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Adam's Architectural Influence

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The influence upon furniture exerted by the Brothers Adam came through their architectural works and the fame they won as designers and decorators. Indeed, the influence they exerted on the furniture of the period was remarkable, in that only a very small quantity of furniture could have been made under their own direction. They are known to have placed commissions for furniture in keeping with their architectural designs with the smaller working cabinet-makers, and it is very probable that they did so with the more important firms. Indeed, it is well known that Hepplewhite and some of his contemporaries were strongly influenced in their work by the architectural designs prepared by the Brothers Adam. It was in 1773 that they published the first parts of their important book entitled " The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, Esquires," a book which came out in folio numbers, the first appearing in 1773, the last in 1822. During that long period the style the brothers formulated was gradually spreading, due probably to the novelty of their designs and the crisp freshness which they imparted to them. In the preface to their works they say :—" We have not trod in the path of others, nor derived aid from their labours. In the works which we have had the honour to execute we have not only met with the approbation of our employers, but even with the imitation of other artists to such a degree as in some measure to have brought about in this country a kind of revolution in the whole system of this useful and elegant art. These circumstances induced us to hope that to collect and engrave our works would afford both entertainment and instruction."

They further explain the position they took up in connection with their work, and the motives which governed them in design, in another paragraph, in which they state :—" If we have any claim to approbation, we have founded it on this alone. That we flatter ourselves we have been able to make use of, with a fair degree of success, the beautiful spirit of antiquity, and to transfuse it with novelty and variety, through all our numerous works."

The Brothers Adam were fortunate in securing the cooperation of many noted artists who worked for them, among those of greatest fame being Angelica Kauffman, Zucchi, and Cipriani ; and also Pergolesi, who they brought from Italy.. Among the ornaments chiefly made use of in Adam design were lozenge-shaped panels, ovals, hexagons, octagons, circles, ribbons, wreaths, many mythological subjects, the sphinx, griffins, and other classic motives.


There can be no doubt that the Brothers Adam effected a complete revolution in style. In applying the designs primarily architectural to furniture Robert Adam seems to have been more anxious about obtaining uniformity in design of decoration rather than in altering the contour of the articles on which he operated. He left chairs and tables much as he found them, in the early days of his career contenting himself with adding new ornament ; but as he found that the Chippendale leg or the French chair-back was unsuited to the new decoration, he conformed them somewhat so as to correspond with his walls and panelling, mantel-pieces, and over-mantels. Adam took a sideboard as he found it, and on the sideboard—or more correctly side-table—he placed an urn, or he assembled together pedestals and urns, and so formed a much grander sideboard than had hitherto been attempted. Then we find Adam paying attention to the utility of the piece of furniture he was evolving, and later instead of a movable cellaret underneath the table, one of the pedestal cup-boards suggested by the still earlier pedestal was trans-formed into a cupboard for hot plates. The other end of the sideboard became a convenient receptacle for wine. In detail he carried out his suggestions by adding a stand for a heater into the plate cupboard, not unlike those which had been used in earlier days for the heating of tea-urns. Some of the cupboards formed convenient racks so that the plates could be put on edge. The urns at first decorative, so characteristic of the Adam style, were lined with metal. Some served the purpose of knife receptacles, others became cisterns for iced water or for hot water for washing spoons and forks. Then we find the assembled pedestals, urns, side - tables, and cellarets braced together in one newly-designed piece of furniture, ornamented and improved by the addition of a brass rail, on which there were sometimes brackets for candlesticks. The designs of Adam became more ornamental as time went on, and in about 1770 inlays and colour schemes were introduced, and here and there some little gilding. The Brothers Adam do not appear to have intended their designs for wood - carvers.. They favoured the plaster composition, which had proved so useful. It was applied to most of their designs, and had a remarkable similarity to wood-carving. Some of the extremely decorative panels in old houses which have been painted for many years, thought to have been wood, when examined are found to have been made of the plaster, the manufacture of which was so long held a secret.


When we realise that the Brothers Adam revolutionised architectural design and caused it to be applied so generally to the manufacture of furniture, which could be appropriately used in Adams' buildings, we naturally wonder how they accomplished the practical application of this new style to household furniture. To discover this is the more important in that we know that although publishing designs for furniture, and frequently providing their customers with special plans, so that they might have suitable furniture to correspond with the interior decoration of their rooms, the brothers of the Adelphi did not make furniture in their own workshops, other perhaps than some few important pieces required for special purposes, and those mostly of an architectural character. The Brothers Adam, however, employed existing firms, and took care that their own style was carefully carried out. It is said that Chippendale worked for them, and it is quite clear that the Hepplewhite firm executed some of their commissions.

Robert Adam, who was the member of his firm coming closely into touch with his clients, took much trouble to give them satisfaction. He does not appear to have experienced any great difficulty in persuading buyers that the older styles of furniture had had their day. It was an opportune time, and there were many wealthy people who were open to buy, for in the middle of the eighteenth century people were expected to fill their apartments with a greater variety of ornamental furniture than formerly. Robert Adam was a consultative architect-builder, and had numerous clients wishful to buy furniture such as he could recommend to them as suitable for their newly-decorated, if not newly-built, houses. The founder of the new art style took care that his fashionable clients had furniture made by men who knew how to follow his directions. That Robert Adam was at that time keen upon securing furniture appropriate to his style of interior is evident from the number of original drawings he produced. Those originals are still preserved in twenty-six folio volumes at the Soane Museum. Their value to-day must be considerable, for so important were they at the sale of his effects that they were purchased by Sir John Soane for £800. Among these architectural drawings are many devoted to furniture and household appointments. Quite a number are beautifully coloured, and they are mostly dated and signed.

The Soane Museum, although so closely associated with Adam, in its library has but one piece of furniture of the Adam style. That example, however, is a specially interesting window seat with scroll ends and straight legs, an almost identical piece being illustrated in " The Guide " ; it is probable it was made by Hepplewhite, and the pattern afterwards included in his book of designs.

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