Robert Adam (1728-1792)

The British architect Robert Adam was the leading practitioner of the neoclassic style in the late 18th century. His graceful, elegant work is based chiefly on ancient Roman and Renaissance motifs.

Medallion of Robert Adam, James Tassie

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About his life

Adam was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland, the second son of William Adam (1689–1748), a stonemason and architect who was Scotland’s foremost designer of country houses at the time. His younger brother and business partner, James Adam, was also an architect of some note, as was his older brother John Adam, although both were overshadowed by Robert. He is considered by many to be the greatest architect of the late eighteenth century, and a leader of the neo-classical revival in England and Scotland from around 1760, until his death. Adam received many important commissions from private clients and had a more profound stylistic influence, termed the Adam style.

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Portrait of Robert Adam, attributed to George Willison, 1770–1775

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What were his major works?


Adam’s first important work in London was the Admiralty Screen (1760). In 1762 he was employed to redesign the interior of Syon House. Adam produced an important plan that proposed filling an old centre court with a vast, domed, pantheon-like hall; the entrance hall of Syon is one of the most significant Neoclassical interiors in England. There were also Mersham-le-Hatch (1762–72), Lansdowne House (1762–68), Luton Hoo (1766–74), Newby Hall (1767–80) and Kenwood House (1767–68).

The Admiralty, original design by Robert Adam for the new screen, 1760

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The south front of Kedleston Hall (1757–59) provides an example of Adam’s exterior treatment. His theme of a triumphal arch as the exterior expression of the domed interior hall is the first use of this particular Roman form in domestic architecture. The Adams built three major London houses in the 1770s, which were superb examples of their mature style – Wynn House (1772–74), Home House (1775–77) and Derby House (1773–74; demolished 1862)

Kedleston Hall, Robert Adam, Derbyshire

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As a designer of furniture, too, Adam played a leading role and was prolific, turning his hand to everything from organ cases and sedan chairs to saltcellars and door fittings. The furniture style he evolved, popularized by the cabinetmaker George Hepplewhite, was always meant to harmonize with the rest of the home. It is one of the outstanding features of an Adam interior that everything, even the smallest detail, was part of the unified scheme created by the architect.

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Possibly designed by Robert Adam, 1769

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How can we identify Adam’s style?

Robert Adam broke from the strict rules of accepted neoclassicism (called Palladianism after the Italian architect Andrea Palladio), and started experimenting. His designs were aesthetically lighter and less serious, with variations of color and decoration. This style became known as the Adamesque or the Adam style – or at the time, the Style of the Brothers Adam.

Details for Derby House in Grosvenor Square, an example of the Adam Brothers’ decorative designs.

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What really defined Adamesque architecture was Robert’s theory about holistic design. You see, most neoclassical architecture was focused only on the exterior. The structure’s façade embraced Classical Roman and Greek elements, but not the interior. Robert Adam was unique in that he pictured the entire building as one living whole, which meant that the interiors and exteriors needed to complement each other. This concept of an integrated aesthetic was entirely new, and Adam began introducing Classical elements into interior design.

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Details of Robert Adam’s designs for the south front at Kenwood

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