Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Adam, Robert
ADAM, ROBERT (1728–1792) architect, was the most celebrated of the four brothers Adam, John, Robert, James, and William, whose relationship is commemorated in the name Adelphi, given to the buildings erected by them between the Strand and the Thames on an estate known before as Durham Yard. Their father, William Adam of Maryburgh, who died 24 June 1748, was the architect of Hopetoun House and the Royal Infirmary at Edinburgh, and held the appointment of king's mason at Edinburgh. Robert was the second son. He was born at Kirkcaldy,and educated at Edinburgh University, where he formed friendships with several young men who afterwards became eminent. Amongst these were David Hume, Dr. William Robertson (the historian), Adam Smith, and Adam Ferguson. In 1754 he visited Italy in company with Clérisseau, a French architect, and made a careful study of the ruins of the Emperor Diocletian's palace at Spalatro in Venetian Dalmatia. His journal was printed in the ‘Library of the Fine Arts,’ and in 1764 he published a folio volume with numerous engravings by Bartolozzi and others, after his drawings of the palace. In this important work he states that his object in selecting this ruin for special examination was its residential character, as the knowledge of classical architecture in England was derived exclusively from the remains of public buildings. During his absence abroad he was elected F.R.S. and F.S.A., and on his return in 1762 he was appointed architect to the king and queen. This office he was obliged to resign in 1768, when he was returned to parliament as member for Kinross-shire. In 1769 the brothers commenced to build the Adelphi, a vast construction of arches on which roads were laid and houses built. Provision was made for wharfage and storage on the shores of the Thames, with access thereto from the Strand, completely separated from the fine streets and terrace above. To complete the project it was necessary to reclaim land from the Thames, and in 1771 they obtained a bill for the purpose, in spite of the opposition of the corporation of London, who claimed a right to the soil and bed of the river. This extensive speculation was not a commercial success, and in 1773 the brothers obtained another bill which sanctioned the disposal of the property by lottery. Robert and James had, however, now made a great reputation as classical architects, and for the remainder of their lives enjoyed more than any others of their profession the patronage of the aristocracy. Amongst the most important of their works were Lord Mansfield's mansion at Caenwood, or Kenwood, near Hampstead; Luton House, in Bedfordshire; Osterley House, near Brentford; Keddlestone, Derbyshire; Compton Verney, Warwickshire; Shelburne (now Lansdowne) House in Berkeley square; the screen fronting the high road, and extensive internal alterations of Sion or Syon House, Middlesex, the seat of the Duke of Northumberland; the infirmary at Glasgow; the parish church at Mistley, Essex; the Register Office, Edinburgh; and the screen to the Admiralty Office, Whitehall. The last named, which was built to hide the ugliness of Ripley's portico, is one of the most elegant and purely classical of their designs. The number and importance of their buildings in the metropolis materially influenced and much improved the street architecture of London. They are said to have originated the idea of giving to a number of unimportant private edifices the appearance of one imposing structure; and Portland, Stratford, and Hamilton Places, and the south and east sides of Fitzroy Square, are instances of the manner in which they carried this principle into effect. An innovation of more doubtful service was their use of stucco in facing brick houses. Their right to the exclusive use of a composition patented by Liardet, a Frenchman, was the subject of two lawsuits which they gained.
Mr. James Fergusson in his ‘History of Architecture’ rates their knowledge of classical art below that of Sir William Chambers. He adds: ‘Their great merit — if merit it be — is that they stamped their works with a certain amount of originality, which, had it been of a better quality, might have done something to emancipate art from its trammels. The principal characteristic of their style was the introduction of very large windows, generally without dressings. These they frequently attempted to group, three or more together, by a great glazed arch over them, so as to try and make the whole side of a house look like one room.’ Mr. Fergusson thinks the college at Edinburgh the best of their works, and says: ‘We possess few public buildings presenting so truthful and well balanced a design as this.’
Whatever were the architectural defects of their works, the brothers formed a style, which was marked, especially in their interiors, by a fine sense of proportion, and a very elegant taste in the selection and disposition of niches, lunettes, reliefs, festoons, and other classical ornaments. It was their custom to design furniture in character with their apartments, and their works of this kind are still greatly prized. Amongst them may be specially mentioned their side-boards with elegant urn-shaped knife-boxes, but they also designed bookcases and commodes, brackets and pedestals, clock-cases and candelabra, mirror frames and console tables, of singular and original merit, adapting classical forms to modern uses with a success unrivalled by any other designers of furniture in England. They designed also carriages and plate, and a sedan chair for Queen Charlotte. Of their decorative work generally it may be said that it was rich but neat, refined but not effeminate, chaste but not severe, and that it will probably have quite as lasting and beneficial effect upon English taste as their architectural structures.
In 1773 the brothers Robert and James commenced the publication of their ‘Works in Architecture,’ in folio parts, which was continued at intervals till 1778 and reached the end of the second volume. In 1822 the work was completed by the posthumous publication of a third volume, but the three bound up together do not make a thick book.
Robert Adam also obtained some reputation as a landscane painter. As an architect he was extensively employed to the last. In the year preceding his death he designed no less than eight public works and twenty-five private buildings. He died at his house in Albemarle Street, from the bursting of a blood-vessel in his stomach, on 3 March 1792. Of the social position he attained, and the estimation in which he was held, no greater proof can be afforded than the record of his funeral in Westminster Abbey. His pall-bearers were the Duke of Buccleuch, the Earl of Coventry, the Earl of Lauderdale, Viscount Stormont, Lord Frederick Campbell, and Mr. Pulteney.[Ruins of Diocletian Palace by Robert Adam; the Works in Architecture of R. and J. Adam; Encyclopedia Britannica; Gent. Mag. 1792; Redgrave's Dict. ; Fergusson's History of Architecture; Annual Register, 1771, 1773, 1792.]