The Architecture of Robert Adam (1728-1792)



Essay by Julian.Small. Photographs by Sandy Kinghorn.






In November 1761, Robert Adam, jointly with his great rival, William Chambers, was appointed "Architect of the King’s Works".1  Adam was given specific responsibility for Scotland.  Throughout his career he aspired to build on a monumental scale and hoped to be in a position to design a royal palace or public building on a vast scale.  With this appointment giving official recognition to his abilities, it must have seemed that this ambition had moved a significant step closer to fulfilment, although to hold such a post did not carry any automatic right to be given the commission for any new public building (Adam himself had been commissioned to design the screen in front of the Admiralty office in Whitehall in 1760).  Sadly, by the time he was elected MP for Kinross-shire in 1768, and consequently had to resign the post (to be succeeded by his brother James), no major public buildings had been commissioned in either Scotland or England.  William Chambers was to receive the major public commission of the era in being charged with the design of the new government offices at Somerset House, London, in 1776.  Before that, however, Adam had been commissioned to design "a proper repository for the Records of Scotland," General Register House in Edinburgh. 

Register House was the first major government building to be constructed in Britain (apart from Fort George near Inverness, where construction started in 1746 and continued until 1769) since William Kent's Horse Guards in London, built c1750-60.  Construction began in 1773.  Adam's style was quite different to Kent's.

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For some time, concern had been felt about the conditions under which the public records of Scotland were kept, and as early as 1722 it had been suggested that the solution to the problem was the construction of a new building to house them.2  However, it was not until the Earl of Morton, Lord Clerk Register from 1760 to 1768, having personally inspected the storage conditions and been shocked by what he saw, began to urge the construction of such a building and raise funds for it, that the possibility began to appear achievable.  Morton himself, in association with a professional architect, Robert Baldwin, designed a scheme (possibly as early as 1762) and published it in 1767.3  This consisted of a square building of one storey above a basement, with a dome above a central square hall.  The square hall is surrounded by ranges of small square offices-cum-storage rooms, all barrel-vaulted so as to be fireproof.  Although the external elevation appears rather ungainly in the published design, the plan has significant parallels to that of the building which exists today, and it is difficult to believe that it played no part in Adam’s development of a solution to this unique commission (General Register House was the earliest purpose-designed record repository in Britain4).  Quite certainly, however, it was not the only source of inspiration for Adam’s design. 

Apart from the obvious difficulties of obtaining finance from an always parsimonious government, the principal reason for the delay in realising the project for the Register House had been the identification of an appropriate site.  In 1765, a site had been proposed at the south edge of the city5but, despite the lobbying of Lord Morton6 and the willingness of the owners, the Governors of Heriot’s Hospital, the make the ground available, there had been objections from members of the legal profession that the site was too far from the Law Courts.  However, in 1765 work started on a bridge to link the ridge on which the city of Edinburgh was founded (the "Old Town") to the next ridge of land to the north, crossing the North Loch.  The North Bridge, as it was called, allowed the laying-out of the Edinburgh New Town, to a plan by James Craig, the following year.  The bridge was opened to pedestrians early in 1769 and, although structural problems meant that it was not finally completed until 1772, the city authorities were seeking any opportunity to encourage the development of the New Town which they hoped would do so much to promote Edinburgh.  They concluded that the location of such a prestigious public building as the new Register House here "would turn out to the advantage of the City and would promote the feuing out of the grounds on the north of the Bridge,"7 and offered the site immediately opposite the north end of the incomplete bridge for the new building.  That part of the site owned by the city was given to the Register House Trustees, although the rest of the site had to be purchased from three separate owners.  The Trustees gained a location which even today faces directly along one of the principal street vistas in Edinburgh.

Even today, the front entrance of Register House faces along one of the most important urban vistas in Edinburgh.  North Bridge leads to South Bridge, and Adam's buildings for Edinburgh University can be seen in the middle-distance, on the right.

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Despite the fact that James Adam was at this time joint Architect of the Kings Works, the choice of the Adam brothers to design the Register House appears to have owed at least as much to their friendship with the new Lord Clerk Register, Lord Frederick Campbell, as to this official status.  Lord Frederick had already employed them to carry out work at his house at Ardincaple in Dunbartonshire and would later employ them once again for work to his other house at Combe Bank in Kent.8  In 1792 he was to be one of the six pall-bearers at Robert Adam’s funeral.  Since others among the Register House Trustees were also patrons or supporters of Adam, Lord Frederick probably had little difficulty in persuading them of his choice, and Adam was commissioned in September 1769 to produce a design.9

As well as Lord Morton and Robert Baldwin’s plan, other buildings were probable sources of inspiration to Adam in preparing his design, notably his own Syon House, today in West London.  Adam had been commissioned in 1761 to remodel Syon, a 16th and 17th-century house owned by the Duke of Northumberland, and to facilitate circulation around the house he proposed filling the central courtyard with a vast domed saloon or "general rendez-vous,"10 besides remodelling the surrounding ranges in contemporary style.  Most of the alterations he proposed in the surrounding ranges were carried out, but his domed saloon remained unbuilt.  The domed rotunda at the Register House plays a similar role, and as such has much more in common with the proposals for Syon than with Baldwin’s cramped central square, accessible from the corridor running around the building only by passing through small offices. 

The designs which Adam prepared for Register House are dated 1771 and comprise a rectangular quadrangle with towers projecting at each corner and half way along each of the short sides, with the courtyard filled with a circular domed central hall surrounded by a ring of offices.11  Because the quadrangle is rectangular rather than square (at least one of the preliminary designs envisages a square building), this ring of offices nestles against the inner walls of north and south ranges but has staircases filling the spaces separating it from the east and west ranges.  The outer ranges of the quadrangle contain tiers of offices for the various officials, facing outwards, with a corridor running along their inner side and encircling the building (unlike Syon House, where the rooms interconnect, and the lack of any circulatory corridor created a pressing need for the rotunda Adam proposed for the central courtyard).  Adam proposed for the Register House a building of two storeys plus a basement, unlike the single storey and basement of Lord Morton and Robert Baldwin’s design, but like it, Adam’s design is vaulted throughout in order to reduce the threat from fire.  The extra storey allows the principal facade to be much better proportioned than had been the case in Baldwin’s design, and Adam relies on the innate dignity of the proportions of the structure, rather than on architectural or sculptural elaboration, to produce the elegant, slightly austere, effect.  The towers at each end of the facade, crowned with turrets with cupolas, and projecting from the main wall-plane, strike a vertical accent, emphasised by the Corinthian columns on their upper storeys, which plays a counterpoint with the horizontal emphasis of the rest of the facade, and the swell of the dome looming above the centrepiece would originally have been answered by the steps immediately below it curving down to street level (the widening of Princes’ Street in 1890 led to these curving flights being set back square against the terrace wall12).  However austere it may appear, the facade, as Adam designed it, fully lived up to that desire for "movement" which Adam aspired to for the exteriors of his buildings. 

The vertical accent of the tower at the left-hand end of the main facade of Register House contrasts with the horizontal emphasis of the rest of the elevation, giving the feeling of "movement" which Adam wanted his buildings to possess.

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Nevertheless, in the same way that the central saloon at Syon was never built (and even the remodelling of the surrounding ranges never completed to Adam’s designs), Adam’s vision for Edinburgh’s Register House remained incomplete.  He quite obviously devoted a great deal of thought to the design, several preliminary - or possibly, alternative - versions of which are known.  The commission was given to Adam in 1769, and the plans are dated 1771.13  However, the scheme went through one further stage, and Adam’s favoured scheme, with four ranges surrounding the central rotunda, was reduced in size by nearly one-half, presumably on financial grounds.  When construction began in 1774, Adam’s so-called "Third Design" consisted of the south range and rotunda of his scheme of 1771, together with the front half of his east and west ranges (including two of the three towers projecting from each).  The building was, however, built so that if funds were ever made available, it could be extended to the original dimensions without causing more than the minimum of disruption to the building as constructed (or, more importantly, to its users).  The fact that the plans of the Register House published by Adam in 1776,14  two years after building of the "Third Design" had started, are those of the 1771 scheme, and also that in a set of engravings of the building published in 1800 captions state "The part shaded dark shews what is finished, the light part [i.e., the north half of the building, completing Adam’s 1771 design] shews what remains to be finished,"15 suggest that this was the intention.  The disruption caused by the Napoleonic Wars, and the unwillingness of the government to finance any public works of this sort during that period, meant that it was not until 1822 that construction of the remainder of the building began, under the superintendence of Robert Reid (who also designed St George’s Church in Charlotte Square in place of the much more elegant design proposed by Adam).  Reid completed the side facades to Adam’s designs, but instead of building the new north elevation to match Adam’s south facade, which the designs of 1771 suggest was the latter’s intention, merely suppressing the entrance door and replacing it with a window, he substituted a new, unambitious, design based on the side elevations.  This facade has since been altered further by the addition of linking buildings to later extensions. 

Only half of the side elevation of Register House was built under Adam's superintendence, namely the tower mid-way along the wall, the corner tower out of the picture to the right, and the linking wing.  The far tower and the other link were built later.

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Despite being based in London, four hundred miles away from Edinburgh, Robert and James Adam were appointed supervising architects for the construction of Register House.  They undertook at the outset to "visit the work once every year, if necessary, or once in two years."16   Day to day supervision of work on the site was left to the clerk of works, and at Robert Adam’s recommendation the Trustees appointed James Salisbury, an Englishman, to this post.  James Salisbury, who was known to the Adams and had started out as a carpenter, remained in charge of the work until its completion to Adam’s "Third Design" in 1789, and was then appointed Surveyor of the building on a permanent basis.  Although Adam made a thorough inspection of the work when he did visit, such visits were rare, and at other times his supervision of the process of construction was undertaken by letter.  Under these circumstances, far more was of necessity left to the initiative of the Clerk of Works and to that of the individual craftsman working on site than would be the case today, and the need for a competent Clerk of Works was imperative.  Adam did his utmost to maintain an effective control, and that this was recognised at the time is shown by the fact that his demand to supervise the construction of the new University buildings in Edinburgh in 1789 was recognised.  The Adam office was called upon to produce a steady stream of large-scale drawings of details, a selection of which still survive at Register House, including such drawings as the design for the floor of the Rotunda, the pattern of which radiates, and a full-size detail for one of the circular gratings in that floor, used for the hot-air inlets.  All of this would not, however, have been able to compensate for a Clerk of Works who was not wholly competent, with the supervising architect based four hundred miles away. 

Work on the new building began in 1773 with the digging of the foundations, although construction proper did not start until the following year, with the laying of the foundation stone at a ceremony on 27th June.  The entire structure below roof level, apart from the dome of the Rotunda and the wooden floor of the Lord Clerk Register’s room above the entrance hall, is built of either stone or brick,17 so that the building is both fireproof and provides the stability necessary for the storage of heavy record volumes.  This, however, meant that the building was expensive to construct, despite its restrained decoration, and the money made available by a niggardly Exchequer proved insufficient even to allow construction of Adam’s reduced design.  Work was suspended at the end of 1778 with the carcase of the building, including the roofs, largely complete, but with significant amounts of work still to be done.  For the next six years, the desolate shell of the building, windowless, with the turrets on top of the towers unfinished, and with the dome and the internal vaulting incomplete, stood empty as, a contemporary observer remarked, "the most magnificent pigeon house in Europe."18   Only in 1785, with a further grant from government funds, did work start once again, with the building ready for occupation by the end of 1788, although some work remained to be completed in 1789.19  In 1790 a clock was installed in the south-east tower and a wind-vane in the south-west, both supplied by the well-known London clockmaker Vulliamy - presumably Benjamin Vulliamy rather than his father Jason, who appears to have died in that year.20  His shop in London was at 68 Pall Mall.  And although the plasterwork of the dome of the central rotunda had been undertaken in 1785, it appears not to have been painted until 1791.21  The rotunda is architecturally the most important room in the whole building and is fortunate enough to retain Adam’s decorative scheme.  It is, alas, the only room in Register House to do so, although the Lord Clerk Register’s room above the Entrance Hall, the first occupant of which was Lord Frederick Campbell who had secured the commission for the Adams, still has a frieze, apparently original, around the walls (the chimneypiece now in the room does not resemble Adam’s surviving design).22  The plasterwork in the dome was done by Thomas Clayton the younger, of Edinburgh,23 except for the eight circular bas-reliefs, which had been produced in London to Adam’s direction and shipped to Edinburgh by sea in 1779 together with three "Tablets" (presumably the three decorative panels at the centre of the south facade) and six "freezes with Antique Ornaments" (possibly the frieze in the Lord Clerk Register’s room).24  It is a magnificent interior, surrounded by bookcases set into the arcaded walls, encircled by a gallery at first-floor level and with the dome divided into eight segments, each containing one of the plaster roundels shipped from London, the ornamentation becoming richer towards the central oculus, or "skylight" as it was referred to in the Minutes of the Trustees referring to the progress of construction.  At 76 feet, it is the loftiest room built to Adam’s designs, and is also the largest to survive, with an area of over 2000 square feet.25

The clock in the turret of the south-east tower of Register House was supplied from London in 1790 by the clockmaker to the King, Benjamin Vulliamy.

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The three decorative panels on the south facade were probably carved in London and brought to Edinburgh by sea, but the excellently-carved Corinthian capitals were carved on site by the Edinburgh mason John Douglas.

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The construction of the Register House is well documented.  Most unusually, some of the large-scale working drawings provided by Adam’s office to the craftsmen working on site survive,26 and form an instructive contrast to the copies of the presentation-drawings for clients which form a large proportion of the collection of Adam drawings surviving in the Sir John Soane Museum.  These working drawings are done in ink on coarse paper, and in at least one case was altered - presumably by Adam himself - after the draughtsman had completed it.27  In addition, the Minute Book of the Trustees also survives, containing details of the progress of the work and funds expended.  Receipted bills survive, and even some letters from Adam concerning the scheme.28

Adam’s work on the Register House was not confined to the building itself.  He prepared designs for three related projects, none of which was realised.  The earliest of these was for a terrace of houses to front the west side of Leith Street, on property owned by the Register House Trustees.  Plans for this were prepared by Adam in 1785,29 but his designs were executed only in drastically modified form, under the supervision of another architect.  In 1789, Adam was called upon to design both a house to form an official residence for the Deputy Registrar30 - intended to be built in St James’ Square, immediately behind Register House - and, in the general public alarm about the outbreak of the French Revolution, a Guardhouse to be sited within the precincts of Register House.31  No house for the Deputy Registrar was constructed at this time, but a guardhouse was built at what is now the head of West Registry Street, although it is unclear whether it can in any degree be ascribed to Adam.32  Adam’s bill for the preparation of the design refers to the two versions of the design which survive, qualified by the comment "not executed in either of these ways."33   The Guardhouse which was built (and which stood until the 1850s) appears to have been constructed to an entirely different plan to Adam’s design, but that must leave open the possibility that the designer (possibly even James Salisbury, as Surveyor to the Register House) might have used elements of Adam’s design in the elevations. 

The Guardhouse was only the first addition to Adam’s Register House.  By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, it was recognised that the accommodation was inadequate, and minor alterations in 1816 were followed by the enlargement of the building between 1822 and 1834 to the dimension of Adam’s 1771 design, and to a large degree following his intentions.34  Further buildings have been added behind Adam’s original one, but the latter remains as the public face of the whole complex, facing out onto Princes’ Street and forming, as has already been said, the earliest purpose-built record repository in Britain. 

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