Shock and Awe


2 December 2016

In 1768 the architect and designer Robert Adam hatched a bold plan. The medieval residence Durham House in London, between the Strand and the north bank of the Thames, lay crumbling and uninhabited. What if, Adam suggested, the city embank the river and build an entire new district of townhouses above?

Thus the Adelphi district was born, named after the Ancient Greek word for siblings. Adam designed 54 terraced houses and shops in his distinctly ornate neoclassical style; London stock brick-faced, with stucco embellishments. A graceful series of arches raised the site above the Thames, level to the West End beyond.

The project, however, was damaged by the credit crisis of 1772, which began when a London bank collapsed after one of its debt-ridden proprietors fled to France, sparking a nationwide recession. The houses languished unsold, bar one that was purchased by the actor David Garrick at Adam's urging. Adam's finances looked finished, but he was rescued by remortgaging the family house, publishing volumes of his architectural works and using his status as MP to call a lottery for the properties and other possessions. There were 4,370 tickets, priced £50 each; of the dozen or so unsold and retained by the Adam family, each one was a winner. Adam had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

For all the order apparent in Adam's architecture, it was subject to the type of turmoil that greets many of today’s speculative schemes. There is an echo of the property developer Andrew Lawrence’s discredited 1999 Skyscraper Index, which suggested that the construction of the world’s tallest buildings correlates with an oncoming economic crash. There are echoes also of the numerous London towers that were cancelled in the years following the Great Recession of 2007-9.

Adam's design for a garden illumination at Buckingham Palace. Though it was not permanently built, a temporary wooden verison was assembled for George III's birthday. IMAGE © Adam Office

This story, and many such others, can be teased out of Robert Adam’s London, a new exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum. Adam and Soane initially seem strange bedfellows. Soane’s most famed works – the Dulwich Gallery, the now-demolished Bank of England, the museum itself, which Soane granted to the country – have an element of public weal; Adam, with a few notable exceptions, worked for private clients. Surrounded by his art and antiquities, Soane comes down to us in the guise of an eccentric aesthete; with his 330 patrons and stint as an MP, Adam can appear more of a society figure. And, most importantly for this show, Adam is often associated with his string of country houses, rather than the metropolis.

Immediate impressions of Robert Adam’s London put paid to this assumption. Curator Frances Sands has corralled an extensive selection of Adam’s drawings of built and unbuilt London projects. They are taken from a collection of 8,856 that was purchased by Soane in 1833 at the price of just £200 – Adam had fallen out of fashion almost immediately after his death in 1792. These holdings amount to some 82 per cent of Adam’s existing drawings.

Sands has done a sterling job of whittling down an enormous quantity of work into a manageable exhibition. Though Robert Adam’s London fills only two rooms in the house’s upper floor, it encompasses a broad variety of Adam’s work over 10 thematic sections. Together, they allow Adam to be appreciated as something distinct from his doggedly Greco-Roman-inspired contemporaries. Like many gentleman of his era, Adam embarked on the Grand Tour as a young man. In Rome, he conversed with the architectural artists Giovanni Battista Piranesi and Charles-Louis Clérisseau, both of whom played central roles in neoclassicism’s rise.

Instead of halting at Italy, however, he went to observe the Palace of Diocletian in Split, witnessing the integration and adaptation of Roman ruins into a medieval cityscape. This willingness to adapt carries through to Adam's funerary monument for Major John André, a British spy during the American Revolutionary War. Once captured, André asked to be shot as a soldier rather than hung as a spy, and was refused. Adam's friezes use the Grecian idiom to show this contemporary event, going so far to depict George Washington himself. The past and the present collide.

Although known chiefly as a neoclassical architect, Adam proposed an early neo-gothic wall for the crumbling King's Bench debtors prison. IMAGE © Adam Office

English neoclassical architecture is often perceived as a reaction against the Catholic decadence of the baroque. For Adam, however, the earlier movement served as an inspiration. His original plan for Portland Place would have filled the street with ornate standalone mansions, rather than the terraced townhouses characteristic of the post-Great Fire West End. It’s difficult not to see baroque’s exuberance in his hugely ambitious plan for Lincoln’s Inn, which would have levelled the older structures and replaced them with a huge courtyard, multiple colonnades, copious statuary, a dome and triumphal arches.

Etruscan art too provided a significant influence, as demonstrated in the exhibition by furniture designs he created for Home House on Portland Square. When he turned his hand to chinoiserie for a house at 23 Hill Street, his carpet designs have an ordered elegance far removed from his more florid contemporaries. The sheer magnificence of Adam’s style is underscored by the stairwell at Home House, largely preserved today. Circular in shape, it features a single ground-floor staircase dividing into two circular wings that curl along the walls and meet in the centre. Above, two stair-less storeys with friezes and trompe l’oeil paintings lead up to a sky-lighted dome. It is a work of high theatre, all contained behind a plain London stock-brick façade.

At times, the dazzle becomes wanton extravagance. The sofas Adam's designed with Thomas Chippendale for an extension to 19 Arlington Street are believed to be the most expensive created in the Georgian period. 20 St James Square was fitted with an enormous organ more suited to a church rather than a townhouse. A parallel could be drawn to the follies of today’s urban rich, from Charles Saatchi’s alleged gold-plated bathtub to the subterranean super-extensions burrowing beneath Notting Hill. But then so could it to almost any era of charted human history.

Indeed, Robert Adam's London is best appreciated as a traditional architectural history show, which pleases through presenting Adam's ability to create a distinctive style from discreet influences. It also thrives on surprise: who would have thought that England's arch neoclassicist dabbled in the neo-gothic, as seen with his proposed castle wall for the King's Bench debtor's prison? This project, along with the bedazzling opulent townhouses on display, underscore that Adam was primarily an architect of power and the powerful: one might question whether the distance of time allows one to judge these buildings without reference to the repressive social system of which they were part. But time and time again, Adam's artistry draws in and wins out.