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In a village near Kirkcaldy lived William Adam, an architect of considerable local fame. His practice was an extensive one, and he held the office of Master Mason of Scotland, and was the architect of some famous buildings in that country, including Hopetoun House. He had four sons-John, James, William and Robert. John followed and inherited his father's business; William, it is probable, assisted his brothers; and it is with Robert and James that this article is concerned, for to them is due the credit of initiating the style followed in early American colonial furniture bearing their name.
Robert Adam was born in 1728, and was the second son. His was the master mind - the dominating spirit. A contemporary of Sir William Chambers, there was much in common between the two men, although perhaps Robert Adam never attained to the intellectual stature of Sir William. Robert Adam caught the spirit of his age, which was a spirit of restlessness and of inquiry after something better in art. The cynics say that mere change the finding of "something new " - was the popular desire, but the student, who is not content with a surface view of the facts, diving a little deeper, finds evidence of a real and earnest effort to achieve something higher. It was this that drove Robert Adam, as it drove many another, to travel. He visited Italy when he was about twenty-eight years of age, and made a close study of all that was there, including the remains of Emperor Diocletian's Palace at Spalatro; and the companionship of Clerisseau, the eminent French architect, was, no doubt, of material use to him in many ways. He was also, probably, influenced to a considerable extent by other French artists, and some Adam work shows unmistakeable signs of this, and has even been humorously called " an English edition of the Louis Seize style."
His foreign studies lasted some few years, and it was not until 1762 that he returned from Italy, when he was appointed by George III as his architect. He died in1792, as the result of a broken blood vessel, and is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Of James Adam but little is known of his influence on early American colonial furniture beyond his connection with his illustrious brother, whom he outlived but two years. That he had invaluable qualities we may assume from the long partnership between Robert and himself, but beyond what may be deduced from this, James Adam is practically an unknown quantity. That Robert was the moving spirit of the partnership is certain. May we not fairly conclude that whilst Robert supplied the brilliancy, the genius and the initiative, James brought to the work the steadiness, the painstaking care and the constant application, for lack of which sound qualities genius is so often dissipated? It is a guess, but it is a hazard in defence of which much might be written. In any event, it does injustice to neither brother, and probably appraises with a great degree of accuracy the particular virtues of both. So much for the personal side. What of their work?
Primarily- architects, the brothers Adam seem to havedevoted themselves to furniture designing in order that the furniture in some of the exquisite apartments they were responsible for should be in entire harmony with its surroundings. In general terms, the Adam style as seen in early American colonial furniture may be described as an adaptation or development (whichever is preferred) of the pure Classic of Greece and Italy, modified occasionally by French ideas, such, for instance, as the gilding of furniture. Another feature of Adam furniture was the application of composition ornaments to woodwork. Festoons of drapery or wreaths of flowers, caught up with a ram's head or tied with a knot of ribbon, are characteristic ornaments of the style. Their furniture was manufactured chiefly in mahogany as in the finest early American colonial furniture, carved, and sometimes inlaid with satinwood, or painted in different colours. The ruling idea, of course, was to make the furniture harmonise with the decorations of the room in which it was to be placed, and that accounts for many expressions of the, Adam style otherwise difficult to understand. Of original Adam furniture very little is to be seen. In the South Kensington Museum there are but three pieces, though there are architectural productions by the brothers in the form of mantelpieces. Sideboards, sometimes with serpentine fronts, sometimes straight with square tapered legs, bookcases, cabinets, screens, clock cases, chairs, etc.,, all were produced, as well as bedsteads, in fact everything necessary to the preservation of harmony between the architecture and decoration of a room and its contents.
The brothers Adam published a number of works on architecture, but it is beyond our scope to devote anything like detailed description to them. Of their decorative schemes, Robert Adam writes: " We have introduced a great diversity of ceilings, friezes and decorated pilasters, and have added grace and beauty to the whole by a mixture of grotesque stucco, and painted ornaments, together with the flowing rainceau, with its fanciful figures and winding 2 foliage."
Among the various ornaments used by the brothers Adam were octagons, hexagons, ovals, rounds, lozengeshaped panels, husks, fans, the sphinx, Greek and Roman vases, wreaths, honeysuckle, medallions with figures-the medallions sometimes draped-festoons, fauns, cupids, goats, eagle-headed grotesques, drapery, ribbons, carytides, mythological subjects, ram's heads, lion's and eagle's claws for feet, griffins, sea-horses, pateras, etc., and draped figures.
In Robert Adam's day, early American colonial furniture designing as apart from architecture was, to say the least, uncommon. Things have changed now, and changed so utterly and entirely that we can hardly realise the conditions which led the designers of the eighteenth century to write treatises on architecture as introductions to their volumes. Even amid a mass of such matter, however, there are gems to be found indicative of the spirit of the designer. Thus, Robert Adam writes: " If we have, any claim to approbation, we found it on this alone - that we flatter ourselves we have been able to seize, with some degree of success, the beautiful spirit of antiquity, and to transfuse it with novelty and variety, through all our numerous works.' With the exception of those cases where French influence led to gilding chairs or such like, Robert Adam's claim ` may be freely admitted.
As architects they carried out much important work. For Londoners, the Adelphi Terrace remains a monument to their memory, and all who have visited the Savage Club will remember the splendid specimens of their work visible within the building. A great number of their original drawings are to be seen in the " Sir John Soane's" Museum, and are well worthy of inspection by any one who desires a closer acquaintance with Adam designs.
But little need be said of our illustrations. They will give our readers a comprehensive idea of the work of the brothers Adam and should enable them to identify the style.
The general impression one gets from Adam early American colonial furniture is of its dignity and its grandeur. As to whether or not it is likely to exercise any considerable influence on modern styles it is exceedingly difficult to say. Unquestionably, its influence is felt in many modern productions, as, indeed all great work of the present day partakes in a greater or less degree, of the work of masters of a bygone period. Beyond that, however, it is pretty clear that furniture and decoration in the Adam style, pure and simple, is in very little demand now. Indeed, it is not perhaps too much to say that modern taste is in an opposite direction, cleaving to a simplicity of ornament or even a total absence of ornament, quite foreign to Adam ideas.
Mr. Percy Fitzgerald, in a lecture on Robert Adam, gay an eloquent testimony to the merits of the designer in early American colonial furniture. A brief quotation from his appreciation will not be out of place here. He said that Robert Adam was one of the most wonderfully endowed men of his generation, a man who was filled with the fullest artistic instinct - one whom it might well be said that everything he touched he adorned, and one who by instinct reached things which it took others years to effect Adam was an artist. Discussing Adam's accomplishments, the lecturer pointed out that he was first an architect who designed and built public buildings, noblemen's palaces and country houses, squares, streets, private houses, theatres. Next he was a decorator, one of the most beautiful and ornamental. He decorated his own houses. His decoration being structural, and in relief-not painted-it was inseparable from his buildings. That explains much, as we have already pointed out. And it must never be forgotten in estimating the value of the Adams' work used in early American colonial furniture designing.
Though there have not been lacking artistic critics who find Adam designs "flimsy and effeminate," we venture the opinion that such a verdict does not do justice to the talented brothers. One architect defending the pure Greek, fashion, said that the Adam style was in reality a contrast to the classical, and was introduced by Robert Adam, " whose corrupt taste had invented a style which contained all the worst peculiarities of the worst class of ornamentation and composition; it had its numerous admirers, and unfortunately was extensively practised. In some happy hour he is stated to have made one design of merit for Lord Scarsdale, viz., Kedlestone, which he carried into execution and which, as a whole, is considered to be a splendid composition." The average reader will feel that such criticism is unjustifiable. So far from it being correct to say that Adam decoration " contained all the worst peculiarities of the worst class of ornamentation," modern authorities freely admit that the style, whether in popular demand for the moment or not, contains artistic merit of the highest order as seen early American colonial furniture.
We remarked earlier in this chapter that the Adam style has been referred to as an " English edition of Louis Seize," and perhaps that gives us, in a word, a correct indication of the general tendency of the mode. Keen students of classical art, the brothers Adam modified the stately into the pretty and the dainty. One result is that Adam designs, whilst sometimes containing too great a measure of detail to give the best effect in large halls or salons, are eminently suitable to smaller apartments or boudoirs. It will be remembered that precisely the same feature distinguishes the Louis Seize style. Hence, for drawing-rooms the Adam decoration is perfect. There is a lightness and delicacy about it particularly appropriate to the atmosphere of such, and whatever measure popularity there may be in store for Adam influenced early American colonial furniture in the future, will, in all probability lie in this direction.
The curious may be interested to note the attitude of Dr. Johnson toward the work of the brothers Adam, as recounted by Boswell. The good doctor's antipathy to Scotsmen is well known, and he expressed irritation because Robert Adam showed a preference for employing his own countrymen. “Why, now, the Adams are liberal minded men as any in the world ; but I don't how it is, all their workmen are Scotch! " Later in biography, however, Boswell records that on viewing again, some of Adam's work, Dr. Johnson "thought better today of it than when he saw it before; for; he had lately attacked it violently." Was not the real art in the work overcoming the great man's prejudice?