A capital eye
Jeremy Musson explores an exhibition of Robert Adam’s designs for London town houses and public buildings
Robert Adam’s career is an extraordinary chapter in 18th-century british architectural history. His work on houses such as Kedleston and Newby Hall helps form our very image of the great Classical country house—even if, for him, these were mostly bold reworkings of interiors of existing buildings. In his own lifetime, Adam was just as famous for his dazzling transformations of town houses and this select exhibition at Sir John Soane’s museum, curated by dr Frances Sands, provides a new window onto his London work.
thirty-nine carefully chosen original designs from the museum’s 8,000-strong collection of Adam office drawings are shown alongside the three volumes of Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, in which their major designs were published (1773–78, 1779 and 1822). A large blown-up version of Horwood’s 1792–99 map of London has been usefully marked to show the locations of the sites for which these designs were made.
robert Adam was based in London from 1758 until his death in 1792. He settled in mayfair directly on his return from his Grand tour, intending to place himself as one of the leaders of architectural fashion. Surviving letters give a strong sense of his confidence. Indeed, one of the delights of this exhibition is the contemporary portrait of Adam (from the National Portrait Gallery) in which he is depicted as sharp-eyed, elegantly dressed and holding a vast book on his lap, and yet he looks out at the viewer, ready enough to leap up to beguile a client with clever ideas and charming talk.
A small sketch (made in Adam’s hand) is on show nearby, showing the assured and elegant display of antiquities at his own house on Lower Grosvenor Street. this was all part of the mission to impress clients with his knowledge of the Antique world and taste. Adam was a man of the moment: he had studied in rome, knew Piranesi and had surveyed the ruins of the Palace of diocletian in dalmatia.
Introductions made in London were crucial for his country–house commissions and Adam made the most of them. He also seems to have developed something of a magic formula for novel, rich and elevating settings for the endless aristocratic social round of entertainments in London. He could do this on the grandest scale, as is illustrated in the exhibition by designs for Lans- downe House, a colour-filled proposal for the wall treatment of the glass drawing room at Northumberland House and an evocative drawing of the famous top-lit staircase at Home House. He was also especially skilled in
the provision of varied and ornamented sequences of rooms within the narrow compass of the classic London terraced house.
Dr Sands argues that second marriages sometimes may have prompted a new London house project as less disruptive than remodelling or renewing a country seat. This may have been the case with 20, St James’s Square and with Coventry House on Piccadilly, for which Adam designed a jewel-box of an octagonal dressing room.
We are also reminded of the significance of female patrons, either commissioning Adam directly, as with the unmarried Alice Pitt and the wealthy widow the Dowager Countess of Home or, in the case of married women, influencing indirectly commissions for which their husbands were the official clients.
Adam craved grand public or royal commissions. That they eluded him—most were scooped up by Sir William Chambers— must have fuelled the ambition of his spectacular unexecuted proposals, such as those for the King’s Bench Prison and the new buildings for Lincoln’s Inn (designs for both of which are displayed).
His ambitious speculative housing projects—notably the grand residential Thames-side terraces known as the Adelphi, which nearly drove the Adam brothers into bankruptcy—were also prompted by his desire to contribute to the character of the city.
The range of Adam’s designs was breathtaking. Even in this compact exhibition, alongside proposals for buildings proper, we see designs for a watch chain, an elegant sedan chair, a carpet, ceilings, chimneypieces, pictures frames and
torchères. The design for a sofa for the saloon of 19, Arlington Street was part of a suite thought to have been the most expensive of the day.
Any such selection of Adam’s designs reminds us of his sheer talent for showmanship. This is evidenced in the brilliant quality of the colour-filled presentations on paper of architecture, interiors and furnishings, slickly drawn up by his office under his exacting eye. It’s not difficult to imagine the whistles of pleasure when Adam laid out such designs on a polished tabletop in front of his patrons.
Dr Sands’s excellent accompanying book provides a carefully
researched and up-to-date account of Adam’s significant London commercial, public and domestic projects, illustrated with some 100 images drawn from the collection. It’s an admirable guide to anyone who wants to explore the richness of Adam’s contribution to London—but the exhibition is the place to begin.
‘Robert Adam’s London’ is at Sir John Soane’s Museum, 13, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2, until March 11 (020–7405 2107; www.soane.org). A book of the same title by Frances Sands is published by Archaeopress Publishing (£20)
Next week: Australia’s Impressionists at the National Gallery
Finished drawing for a carpet for Elizabeth Montagu’s dressing room at 23, Hill Street, London W1
A sofa, part of one of the most expensive suites of furniture of its day, designed by Adam for the saloon at 19, Arlington Street, London SW1
A design for the main stairwell at Home House, 20, Portman Square, London W1