The Architecture of Robert Adam (1728-1792)









essay by Julian.Small







Throughout his career, Robert Adam kept copies of the designs he provided his clients, together with all of the preparatory sketch-designs for commissioned projects and any drawings he made illustrating his own ideas for buildings, including his persistent and largely unfulfilled ambition to design and build a large public building or royal palace.  Some of the drawings, notably the sketch-designs, are from Adam’s own hand (the drawing of the Viaduct over the Lower Calton is a good example of this), but the majority were prepared by assistants employed by Adam in his offices in London and Edinburgh (where a separate office was maintained from about 17721).  These drawings were kept together after his death and preserved by his relatives until 1833, when the collection of almost 9000 drawings was bought by the architect Sir John Soane.  Today, the collection remains in the museum Sir John founded in his house in London.  In keeping copies of the designs he provided, Adam was merely following sensible business practice, many commissions being carried out gradually over many years, or being followed after an interval by further commissions from the same clients, and such records become invaluable in these circumstances.   However, the collection is not comprehensive, for there are buildings in which Adam’s involvement is known which are not represented in the collection.  There are, of course, copies of many Adam drawings in other collections - most of them representing surviving examples of the copies of designs sent to clients, or in some cases working drawings provided to the craftsmen working on the buildings - and some of these supplement the Soane Museum collection rather than duplicate it (the Soane Museum, for example, contains very few examples of the large-scale working drawings provided to the craftsmen).  In addition, Adam drew and painted - particularly, landscapes - for relaxation, and many of these drawings remain in the ownership of his collateral descendants even today.  However, it is the survival of the drawings of Adam’s architectural practice as a single, largely complete, collection which is so important, together with the fact that the collection contains Adam’s preparatory sketches for projects, so that the process of design becomes apparent and the mind of a genius can be seen at work. 

The drawings which survive in the Soane Museum, even the copies of the finalised designs presented to clients, are not quite the same as the drawings provided by an architect today. The difficulties of travel during the eighteenth century made it impossible for any architect to supervise building work at any real distance from their offices as closely as a modern architect would do.  In some cases the difficulties could be overcome, and for example Robert Adam (in association with his brother James) was the supervising architect for the construction of Register House in Edinburgh from the laying of its foundation stone in 1774 until his death in 1792.  He promised at the outset to "visit the work once every year, if necessary, or once in two years."2    But for the rest of the time he was dependent on a competent Clerk of Works to supervise the work on site day to day, directing him by letter.  Although post travelled more slowly during the eighteenth century than it does today, Adam could write a letter to Edinburgh and - providing it was answered immediately - expect an answer within about a week.3   Even so, under these conditions, at the best of times far more was left to the initiative of the Clerk of Works and to that of the individual craftsman working on site than is the case today.  When, as in the case of the Riding House, Edinburgh, the architect was not involved in supervising the construction of the building, even more detail had to be left to the interpretation of the craftsmen on the site.  Whereas for Register House, construction of which was supervised by Robert Adam, numbers of working drawings, showing large-scale details, survive (and it seems likely that these represent only a small proportion of the original number provided), to the craftsmen building the Riding House Adam had only five sheets of designs to convey his ideas. 

Robert Adam worked in several different capacities, and the type of designs he provided reflect this.  In London, he and his brothers employed a fluctuating but at times large staff of craftsmen, who built many of Adam’s designs, with the architect himself supervising the most minute details.  The Adelphi development was built in this way, with the Adams themselves acting as what today would be called speculative developers.  At Home House, London, it appears that Adam and his firm were employed by Lady Home to design, build and decorate the house,4  and this is probably the way that most of Adam’s well-known commissions in England were built, since it allowed Adam a very high degree of control over the details of the design and execution whilst removing the risk inherent within speculative development.  Far away from London, Adam acted in a very similar role to any modern architect, in that the work was executed by local contractors and craftsmen (sometimes local, sometimes from London and regularly associated with Adam’s projects) paid directly by the client, with Adam paid a percentage fee for providing designs and supervising the work.  This is exactly the situation at Register House, and was repeated at Edinburgh University.   Finally, there are the many instances of Adam providing designs to a client, but the work being executed by contractors employed directly by the client without further reference to him.  In these cases, it was far from unknown for Adam’s designs to be substantially altered during construction.  This may have happened in the case of the Riding House in Edinburgh.  At Charlotte Square, not least because of the long drawn-out construction period as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, not only do the terrace facades not fully reflect Adam’s intentions, but Adam’s designs for the church were supplanted by a design by Robert Reid. 

In all of these cases, the plans provided by Adam reflected his role in the process of construction.  In addition, for many cases where projects were not realised, all we have are the preliminary versions of a scheme which would have been worked up and amended several times in an attempt to perfect the design.  This is apparent when we compare the various stages - at least four of them - in the evolution of the design of Register House, which was built, with Adam’s drawings for his South Bridge scheme of 1785, which was not.  The drawings for the latter are not consistent with one another, and suggest that the architect’s plans were evolving even as the drawings were being produced.  These drawings, even though they have been used to create the computer models of Adam’s Vision of Edinburgh, were not intended as the last word but, rather like the craftsmen considered the drawings of a building like the Riding House, something that would be built upon in coming up with the final design.