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Robert Adam’s London at The Soane Museum

We explore the Sir John Soane Museum’s exhibition on the plans of Robert Adam.

The London we now see might have been very different. It might not feel like it. Little in fact, is likely to be further from the mind as we shuffle into work on cold mornings, coffees clenched in hand. Our offices, however, were once architectural plans. And those plans had rival plans. And those plans and rival plans had earlier, rejected plans, alternate versions thrown in the bin. Even before these plans existed, other buildings occupied the space in which our offices now sit. And before those buildings, there might have been other buildings still. The sites we now walk between are temporary and have, and likely will, change. Again, little comfort during a frozen rush-hour. It is these fascinating hypotheticals, however, that provide the starting point for Robert Adam’s London.

The exhibition comes as the latest offering from the Sir John Soane Museum and presents the drafts and drawings of architect Robert Adam. The Scottish designer was one of most celebrated architects of the 18th century and Britain’s chief exponents of neo-classical style. The display reveals both Adam’s realised and unrealised projects, spanning the totality of his career. Highlights include detailed depictions of the Admirality Screen at Whitehall and rejected plans for King’s Bench Prison.
Adam is best known for his grand country houses. This latest exhibition however looks to reveal new sides to the renowned figure. As the title suggests, Robert Adam’s London focuses on his work in England’s capital. Not our capital though: his capital of the 18th century, excluding much-loved sites such as Syon House and Osterley Park, which at that time had yet to be encompassed by the metropolis’ sprawl. It leaves a series of no less ostentatious designs. Each draft displays an extravagant building or object, meticulously drawn and detailed. The “Royal Patronage” section includes a sketch of a façade for the Buckingham Palace Gardens, commissioned for William III’s 25th Birthday. The flamboyant front connects a series of double colonnades—each gilded at the summit with faux pink curtains—to a series of murals depicting classical scenes. Atop sit pyramids and miniature columns mounted with sculptures. The structure, sadly, has not survived. The plan however bears out Adam’s signature traits: a lavish splattering of classical influences in a regimented framework.

Design for an illumination of the Garden at Buckingham Palace. Image credit: Adam Office

The exhibition’s collection is not restricted to external architecture. The Sir John Soane Museum were keen to demonstrate Adam’s interior design, again a less recognised side of his legacy. The second gallery is devoted to a series of drawings depicting windowsills, staircases, furniture and even doorknobs. Each is opulent to say the least. A couch commissioned by Sir Lawrence Dundas flaunts a curving gold frame holding a pink silk lining – an item that would look altogether at home in Liberace’s sitting room. There is also exacting precision, however. Two designs for commissioned ceiling paintings both exhibit beautifully detailed patterns and figures, each packaged within the tight squares and ovals of a geometrical pattern, it’s Georgian decadence at its most elaborately controlled.

Drawing of a sofa for the saloon at 19 Arlington Street. Image credit: Adam Office

The architect’s decorous approach did not always help his cause. Few investors could put up the money for the elaborate blueprints he drew up for them – part of the reason they often remained blueprints only. Even the Duke of Cumberland, a relation of the King, found himself unable to afford an elaborate, flowing window front he commissioned from Adam.
The designer very nearly fell fowl of his own luxurious tastes. One of the largest works displayed in the exhibition, The Adelphi Platform—a grand terrace overlooking the Thames—almost resulted in bankruptcy. Adam took out loans to finance the elaborate structure, intending it to be sold off at a profit as a series of aristocratic apartments. A run on the Scottish bank, however, crippled the project at the point of its completion. It took an elaborate lottery scheme auctioning the flats to save their creator. The lucky winners of the lottery – surprise, surprise – were Adam and his family. Yet from this point on, the architect was frequently cash-strapped.
The current exhibition has proved an unlikely beneficiary of this state of poor finance. Soane himself purchased the majority of Adam’s drawings shortly after the architect’s death. It wasn’t a costly price—close to £200. His family, however, accepted it gladly. The change in architectural fashion had not been kind to Adam’s designs, they were seen as too elaborate for the emerging 19th century sensibility and Soane was one of few who saw the marvels the adopted Londoner had created. The Sir John Soane Museum now owns around 80% of Adam’s plans and sketches, with the selection on display only a handful of the 9,000 in archive.

Finished drawing showing a view of Lincoln's inn fields. Image credit: Adam Office

One piece from this huge collection particularly stands out. The exhibition’s opening gallery holds a perspective drawing of a rejected design for Lincoln’s Inn, just along from the museum’s residence. A huge arcade front curving in toward a colonnade structure roughly akin to the Parthenon, it towers over the rest of the square. It’s odd to think that walking out of the museum you could have been confronted with this sparkling mass of marble. How differently might we have seen the Sir John Soane Museum, and the current Robert Adam exhibtion, if it had been accompanied by such a grand neighbour? As it is we will never know. Yet Robert Adam’s London still offers an intriguing whistle-stop tour of the architect’s lesser-known work. The importance of the designs isn’t always obvious, and visitors are advised to read the accompanying labels closely. The collection, however, is filled to the brim with elaborate sketches that boggle the mind with their fiddly precision. This alone is worth seeing.

Robert Adam’s London runs 30 November -11 March. Information about the exhibition can be found on the Sir John Soane Museum website.