'Robert Adam's Castles' is a display of indulgent escapist fantasy which should distract and revive the spirits of any Londoners otherwise unable to leave the grey, cold city during the summer months.
The exhibition of gorgeous watercolour views showing thickly wooded, craggy landscapes adorned by gushing waterfalls and dramatic castle piles certainly speaks to the imagination and transports the viewer mentally to another reality. But the exhibition, curated by Stephen Astley, also has a serious art historical intent, which is to show a largely unknown side of Adam's work, even though it accounts for more than 10 per cent of his output.
Adam, of course, is identified with the so-called 'Adam style' which he created: a light, decorative classicising style of architecture which produced some of the most remarkable houses and interiors of the eighteenth century. But Astley identifies his 'castle style' as a contrasting string to his bow, which emerges most particularly in the enormous number of drawings and watercolours of fantasy buildings and settings, or 'picturesque compositions' which he produced, as well as in a large number of actual projects for castle-style buildings - including almost half of the castles built in Scotland in the latter half of the eighteenth century.
Among these projects are some that were evidently equally inspired by fantasy, such as an unbuilt, ruined 'garden castle' for the grounds of Osterley Park House, west London, commissioned by the Childs family to enhance its prestige by suggesting a historic blood-line and hereditary connection with the land.
Astley is very careful to point out that the castle style so defined should not be confused with the Gothic style which Adam also worked in occasionally. By contrast with that, the castle style was only ever an 'external style' as Astley puts it, concerned with massing, fenestration, and detailing in the form of castellation, flag-staffs, arrow-slits and the like. In the 'picturesque compositions', such detail also extends to the forms of ruination which a castle might assume in an advanced period of its life. However, unlike Piranesi for example, Adam seems generally less interested in the poetry of ruins than in the dramatic potential of 'live' buildings conceived almost as an extrusion of the landscape in which they are situated.
According to Astley, Adam's castle style was strongly influenced by his experience of the Italian hill-top towns which he visited during his Grand Tour in 1754-58, which demonstrate precisely that fusion of landscape and architecture in such a magical way. For architects today, it is this aspect of Adam's castle designs which is more likely to be of interest than the stylistic discussion which is privileged by Astley, but which has overtones of superficiality, Post-Modern artifice, and indeed triviality, to any architect whose education was informed by the thinking of Modernism.
'Robert Adam's Castles' runs at the Soane Gallery, Sir John Soane's Museum, until 16 September, and will travel to Paxton House, Berwickshire and Duff House, Banffshire, next year
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