Robert Adam

Robert Adam FRSE FRS FSA (Scot) FSA FRSA (3 July 1728 – 3 March 1792) was a Scottish neoclassical architect, interior designer and furniture designer. He was the son of William Adam (1689–1748), Scotland's foremost architect of the time, and trained under him. With his older brother John, Robert took on the family business, which included lucrative work for the Board of Ordnance, after William's death.

Robert Adam

Portrait attributed to George Willison, c. 1770–1775
Born(1728-07-03)3 July 1728
Died3 March 1792(1792-03-03) (aged 63)
Burial placeWestminster Abbey
Alma materUniversity of Edinburgh
Robert Adam
PracticeAdam Brothers (Edinburgh, London)
BuildingsSyon House
Culzean Castle
Kedleston Hall
Pulteney Bridge
Harewood House
Charlotte Square

In 1754, he left for Rome, spending nearly five years on the continent studying architecture under Charles-Louis Clérisseau and Giovanni Battista Piranesi. On his return to Britain he established a practice in London, where he was joined by his younger brother James. Here he developed the "Adam Style", and his theory of "movement" in architecture, based on his studies of antiquity and became one of the most successful and fashionable architects in the country. Adam held the post of Architect of the King's Works from 1761 to 1769.

Robert Adam was a leader of the first phase of the classical revival in England and Scotland from around 1760 until his death.[2] He influenced the development of Western architecture, both in Europe and in North America. Adam designed interiors and fittings as well as houses.[3]

He served as the member of Parliament for Kinross-shire from 1768 to 1774.[4]


Early life

Adam was born on 3 July 1728 at Gladney House in Kirkcaldy, Fife, the second son Mary Robertson (1699–1761), the daughter of William Robertson of Gladney, and architect William Adam.[1][5] As a child he was noted as having a "feeble constitution".[6] From 1734 at the age of six Adam attended the Royal High School, Edinburgh[7] where he learned Latin (from the second year lessons were conducted in Latin)[8] until he was 15, he was taught to read works by Virgil, Horace, Sallust and parts of Cicero and in his final year Livy.[8] In autumn 1743 he matriculated at the University of Edinburgh,[9] and compulsory classes for all students were: the Greek language, logic, metaphysics and natural philosophy.[9] Students could choose three elective subjects, Adam attended classes in mathematics, taught by Colin Maclaurin, and anatomy, taught by Alexander Monro primus.[10] His studies were interrupted by the arrival of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Highlanders, who occupied Edinburgh during the 1745 Jacobite rising. At the end of the year, Robert fell seriously ill for some months, and it seems unlikely that he returned to university, having completed only two years of study.[11]

On his recovery from illness in 1746, he joined his elder brother John as apprentice to his father. He assisted William Adam on projects such as the building of Inveraray Castle and the continuing extensions of Hopetoun House. William's position as Master Mason to the Board of Ordnance also began to generate much work, as the Highlands were fortified following the failed Jacobite revolt. Robert's early ambition was to be an artist rather than architect, and the style of his early sketches in the manner of Salvator Rosa are reflected in his earliest surviving architectural drawings, which show picturesque gothic follies.[12] William Adam died in June 1748, and left Dowhill, a part of the Blair Adam estate which included a tower house, to Robert.

Architectural practice in Edinburgh

On William Adam's death, John Adam inherited both the family business and the position of Master Mason to the Board of Ordnance. He immediately took Robert into partnership, later to be joined by James Adam. The Adam Brothers' first major commission was the decoration of the grand state apartments on the first floor at Hopetoun House, followed by their first "new build" at Dumfries House. For the Board of Ordnance, the brothers were the main contractor at Fort George, a large modern fort near Inverness designed by military engineer Colonel Skinner. Visits to this project, begun in 1750, would occupy the brothers every summer for the next 10 years, and, along with works at many other barracks and forts, provided Robert with a solid foundation in practical building.[13]

In the winter of 1749–1750, Adam travelled to London with his friend, the poet John Home. He took the opportunity for architectural study, visiting Wilton, designed by Inigo Jones, and the Queens Hermitage in Richmond by Roger Morris. His sketchbook of the trip also shows a continuing interest in gothic architecture.[14]

Among his friends at Edinburgh were the philosophers Adam Ferguson and David Hume and the artist Paul Sandby whom he met in the Highlands. Other Edinburgh acquaintances included Gilbert Elliot, William Wilkie, John Home and Alexander Wedderburn.[12]

Grand Tour

On 3 October 1754, Robert Adam in the company of his brother James (who went as far as Brussels) set off from Edinburgh for his Grand Tour, stopping for a few days in London, where they visited the Mansion House, London, St Stephen Walbrook,[15] St Paul's Cathedral, Windsor, Berkshire, in the company of Thomas Sandby who showed them his landscaping at Windsor Great Park and Virginia Water Lake.[16] They sailed from Dover arriving in Calais[17] on 28 October 1754.[18] He joined Charles Hope-Weir, brother of the Earl of Hopetoun in Brussels[19] and together they travelled to Rome.[20] Hope agreed to take Adam on the tour at the suggestion of his uncle, the Marquess of Annandale, who had undertaken the Grand Tour himself. While in Brussels the pair attended a Play and Masquerade, as well as visiting churches and palaces in the city.[21] Travelling on to Tournai, then Lille, where they visited the Citadal designed by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban.[22] By 12 November 1754 Adam and Hope were in Paris where they took lodgings in Hotel de Notre Dame.[23]

Adam and Hope travelled on to Italy together, before falling out in Rome over travelling expenses and accommodation. Robert Adam stayed on in Rome until 1757, studying classical architecture and honing his drawing skills. His tutors included the French architect and artist Charles-Louis Clérisseau, and the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Here, he became acquainted with the work of the pioneering classical archaeologist and art historian, theorist Johann Joachim Winckelmann. On his return journey, Adam and Clerisseau spent time intensively studying the ruins of Diocletian's Palace at Spalato in Dalmatia (now known as Split, in modern Croatia).[24] These studies were later published as Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia in 1764.

Architectural practice in London

He returned to Britain in 1758 and set up in business in London with his brother James Adam. They focused on designing complete schemes for the decoration and furnishing of houses. Palladian design was popular, and Robert designed a number of country houses in this style,[25] but he evolved a new, more flexible style incorporating elements of classical Roman design alongside influences from Greek, Byzantine and Baroque styles.[26] The Adam brothers' success can also be attributed to a desire to design everything down to the smallest detail, ensuring a sense of unity in their design. In Adam interiors, all the furnishings were custom designed to accord with the decoration of the room in a unified harmony. Often the carpets were woven to match the intricate patterns of the ceiling above, while every fitting including sconces, mirrors, and doorknobs also received a custom design emulating the motifs of the room.[27][28]

Robert Adams' practice was not without mishap, however. In 1768 the Adam brothers purchased a 99-year lease for a marshy plot of land beside the Thames in Westminster, where they built a 24-house terrace development known as the Adelphi.[27] The project was very ambitious and is the first instance where terraced houses were designed individually to give unified harmony to the whole development (previously terraced houses were built to one replicated design side-by-side, around a square).[27] However, the project became a white elephant for Robert and his brothers, with uncertain financing and costs spiraling out of control. The houses were built on a huge artificial terrace resting on vaulted substructures on the level of the Thames, which Robert Adam was certain could be leased to the British government as warehouses. However, this interest failed to materialize, and the Adam brothers were left with huge debts and in 1772 had to lay off 3,000 workmen and cease building. Adam himself moved into one of the houses in the Adelphi, along with supportive friends like David Garrick and Josiah Wedgewood, who opened a showroom for his ceramics in one of the houses. In 1774, a public lottery was held to raise funds for the brothers, which allowed them to avert bankruptcy.[27]

Public life

Adam was elected a fellow of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in 1758 and of the Society of Antiquaries in 1761, the same year he was appointed Architect of the King's Works (jointly with Sir William Chambers). His younger brother James succeeded him in this post when he relinquished the role in 1768 to devote more time to his elected office as member of Parliament for Kinross-shire.

Architectural style

Adam rejected the Palladian style, as introduced to England by Inigo Jones, and advocated by Lord Burlington, as "ponderous" and "disgustful".[29] However, he continued their tradition of drawing inspiration directly from classical antiquity, during his four-year stay in Europe.[29] Adam developed a new style of architectural decoration, one which was more archaeologically accurate than past Neoclassical styles, but nonetheless innovative and not bound only by ancient precedents. In Works in Architecture, co-authored with his brother James, the brothers stated that Graeco-Roman examples should "serve as models which we should imitate, and as standards by which we ought to judge."[27] The discoveries in Herculaneum and Pompeii ongoing at the time provided ample material for Robert Adam to draw on for inspiration.[27]

The Adam brothers' principle of "movement" was largely Robert's conception, although the theory was first written down by James. "Movement" relied on dramatic contrasts and diversity of form, and drew on the picturesque aesthetic. The first volume of the Adam brother's Works (1773) cited Kedleston Hall, designed by Robert in 1761, as an outstanding example of movement in architecture.

By contrasting room sizes and decorative schemes, Adam applied the concept of movement to his interiors also. His style of decoration, described by Pevsner as "Classical Rococo", drew on Roman "grotesque" stucco decoration.[29][30]


Adam's work had influenced the direction of architecture and design across the western world. In England his collaboration with Thomas Chippendale resulted in some of the finest neoclassicist designs of the time, most notably in the Harewood House collection of Chippendale's work. In North America, the Federal style owes much to neoclassicism as practised by Adam. In Europe, Adam notably influenced Charles Cameron, the Scotsman who designed Tsarskoye Selo and other Russian palaces for Catherine the Great.[31] However, by the time of his death, Adam's neoclassicism was being superseded in Britain by a more severe, Greek phase of the classical revival, as practised by James "Athenian" Stuart. The Adam brothers employed several draughtsmen who would go on to establish themselves as architects, including George Richardson, and the Italian Joseph Bonomi, who Robert originally hired in Rome.

Written works

During their lifetime Robert and James Adam published two volumes of their designs, Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam (in 1773–1778 and 1779; a third volume was published posthumously, in 1822).

Death and burial

Adam had long suffered from stomach and bowel problems,[32] probably caused by a peptic ulcer and irritable bowel syndrome. While at home – 11 Albermarle Street, London – on 1 March 1792, one of the ulcers burst, and on 3 March Adam died.[32]

The funeral was held on 10 March; he was buried in the south aisle of Westminster Abbey.[32] The pall-bearers were several of his clients: Henry Scott, 3rd Duke of Buccleuch; George Coventry, 6th Earl of Coventry; James Maitland, 8th Earl of Lauderdale; David Murray, 2nd Earl of Mansfield; Lord Frederick Campbell and Sir William Pulteney, 5th Baronet.[32]

Knowing he was dying, he drafted his will on 2 March 1792. Having never married, Adam left his estate to his sisters Elizabeth Adam and Margaret Adam.[32]

His obituary appeared in the March 1792 edition of The Gentleman's Magazine:[33]

It is somewhat remarkable that the Arts should be deprived at the same time of two of their greatest ornaments, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Mr Adam: and it is difficult to say which of them excelled most in his particular profession... Mr Adam produced a total change in the architecture of this country: and his fertile genius in elegant ornament was not confined to the decoration of buildings, but has been diffused to every branch of manufacture. His talents extend beyond the lie of his own profession: he displayed in his numerous drawings in landscape a luxuriance of composition, and an effect of light and shadow, which have scarcely been the last period of his life, Mr Adam displayed an increasing vigour of genius and refinement of taste: for in the space of one year preceding his death, he designed eight great public works, besides twenty five private buildings, so various in their style, and so beautiful in their composition, that they have been allowed by the best judges, sufficient of themselves, to establish his fame unrivalled as an artist.

He left nearly 9,000 drawings, 8,856 of which (by both Robert and James Adam) were subsequently purchased in 1833 for £200 by the architect John Soane and are now at the Soane Museum in London.[34]

List of architectural works[35]

Public buildings



Urban domestic work

Country houses with major work

Garden buildings and follies

  • Stables, Inveraray Castle, joint work with his brother John (1758–60)
  • North Lodge, Kedleston Hall (1759)
  • Conservatory Croome Park (1760)
  • Rotunda Croome Park, attributed (1760)
  • Old Rectory, Kedleston Hall (c.1761)
  • Entrance screen, Moor Park, Hertfordshire (1763)
  • The Conservatory, Osterley Park (1763)
  • Bridge, Audley End House, Essex (c.1763–64)
  • Tea Pavilion, Moor Park, Hertfordshire (c.1764)
  • Gatehouse Kimbolton Castle (c.1764)
  • Bridge, Kedleston Hall (1764)
  • Estate Village Lowther, Cumbria (1766)
  • Dunstall 'Castle' and Garden Alcove, Croome Park (1766)
  • Entrance arch, Croome Court (1767)
  • Entrance Screen, Cullen House, Cullen, Moray (1767)
  • Bridge, Osterley Park (c. 1768)
  • Entrance screen, Syon House (1769)
  • Fishing, Boat & Bath House, Kedleston Hall (1770–71)
  • Circular Temple, Audley End House, Essex (1771)
  • Lion Bridge, Alnwick (1773)
  • Stag Lodge, Saltram House, Devon (c.1773)
  • The Stables, Featherstone entrance & Huntwick arch Nostell Priory (1776)
  • Wyke Green Lodges, Osterley, Middlesex (1777); remodelled
  • the Home Farm, Culzean Castle, Ayrshire (1777–79)
  • Brizlee Tower, Alnwick, Gothic tower (1777–81)
  • Oswald's Temple, Auchincruive, Ayrshire (1778)
  • 'Ruined' arch and viaduct, Culzean Castle (1780)
  • The semi-circular conservatory, Osterley Park (1780)
  • Tea House Bridge, Audley End House, Essex (1782)
  • The Stables, Culzean Castle (c.1785)
  • Stables, Castle Upton, Templepatrick, Co. Antrim, Ireland. (1788–89). Important range of office buildings in castle style.
  • Montagu Bridge, Dalkeith Palace, Lothian (1792)
  • Loftus Hall, Fethard-on-sea, Co. Wexford, Ireland. Date unknown. Proposed gates.
  • Lion Gate and Lodge, Syon Park, London. Date unknown.

Country houses with minor work

Official appointments

Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
Robert Colvile
(to 1761)
Member of Parliament for Kinross-shire
Succeeded by
George Graham
(from 1780)
Government offices
Preceded by
New appointment
Architect of the King's Works
Served alongside: Sir William Chambers
Succeeded by
Sir Robert Taylor and James Adam

See also


  1. James, Jude (2005). Kirkcaldy: A History & Celebration of the Town. p. 60. ISBN 1-84567-749-8.
  2. Pevsner, p. 237
  3. Adam silver (1953). Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Her Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO), p. 1.
  4. Waterston, Charles D; Macmillan Shearer, A (July 2006). Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002: Biographical Index (PDF). I. Edinburgh: The Royal Society of Edinburgh. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  5. Adam, Robert (1728–1792), architect. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/105.
  6. Fleming, p. 76
  7. Graham, p. 2
  8. Graham, p. 4
  9. Graham, p. 26
  10. Graham, p. 27
  11. Fleming, pp. 79–80
  12. Fleming, p. 81
  13. Fleming, pp. 85–86
  14. Fleming, p. 85
  15. Graham, p. 47
  16. Graham, p. 48
  17. Graham, p. 50
  18. Graham, p. 52
  19. Graham, p. 54
  20. Graham, p. 49
  21. Graham, p. 53
  22. Graham, p. 53-54
  23. Graham, p. 55
  24. C.M. Hogan, "Diocletian's Palace", The Megalithic Portal, A. Burnham ed, 6 Oct 2007
  25. Roth, p. 397
  26. Roth, p. 402
  27. Steven Parissien (1992). Adam Style. Phaidon. p. 43–44.
  28. David Irwin (1997). Neoclassicism. Phaidon. p. 101.
  29. Glendinning and McKechnie, p. 106
  30. Pevsner, p. 238
  31. Glendinning & McKechnie, p. 108
  32. Graham, Roderick (2009) Arbiter of Elegance: A Biography of Robert Adam, Birlinn, ISBN 978-1-84158-802-5, pp. 328–329
  33. Graham, p. 330
  34. page 11, The Adam Brothers in Rome: Drawings from the Grand Tour, A.A. Tait, 2008 Scala Publishers Ltd, ISBN 978-1-85759-574-1
  35. This list is based on: David King, The Complete Works of Robert & James Adam, 1991 Butterworth
  36. Craig, W. S. (1976). History of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 73–74.


  • Bolton, Arthur T. (1922, reprinted 1984) The Architecture of Robert & James Adam, 1785–1794, 2 volumes ISBN 0-907462-49-9
  • Curl, James Stevens (2006) Oxford Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-860678-8
  • Fleming, John (1962) Robert Adam and his Circle John Murray ISBN 0-7195-0000-1
  • Glendinning, Miles, and McKechnie, Aonghus, (2004) Scottish Architecture, Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-20374-1
  • Graham, Roderick (2009) Arbiter of Elegance: A Biography of Robert Adam (Birlinn, ISBN 978-1-84158-802-5)
  • Harris, Eileen (1963) The Furniture of Robert Adam Alec Tiranti, London. ISBN 0-85458-929-5.
  • Harris, Eileen (2001) The Genius of Robert Adam: His Interiors ISBN 0-300-08129-4
  • Lees-Milne, James (1947) The Age of Adam
  • Pevsner, Nikolaus (1951) An Outline of European Architecture 2nd Edition. Pelican
  • Roderick, Graham (2009) Arbiter of Elegance A Biography of Robert Adam. Birlinn ISBN 978-1-84158-802-5
  • Roth, Leland M. (1993). Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History and Meaning (First ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. ISBN 0-06-430158-3.
  • Stillman, Damie (1966) The Decorative Work of Robert Adam ISBN 0-85458-160-X
  • Tait, A. A. (2004) doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/105 "Adam, Robert (1728–1792)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press
  • Yarwood, Doreen (1970) Robert Adam ISBN 0-460-03824-9 and ISBN 0-460-02130-3 (1973 paperback)
  • Belamarić, Joško - Šverko, Ana (eds.): Robert Adam and Diocletian's Palace in Split, Zagreb 2017, ISBN 978-953-0-60975-4

Further reading

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