Avid Adam

1992 marks the bicentenary ofthe death of Robert Adam, the man who revolutionised 18th century Scottish architecture with his reinterpretation of Classical Antiquity. But was he a national hero or a self—promoter? Andrew Gibbon Williams visits an exhibition about Adam’s seminal journey to the Emperor’s Palace in Yugoslavia, and uncovers a talent tempered by greed.

Until the Serbian Navy began lobbing shells in its direction earlier this year. the courtyard of Diocletian‘s Palace at Split was one of the most pleasant cafes on the Adriatic. It is not unlikely that refreshments were already available there in the mid 18th century; ifso. a young gentleman from Kirkcaldy undoubtedly set aside his measuring tape and partook.

Mr Robert Adam had already been abroad for two and a half years when he left Rome for the port on the Dalmatian coast then known as Spalatro. The ultimate aim of his trip was simple: by producing a spectacular volume half archaeological record. half architectural survey— based on his observations of the ruins of the Roman emperor‘s vast seaside palace. he would make his mark in England and become the most famous architect in Europe.

Adam and his team had a mere five weeks in Spalatro. not long to gather information about the nine-acre site. Consequently. most of the work the detailed drawings ofelevations, the engraving ofthe plates. the co-ordinating ofthe keys. the composing of historical descriptions had to be done after leaving the subject. In all. the project took as long as the eponymous war which was then raging across Europe: seven years of plates being trundled back and forth between Rome, Venice and London, of letters correcting and admonishing, of wounded egos and sacrificed loyalties.

Not that there was anything particularly original about this kind of project. Adam was merely following a tradition begun during the previous century; in those days it was expected that architects should prove their worth with some such magnum opus. What sets Adam‘s great tome apart as Dr Iain Gordon Brown‘s admirable research for this exhibition proves is the way in which he shamelessly used the book as a vehicle for self-promotion. often to the detriment ofothers’ reputations.

Adam‘s most hard-done-by victim was Charles~


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Details from an engraved plate trom ‘flulne of the Palace of

the Emperor Dtocletlanat Spalatro'

Louis Clérisseau. the French watercolourist whose picturesque views help make this exhibition such a pleasure. Clérisseau was second only to Adam responsible for the look ofthe finished book. Yet in the grand. morocco-bound folios which were eventually delivered to the list of aristocratic subscribers, he is merely thanked in general terms for his contribution. The deliberate implication is that the entire book is by Adam‘s hand alone. In a telling letter Adam even chides Clérisseau for having let it be known about Venice that he had contributed.

And Cle’risseau was not alone in having to suffer this shabby treatment. Various engravers are referred to scathingly in correspondence. Adam‘s cousin, the eminent historian William Robertson. who had been persuaded to write the introduction. received a few cases of claret in payment. but no proper credit. James Adam. the architect‘s younger brother, did much of the grafting on the Venice side of the operation many of the proofs now owned by the National Library are annotated in his hand rather than Robert's— yet his contribution goes unacknowledged.

None of this detracts from the intellectual precision Adam brought to bear on the project. He made sure that measurements were accurate; that features like statues inaccurately included by Clérisseau were removed when it came to the engraving of the plates. His classical erudition still shines through. even though several of the historical conclusons to which he came have since been disproved by modern archaeology. Adam‘s imagined floor-plans (already in Adam‘s day much of the palace had been obscured by later building)



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have since been shown to be correct.

No matter how fascinating the contention of the exhibition. though. the important thing as far as we are concerned is the use to which the great architect put his observations at Spalatro. Here. an informative slide presentation instructs the visitor to the National Library. Features such as astragals surmounting doorways. screens of Ionic columns fronting vestibules and even larger characteristics like the massing ofarchitectural elements were first contemplated and understood at Diocletian‘s Palace and then interpreted and utilised in Britain‘s great houses at ()sterley. at Keddleston. at Seton Castle in East Lothian. And the New Town of Edinburgh ofcourse not to mention Edinburgh University is littered with reflections of Adam’s Spalatro observations.

For those. however. who in the light ofthe current political climate in Scotland may be thinking of resurrecting Robert Adam as some kind of nationalist hero during this bicentenary year. this exhibition will be a disappointment. Rather than dedicate his great book to the Duke of Argyll. his father William Adam's traditional patron. Robert chose George III; a dedication to Argyll would have sounded ‘too nationall‘ (sic) in his opinion. In the portrait of Adam now thought to be by David Martin, the architect appears the embodiment of the anglophilic Scottish Enlightenment. We can but be grateful that circumstances permitted many of his superior designs to be realised north of the Border. Monumental Reputation: Robert Adam and the Emperor's Palace is at the National Library of Scotland until 30 September.


“The List l7-3OJuly1992