Born July 3, 1728, Scottish architect, decorator and furniture designer Robert Adam was one of the most influential craftsmen of the 18th century. Adam’s career began in 1748 when he and his elder brother John took over the family construction business upon the death of their father. After several lucrative years, Adam left for Rome to embark on the fashionable Grand Tour. He traveled throughout Italy and France between 1754 and 1758 under the tutelage of French architect Charles-Louis Clérisseau and Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi and, with these two gentlemen as mentors and companions, began to develop what would become a new style based on classical antiquity observed in these formative years abroad.

Robert Adam, attributed to George Willison, c. 1770-1775. National Portrait Gallery.

Adam’s first major public architectural commission was the Admiralty Screen in Whitehall, London, in 1759. Constructed as a central arched carriageway flanked by colonnades terminating in pedimented lodges, the screen was built to separate the street from the Admiralty complex and can be seen in figure 1 in a large-scale watercolor from our collection that is currently being researched. His outstanding talents soon gained him significant private commissions. Among the most notable are Syon House, executed for the 1st Duke of Northumberland; Kedleston Hall for Sir Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Lord Scarsdale; and Harewood House for Edwin Lascelles, 1st Baron Harewood.

Admiralty Screen designed by Robert Adam, 1759. Carlton Hobbs LLC.

Robert Adam is responsible for reinventing the 18th century neoclassical ideal. He maintained a predilection for Etruscan ornamentation, inspiring pieces such as this breakfront cabinet, and his decorative schemes combined delicate and detailed designs, and attention to  color, light and space. In addition to interior and exterior architecture, Adam also designed wall furniture and decorative objects, plasterwork, metalwork, carpets, and chimneypieces. Figure 2 shows examples of a number of these types of designs by Adam for Derby House in Grosvenor Square. Adam thoughtfully considered his projects, and each object and piece of furniture was crafted to blend harmoniously into the overall design of a room.

Designs for furniture by Adam, published in 1777.