The elegant neo-classicism of Robert Adam

Posted in Architecture, Art, Arts and Crafts, Country House, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, London on Wednesday, 30 January 2013

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This edited article about Robert Adam originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 113 published on 14 March 1964.

The Adelphi, picture, image, illustration

The Adelphi was designed and developed by the Adam brohers

There was chaos in the Strand. Thousands of people were jamming the Thames Embankment. All over central London the horse-drawn traffic was held up and thrown into confusion.

All the trouble was caused by sightseers flocking to see one of the greatest re-development schemes ever undertaken. The four Adam brothers, Robert, James, John and William, were rebuilding a whole section of central London.

The date was 1769, and even then London was suffering from that bursting-at-the-seams feeling that characterizes the city’s development today. That was why the Adam brothers, all famed architects, had produced their ¬£140,000 scheme for rebuilding a riverside area at the back of the Strand, one of London’s busiest and most crowded streets.

And what a plan! New buildings and roads were to be laid on top of a great platform supported by arches – and the site was to incorporate wharves and storage facilities for goods brought up the Thames by ship.

But the bold plan of the Adam brothers was dogged by ill-luck. First, to make it work, it was necessary to reclaim land from the Thames, but the Corporation of the City of London refused the brothers’ permission to drain part of the river.

Furious, Robert Adam, the architectural genius of the quartet, lobbied Members of Parliament. A Bill was passed to give the brothers permission to drain the land, and the work went steadily on.

Then, just when the work was nearing completion, the Government declined to hire out the underground spaces as warehouses. The Adam brothers ran out of money and so did their backers, and the project, named the “Adelphi” from the Greek word for brothers (i.e., the Adam brothers) had to be sold off in sections.

Today most of the Adelphi has gone and has been replaced by offices, but all over England you can see examples of the successes of the four architect Adam brothers. Robert, their inspiration, was born at Kirkcaldy in Scotland in 1728, and after leaving Edinburgh University he toured Italy to study architecture and Greek and Roman remains. What most impressed him was the elegant homes of the ancients rather than their public monuments, which were, until then, the rather heavy inspiration behind English architecture.

So Robert Adam came home and set to work to bring a light touch into English homes. “Into” rather than just “to,” because Adam concentrated on interiors. To him architecture and furniture were one and the same subject, and he designed new, exciting rooms in many different shapes and colours, framing paintings in panels, finishing walls in ornate plastering and even hanging them with damask.

Pelmets, bookcases, ceilings, staircases, chimney pieces, mirrors, metalwork – and, of course, the beautiful white marble fireplaces for which he is especially famous – were changed into objects of delicate beauty by this meticulous designer, and the aristocrats for whom he worked loved him for the perfect background he provided for their social life.

When Robert Adam had sized up a room and brought his brilliant talent for design to bear upon it, it was as if he had waved a magic wand, transforming the heavy, harsh lines for which the best homes were well known, into light, supremely elegant proportions.

Adam still worked with great success on exteriors. He built or remodelled many country houses, including Harewood in Yorkshire, and Osterly and Syon in Middlesex.

In so doing, no other architect or artist so well expressed the elegance of eighteenth-century England, when English society perhaps reached its highest level of taste, and although the Adams had their detractors, the style set by Robert remained, with various minor changes, the fashion inside smart English houses until after the end of the eighteenth century.

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