Author: Chris Yeo
Date: 31st January, 2018
Robert Adam was the greatest British designer of the 18th century – possibly of all time – turning his talents to everything from door handles to palaces. The passing of time has done little to diminish his star quality as “Antiques Roadshow” expert Chris Yeo explains.
In 1758 a young Scotsman arrived in England from four years on the continent. During his trip he had met the most advanced architects and artists of the day, and studied the ruins of the great buildings put up by the Romans. He was only twenty-nine, but he set out with complete confidence to revolutionise English design and decoration, and he succeeded. His name was Robert Adam.
In this world things are done in a certain way until someone emerges with the full force of a hurricane and re-writes the rule book so profoundly that those things are never be done in quite the same way again. Beethoven and the Beatles did it with music, Turner with paint and Robert Adam did it with interior design. We have a name for these people: geniuses. In the pantheon of design heroes Robert Adam is a figure that towers above all others. Ask a member of the public (and every estate agent) to name a famous designer from history and the chances are that, after a certain amount of umming and erring, Adam’s will be the only name that passes their lips. He was a creative genius who waived the established rules of design. His works are among the most graceful, decorative and revolutionary in the whole history of architecture and interiors and they influenced a generation. He has the distinction of giving his name to a whole style of decoration, and how many other designers can claim the same accolade? (Answer: none). We have Adam houses, fireplaces and furniture and his designs have influenced everything from teaspoons to carpets.
So, a name with which we’re all familiar but how much do we really know about the man?
Robert was a magnetic figure; good-looking and charismatic with what one contemporary noted as “suave manners and considerable charm in company”. He was driven, single-minded, took risks and lived fast. Rumour has it he was once mistaken for a spy. We see him in his portrait painted around 1771 holding a portfolio of drawings that he had made of the classical ruins when he was on his Grand Tour in 1757. Leaning back in his Gainsborough armchair, he stares back at us, exuding all the confidence of a man at the very top of his game. It comes as little surprise to learn that it was painted the same year that Adam had declared that he had brought about a revolution in English taste.
Born in Fife in 1728, Robert was the second of eight children. When discussing the life of great artists it’s customary to talk of humble origins but Adam’s rise to fame was no mere rags to riches story: he had what you might call a head start in life. His father, William, was Scotland’s premiere architect, the go-to designer for aristocracy north of the border and responsible for many grand public buildings in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Architecture coursed through young Robert’s veins and from a very young age, he set out to follow in his father’s footsteps.
As is so often the case with geniuses, Robert was no A-grade school pupil – his formal education had been disrupted by illness and he dropped out of university – he achieved his goal through a prodigious amount of study and hard work. When he was just 20 his father died and the young man joined the family architectural firm, which became known as Adam Brothers. After a few short years of practice, Robert left on an extensive Grand Tour of France and Italy, where he studied classical Roman ruins and learned drafting and drawing skills. Robert was just thirty when, his mind still full of Roman splendour, he started his architectural practice in London. He spent the winter and spring acquainting himself with the state of architecture in England, and the tastes and requirements of potential clients before he launched himself into the world of the fashionable elite. It did not take him long to become the architect of the high society set.
England at that time was undergoing a surge of interest in classical architecture, prompted by the Palladian movement, named after the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, who recreated the style and proportions of the buildings of ancient Rome. But Palladianism had been around for 40 years and was looking a little tired. There was an appetite for something new. Adam built on the interest in classical architecture but moulded it to his own blueprint. His years in Italy had given him not only a masterful understanding of the classical idiom but also the confidence to play around with it, bending its rules to create a style that was uniquely his. The look he achieved can best be described as neo-classical; light, elegant and unbound from the strict classical conventions of the Palladian movement. The fashionable public liked what they saw. Within a few years Palladianism had been toppled as the national style and neo-classicism ruled supreme.
Adam took interior decoration away from the serious, overtly masculine and academic approach of the Palladian movement and made it lighter, fresher, smaller scale and more joyful. In fact, Adam was something of a rebel against the Palladians, who insisted on following strict rules about lines and proportion. When it came to rules Adam was a law unto himself; where the Palladians had copied, Adam innovated and experimented. Along the way, he made interior design more accessible, particularly to women and the emerging middle-class, whose terrace houses – which were springing up all over England’s cities – benefitted from an Adam inspired fireplace or doorframe. Under Adam’s guiding hand interiors became colourful, elegant and with plaster decoration so delicate it looked like it had been piped through an icing bag.
But this wasn’t a case of Adam being in touch with his feminine side. As befitted the Age of Reason, his approach was underpinned by sound research. His starting point were the new discoveries being made by archaeologists in the Mediterranean, especially at Pompei and Herculaneum. All the time, ancient tombs were being opened up and richly decorated urns and sarcophagi dug out of the mud and stripped of the lava in which they had been hidden for centuries. With enormous skill the urns, sphinxes, arabesques and vine leaves of the first century AD were moulded by Adam in plaster, ormolu and other materials, painted, gilded and rearranged on candelabra and mirrors, on friezes and cornices. With the rediscovery of the ancient world a new and vibrant palette of colours were discovered amid the ruins. Up to this point, English interiors had been by no means colourless, but there had been little variety in them. Adam seized the initiative and decorated his rooms with bright and inventive colour combinations. His interiors dazzled in dolly mixture colours. Lilacs, bright blues from crushing lapis lazuli and greens derived from corroding copper, bright pinks, blacks and terracotta red-browns.
It was Adam’s speciality to design every element of an interior from ceiling to doorframe, to fireplace, curtain pelmet, door handle and furniture so that everything worked together to create a total work of art. Adam recognised the correlation between architectural setting and the furniture and decoration within. He pioneered the ‘total design look’ and was, in many respects, the first interior designer. A number of English furniture makers adopted Adam’s neo-classical style during the late 1700’s. Two of the best known, George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton, prepared design books that popularised the style. The furniture made according to Adam’s original designs was very expensive. Hepplewhite, Sheraton, and other furniture makers simplified the designs to reduce the cost for middle-class buyers and bring the Adam style to a wider public.
By 1770, at the age of 42 Robert Adam had achieved his life’s ambition of creating a revolution in English taste. The great and the good of Georgian society queued up for his services and the Adam style adorned everything from coffee pots made in Sheffield to Edinburgh town hall. Neo-classicism was the first mass-market style. Not that he wasn’t without his critics. Horace Walpole, always to be relied upon for a bitchy comment when it came to matters of taste, damned his work as “all gingerbread and sippets of embroidery” and then promptly asked Adam to help design his Gothic fantasy house in Twickenham.
If Adam’s interiors had one main drawback it was that they were designed for a way of living that was shortly about to change. They were the product of a world where formality ruled: one of grand balls, receptions and dinners. They are most definitely not for people who wanted to stroll in from the garden and relax in a comfortable armchair. Soon the world would change and people would embrace a more relaxed way of living. Even so, Adam’s easy on the eye interiors are as seductive now as they ever were, proving that styles may change but genius never goes out of fashion.