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Making It by Making It

Robert Adam, the leading British exponent of the neoclassical style in architecture, furniture, and interior design, was born in Scotland in 1728 and died in 1792. He defined an urban style in London (the Adelphi) and in the New Town in Edinburgh. His grandest interiors are in such English stately homes as Syon House, Kenwood, and Luton Hoo (see the illustration on this page). They are very grand indeed. And yet the term Adam Style may suggest, at the back of the reader’s mind, something rather more domestic and genteel than the great marble halls, the porticoed facades, or the beds that look like garden pavilions. That is because, between the age dominated by Robert Adam and our own, there comes a style properly known as Adam Revival, and what we may be remembering is the revival rather than the thing itself. The revival (to get it out of the way) began at the Paris Exhibition of 1867, with the display of a large cabinet in classical eighteenth-century style, with a broken-apex pediment and urns and swags for finials, and inset with Wedgwood pottery plaques.

Such furniture was architectural, and such classical decoration could be applied to any object or surface in a room: the ceiling with its stucco work, the Axminster carpet echoing the design of the ceiling, the doors and their surrounds, the chimney piece, the cast-iron grate and its equipment, the tongs, the shovel, the poker and the coal-scuttle, or later the gas fire and any number of electrical fixtures, including, for instance, fingerplates for wall switches. The Adam Revival may have declined, but it never entirely fell, and if you go into a British hardware shop, or an American store such as Gracious Home, it takes no time at all to locate a typically Adam element.

The authentic, original style resembles the revival, and differs from it, in ways one might not always predict. Like the revival, it is a style for a total scheme, a complete coordinated “look.” An early parody quoted by Eileen Harris (she might have given us more of it) mocks the effect whereby

the cheese cakes and raspberry tarts, upon the ceiling, vie with, and seem to reflect those upon the floor with such wonderful precision; and where the insupportably gorgeous ceiling, and the fervently glowing carpet, cause the poor walls to be seemingly dissatisfied, uneasy and impatient to retire from such fine company, as if conscious of their meanness and poverty.

The suggestion here is of chromatic excess in the original, whereas the revival tended toward a range of pallid colors associated with Wedgwood—some version of his famous blue, his washed-out sage, and a tasteful, unchallenging off-pink. But the drawing room at Northumberland House, of which a small part is exhibited in the unpleasant new British Galleries in the Victoria and Albert Museum, had glass walls backed with a deep red foil imitating porphyry. Strong reds and yellows (those “cheese cakes and raspberry tarts”) might contrast, in an original Adam scheme, with rich greens. Horace Walpole noted with admiration a contrast between a dark crimson frieze and pale green damask hangings. What appears in the recorded designs as a passage in pale watercolor may have been intended as much more vivid. Eileen Harris is critical of restoration attempts made at Kenwood in north London and to the drawing room of Lansdowne House, now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where acrylic latex paint “applied to the new precision-made walls, gives a thoroughly modern, mechanical appearance to the whole room.” But she says that “though the bright color is bound to jar modern viewers who naturally expect and enjoy seeing signs of mellowing in a place of some age, it may not be chromatically incorrect.” Any attempt to restore original color schemes is likely to prove controversial.

Adam Revival artifacts are most commonly mass-produced, but that does not necessarily, of itself, distinguish them from their originals. Robert Adam worked in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, and with several of its leading figures, in addition to Josiah Wedgwood. Those Wedgwood plaques and medallions incorporated into Adam designs were from the start manufactured for that purpose as

fit either for inlay, as Medallions, in the Panels of Rooms, as Tablets for Chimney Pieces, or for hanging up, as Ornaments in Libraries, &c…. as Pictures in Dressing-Rooms, or for ornamenting Writing-Tables, Book-Cases, Cabinets, and the walls of Apartments, in the richest Manner, and at a very moderate Expense.

Matthew Boulton, pioneer of the steam engine, manufacturer of ormolu and Sheffield plate, worked with Adam. Richard Arkwright, inventor of a profitable spinning machine, had a London house in the group of buildings developed by Adam, the Adelphi. And the houses of the Adelphi were adorned with balconies and railings made of cast iron, a mass-producible medium that became current in the architecture of the 1760s. On the other hand, what Adam actually did with cast iron is anything but run-of-the-mill. Harris illustrates ironwork balusters from 20 St. James’s Square, in which the stock elements (the urn with its ram’s-head handles, the lion mask, the swags) have all been wittily distorted, to follow the angle of the staircase.

Adam’s furniture was extremely elegant and expensive, and it was up to his clients whether they wanted their newly built or freshly adapted houses to be both decorated and furnished by the architect himself. Yet while the furniture designs were executed by the finest craftsmen, their decoration tended to avoid carving and marquetry, and to rely on applied ornament in metal or “composition” (a kind of stucco)—elements that, like those Wedgwood plaques, could be mass-produced.

The terms “classical” and “neoclassical” can cover many styles. Adam style can be contrasted with anything in the austere “Greek taste,” as practiced in France. It does not greatly value simplicity. It values a busy decorative detail. It does not come up with those striking forms that make a single chair, or a chaise longue, an object of “sculptural” beauty. It was not born of a rebellion against rococo—Robert Adam himself was notably broad-minded in his tastes—he rebelled against nothing. As a young man in Scotland he loved Gothic, and drew fantasies in a decorative Gothic style that must have been pure exercises in the exotic, for there was very little of the genuine thing for him to see in Scotland. He also valued Vanbrugh, the architect of such English baroque buildings as Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. Much of his family’s fortune (his father was an architect, and two brothers, John and James, also joined the family business) was made after the rebellion of 1745 in building military fortifications of a weighty, geometrical simplicity.

Those who in later years condemned the Adam style as being derived from late imperial Roman prototypes (the baths of Caracalla, or Diocletian’s palace at Spalatro) were making a point which would have left Robert Adam unfazed, for he had no notion that such “late” styles were debased. He looked to Rome, and he looked to the “grotesque” style of ornamentation as developed by Raphael and his circle. Interestingly, he paid such attention to the Renaissance revival of classical ornament because he was aware that buildings excavated in previous centuries had already lost much of the detail of their painting and their stucco work, and so he believed that Raphael would have seen things that he, Adam, could no longer see.

Eileen Harris emphasizes the enormous range of Adam’s classical vocabulary. There was perhaps little in it that other practitioners could not have found somewhere in the published literature, but Adam’s memory and his portfolios were exceedingly well stocked, and he knew how to deploy this abundance. His is a case in which talent, obsessive and clear-sighted ambition, and systematic hard work combined to produce, at least for a while, all the results he craved. Perhaps his enemies could have been a little more confounded. But his success could scarcely have been more notable.

Reading his letters, as they are quoted in John Fleming’s Robert Adam and His Circle,1 one is struck by their Boswellian character. One is never obliged to read between the lines, because the motivations that others might wish to suppress as discreditable are there, fully acknowledged: the vanity, the ambition. “Would you incline to know the appearance of your once plain friend?” he writes to his mother from Paris in 1754, at the start of his Grand Tour:

Read the description and you have him. A most Frenchified head of hair, loaded with powder, ornaments his top: a complete suit of cut velvet of two colours, his body—which is set off by a white satin lining; white silk stockings and embroidered silk gushets, his legs: Mariguin pumps with red heels, his feet: stone-buckles like diamonds shine on his knees and shoes. A gold-handled sword, with white and gold handle knot, ornaments his side: Brussels lace, his breast and hands: a solitaire ribbon, his neck: a smous hat his oxter.

It is himself he is thus describing, and he is not yet halfway through the catalog of the “collection of curiosities” that adorn his body:

What I cut the best figure with is a white beaver cap which represents the crown of an old hat with two turn-ups, one before and another behind, with gold lace round the edge of it and a gold button a-top. It is likest to a cap worn by His Grace of Argyll and is both warm and commodious for travelling, for which purpose it was bought. I often burst out a-laughing upon this single thought—of what you would all say were I for a moment to show myself in the drawing-room thus metamorphosed!

All this dressing up, done with such gusto, had a purpose. If he could pass himself off as of ancient noble family, that would be handy, and, for the purpose, “A good lie well timed sometimes does well.” If his wearing a white beaver cap put people in mind of the Duke of Argyll, so much the better. He asked his friends to “avoid putting the word Architect on the backs of letters” addressed to him in Rome since it was “not always proper one’s profession should become known and the Italians are very curious.” For

if I am known in Rome to be an architect, if I am seen drawing or with a pencil [that is, a paintbrush] in my hand, I cannot enter into genteel company who will not admit an artist or, if they do admit him, will very probably rub affronts on him in order to prevent his appearing at their card-playing, balls and concerts.

On the other hand, his friends reminded him that “in order to do anything a-purpose in Rome I must apply to drawing, I must walk much about and sketch after the antiques. I must resolutely resolve to lay aside the fike-faks of company.” In fact what he achieved was prodigious. Quite apart from the fike-faks of company, which he enjoyed in full measure and on which he calculatingly spent as much as he could (about Cardinal Albani he wrote, in the Scots idiom, “In short son éminence and me are as grit as dogs’ heads”—as thick as thieves), he put himself through a course of drawing under the private tutelage of Charles-Louis Clérisseau, going right back to basics and submitting to a strict discipline. He also employed his own draftsmen to remeasure and redraw the classical ruins, with a view to reediting one of the standard works on the subject. All this was done in order to establish himself in London, where Sir William Chambers was then the most prestigious architect. For

if we leave a settled business, a good income, and a cheap country [i.e., Scotland] and begin expensively in England, we shall soon spend the little we have made, with uncertainty of success or of making more, as it will require a very considerable interest to succeed Chambers who has tolerable friends and real merit. But still more to cut out one Bretting-ham [Matthew Brettingham the younger] who has been two or three years in Italy, has gone to England lately under great protection and has £15,000 or £20,000 from his father…. But the only comfort and hope of his not being invincible is from his genius being much inferior to his fortune.

The motto attributed to Kenneth Tynan—“It is not enough to succeed, others must be seen to fail”—could have been Robert Adam’s, and it is the clarity with which he expresses his ambitions that make his letters, discovered by John Fleming, such gripping reading. Looking at what he faced in England, Adam anticipated, in a letter to his brother, that

There you have rivals, and these not unformidable: you have people of real taste, and not a few of them. The first will do all they can to destroy real merit and the others will judge and from that condemn or approve. For this reason it is evident that unless one can appear equal if not superior to these antagonists, so as to acquire the preference from the connoisseurs, all attempts to succeed, even with good interest [in context, the word means influence in high places], won’t continue for any tract of time, so that after a little blaze you are sent home with little honour and less profit. These considerations made me determine to go to the bottom of things—to outdo Chambers in figures, in bas-reliefs and in ornaments, which, with any proper degree of taste so as to apply them properly, make a building appear as different as night from day. You’ll own the attempt was bold….

The attempt was indeed bold, but what makes it so impressive is that, in order to acquire this vocabulary of ornament, Adam put himself through the elementary stages of training, even though he was a grown man and a practicing architect. For in the same passage he tells us:

I am drawing hands and feet, from which I make the proper advances to full figures and from that to composing and putting any story or fancy together. My progress is as yet very trivial, though Pecheux, my instructor, give some great encouragement and assures me that in three or four months I shall do infinitely better than Chambers ever did or will do. Thus you see, my dear Jamie, that obstacle is not unsurmountable. Ornaments come of themselves as I see and copy everyday….

Chambers, when the time came, called Adam’s style “filigrane toy work,” while, as Eileen Harris tells us in her earlier book, The Furniture of Robert Adam,2 Horace Walpole thought it “gingerbread and sippets of embroidery.” But it was immensely and enduringly popular, adorning some of the grandest of British houses (Syon House, Luton Hoo, Osterley Park, Nostell Priory, among the nineteen interiors considered in Harris’s new work), and spreading from there into every late Victorian house and home, in one form or another, as a teapot, as a carpet, or as one of those stucco medallions (still available) from which electric lights were hung in the center of the ceiling.

Harris’s book (which is dedicated to the late John Fleming) takes us back, where that is possible, to the original panache with which these noble interiors were conceived and executed. It is hard to keep all the details in one’s head, from page to page, chapter to chapter, but her work will stand as a detailed reference for each of the projects considered. And the illustrations here assembled are invaluable, reminding us of much that has long since been swept away, as well as the wealth that remains—revised, retinted, toned down, toned up, transported, and reassembled—of that “bold attempt” on the heights of society and taste.

  1. 1

    London: John Murray, 1962.

  2. 2

    London: Alec Tiranti, 1963.

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