The Architecture of Robert Adam (1728-1792)



Essay by Julian.Small. Photographs and 3D computer visualisations by Sandy Kinghorn.






In 1773, with the damaging crisis of The Adelphi development recently put behind them, in an attempt to re-establish their reputation with the public, Robert Adam and his brother James produced the first part of a book entitled The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam.1  The first volume appeared in sections between 1773 and 1778, and was then 


The title page of Volume One of Robert and James Adam's book, published as a complete volume in 1778.

republished as a complete volume later in 1778.  The second volume appeared - again, initially in instalments - in 1779, and finally in 1822, long after the deaths of both authors, loose plates which had been printed for an intended third volume were bound up without any introductory text, and sold as Volume Three.  In the Prefaces to the various sections of the first volume, and in that to the second volume, Robert Adam - because although the book appeared under the names of both brothers, and much of what is said in the Prefaces echoes passages from an extended essay on the theory of architecture written by James whilst in Italy 2,  it was Robert who was the creative genius of the partnership - expresses the theories and principles forming the basis of his architectural style, and in doing so gives a deep insight into his approach to architectural design and into the nature of his genius.  The major part of each volume is composed of a series of engravings of what Adam considered to be his finest or most important buildings.  The choice of buildings is interesting, since the majority of buildings illustrated are in or near London, such as Syon House, now in west London.  The only buildings outside London which are consistently represented are his public buildings, such as the new University buildings in Edinburgh, or Mistley Church, Essex.  This reveals the intention of the publication, since buildings near London would be accessible to the majority of Adam's clients, most of whom would spend part of each year living in London, and in the hierarchy of design public buildings, especially public buildings on a large scale, were more prestigious commissions than private residences. 

The elevation of the new east facade of Edinburgh University, designed by Robert Adam in 1789, appears in Volume Three of The Works, along with that of the south facade and a ground-plan.
Click to see large image.

It was in the introduction to part one of the first volume of The Works that Adam expressed his thoughts on "movement" in architecture.  He states: 

"...the skilful ... will easily perceive, within these few years, a remarkable improvement in the form, convenience, arrangements and relief of apartments; a greater movement and variety, in the outside composition, and in the decoration of the inside an almost total change,"

adding, in a footnote to the term "movement:" 

"Movement is meant to express, the rise and fall, the advance and recess, with other diversity of form, in the different parts of the building, so as to add greatly to the picturesque of the composition.  For the rising and falling, advancing and receding, with the convexity and concavity, and other forms of the great parts, have the same effect in architecture, that hill and dale, fore-ground and distance, swelling and sinking have in landscape: that is, they serve to produce an agreeable and diversified contour, that groups and contrasts like a picture and creates a variety of light and shade, which gives great spirit, beauty and effect to the composition. 

It is not always that such variety can be introduced into the design of any building, but where it can be attained without encroaching upon its useful purposes, it adds much to its merit, as an object of beauty and grandeur. 

The effect of the height and convexity of the dome of St Peter's, [Rome] contrasted with the lower square front, and the concavity of its court, is a striking instance of this sort of composition  ... and with us, we really do not recollect any example of so much movement and contrast, as in the south front of Kedleston House in Derbyshire, one of the seats of the Right Honourable Lord Scarsdale..."  3

Although, in this passage, Adam refers to "movement" solely in the context of the exteriors of buildings, it was a principle which in fact he put into practice in his interiors, as well.  The Sculpture Gallery at Newby Hall in Yorkshire illustrates this very well, being designed as a sequence of rooms of contrasting shapes, each with different lighting effects.  The contrast of moving from one of the passages around the rotunda at the Register House in Edinburgh into the rotunda itself is another example of this delight in emphasising the contrast between the shapes and lighting of separate rooms.  The exterior of Registry House was also intended to give the effect of movement, the horizontal emphasis of the main part of the south facade being answered by the vertical accents of the towers at either end, and the swell of the dome above the centre of the elevation originally contrasting with the steps curving down from the entrance to the street (these curving steps were set back flat against the terrace wall in 1890 to allow street-widening).  One of Adam’s greatest gifts was his ability to design a sequence of rooms of different, contrasting, shapes and sizes, accommodated within a regular ground-plan. 

The main part of the south facade of Register House, Edinburgh, has a strong horizontal emphasis, but the towers at either end have a dynamic upward movement.
Click to see large image.

In all of this, Robert Adam is firmly established in the eighteenth-century taste for the "picturesque" in landscape painting and in landscape appreciation.  The landscape drawings and watercolours which Adam produced for relaxation demonstrate his taste in such matters, 4   and it is no coincidence that it is this analogy that he draws in his introduction to The Works, quoted above.  Although most of these sketches contain buildings, they also demonstrate an appreciation for landscape, and the qualities of landscape composition to be seen in these sketches also show through in Adam's architecture.  The contrast between light and dark and the variety of different forms and shapes are elements present in Adam's buildings, as well as in his watercolours.  There is also the same concern for an interesting skyline and the same desire to gain the effects of shadow by varying the depth of field. 

The desire to create a sense of movement is something which is apparent in Adam’s designs throughout his career once he had returned from his years in Italy.  Adam’s career is often described as dividing into three phases,5 approximating to the three decades of the 1760s, the 1770s and the 1780s, with less of a sense of movement in the designs of the middle phase and a greater concentration on the use of linear ornament - related to the Adams’ style of interior decoration - on the exteriors of buildings.  It is considered that there was a return to a more monumental style with a greater sense of "movement" in Adam’s later years.  There is some truth in this view, but it is easy to take this conclusion too far.  Too many  of the buildings of Adam’s middle years are London town houses, in which, with relatively narrow facades giving directly on to a confined street, the possibilities of expressing movement by projection and recession of sections of the facade are restricted and the benefits conferred by doing so very limited.  Where Adam had the opportunity to introduce movement into a design, even during this middle period, 

The Venetian Windows in the upper floors of the towers at Register House, set within recessed arches, help the vertical accent on the towers, a sense which is accentuated by the Corinthian columns near the corners.
Click to see large image.

he would frequently do so, as is demonstrated by the facade of Register House in Edinburgh, designed in 1771.  This design is no less dynamic than designs of Adam’s early years, such as the south front of Kedleston Hall, or those of his final years, like the church he designed for Charlotte Square, also in Edinburgh.  Against Register House, 

The designs for the church in Charlotte Square in Edinburgh were prepared by Adam during his final year of life, but possess as much movement as designs dating from the start of his independent career.
Click to see large image.

however, must be set Kenwood House, London, where the south front, of 1773, has flat pilasters decorated with anthemion ornament (based on the flower of the honeysuckle), and string courses with continuous spiral scrolls, the whole being executed in stucco, a hard plaster used on the outsides of buildings.  The ornament on this facade does have strong parallels with Adam’s interior style, but the ornament is used to articulate the wall-surface, and it can be seen as an attempt to use different means of creating movement within another of the designs of which Adam seems to have been particularly proud. 

Adam saw his task as helping to persuade architectural taste to progress beyond the rigid academic rules of the Palladian style to a more flexible approach to the inheritance from the Greek and Roman worlds, and in which the architect’s ability to be creative counted equally with following the rules of the legacy of the past.  Adam’s taste for the picturesque in his landscape drawings and watercolours is reflected by an equal desire to "compose" his architectural designs so as to draw the eye around the whole building, to impart a feeling of dynamism to his designs and giving that sense of "great spirit, beauty and effect to the composition" to which Adam refers. 

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