. He was given a rigorous classical education in the Edinburgh High School and entered Edinburgh University in 1743, but left before taking his degree to join his father and older brother in the family architectural firm. When William Adam died in 1748, the two sons took over the practice, which proved so successful that by 1754 Robert's share of the family fortune amounted to more than £5,000, providing sufficient capital for a lengthy Italian sojourn.

Robert Adam was ambitious. His intentions in making the Grand Tour were not just to expand his horizons and refine his artistic skills, but also to acquire a continental experience that would set him apart from other architects, distinguishing him as a connoisseur and putting him on a more equal intellectual footing with his aristocratic patrons. He left Edinburgh in October 1754, and traveled first through France and then to Italy, arriving in Florence in January 1755. There, he made the decisive encounter of his life when he met the young French architect Charles-Louis Clérisseau, formerly a pensionnaire of the French Academy in Rome. Impressed by the freedom of his style and the grandeur of his vision, Adam convinced Clérisseau to return to Rome and become his tutor in drawing and architecture.

On arriving in Rome near the end of February 1755, Adam took rooms near the Spanish Steps, in the heart of the British community in Rome. Soon he settled into a rigorous course of study coordinated by Clérisseau, which included lessons in figure drawing and landscape as well as architectural drafting and composition. Conservative and academic in its emphasis on fundamentals, this program nevertheless introduced Adam to the systematic rigors of a French artistic training and to the most avant-garde architectural ideas current at the French Academy.

A balance to Clérisseau's measured approach came in the person of Piranesi, who was then nearing completion of his monumental archaeological opus the Antichità romane. Adam found his curious reconstructions of the ancient temples, baths, and palaces electrifying, and began inventing elaborate plans and fantastic elevations of his own. During the summer of 1755, Piranesi became a regular companion, venturing out with Adam and Clérisseau in the afternoon to study, discuss, and sketch the ancient ruins. As Adam felt his artistic vision becoming more grand and sure, he began to consider setting up practice in London. He wanted a publication to establish his reputation, and during his last year in Rome worked on a comprehensive survey of the baths of Diocletian and Caracalla. He completed the drawings just before his departure from Rome, but the project never came to publication, and the drawings are now all lost.

Adam left Rome in May 1757, taking Clérisseau and a team of draftsmen to study and record the great imperial palace of Diocletian at Spalato (called Spalatro by Adam, and now Split, Croatia) on the eastern coast of the Adriatic. His intention was to reveal a previously unknown site to architects and archaeologists eager for novelty, but his interest in Diocletian's Palace was also an expression of his conscious search for a less monumental, more intimate and domestic style of ancient architecture, a goal that had motivated his earlier research in Rome at Hadrian's Villa and the Domus Aurea. It was this style, which depended on complex vaulted spaces decorated with painting or stuccowork in shallow relief, that so influenced his later work. Adam's Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia was published in 1764.

Adam arrived back in London in January 1758 and established his new home and office there, in Lower Grosvenor Street. Within the first year he won several commissions, designing exterior elevations for Harewood House in Yorkshire and interiors for Hatchlands in Surrey. His most important early project came in 1760, when he took over the plans of Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire, where he redesigned the garden façade with a frontispiece derived from the Arch of Constantine and a low stepped dome modeled on the Pantheon. Inside, he created a scintillating Neoclassical interior, gathered around a central axis formed by a great columned hall succeeded by a circular dome saloon, an arrangement based on his study of Diocletian's palace. Other commissions followed, so that by 1763, when his younger brother James joined the firm, Robert was already busy with Bowood House, Syon House, Osterley Park, and Kedleston, along with other projects.

The characteristic Adam style that evolved during the 1760s and 1770s involved spatial contrast and variety, with rooms of varied geometric shape, often with vaulted ceilings. Apses and screens of columns recur, used to enliven space and mediate transitions. With time, his ornament became increasingly delicate and frankly superficial. Worked in plaster or stucco in low relief, it employed a limited gamut of antique motifs, including griffins and sphinxes, paterae, scrolling acanthus foliage, swags of bellflower, panels of classical figures, and friezes of anthemion or palmette. Adam's greatest success came in the realm of domestic architecture. Though he sought public commissions and the recognition they would bring, these projects largely eluded him. Perhaps for this reason, he became involved in speculative town planning schemes. The first and most ambitious was the Adelphi, a complex undertaking the Thames, creating wharves and vaulted warehouses at water level, and several streets of private houses on the new terrace created above. Other projects followed, including Portland Place and Fitzroy Square in London, and Charlotte Square in Edinburgh.

During the 1760s Adam's brilliant style of Neoclassicism made him the most popular architect in the country. However, the 1770s saw a decline in his fortunes, owing to the financial difficulties of the Adelphi, brought on by a nationwide credit crisis in 1722, and later to the building recession resulting from the American war. Nevertheless, the 1780s saw a late flowering of Adam's career with an increase in work in his native Scotland. Here he won great public commissions. Register House, begun in 1774, was followed in the 1780s and 1790s by the university and the Bridewell, or municipal prison, in Edinburgh, and the Trades House in Glasgow. Perhaps inspired by the austere Scottish scenery, Adam also developed a new castle style, using severe prismatic and cylindrical forms with turrets and battlements on the skyline, but with interiors still rendered in the Neoclassical style. Culzean, Dalquharran, and Seton castles, all Scottish creations of his last years, are among Adam's greatest works.

Robert Adam died on March 3, 1792, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Close to 9,000 drawings from his studio were purchased by Sir John Soane in 1822 and remain in his museum. Other groups of drawings are at Penicuik House, Lothian, and at the family seat at Blair Adam. Adam's letters from Rome are in the collection of Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, and are on deposit at the Scottish Record Office.

Robert Wolterstorff, from Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century (2000), p. 468.

Adam, Robert. Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia. London, 1764;
Adam, Robert. The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam. 2 vols. 1773-79. Reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1980;
Bolton, Arthur T. The Architecture of Robert & James Adam (1758-1794). 2 vols. London: Country Life, 1922;
Fleming, John. Robert Adam and His Circle in Edinburgh and Rome. London: John Murray 1962;
Stillman, Damie. The Decorative Work of Robert Adam. New York: Translatlantic Arts, 1966;
Stillman, Damie. "Robert Adam and Piranesi." In Fraser, Douglas, Howard Hibbard, and Milton J. Lewine, eds. Essays in the History of Architecture Presented to Rudolf Wittkower. London: Phaidon, 1967, pp. 197-206;
Rowan, Alistair J. "After Adelphi: Forgotten Years in the Adams Brothers' Practice. " Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, vol 122 (1974), pp. 639-710;
King, David N. The Complete Works of Robert and James Adam. Boston: Butterworth Architecture, 1991;
Brown, Iain Gordon. Monumental Reputation: Robert Adam and the Emporer's Palace. Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland, 1992;
Tait, Alan A. Robert Adam: Drawings and Imagination. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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