1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Adam, Robert
ADAM, ROBERT (1728–1792), British architect, the second son of William Adam of Maryburgh, in Fife, and the most celebrated of four brothers, John, Robert, James and William Adam, was born at Kirkcaldy in 1728. For few famous men have we so little biographical material, and contemporary references to him are sparse. He certainly studied at the university of Edinburgh, and probably received his first instruction in architecture from his father, who gave proofs of his own skill and taste in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary (now demolished). His mother was the aunt of Dr W. Robertson, the first English historian of Charles V., and in 1750 we find Robert Adam living with her in Edinburgh, and making one of the brilliant literary coterie which adorned it at that period. Somewhere between 1750 and 1754 he visited Italy, where he spent three years studying the remains of Roman architecture. There he was struck with the circumstance that practically nothing had survived of the Greek and Roman masterpieces except public buildings, and; that the private palaces, which Vitruvius and Pliny esteemed so highly, had practically vanished. One example of such work. however, was extant in the ruins of Diocletian’s palace at Spalato in Dalmatia, and this he visited in July 1757, taking with him the famous French architect and antiquary, C. L. Clérisseau, and two experienced draughtsmen, with whose assistance, after being arrested as a spy, he managed in five weeks to accumulate a sufficient number of measurements and careful plans and surveys to produce a restoration of the entire building in a fine work which he published in 1764, The Ruins of the Palace of Diocletian, &c. Considering the shortness of the time occupied and the obstacles placed in his way by the Venetian governor and the population of the place, the result was amazing. The influence of these studies was apparent directly and indirectly in much of his subsequent work, which, indeed, was in great measure founded upon them.
After his return to England he seems to have come rapidly to the front, and in 1762 he was appointed sole architect to the king and the Board of Works. Six years later he resigned this office, in which he was succeeded by his brother James,—who however, held the office jointly with another,—and entered parliament as member for the county of Kinross. In 1768 he and his three brothers leased the ground fronting the Thames, upon which the Adelphi now stands, for £1200 on a ninety-nine years’ lease, and having obtained, with the assistance of Lord Bute, the needful act of parliament, proceeded, in the teeth of public opposition, to erect the ambitious block of buildings which is imperishably associated with their name, indicating its joint origin by the title Adelphi, from the Greek ἀδελφοί, the Brothers. The site presented attractive possibilities. A steep hill led down Buckingham Street to the river-side, and the plan was to raise against it, upon a terrace formed of massive arches and vaults and facing the river, a dignified quarter of fine streets and stately buildings, suggestive of the Spalato ruins. In spite of many difficulties, pecuniary and otherwise (the undertaking was completed from the proceeds of a lottery), money was raised and the work pushed on; in five years the Adelphi terrace stood complete, and the fine houses were eagerly sought after by artists and men of letters. Splendid, however, as the terrace and its houses are, both in conception and execution, the underground work which upholds them is perhaps more remarkable still. The vast series of arched vaults has been described by a modern writer as a very town, which, during the years that they were open, formed subterranean streets leading to the river and its wharves. In many places the arches stand in double tiers. In time these “streets” obtained a bad name as the haunt of suspicious characters, and they have long been enclosed and let as cellars. Between 1773 and 1778 the brothers issued a fine series of folio engravings and descriptions of the designs for many of their most important works, which included several great public buildings and numberless large private houses; a fine volume was published in 1822. For the remaining years of Robert’s life the practice of the firm was the most extensive in the country; his position was unquestioned, and when he died in 1792 he was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey almost as a matter of course.
The art of Robert Adam was extraordinarily many-sided and prolific, and it is difficult to give a condensed appreciation of it. As an architect he was strongly under Roman and Italian influences, and his style and aims were exotic rather than native. But this does not detract from their merit, nor need it diminish our estimate of his genius. It was, indeed, the most signal triumph of that genius that he was able so to mould and adapt classical models as to create a new manner of the highest charm and distinction. Out of simple curvilinear forms, of which he principally preferred the oval, he evolved combinations of extraordinary grace and variety, and these entered into every detail of his work. In his view the architect was intimately concerned with the furniture and the decorations of a building, as well as with its form and construction, and this view he carried rigorously into practice, and with astonishing success. Nothing was too small and unimportant for him—summer-houses and dog-kennels came as readily to him as the vast façades of a terrace in town or a great country house. But he never permitted minute details to obscure the main lines of a noble design. Whatever care he might have expended upon the flowing curves of a moulding or a decoration, it was strictly kept in its place; it contributed its share and no more to the total effect. He made a distinct step forward in giving shape to the idea of imparting the unity of a single imposing structure to a number of private houses grouped in a block which is so characteristic a feature of modern town building, and though at times he failed in the breadth of grasp needful to carry out such an idea on a large scale, he has left us some fine examples of what can be accomplished in this direction. A delightful but theoretically undesirable characteristic of his work is the use of stucco. Upon it he moulded delicate forms in subtle and beautiful proportions. His “compo” was used so successfully that the patent was infringed: many of his moulds still exist and are in constant use. That most difficult feature, the column, he handled with enthusiasm and perfect mastery; he studied and wrote of it with minute pains, while his practice showed his grasp of the subject by all avoidance of bare imitation of the classic masters who first brought it to perfection. His work might be classic in form, but it was independently developed by himself. It would be impossible here to give a list of the innumerable works which he executed. In London, of course, the Adelphi stands pre-eminent; the screen and gate of the Admiralty and part of Fitzroy Square are by him, Portland Place, and much of the older portion of Finsbury Circus, besides whole streets of houses in the west end. There are the famous country houses of Lord Mansfield at Caen Wood, Highgate and Luton Hoo, and decorations and additions to many more.
Robert Adam—with, there is reason to suspect, some help from his brother James—has left as deep and enduring a mark upon English furniture as upon English architecture. Down to his time carving was the dominant characteristic of the mobiliary art, but thenceforward the wood-worker declined in importance. French influence disposed Robert Adam to the development of painted furniture with inlays of beautiful exotic woods, and many of his designs, especially for sideboards, are extremely attractive, mainly by reason of their austere simplicity. Robert Adam was no doubt at first led to turn his thoughts towards furniture by his desire to see his light, delicate, graceful interiors, with their large sense of atmosphere and their refined and finished detail, filled with plenishings which fitted naturally into his scheme. His own taste developed as he went on, but he was usually extremely successful, and cabinetmakers are still reproducing his most effective designs. In his furniture he made lavish use of his favourite decorative motives—wreaths and paterae, the honeysuckle, and that fan ornament which he used so constantly. Thus an Adam house is a unique product of English art. From façade to fire-irons, from the chimneys to the carpets, everything originated in the same order of ideas, and to this day an Adam drawing-room is to English what a Louis Seize room is to French art. In nothing were the Adams more successful than in mantelpieces and doors. The former, by reason of their simplicity and the readiness with which the “compo” ornaments can be applied and painted, are still made in cheap forms in great number. The latter were most commonly executed in a rich mahogany and are now greatly sought after. The extent to which the brothers worked together is by no means clear—indeed, there is an astonishing dearth of information regarding this remarkable family, and it is a reproach to English art literature that no biography of Robert Adam has ever been published. John Adam succeeded to his father’s practice as an architect in Edinburgh. James Adam studied in Rome, and eventually was closely associated with Robert; William is variously said to have been a banker and an architect. (J. P.-B.)