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Authoritative Adam

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review

The Genius of Robert Adam: His Interiors By Eileen Harris. Yale University Press, 2001. 380pp. £65 The Adam brothers' architectural and business enterprise remains one of the phenomenal stories of the 18th century.

Robert's energy, arrogance and ruthless ambition were matched by a brilliantly inventive imagination and artistic sensitivity. The marriage in one man of such diverse characteristics was unlikely enough but the brothers themselves also formed an extraordinary and complementary team that mastered most of the disciplines of the 18th century building world.

If Robert was the true genius, the three other brothers were all more than able in their own spheres. John - the eldest - was a master mason with extensive experience of construction, a businessman, and an able (if somewhat conventional) designer. William managed the family construction company and builders' merchants - William Adam & Partners - that was involved in all manner of speculative enterprises, while James, the youngest, was to prove a competent designer and assistant to his inspirational elder brother, and an able manager of the design office.

This team of brothers took the British building world by storm during the early 1760s and virtually invented a unique and visually powerful Neo-Classical style - the Adam style. The style - superficially distinguished by the use of a new breed of often recently discovered or reinterpreted Greek, Roman and Renaissance motifs or forms - was essentially about artistic control and coordination. Ideally all elements of the architectural and decorative scheme were integrated into a single coherent design with plan-form, ceilings, walls, paintings, carpets and furniture related in design and produced under the control of the brothers.

One of the most extraordinary things about the Adam brothers' taste revolution was the speed with which it triumphed. In 1758 Robert returned from his extended Grand Tour - during which he collected artistic inspiration, useful contacts and potential clients in equal number - and within the year he had attracted the attention of leading patrons and potential clients.

He had even begun to poach a number of outstanding commissions from the clutches of older, well-established architects.

In 1759, he ousted the veteran John Carr from Harewood House, Yorkshire, and during the following five years created, with a team of outstanding craftsmen including Thomas Chippendale, a spectacular series of rooms within Carr's somewhat awkward Palladian shell. The following year Adam pulled off the same trick at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire, when he took over the building project - and a partially completed shell - from Matthew Brettingham and James Paine.

The story of Adam and his style is told in magnificent manner by Eileen Harris in a type of book that is, sadly, now all but extinct.

Its structure is pleasingly straightforward with 19 Adam houses each given their own case-study chapter. The text is direct and authoritative - it is clear that the author can be trusted. The format is expansive and the photographs and plans are numerous, of high quality, and very well reproduced. The publishers and author should be congratulated on this magisterial work.

But, all this apart, what new material does the book contain about the Adam phenomenon? The answer is, much - but mostly in the detail. Harris has made a close examination of Adam drawings, related archival material, and of the houses themselves, to achieve a true understanding of the creative process behind these works of art.

The only real problem with this book is that there is not enough of it. As the author admits, she has dealt with 'but a fraction of his total oeuvre' and to have examined all Adam's work in the same detail 'would not have been possible in my lifetime, nor would it have significantly altered the overall picture.'

This is no doubt true, but for this book to be the really definitive work on Adam - which it does not claim to be but which in many ways it is - the author would have had to deal with the Adam brothers' urban adventures (the Adelphi, Frederick's Place and Fitzroy Square in London;

Charlotte Square in Edinburgh), which attempted in a most bold manner to harness the speculative building process to create a Neo-Classical city.

The introduction contains short and fascinating sections on Adam's London office and on his patrons, but I would have loved more on these essential topics, and on Adam's relationship with his tradesmen, craftsmen, and artists, as well as other architects and the emerging architectural profession. What was an evening like in the Adam home? Did the brothers spend all their time plotting the next enterprise or were they convivial hosts? How were commissions courted and secured and what exactly was Adam's working method?

What is needed is volume two. I hope the author and publishers rise to the challenge.

The result would be well worth waiting for.

Dan Cruickshank is an architectural historian

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