Adam in Georgian London – Investing in the Future of Style

Robert Adam 730

Robert Adam 18th century Scottish architect at London with the folio publication of his drawings of The Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro 1764 – Portrait attributed to George Willison painted 1770 – 1774

In 1754 Robert Adam (1728-1792) from Fife in Scotland, was invited to join the Grand Tour of the Hon. Charles Hope-Weir (1710-1791) the younger brother of the 1st Earl of Hopetoun a Scottish nobleman.

A graduate of Edinburgh University, Adam as a young budding architect in his architectural formative years, was working on a project with his brothers James and John as part of his father William Adam’s Scottish practice.

At Hopetoun House he was completing new exteriors in the Palladian style with interiors using a plaster profusion of the curvaceous assymetrical Rococo styled ornament.

Detail of Axminster carpet c1791 Possibly for Library Harewood House by Adam, The Met NY

Detail of Axminster carpet c1791 Possibly for Library Harewood House by Adam, The Met NY

‘In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock’*

Robert Adam wanted to step away from the cooler colours made popular by his father’s generation.

He used red and yellow, two colours we now consider quintessentially British.

They were defined by the detailed use of white with gilding, remembering that the white paint available in his time, was more or less a soft stone colour, not anything like the synthetic whites we use, which were not available until the second half of the nineteenth century.

Throughout his career Robert Adam’s taste in gilding would be rather less than more.

Chandelier-reflected-in-Gilded-mirror-SoubiseGilding and mirror was very much in use by architects at this time, particularly in France, because it was yet another reflective surface they could use to refract the light of candles.

The white they used was not the bright synthetic white we know today, although Robert thought that white was ‘glaring’.

It was a warmer softer neutral tone, whose harshness Robert would further expand after the 1760’s with his own set of preferred and very sophisticated pastels.

Robert Adam even at this early stage of his career was all about the quality of materials used and about attaining excellence in craftsmanship. The neoclassical style, for which he would later become well-known was not yet fully in his sights.

Robert planned to perfect his knowledge of architecture on this Grand Tour he had been invited to join, by examining outstanding monuments and drawing the ruins remaining from antiquity.


Adamy style fireplace detail

He also wanted to refine his own social graces so that he would be able to move more easily in the highest possible elevations of society, conversing easily with any member of the aristocracy that had both formed and refined their taste in Italy.

Charles Hope-Weir purchased the carriage and bore the major brunt of their traveling expenses. However Robert did contribute from his capital of £5,000, which had been accumulated through sound investment and a legacy inherited from his recently deceased father’s estate.

This was more than enough to pay for a tour that enabled him to travel as a friend of Hope’s and, to all appearances at least, the social equal of his noble companion. It was an important investment in the future of style and the architectural future he wanted to have.

A very distinctive British Order of classical architecture drawn by James Adam

He said in a great cache of letters found in 1950 dating from 1754-1758, that he wanted to acquire an ‘unconstrained noble way of thinking and talking, which one everyday meets with among young fellows of plentiful fortunes and good spirits’.

Robert Adam’s grandfather had been a stone mason, who had moved to Fife where he married and settled. His son and Robert’s father William would be very successful in a career as an architect in the Highlands of Scotland. Robert was part of a family who were all hard working, diligent and exceedingly thrifty.

They never forgot that they rose to prosperity from modest beginnings and they all worked hard to ensure that the family would continue to prosper.

They invested in land, and a substantial estate and their financial security ensured that Robert and his brothers gained a great start in life.

Robert commissioned decorative painter James Norrie to produce an Adam Coat of Arms. Displaying your identity through imagery was profoundly important at this time.

Attitudes and philosophies, fashions and passions are at the very core of who we are and beauty, function, tradition, style, affluence and innovation affect and shape the creativity and imagination of those involved in the world of design.

From his family coat of arms Robert Adam produced a seal so that he could secure his letters from abroad, especially those sent to his mother and sisters for whom he displayed a great deal of affection.

Robert Adam Drawing of a Castle

This was an age of exceptionally gifted young men, who took part in a revival of arts, letters, literacy and science in Scotland after 1740.

James Adam (1732-1794) oil on canvas by Antonio Zucchi, *signed b.r.: Antio Zuc... ae fecit Anno 1763

James Adam (1732-1794) oil on canvas by Antonio Zucchi, *signed b.r.: Antio Zuc… ae fecit Anno 1763

They included such as Adam Smith, economist, David Hume, historian and philosopher, Adam Ferguson, professor of natural philosophy, Allan Ramsay painter to George III and James Boswell, diarist. Robert Adam by the end of his career would not be the least among them.

Grand Tourists did not just make a blinkered dash to and from Italy. France was still looked up to as the repository of refined manners and style. It was the first stage of a journey that took a great deal of time.

Book work and accomplishments such as fencing, dancing, equitation, music and drawing were skills to be attained.

There was also splendid objects to be acquired to bring home, including tapestries, clocks, watches, scagliola table tops, prints, coins and cameos.

Robert and his brother James set off from Edinburgh to London where he was to meet up with Charles on October 3, 1754. It would not be until November 12 that Charles and Robert reached their first destination.

At Paris began Robert pursuing his career in earnest, endeavouring to see everything and meet all the right people so that he could ‘lay in a stock of good acquaintance that may be of use to me hereafter’.

Tribuna of the Uffizi by Johann Zoffany

It was always important for a bevvy of beautiful British boys to look their best, especially when examining the art in the Uffizi Gallery at Florence while on their Grand Tour. The Tribuna of the Uffizi by Johann Zoffany was commissioned by Queen Charlotte in 1772

At Paris the lure of fashionable clothes was also too much.

He and Charles Hope went on a spending spree together, delighting in all that was on offer, much as we do today. Robert purchased a new wig, a head of hair loaded with powder, plus a number of up to the minute fashionable suits of clothes.

This included a complete suit made of the new rage for men of means, cut velvet, which he had made up in two different colours.


To this was added white silk stockings, beautifully embroidered silk gushes and Mariguin pumps with red heels and glimmering buckles.

Interestingly in the century before it had only been royalty who were allowed to wear red heels in France.

This was the dawning of a new age and also they had been the turbulent years leading up to the French revolution and respect, and rules pertaining to the advancement of members of the Ancien Regime were now in total free fall.

Robert purchased at Brussels some exceedingly beautiful lace to wear at his breast and cuffs. He also indulged in a variety of hats. One made of white beaver trimmed with gold lace and a gold button was noteworthy.

All of this grandeur was masked by an elegant cloak of black velvet, whose neck, sleeves and body had a lining to protect him in cold weather.

Even Charles Hope was astonished at the transformation of his friend, who was vying with him in modish style and elegance.

They spent three weeks in Paris together enjoying the sights, amusements and diversions. There were visits to Versailles, the Trianon, Marly and Fontainebleau.

Splendour of the Palazzo Balbi, Genoa

Robert viewed two outstanding private collection of paintings by gaining an introduction to inspect the Cabinet du Roi a collection of works of art and curiosities at the Chateau of Versailles.

When Queen Charlotte heard that the painter Johan Zoffany was going to Italy in the summer of 1772 she commissioned him to paint the famous Florence Uffizi Gallery.

He peopled it with the Englishmen and Scotsmen visiting while he was there, popping himself into a picture painted with unflagging energy and vitality.

When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1780 the King commented they looked like a ‘flock of travelling boys…one does not know or care whom’.

To travel to Italy at this time often meant crossing the Alps, and many an intrepid traveller commented on the sure footedness of the porters who carried them as well as being attacked by wolves.

Robert and Charles decided on the winter sea route that went from Nice on felucca’s that plied the coast to Genoa, all the while endeavouring to avoid being attacked by the renowned Barbary Corsairs.

They went first from Paris to Lyons where they visited the silk merchants and succumbed to another bout of extravagance, buying excellent silk sheets and among other things, a ‘gold stuff vest’ as well as some that were richly embroidered.

They travelled, down the Rhone valley to Marseilles and Nice where a fur coat, boots and cap would aid their defiance to the cold air night.

From Nice they sailed to Genoa, arriving towards the end of the first week in January 1755, when they had an immediate entrée into Genoise Society.

They dined in splendour at the Palazzo Balbi, attending the opera after dinner. By appearing in the Balbi Box at the Opera Robert established himself immediately on his first foray into Italian Society as a man of prominence. The gossip grapevine of those moving in the upper echelons was, as it is today, immediate and long lasting.

Pisa, a tower leaning gloriously

The maritime city of Pisa, with its famous leaning tower was next. Also popular among the Tuscan nobility as a winter resort and summer watering hole at Pisa, they had another opportunity to mix with the people who would assist, and perhaps even support a budding young architect’s career goals.

At Pisa Robert was introduced to the delights of the carnival and dressed up to enjoy the marvels of the Masquerade. The carnival was in full swing by the time they reached Florence on January 30 and they gave themselves up entirely to both pleasure and leisure. The duo took Florence by storm.

The nights sped by in a whirl until Shrove Tuesday, when the last night of carnival was reached. The city then reverted to its habitual tempo, which gave Robert both the time and the inclination to sit down and write a full account of his fortnight’s junketing.

Charles Clerisseau by Angelica Kauffman

Charles Clerisseau by Angelica Kauffman

This was sent off to his mother and sisters in Edinburgh. He wrote ‘...I danced with all the Greatest Quality and with some of the greatest Whores and with the Handsomest of both kinds whenever I could get at them’.Robert settled himself down so that he could begin an intensive course of sightseeing and architectural studies. It was at Florence that he would meet a ‘most valuable and ingenious creature called Clérisseau, who draws ruins in architecture to perfection’.

Charles Louis Clerisseau, Crater of Vesuvius

“I have found a gentleman who I am to carry to Rome with me, who will put me on a method of improving myself more in drawing and architecture than I ever had any ideas of’.

He took a liking to me”.

Charles Louis Clérisseau (1721 – 1820) is a vital and important link in the chain of architectural excellence that prevailed during the 18th and 19th centuries in England and Europe.

Charles Louis Clerisseau designed whole rooms in the ‘antique’ mode

Robert may have not realised it at the time, but his first encounter with Clérisseau would forever change the course of his Grand Tour and indeed, his own journey in life as well.

Robert departed from Hope amicably and spent two years at Rome studying with Clérisseau, who was renowned for his cantankerous nature.

They established a great and lasting friendship as well as a working relationship, their own mutual admiration society.

Robert Adam, Chinoiserie looking-glass design for the state bedchamber, Harewood House (detail) Feb. 1769 courtesy Sir John Soane's Museum, London (20:73)

Robert Adam, Chinoiserie looking-glass design for the state bedchamber, Harewood House (detail) Feb. 1769 courtesy Sir John Soane’s Museum, London (20:73)

Robert Adam paid for Clérisseau’s lodgings next door to him so that he might teach him the science of perspective drawing.

He gained a bonus in that Clérisseau also gave him knowledge of the antique, taught him the craft of watercolour and, as he said himself,

‘ he rais’d my ideas, he created emulation and fire in my Breast, I wish’d above all things to learn his manner and to have him with me at Rome, to study close with him and to purchase of his works’.

In Naples on a visit Robert examined the newly excavated ruins at Pompeii and Herculaneum, where he also admired the sculptures, frescoes, mosaic pavements and architectural remains, domestic utensils and food being uncovered.

Back at Rome he met Cardinal Albani, who granted Robert necessary permissions so that he could continue sketching, drawing, making models of ornament in castles, palazzos and churches all over Italy.

Robert travelled to the Adriatic coast with Clérisseau.

He wanted to visit among other places the town of Ravenna and its marvellous mosaics, spending an exhausting three weeks in and out of coaches on rocky roads that would have shaken the teeth right out of your head.

However it was his visit to Spalatro (now Split) with Clérisseau, where over a five week period he sketched the remains of the villa built by the third century Roman Emperor Diocletian, which would have the biggest impact.

Momentarily mistaken for a spy by authorities, after he had sorted all that out, Robert Adam managed to take measurements and draw pictures that would result in the publication of The Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in 1764.

Robert Adam and Piranesi as Heroes on a Coin

Robert Adam and Piranesi as Heroes on a Coin

At Rome he also met, and became a firm follower and friend to Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), an Italian architect, designer and engraver of Roman views numbering approximately 2000.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, The Trevi Fountain in Rome, 1773

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, The Trevi Fountain in Rome, 1773

Piranesi’s drawings were so vast in their conception most visitor’s to Rome considered the city itself meagre by comparison.

His studies injected Adam with enthusiasm to emulate what he had seen.

Piranesi described Adam as endowed with ‘more genius for the true and noble architecture than any Englishman ever was in Italy‘.

Luton Hoo as designed by Robert Adam: Image from Jones's View of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen 1829

Luton Hoo as designed by Robert Adam: Image from Jones’s View of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen 1829

Adam it seems benefited from Piranesi’s acquaintence considering him the only Italian artist who was able to ‘breathe the ancient air.’ His collection of drawings from this period are now in the Soane Collection and Victoria and Albert Museum at London.

They reveal his thoughts were of plans, elevations and sections and all the mechanism of design in building,  accompanied by a deep love of ornament and decoration.

In a letter to his sister from Rome in the autumn of 1756 he categorised the architecture of the period, describing it as ‘the true, the simple and grand architecture, which we are all in search of, and which, nothing but the ancients can inspire’

Robert Adam, engraving peristyle of the Palace of Diocletian at Split, Dalmatia

Robert Adam had been 26 years of age when he left Scotland for Italy.

He was thirty before he went home to England and plucked up courage to break a partnership with his brothers in Edinburgh and set up practice on his own at London where he knew that his own future lay.

It had been a long struggle – eight years of apprenticeship under his father and the Board of Ordinance in Scotland, followed by four years of intensive study in Italy, gaining introductions to many wealthy English and Continental Milordi along the way.

He aimed high, risking his patrimony on the great adventure at Rome in the hope he might one day, have a chance of ‘reviving something of the old style in England’

As events were later to prove; the winter of 1758 could not have more propitious for Robert Adam’s return to London. England was on the threshold of a new age.

Defeat of the French in 1759 paved the way for a global hegemony of the English language and expansion of the British Empire.

They in turn were quickly followed by the accession of the young and gifted monarch, George III, the first of his Hanoverian family to speak English. Much was expected of George, who was also an active patron of the arts.

When he ascended to the throne in 1760 everyone was aware a new and glorious age was dawning.

Corinthian capitals and other details from the saloon and hall, Luton Hoo - Engraved by J. Zucchi 1774 450 x 600 mm Engraving from 'The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam', London 1773 - 1779

Corinthian capitals and other details from the saloon and hall, Luton Hoo – Engraved by J. Zucchi 1774 450 x 600 mm Engraving from ‘The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam’, London 1773 – 1779

Robert had time to ready himself and put together a bulging portfolio to answer its architectural aspirations and to establish a practice, by gaining some groundbreaking works in architecture.

The Grand Tour Robert Adam had undertaken had brought about a profound affect upon his attitudes and abilities and on the path British architectural style under his influence would take in the future.

When his brother James Adam returned from studying at Venice with Clérisseau in 1763 they would take on the world together. By the time James joined him, and within that few short years, Robert Adam had already become a darling of London society.

Robert Adam became England’s most fashionable and famous architect with an ever expanding portfolio of clients. However, as he knew, fashion fades while style remains; his solid investment in education and the future of art, design and style began reaping for Robert Adam, and his family, a great many rewards.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2012 – 2018

*Thomas Jefferson


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.