The Genius of Robert Adam: His Interiors
by Eileen Harris
Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art/Yale University Press, 378 pp., $85.00
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 …