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Robert Adam: Architect to the King

In the field of architecture, one Scottish name towers over all the rest: Robert Adam (1728-92), whose adaptations of the Italian Palladian style have been admired and duplicated in public and private buildings around the world. He has emerged as Britain's most prestigious neoclassical architect in a century that produced dozens of talented competitors. Today, owning an Adam building is an honor akin to being knighted by the queen, but (if you happen to be selling the building) infinitely more profitable.

Adam's genius derived from his synthesis of the decorative traditions of the French and Italian Renaissance with those of ancient Greece and Rome. His designs are particularly notable for their lavish use of color, inspired by Grecian vase paintings and by what was being excavated from archaeological digs in places such as Pompeii. Almost as important, Adam seemed to have a well-developed business sense and a knack for decorating the right house at the right time, and his moneyed clients helped propel him into the spotlight.

Throughout much of his career, he collaborated with his capable but less talented younger brother, James (1730-94), who handled many of the workaday details of the projects they executed together. And when, say, a Scottish lord hired the Adam brothers, he got more than an intensely detailed building -- in most cases, the commission included every aspect of the interior decoration and most of the furnishings. The brothers' education in the visual arts began early: Their father, William Adam (1689-1748), was the leading Scottish architect of his day and designed dozens of manor houses in what has been called a crude but vigorous Palladian style.

Robert was born in Kirkcaldy, in Fife, but soon immigrated to London, the source of most of his large commissions. He laboriously studied the architecture of imperial Rome under the supervision of then-famous French antiquarian C. L. Clérisseau, with whom he toured widely in Italy and Dalmatia (later part of Yugoslavia). In 1764, he compiled the information he gathered during these tours in the widely acclaimed The Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro. In 1761, Robert, along with architect William Chambers, was appointed architect of the king's works, at the time the most prestigious post in Britain. In 1773, an illustrated volume, The Works of Robert and James Adam, documented the brothers' vision; they justifiably claimed credit for revolutionizing the principles of English aesthetics.

The Adam style, a richly detailed yet airy interpretation of neoclassicism, was a radical departure from the more ponderous and sometimes ecclesiastical forms that preceded it. Almost immediately, the Adam style of ceiling decorations and mantelpieces was widely copied throughout Britain. And within less than a generation, this vision radically influenced furniture styles throughout Europe and North America, most notably France's Louis XVI style. Looser derivations are the Directoire, Sheraton, and Empire styles.

Adam buildings in Scotland include the Old Quad, at Edinburgh University, and Mellerstain, in the Borders. Many more of his works remain in England, especially in London, thanks to his careful cultivation of the wealthy English. Examples are Kenwood House (1767-69) in London, Osterly Park (1761-80) and Syon House (1762-69) in Middlesex, and Luton Hoo (1768-75) in Bedfordshire. Much more widespread than Adam buildings, however, are examples of their furniture and interior decor (especially chairs, sideboards, and mantelpieces), which are proudly displayed in museums and private homes across the United Kingdom and North America.

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