The British architects Robert (1728-1792) and James (1730-1794) Adam were the leading practitioners of the neoclassic style in the late 18th century. Their graceful, elegant work is based chiefly on ancient Roman and Renaissance motifs.
Robert Adam was born on July 3, 1728, at Kirkcaldy, Fifeshire, Scotland. James Adam was born in Edinburgh on July 21, 1730. They were the second and third sons of William Adam (1689-1748), a prominent Scottish architect. There were two other sons—John, the oldest of the children, and William—and six daughters. Robert was educated at Edinburgh High School and the university and received a sound architectural training from his father.
About 6 months before their father's death, John and Robert took over control of the family business. John practiced little as an architect, confining his attention more to the business side of the firm. One of the daughters, Elizabeth, became an efficient member of the business.
Robert's principal work from 1750 to 1754, in collaboration with James, was the completion of their father's masterpiece, Hopetoun House, West Lothian, Scotland. They reacted against the ponderous moldings and robust decoration of the Palladian school and introduced in the Yellow and Red Drawing Rooms (the latter not finished until 1758) a fresh note of rococo lightness and elegance in the ceiling plasterwork in accordance with the French taste then fashionable in England. Robert also redesigned the outlying pavilions of the house in a manner that anticipates his mature neoclassic style.
His first independent work was the design of Dumfries House, Scotland (1751-1754), again with remarkably fine rococo ceiling decorations. It was probably here that the cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale commenced his long association with Robert in the furnishing of Adam houses.
In 1754 Robert traveled to Rome; during 4 years' study there under the guidance of the artist C. L. Clérisseau, Robert made thousands of drawings of classical and Renaissance buildings and monuments, of decorations in the ancient tombs, and of the "grotesques" in the Loggias of the Vatican painted by Raphael and his pupil Giovanni da Udine. After an excursion to Dalmatia, Robert published The Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro (1764).
On his return to Britain in 1758, Robert set up an architectural practice in London with James. Robert executed new interiors at Hatchlands, Surrey (1758-1761), for Admiral Boscawen. Through the same patron's influence, Robert was employed to design the new screen and gateway to the courtyard of Admiralty House, Whitehall, London (1760). In 1759 he revised the plans of John Carr of York for Harewood House, Yorkshire, and designed all the interiors, which were carried out during the following 12 years.
The interior decorations of these houses mark the breakaway from the fashionable Palladian and rococo taste and the rise of the neoclassic style, which was to be popular for the next 30 years. The style was based on the enormous repertoire of classical motifs that Robert had built up in Rome: festoons of husks and bellflowers, swags and garlands, vines, vases, tripods, gryphons, sphinxes, paterae, formal arabesques, and scrolls of foliage. Many of these motifs had been used earlier by Sir Christopher Wren, James Gibbs, William Kent, and other architects, but the freshness of the Adam style lay in the highly personal refinement, delicacy, and elegance that Robert gave them. He attenuated the height of columns beyond the proportions laid down by the Roman architect Vitruvius and by Andrea Palladio (Osterley Park House, Middlesex) and combined both Roman and Greek elements in a single Ionic capital (Syon House, Middlesex), thus giving it the dignity of one and the elegance of the other. Robert scaled down the elements of a design to give it a lightness and grace unknown in the early Georgian age.
In 1773 the brothers published the first volume of The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, the second volume followed in 1779, and the third was published posthumously in 1822. In the introduction to this work, they claimed "to have brought about … a kind of revolution in architecture and decoration, against the pretensions of numerous imitators" and "by means of a series of delicate ornaments and mouldings" to have recaptured "the beautiful spirit of antiquity."
Robert died in London on March 3, 1792, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. James died in London on Oct. 20, 1794. Some 3000 drawings by Robert and other members of his firm are preserved at Sir John Soane's Museum in London.
Architecture and Furniture
The work of Robert Adam falls roughly into three phases of stylistic development. His early exteriors, as at Bowood, Wiltshire (1761-1767), and Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire (1765-1770), are composed of boldly projecting masses with giant orders of Roman character, heavy architraves, entablatures, and pulvinated friezes. At Kedleston, Robert again took over from another architect, in this case, as at Nostell Priory, Yorkshire, from James Paine. The south front of Kedleston, with the bold convexity of its dome contrasting with the concave curve of the sweeping perron below, illustrates the quality of "movement" which Robert expressed powerfully in his early work: "the rise and fall, the advance and recess, with other diversity of form in the different parts of a building, so as to add greatly to the 'picturesque' of the composition." In this early work Robert displays much influence of Sir John Vanbrugh and Kent, two architects whom he greatly admired. Similar bold characteristics appear in Robert's early interiors, such as the Marble Hall and Saloon at Kedleston (1765); the Anteroom at Syon (1759), where he achieved a sense of Roman magnificence; and the Drawing Rooms at Kedleston and Saltram House, Devonshire. The ornament of his early ceilings is bold and sparse and sometimes of compartment form (Croome Court, Worcestershire, 1760; Syon, 1759). His fireplaces are bold in scale, with fully sculptured caryatid figures (Hatchlands, 1758-1761; Harewood, 1759-1771; Kedleston, 1765-1770).
Robert's later exteriors, as in his London street houses (ca. 1769-1780), lose the three-dimensional quality and become more flat and linear, with shallow relieving arches, flush windows, and recessed porticoes. His interiors likewise at this time lose their bold ornament in favor of fine-scale motifs in shallow relief but still of satisfying quality, as in the Galleries at Harewood and Syon (1759). After 1780 his ornament became more finicky in character and crowded closely into the containing spaces, as in the later rooms at Osterley (1761-1780). His later fireplaces became smaller in scale; they had formal neoclassic ornament in shallow relief or were merely inlaid in colored marbles.
The same development is apparent in Robert's furniture designs, from the bold character of the early Syon side tables with straight, square, tapering legs to the mature form of the Osterley Drawing Room side tables and eventually to the excessively attenuated forms of the late designs, especially for looking glasses (Apsley House, London, ca. 1775). Chippendale is proved by bills to have made furniture to Robert's designs for Sir Laurence Dundas (1765), and Chippendale absorbed the neoclassic spirit so successfully that he continued to supply furniture in the new idiom for most of Adam's important houses (Nostell; Harewood; and Newby Hall, Yorkshire).
The final phase of Robert's career was that of large-scale public works. Examples are the Register House, Edinburgh (1772-1792), and Edinburgh University (1788-1792).
James Adam assisted his brother, especially in his later commissions. James's important independent works were the facades of Portland Place, London (1776), and Glasgow Infirmary (1792-1796).
Influence of the Adam Style
Although the Adam style was much criticized by Sir William Chambers, Horace Walpole, and other architects, it was universally adopted not only throughout Great Britain and Ireland but in the United States (by Charles Bulfinch and Samuel McIntire), Russia, and Sweden. The imitation of Adam ornament of excessively fine scale and finicky character in poor materials such as papier-mâché contributed toward the discrediting of the style after 1780 and the consequent reaction in favor of plainness and severity of decoration as expressed in the work of Henry Holland and James Wyatt. But at the height of its vogue, and later in Victorian, Edwardian, and modern times, when Adam revivals took place, the style was recognized as achieving a distinctive beauty, charm, and elegance unsurpassed in the history of architecture and decoration.
Further Reading on Robert and James Adam
The primary work on the Adam brothers is their own The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam (3 vols., 1773-1822; facsimile reproduction, 1959). The first monograph is John Swarbrick, Robert Adam and His Brothers (1915). The most complete study of the brothers, their drawings, and their works is Arthur T. Bolton, The Architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1758-1794 (2 vols., 1922). Both Swarbrick and Bolton include photographs of Adam buildings and interiors that no longer exist.
A valuable general work is James Lees-Milne, The Age of Adam (1947), covering the development of the Adam style, its antecedents, and its influence abroad. An account of the early life and tours abroad of the two brothers, based on letters, drawings, and family papers, is admirably presented in John Fleming, Robert Adam and His Circle in Edinburgh and Rome (1962).
The interior style is exhaustively studied in Damie Stillman, The Decorative Work of Robert Adam (1966). The first systematic study of the furniture designed by Robert Adam is Eileen Harris, The Furniture of Robert Adam (1963). The most comprehensive general work on the furniture, including neoclassic work by Chippendale, is Clifford Musgrave, Adam and Hepplewhite and Other Neo-Classical Furniture (1966). For discoveries in connection with the authorship of Adam furniture see the remarkable monograph by Anthony Coleridge, Chippendale Furniture (1968).
For the history of the neoclassic movement in architecture see Mario Praz, On Neoclassicism (1940; trans. 1969); John Summerson, Architecture in Britain, 1530 to 1830 (1953; 4th ed. 1963); and Hugh Honour, Neo-Classicism (1968). A short biography and lists of works are contained in H. M. Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of English Architects, 1660-1840 (1954).
Additional Biography Sources
Rykwert, Joseph, Robert and James Adam: the men and the style, Milano: Electa; New York: Rizzoli, 1985.