Plan for the Adelphi, by Robert and James Adam.

Robert Adam and the King's Topographical Collection

Peter Barber looks at works associated with the Scottish architect, Robert Adam, and his brothers in George III's collection of topographical prints and drawings.

Robert Adam (1728–1792) is perhaps the best-known British architect of the 18th century. He, and his lesser-known brothers, John and James, combined and re-modelled architectural and decorative elements from Roman antiquities in Pompeii and Split, which they had seen during their Grand Tour, to create a distinctive style, foreshadowing the neo-classicism of many British buildings created between about 1780 and 1850. They are also famous as being among the first architects to design all aspects of their buildings, from plan, exterior and interior designs to the furnishings and fixtures.

The Adam brothers played a major part in the creation of King George III’s geographical Collection when in 1762 James and Robert negotiated the purchase, on the King’s behalf, of the collections of Cardinal Alessandro Albani, which account for some of the most outstanding items in the Italian volumes of the King’s Topographical Collection. Of particular importance are the 16th-century maps and views collected by Cassiano dal Pozzo, the most important 17th-century collector of prints and drawings, and architectural drawings from the papal archives.

Despite this successful mission, the Adam brothers never enjoyed the sustained patronage of George III, but the King’s Topographical Collection contains autograph drawings by them for actual or proposed buildings in London and the south-east, and views of the buildings that they created.

Plan for the Adelphi

Plan for the Adelphi, by Robert and James Adam.

Office of James, John and Robert Adam, Plan for the Adelphi, 1768.

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The most significant, and of crucial importance for any evaluation of their work, is one of the only surviving hand-drawn plans by Robert and his brothers for an important development on the Strand, called the Adelphi, or, in English, ‘Brothers’ – an allusion to Robert, James, John and William (their youngest male sibling) who all worked on it. The plan, dating from 1768, was probably sent to the King in the hope of raising money in 1771. The Adelphi, which was modelled on the palace of the Emperor Diocletian in Split in Croatia, was the first ever attempt in Britain to disguise what was effectively a housing estate as a palace (an idea later followed in the Nash terraces around Regent's Park). The King’s Topographical Collection also includes a handsome view of how the brothers thought their development would look, with the massive arches supporting the buildings leading directly to the shores of the Thames as they did before the creation of The Embankment in the mid-19th century. The heart of the Adelphi was demolished in the 1930s, though several of the houses in the side terraces and the vaults remain (although substantially altered).

View of the south front of the new buildings called Adelphi

View of the South Front of the New Buildings called Adelphi, by Benedetto Pastorini.

Benedetto Pastorini, View of the South Front of the New Buildings called Adelphi, ca. 1774.

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The King’s Topographical Collection contains preliminary drawings for various handsome structures that never got built. One was a proposed grand entrance to London at Hyde Park Corner – not far from where the Wellington Arch stands today. Imposing though it looks, it was primarily meant to be a tollhouse!

Elevation and plan of a proposed arch at Hyde Park Corner

Elevation and plan of a proposed arch at Hyde Park Corner, by Robert Adam.

Robert Adam, Elevation and plan of a proposed arch at Hyde Park Corner, November 1778. 

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At the time that the Adelphi was being planned, in 1770, James Adam submitted an elegant presentation drawing of a proposal for a weather observatory in Richmond Park, reminding us that, like the true Briton that he prided himself on being, George III was fascinated by the vagaries of his homeland’s climate.

Designs for a building for a register of the weather

Elevation for a register of the weather, by James Adam.

James Adam, ‘An elevation, in Indian ink, of a building proposed to be erected by his Majesty at Richmond, for a register of the weather, designed by James Adam, Archt. 1770.

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The Collection includes views of some buildings that remain with us to today, like Kenwood House between Hampstead and Highgate, which Robert Adam remodelled for the Lord Chief Justice and fellow Scot, the Earl of Mansfield between 1764 and 1783, adding a completely new library wing. Adam was rightly proud of his work, and the print of the garden front which he included in his collected works is to be found in the King’s Topographical Collection.

View of the South Front of the Villa at Kenwood

Giovanni Vitalba and Benedetto Pastorini, View of the south front of the Villa at Kenwood, London: the authors, 5 February 1774. 

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The Pavilion erected for the Earl of Derby at The Oaks

James Caldwall and Charles Gringnon, The Pavilion erected for the Earl of Derby at The Oaks, 1780. 

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Perhaps the most remarkable building that Robert Adam created in the south-east of England, however, was the enormous – but temporary – pavilion built for a fête champètre hosted by General John and Lady Charlotte Burgoyne in the gardens of their home, The Oaks, near Epsom in Surrey on 9 June 1774. The festivities were intended to celebrate the wedding of the Burgoynes’ nephew, Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby, to Lady Elizabeth Hamilton. In the pavilion, a vestibule led to a ball room encircled by a supper room some 60 metres (200 feet) long. Over 1,000 visitors in fancy dress attended the festivities which were marked by a masque, country sports, country dances and formal dances directed by the master of the Royal Ballet. Prints by Caldwall and Grignion, published in 1780, immortalised the rather frenetic atmosphere – and the architecture – of what must to its participants have seemed a golden afternoon and evening.