Books

Clive Aslet ap­plauds a sump­tu­ous new book that cel­e­brates Robert Adam’s skills as a de­signer through his sur­viv­ing legacy of build­ings and interior dec­o­ra­tion

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Ar­chi­tec­tural His­tory Robert Adam Jeremy Mus­son (Riz­zoli, £45)

IN about 1900, the Adam or ‘Adams’ style was re­garded as aes­thetic per­fec­tion. Since then, the broth­ers, led by Robert, have some­what lost ground. Ar­chi­tects ex­tol Soane’s drama, spa­tial in­ge­nu­ity and ma­nip­u­la­tion of light and coun­try-house clients find the ro­bust­ness of early-18th-cen­tury mod­els more af­ford­able than glit­ter­ing dec­o­ra­tion. This sump­tu­ous book re­dresses the bal­ance.

Hand­somely pub­lished by Riz­zoli, it was pho­tographed by the mas­terly Paul Barker, shortly be­fore his un­timely death in 2016. The vis­ual feast is ac­com­pa­nied by an equally de­li­cious text. Through Jeremy Mus­son’s evoca­tive de­scrip­tions, read­ers will feel that they have at­tended some of the bril­liant routs and re­cep­tions held by Adam’s aris­to­cratic pa­trons them­selves.

At the very be­gin­ning of the book, Mr Mus­son stresses the glam­our of the age. It may seem, to a mod­ern eye, that Adam overeggs his most splen­did in­te­ri­ors, fill­ing them with a rich­ness of in­ci­dent that’s dif­fi­cult to ab­sorb, yet imag­ine them as the back­drop to an en­ter­tain­ment packed with peo­ple in beau­ti­ful silks and daz­zling di­a­monds. Adam was a master of pa­rade. His rooms were con­ceived as a se­quence of con­trast­ing spa­ces, whose geom­e­try owed much to his study of an­cient build­ings such as the Baths of Cara­calla in Rome.

If Soane was a ge­nius of light, no­body bet­tered Adam for his use of colour. For­tu­nately, many of his schemes have been re­stored in re­cent years, so we can ap­pre­ci­ate their dar­ing in all the fresh­ness and del­i­cacy of their tints.

This book is com­posed en­tirely of works that sur­vive. What a lot there are. Although there have been some losses, notably the Adel­phi, al­most en­tirely de­mol­ished in the 1930s, we can en­joy more of Adam’s do­mes­tic com­mis­sions, from Ken­wood to Kedle­ston, Meller­stain to Newby Hall, than those of any other Ge­or­gian ar­chi­tect.

This is partly be­cause Adam was so pro­lific, but could it also be that their se­duc­tive or­na­ment and fem­i­nine grace have al­ways been ap­pre­ci­ated by suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions of own­ers? Schemes that the years have treated un­kindly can now be re­vived by crafts­men whose skills are of­ten equal to those that Adam called on, hence truly as­ton­ish­ing restora­tions such as Home House, now a pri­vate mem­bers’ club. Dum­fries House has been res­ur­rected as the cen­tre and show­piece of The Prince of Wales’s north­ern op­er­a­tions: who said brown fur­ni­ture was dead?

Some peo­ple were im­mune to Adam’s charm. Con­tem­po­raries re­acted against his re­lent­less ‘self-puff­ing’. The Adams had a bet­ter start in life than some ar­chi­tects, their fa­ther Wil­liam— Old Stone and Lime as they called him—hav­ing been a su­cas cess­ful ar­chi­tect in Scot­land, but Robert could hardly claim to be a gen­tle­man, ac­cord­ing to the stan­dards of the time. That, of course, didn’t de­ter him from do­ing so: he egre­giously passed him­self off as his would-be pa­trons’ so­cial equal while he was on the Grand Tour, to the dis­may of ar­chi­tec­tural ri­vals.

He re­ceived few royal com­mis­sions; Sir Wil­liam Cham­bers was knighted, not him. Nor did Robert marry; in fact, his pri­vate life is a mys­tery, with no men­tion in the record of ei­ther mis­tresses or ho­mo­sex­ual pro­cliv­i­ties. For all the so­cial show­ing-off, he must have been a work­horse—although never a drudge.

Mr Mus­son ob­serves, many of his com­mis­sions were to adapt and dec­o­rate build­ings be­gun by other peo­ple; the out­stand­ing ex­am­ple from his early ca­reer is Syon House, where he over­came the lim­i­ta­tions of the ex­ist­ing, orig­i­nally me­dieval build­ing with bravura. His some­what febrile id­iom—‘mr Adam’s gin­ger­bread and snip­pets of em­broi­dery… pom-ponned with shreds and rem­nants,’ as Ho­race Walpole saw it—did not trans­late well to ex­te­ri­ors: the strips of pal­mettes that dec­o­rate the pi­lasters at Ken­wood are fussy. Does any­one re­ally warm to the cas­tle style of Culzean?

How­ever, as a dec­o­ra­tor, he had an un­ri­valled skill in com­bin­ing an­tique de­tails into a com­pletely new syn­the­sis. These de­tails are bril­liantly dis­played by Barker’s pho­tog­ra­phy and in­ter­preted by Mr Mus­son’s text—for ex­am­ple, the stairhall of Culzean, in­spired by the Tem­ple of Jupiter at the Em­peror Dio­cle­tian’s Palace at Spalato in Dal­ma­tia, which Adam had mea­sured and pub­lished.

I par­tic­u­larly like the door han­dle and es­cutcheon on page 109—‘which would catch the light of fire and can­dle and add to an over­all sense of aes­thetic re­fine­ment’—although it would have been help­ful to know where it was from.

Some in­ter­pre­ta­tions of an­cient prece­dent are sur­pris­ing: the dado in the li­brary at Syon is de­rived from the wave mo­tif of a Ro­man sar­coph­a­gus, which orig­i­nally rep­re­sented the waters of the Styx. As Adam ob­serves, houses such as Hare­wood, built by Carr, but in which Adam de­signed 17 rooms, were to be ‘read as Rome re-cre­ated’.

Some Adam houses in Lon­don are now be­ing re­stored for pri­vate oc­cu­pa­tion. Per­haps this pub­li­ca­tion comes at the dawn of a new Golden Age.

Above: The li­brary at Meller­stain House. The bas-re­liefs fea­ture scenes from the Tro­jan Wars. Be­low: A chim­ney­p­iece from Kedle­ston Hall

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