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Adam, Robert (1728-1792): British Architect and Designer.

Robert Adam was the foremost neoclassical British architect and designer of his time; indeed, with regard to architecture, the latter half of the eighteenth century in Great Britain has been called the “Age of Adam.” Born in Edinburgh, Adam was one of four sons of William Adam, one of the leading Scottish architects in his day. Adam entered the University of Edinburgh in 1743. After his father died in 1748, he entered into a partnership with his brother James. From 1754 to 1758, Adam embarked upon the Grand Tour of Italy, during which he mastered classical architecture and design and made a number of important personal contacts, including developing a friendship with Piranesi, Giovanni Battista.

Upon his return in 1758, he settled in London and went into business with his three brothers: James, John, and William. Their firm became the most successful of its kind. In 1761, he was named Architect of the King’s Works, one of two who held that position, the other being his great rival Chambers, Sir William. Between 1768 and 1772, the Adam brothers’ firm faced financial difficulties as a result of the failure of their ambitious Adelphi housing project due to the national credit crisis, but the company survived and eventually prospered again. By the time of Adam’s death, it employed nearly 2000 workers in a variety of interests related to the building trade, including timber, stone, and brick manufacture. Shortly after Adam died, however, it went bankrupt.

In 1764, Adam established his intellectual credibility, both within his profession and for the larger public, with the publication of his Ruins of the Palace of Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia, a book devoted to a previously ignored archaeological site. The volume consisted of a series of magnificent engravings accompanied by a Preface by Adam. In contrast with Palladio’s focus on temples and other public buildings, Adam’s folio featured domestic buildings, the forte for which he became renowned. Beginning in 1773, his brother James and he published The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, which became the leading design publication of his time. The Works was a pattern book featuring a comprehensive presentation of building plans and furnishings, which was invaluable to practitioners within the field.

As an architect, Adam’s work represented a departure from the Palladianism of Robert Boyle, the Third Earl of Burlington, which had dominated English architecture during the first half of the century. Adam is best known for his work on private residences, from which he derived the majority of his commissions. While he did work on exteriors, among his most famous being Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, his true genius lay in interior design. Adam was a pioneer in the concept of unified design, in which the architect controlled not only the structure of the room, but also the decorative elements within it, such as murals and tapestries. Adam extended this approach to include furniture and carpets, thus bringing all of the elements of the interior within his purview. He became famous for the “Adam Style,” an approach incorporating elements drawn from classical antiquity and the Renaissance within the English tradition. Unlike others, Adam considered color to be a vitally important feature of architectural design. His polychromatic palette involved the use of both deeper and paler shades. He was particularly noted for his use of “Etruscan” motifs, so-called because they were drawn from the vases of Greek colonists that had been mistakenly attributed to the Etruscans. The effect of the variety and intricacy of his decoration was to delight the visitors with its grace and elegance. His most notable interiors are Osterly Park in Middlesex, Newby House in Yorkshire, and Syon House in Middlesex, the last of which is consider by many to be his masterpiece.

Though best known for his domestic interiors, Adam did receive commissions later in life for larger public buildings, including the Register House, the north side of Charlotte Square in Edinburgh, and the University of Edinburgh. His work on the south and east sides of Fitzroy Square in London displays an interest in and appreciation of the importance of town planning. Adam is also noted for his architectural design of large houses in the “Castle Style,” a combination of medieval exteriors with classical interiors; these include Culzean Castle in Ayrshire (1777-92) and Seton Castle in East Lothian (1790-1).

Further Reading: Arthur Bolton, The Architecture of Robert and James Adam, 2 vols., 1922. John Fleming, Robert Adam and his Circle, 1962.

Kevin E. Dodson