Adam was the most famous of the four sons of the Scottish architect William Adam (1698–1748).
He was brought up in Edinburgh and went to university there (1743–1745). His family circle was that of the Edinburgh Enlightenment, and he was related to the Scottish historian William Robertson and a close friend of David Hume. Though a proud Scot as well as a Scottish member of Parliament for Kinross-shire, he was essentially a man of northern Britain and, as such, part of the mainstream of European thought. His departure for Italy in 1754 was an expression of this intellectual attitude.
Adam travelled to Rome via Paris, Aix, Genoa, and Florence. Apart from the antiquities of the South, France was neglected architecturally, and his visual and intellectual energies were concentrated on Rome. There, in the Casa Guanieri in the Piazza di Spragua, he studied drawing under the French expatriate Charles-Louis Clérisseau, landscape design with Jean-Baptiste Lallemand, and architectural composition with the Belgian architect Laurent-Baptiste Dewez. He was also, like any Grand Tourist, an inveterate collector of paintings (not very good ones), drawings, and antiquities, many of which were sold in London in 1776. The proof of his assiduity, if not of his genius, is shown in Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro, which he finished after his return to London in 1758. The historical introduction for this work was ghost-written by William Robertson. Adam was successful in this dramatic bid for fame and employment, and virtually overnight he established himself as a man of immense classical knowledge matched by ingenuity, architectural skill, and good taste. His London office in Lower Grosvenor Street, where his drawings and antiquities were thoughtfully displayed, became a stop in the fashionable circuit.
From Grosvenor Street, and after 1773 from Royal Terrace in the Adelphi development, Adam exercised immense influence on the British architectural scene throughout the 1760s and early 1770s. The Adam style is a personal mixture which combines, with an unsurpassed splendor of material, the whole gamut of styles he found in classical architecture. It was expressed as effectively in the decorative arts as in architecture. Adam could turn from designing a door handle to planning a ducal castle with ease and no flagging of inspiration.
Adam is perhaps most easily understood through his domestic work, in the town and country houses he built or remodeled, which he frequently decorated throughout. The most important of these for Adam's early practice was Kedleston, Derbyshire (c. 1760–1770), whose owner had been struck “all of a heap with wonder and amaze” at the sight of Adam's innovative designs. This commission was followed by the critical patronage of the duke and duchess of Northumberland, for whom Adam worked at Syon House (1762–1769), Alnwick Castle (c. 1770–1780), and Northumberland House in London (1770). Their wealth and position in society gave Adam an ideal and sustained opportunity to work on a grand scale. The Glass Drawing Room from Northumberland House, destroyed except for a fragment now in London's Victoria and Albert Museum, and the contrasting styles of the Long Gallery and the Hall at Syon showed the range of Adam's talents. The patronage of the Scottish prime minister, the earl of Bute, not only supported Adam officially to the position of Royal Architect to George III (1762, with Sir William Chambers) but also brought him the commissions of Lansdowne House in London (1762–1768) and Luton Hoo in Hertfordshire (c. 1768).
Admiration of Adam's domestic talent must not obscure his important contribution to public building and town planning, of which the ill-fated Adelphi (1768–1772) was typical. This was a heroic attempt to lay out a whole quarter of London beside the Thames with a variety of houses and commercial properties, intended to provide London with a Parisian grandeur denied by official patronage. The project failed through its very scale—too great for the resources of any private speculator—and its trail of debt and opprobrium followed Adam to the grave. It was only in Edinburgh and Glasgow that he attracted the right sort of public patronage; his work at the Register House (1774), the University (1789), and the Bridewell prison (1792) showed his capacity to compose in the restrained monumentality of neoclassicism. His plan for the Bridges area of Edinburgh was similar in scope to the Adelphi venture and landed both Adam and his brother James in yet another financial crisis. Their work in Glasgow on the Royal Infirmary (1792) and for the University showed the same ability to incorporate public buildings into an expanding townscape.
Adam's philosophy was set out in the various introductory essays of The Works in Architecture, published in parts between 1773 and 1778. These handsome folios looked both backward and forward and attempted to reassess and revive the Adam style by exploitating the literary and visual phenomenon of the Picturesque. It can be seen in his later watercolors and paintings and was a unique element in his Gothic work at Culzean Castle in Ayrshire (1773–1790) and in his other Scottish castles.
On Adam's death in 1792, the Adam style and reputation fell into immediate and profound disrepute. To the nineteenth century, no doubt, Adam personified the superficiality of much of eighteenth-century thought, especially in his attitude to the Gothic style. Much of the vituperative character of the criticism leveled against Adam, however, undoubtedly arose from Adam's sheer genius and his own appreciation of it. He wrote of himself, “I think it not amiss for a man to have a little glisk of that infinite merit he is possess'd of.”
Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland. Architectural Heritage. Nos. 1 (1990) and 4 (1993). Devoted to William Adam and his son John, these collections of essays deal with many aspects of their careers.Find this resource:
Bolton, Arthur T. The Architecture of Robert and James Adams. 2 vols. London, 1922.Find this resource:
Colvin, Howard. A Biographical Dictionary of British Architecture. London, 1995.Find this resource:
Flemming, John. Robert Adam and His Circle. London, 1962.Find this resource:
King, David, ed. The Complete Works of Robert and James Adam. London, 1991.Find this resource:
Lees-Milne, James. The Age of Adam. London, 1947.Find this resource:
Rowan, Alistair. Catalogue of Architectural Drawings in the Victoria and Albert Museum; Robert Adam. London, 1988.Find this resource:
Tait, Alan A. Robert Adam: Drawings and Imagination. Cambridge, 1993.Find this resource: