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
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