The Architecture of Robert Adam (1728-1792)



Essay by Julian Small (1961-2002)






From the 16th century onwards there developed, throughout Europe, an interest in horse riding and the training of horses.  Until about 1550, apart from a single 14th-century work on the subject written by an Arab of Granada, Spain, the only treatise available on horsemanship had been the book written during the 4th century BC by the Greek historian Xenophon.  But the publication of a book on The Orders of Riding in 1550 by the Neapolitan riding instructor Federico Grisone awakened interest in the subject.  Amongst those people influenced by his ideas was William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, who himself wrote a book on the subject, published in 1657, and at some date in the mid-17th century built a Riding School at his castle at Bolsover in Derbyshire.1   This can still be seen today. 

The Edinburgh Riding House, built for the Royal Academy for Teaching Exercises in 1763 to Robert Adam's designs.

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The foundation of the Spanish Imperial Riding School in Vienna, probably during the late-16th century, and subsequently of other riding schools in the other great cities of Europe show the developing interest in the subject, fed by the publication of works such as the School of Cavalry by Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere in 1733, a book which expresses principles fundamental to the modern training of horses, and from which modern dressage has developed.  Dressage is the systematic training of a horse in obedience and in the correct performance of various exercises and manoeuvres.  Although the principal interest in this sort of training of both horses and riders lay initially from the standpoint of military horsemanship, an interest in the techniques of riding was one of the attributes of the gentleman during the 18th century, and the riding schools which were increasingly set up in the cities of Europe show that this was a civilian as well as a military concern.  Riding Schools could be built by wealthy private individuals for their own and their family’s use, like the one designed by Robert Adam as part of the Stable Block at Nostell Priory in Yorkshire,2 as well as those built for more general public benefit.   The French term for a Riding School is "manège", and this word, or rather its anglicised equivalent of "manage", is often used in contemporary sources to refer to the Edinburgh Riding House. 

Externally, the Riding House appears to be a basilica.  Internally, however, what appear to be aisles are the stables, built against the outer walls of the Hall.

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The foundation in Edinburgh in 1763 of the Royal Academy for Teaching Exercises 3 (as it came to be known after the incorporation of the Academy by Royal Charter in 1766) was intended to introduce this methodical training of horses and more especially of riders into Scotland.  Its largely aristocratic membership was drawn from throughout Scotland, and although most of its members will at least have possessed a residence in or close to Edinburgh, many would have been only occasional residents of the Scottish capital.  The first meeting of subscribers, on 1st March 1763, was followed speedily by steps being taken to acquire a suitable site, to acquire horses for the new Academy, and to appoint a Riding Master and a Clerk for the Stables.4  In little more than a month from this first meeting, on 4th April, one of the Directors of the Academy, John Fordyce, was instructed "to write to Mr Adam at London to consult with Sir Sidney Meadows and Mr Bellinger concerning the plan."  At the same time, moves were made towards the acquisition of a site. 

Robert Adam was at this time only thirty-four, but was already becoming one of the most fashionable architects in the country.  Between 1758, when he had set up in independent practice in London, and 1763, he had begun work on Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, and Syon House and Osterley Park House in Middlesex, three of his best known works, as well as accepting many other commissions.  Nevertheless, he was able to write to John Fordyce on 21st May to say that he had forwarded the designs via Captain Thomas Pringle.5  This letter is a very important source of information about the designs, and it is transcribed here in full.  The designs on which this reconstruction is based are Adam’s own office copies rather than the actual plans sent to Fordyce, and it is possible that certain anomalies and certain discrepancies between the designs and what is said in Adam’s letter, may result from this. 

Because of some delay in acquiring the site, it was not until 11th July 1763 that the Directors of the Academy, visiting it, formally directed that work should commence,6 and it was reported to them at a meeting on 15th August that "the Foundations of the Manage, according to Mr Adam’s Plan&ldots;, were dug out."7   Work continued quickly, because the Academy was opened to pupils on the first Monday of January, 1764,8  and the Scots Magazine for April of that year reported that the building had been completed.9   From the beginning, there had been hopes that the construction of the Riding House might be followed by other buildings to allow the teaching of fencing, dancing and similar pastimes to the gentlemen of Edinburgh, and Adam’s letter to John Fordyce refers to this, offering to draw up plans for the complete scheme.10   However, these plans were never put into execution, and the Riding House always remained a solitary establishment although, as we shall see, by the 1780s fencing was taught on the premises. 

Despite the Directors’ being informed in August 1763 that the foundations of the building had been dug "according to Mr Adam’s Plan," it is unclear how closely the completed building followed the designs which Robert Adam provided.  The main problem lies in the fact that 18th-century maps of the City of Edinburgh show a building of the correct dimensions, but whereas the surviving designs show a main facade with its centre portion set back slightly from flanking pavilions, the maps show quite clearly a building with the centre portion of its west front, that same principal facade, projecting rather than set back.  It is possible that the designs which survive differ from those which were sent to Edinburgh and executed, and that Adam’s office-copies of the final plans no longer survive.  It is perhaps more likely that the building was constructed omitting the pavilions at the west corners of the building (although as one of them contains the stairway to the gallery above the entrance lobby, this would have considerable structural implications in relocating the stairway elsewhere in the building).  It is even possible that those in charge of construction took it upon themselves to change the design by reversing the relative positions of the pavilions and the centre of the facade.  It is unlikely that the real reason will ever become known with any certainty, and this reconstruction therefore follows the designs which survive from Adam’s office records in the Sir John Soane Museum. 

Adam designed the main facade of the Riding House with a pavilion on each side of the taller centre portion.  The pavilions may not have been built.  The pediment crowning the facade does not reflect the line of the roof behind it.

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Whereas for Register House, Edinburgh, construction of which was supervised by Robert Adam, numbers of working drawings, showing large-scale details, survive, to the craftsmen building the Riding House Adam had only five sheets of designs to convey his ideas.  The designs he provided11 consist of two plans, one at ground level and the other showing the details of the upper level, elevations of the front of the building and of one of the sides (the two side elevations were intended to be mirror-images of each other) and a total of four sectional elevations through the building, one longitudinally and the others across the building, but all showing details of the construction as well as the internal elevations of the building.  Apart from the omission of any design for the external elevation of the rear wall of the building, which must have been intended to be as plain as possible, this is all the information which a competent 18th-century builder would have needed to construct a building like the Riding House, albeit with a good deal of the constructional detail left to his discretion.  This, however, was quite usual 18th-century practice.  Modern techniques of construction were not yet known, and in most cases the builder would have at least as good an appreciation of the capabilities and limitations of traditional construction techniques as would the architect, and frequently very much better.  Robert Adam, whose father had been a building contractor as well as an architect, and who had himself worked in the family firm before travelling to Italy to examine classical remains and more modern Italian buildings at first hand was, although not unique in his background, more capable in this field than were many of his contemporaries.  Nevertheless, many of the details of construction of a building which today would be decided by the architect would during the 18th century have been settled by the builder.

Apart from the finished plans, however, there is one further survival in Adam’s papers, of very great interest.  This is a single sheet of paper with a neatly-drawn design for the main facade of the Riding House, together with a more roughly-drawn sketch-plan.12   It throws a lot of light on Adam’s thought-processes during the evolution of the design.  The facade is much more elaborate than the version depicted in the final version, yet the grouping of the elements of the design is essentially the same.  Between the first design and the version we must presume was that sent to Edinburgh there is no radical re-thinking, merely a dramatic simplification and suppression of ornamentation in the facade.  The first version of the design shows the main door flanked by statues in niches; above these, in the upper part of the facade, two rosettes, set within square frames, are placed on either side of a rectangular panel with a dedicatory inscription, the whole surmounted by a pediment containing a coat of arms surrounded by carved foliage.  In the developed design the statues on either side of the doorway have been omitted (although the empty niches remain), as has the carving in the now plain pediment.  The dedicatory inscription has been reduced to a blank rectangular panel and the rosettes have been superseded by rather peculiar semi-spherical recesses, still set within square panels, a motif which it is difficult to parallel within classical architecture.  In addition, the cornice of the corner pavilions, continued across the centre part of the facade as a string course, is simplified, and the columns on either side of the doorway, which in the first design appear to be fluted, have become plain.  The most significant modification is in the proportions of the facade, resulting from a reduction in the height of the main hall from, in the earlier version, approximately 35 feet from floor to the base of the roof to 27 feet in the finished design.  However, the line of the stable roof is marked in pencil across the corner pavilion, and the line of the roof of the main hall, which obviously even at the time of this sketch design was intended to be of steeper pitch than the pediment crowning the facade, is also pencilled in. 

The main facade of the Riding House, facing the street, is very plain, reflecting the building's functional use.  The door at the centre is tall enough to take a rider on horseback.

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The sketch-plan which accompanies Adam’s earlier design for the facade is also very informative.  The same arrangement of rooms and functions appears as in the final version of the design, although various alternatives appear, some of which have been erased in different ways.  The main difference lies in the fact that no columns appear between the main hall and the lobby, which seem to be separated by a wall.  Other differences, such as the entrance lobby being rectangular rather than possessing an apse at each end, are relatively minor.  The dimensions of the main hall are marked on the plan, 100 feet long by 40 feet broad, and these remained the measurements of the hall in the developed version of the design.  It is possible that these dimensions may have been stipulated by the Academy in commissioning Adam to provide the designs. 

The background to the approach of the Royal Academy for Teaching Exercises to Robert Adam to provide designs for the Riding House is far from clear. Most of the information we have is contained in the Minute Book of the Academy, which survives in Edinburgh.13   This is a record of the business at the official meetings of the subscribers and of the committee of Directors of the Academy.  As in all such official records, some matters are recorded in detail whereas others receive no mention at all.  For instance, the Minute Book records the resolution at a meeting of the subscribers on 12th December 1763 to open the Riding House "for the reception of scholars on the first Monday of January" 1764.  If we did not know from the Scots Magazine for April 1764 that the Riding House had only then been completed but that teaching had commenced at the beginning of January, we might assume that the earlier date marked the building’s completion.  Similarly, we have no information on the degree of involvement in the evolution of the design of Sir Sidney Meadows and Mr Bellinger, with both of whom Adam was instructed to consult concerning the plans.  How detailed Adam’s instructions were from John Fordyce, the Director who approached Adam on the committee’s behalf, is unknown, but the passing reference, in his letter to Fordyce, to all the Directors having recommended placing the exercising pillar in the lobby, hints at their expressing strong opinions on the subject of the building.  No doubt the specialised nature of a building such as the Riding School meant that the Directors would have given Adam some idea of their requirements.  Adam designed sets of stables at several country houses and was later to design another riding school as part of the stables courtyard at Nostell Priory in Yorkshire.14

The main hall of the Riding House was the heart of the establishment, where the members of the Academy were taught and practised their equestrian exercises.

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The heart of the Riding House was the hall, rising through two storeys.  It was here that the business of the Academy was carried on, the members being taught and practising their equestrian exercises on the sixteen teaching days per month.  On either side of the hall was a stable block, with eighteen stalls each side and with lofts above.  The hall was entered at its west end through a single-storey lobby below a balcony.  This balcony, or "the gallery" as it was referred to at the time, was reached by a staircase in one of the two pavilions on either side of the main facade, terminating the stable blocks.  These pavilions, although of two storeys, were lower than the main hall, and the building externally took the form of a basilica, with the stables and pavilions appearing to be aisles to the central hall.  The rooms on the ground floors of the two pavilions were intended, according to Adam’s letter to Fordyce, for the members to change in, and the rooms above might serve "for the clerks to keep your accounts, or for a person to sleep who has the care of the Riding House." 

To reflect the utilitarian nature of the Riding House, Adam used the Tuscan Order, the simplest of the architectural orders, for the columns framing the entrance.

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The lobby (and the balcony above it) were separated from the hall by a screen of Tuscan columns.  Adam also used Tuscan columns to frame the outer side of the main door,  the Tuscan Order  - the simplest of all the classical orders - being particularly appropriate for a building of utilitarian function, such as the Riding House.  The 16th-century Italian architect, Andrea Palladio, recommended the Tuscan Order for use in farm buildings.15   It is one of relatively few examples of Robert Adam’s using the Tuscan Order.  In later life, in his introduction to the first volume of The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, Adam expressed the view that only the three Greek orders, the Doric, the Ionic and the Corinthian, should be used in architecture, and the use of the Tuscan Order, even at this relatively early stage in his career, when he was later to express such strong views, calling it "no more than a bad and imperfect Doric,"16  is significant.  The fluting apparently shown on the pillars framing the doorway in the sketch design for the main facade suggests that Adam’s first intention may have been to use the Doric Order, and that the decision to change from this to the Tuscan Order may have been part of the process of simplification of the design which has already been referred to in discussing the earlier design for the facade.  The screen of Tuscan columns within the west end of the hall is intended to be read as a portico inside the building.  The two circular columns are joined to a square respond or anta at either side and so the portico would be termed in antis.  The pillars rise from a podium (or base) formed by a wall, approximately six feet in height, separating the lobby and the hall.  In Adam’s drawings, the line of the top of the podium is carried all the way around the hall, dividing the dado level from the upper parts of the wall.  For the purpose of the reconstruction, it has been assumed that this means that the lower parts of the wall would have been panelled in order to stop horses injuring themselves should they come into contact with it.  The upper parts of the side walls contained a row of empty niches below an equivalent series of windows forming a clerestory.  Adam suggested that the three large windows in the end wall of the hall might allow every second clerestory window to be omitted and replaced by a panel.17

The lobby was separated from the main hall of the Riding Schoool by a screen of Tuscan columns, rising from a podium about six feet (two metres) high.

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The lobby through which the Riding House was entered from the street was rectangular and at each end possessed an apse with a semi-dome.  Apses at one or both ends of a rectangular room are a common feature in Adam’s architecture throughout his career, and can be found, for example, in the Library at Kenwood House, London, and in the entrance halls to both Syon House and Osterley Park House in London, as well as in his unexecuted designs for a church in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh.  In different contexts, such apses can either rise to the full height of the room and be given a ceiling at the same height, or might, as at the Riding House, be given a semi-dome at a slightly lower level than the ceiling of the main part of the room. 

Adam placed an apse at each end of the rectangular entrance lobby.  Rooms with apses at one or both ends frequently feature in Adam's designs.

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Above the lobby, and looking down into the main hall through the upper part of the screen of Tuscan columns, was a balcony, known as the Gallery.  It is not known how Adam (or the Directors of the Academy) originally envisaged that this would be used, but it is possible that it was intended for visitors to the Riding House to be able to watch the exercises without entering the arena.  Annual "carousels," or displays of riding skills, at which the members might compete for a medal, were held by the Academy, and although the Gallery would not have been able to hold all of the 150 expected guests for whom tickets were printed in 1770 for a "carousel" on 5th March that year,18  it would have been able to accommodate any visitors who wanted to watch the goings-on under normal circumstances.  By 1781, however, the Gallery had come to be used by a Fencing Master to give lessons.  In that year the Riding Master complained that the Fencing Master "often disturbed him when teaching the Scholars to ride, and would not regulate his hours for Fencing so as not to interfere with the time for teaching riding."19   He had also refused to pay any rent for the use of the gallery.  There are further occasional references to the teaching of fencing on the premises, but in 1808 it was reported that the lessons were far less popular than they had been.20   An unpublished account of a "Journey to Edinburgh" in 1817 by a certain Colonel Smith describes the Riding House and states that "at one end is an elevated room where fencing used to be taught, and [now] serves for the accommodation of parents who wish to see their children taught to ride."21   The Gallery had resumed what was probably its original function. 

Above the entrance lobby was the so-called Gallery, one side of which opened onto the Hall.  It could be used by spectators, and was also used by a Fencing Master to give lessons.
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When the Riding House was built, hopes were high that its construction would be followed by the that of other buildings for the teaching of fencing, dancing, and other similar pursuits.  Robert Adam, writing to John Fordyce to tell him that the plans for the Riding House had been despatched to Edinburgh,22 refers to this scheme, offering to prepare designs for it, with houses for the different masters, laid out around the Riding House itself.  However, the failure to carry this forward, even for the fencing school which came to be held on the premises, is an indication of the state of affairs at the Academy for most of its existence, one of chronic insolvency.  The history of the Academy is a story of shortage of money and resort to increasingly desperate expedients to maintain the buildings in repair.  As early as 1766, the Academy was having problems with unpaid subscriptions, and there was even talk of prosecuting the worst offenders, and an annual royal grant bestowed in that year merely served to fill the deficit in the normal running costs.  Any extraordinary expenses, such as repairs to the buildings (in 1803, it was recommended that the roof alone needed repairs which would cost £100), caused serious problems to the Academy’s finances, and in 1770 part of the extensive Riding House grounds, fronting on to Nicolson Street, and originally intended to give sufficient area for exercising the horses, was disposed of for building development, in order to raise money to pay just such extraordinary expenses.23   The public benefit of the establishment during the Napoleonic Wars, training riders who could potentially become cavalry officers, led to a series of grants from public funds,24 but the Royal Academy for Teaching Exercises was in a state of chronic insolvency. 

Within only a few years of the establishment of the Riding School, houses and tenements were being built round about it, and the original rural surroundings were lost.
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The Riding School was established just beyond the edge of the city within quite an extensive area of ground intended for exercising the horses, but the expansion of Edinburgh during the late 18th century meant that within a few years the original rural surroundings were replaced by urban development.  The Academy’s disposal of part of the site in 1770 merely contributed to this.  As early as 1797, it was proposed that the Academy should move to a new site closer to the edge of the city, and that the old one should be disposed of for building development.  It was a possibility which may have been raised on several occasions, since a map of Edinburgh published in 1820 marks the site of a "Proposed new Riding School."25   Eventually, in 1828, a new site at the west end of the city was found, and in May the site in Nicolson Street was offered for sale.  Within three weeks, the site had been purchased by the Royal College of Surgeons, with entry at Whitsunday 1829.  By that date, the new premises of the Royal Academy would have been completed and work would have started on the demolition of the building designed by Robert Adam 66 years earlier, in 1763.  Today the Surgeons’ Hall, built 1829-32 to William Playfair’s design (Playfair was the architect who completed Adam’s Edinburgh University), stands on the site, an Ionic temple to medicine. 

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