A cap­i­tal eye

Jeremy Mus­son ex­plores an ex­hi­bi­tion of Robert Adam’s de­signs for Lon­don town houses and pub­lic build­ings

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

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

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