For a quarter of a century after 1760, the great name in furniture design was Robert Adam. He produced an immense body of work which ranged from domestic furnishings to monumental buildings.
He established himself as a Palladian architect but, on returning from his Grand Tour of France and Italy in 1758, he decided to adapt and incorporate some of the lighter classical motifs into his designs. The honeysuckle swags and oval paterae worked well alongside the classic urns and delicate ribbons but his patterns failed to comply with the classical proportions dictated by Palladianism. Other architects objected to Adam’s departure from the strict Palladian rules but, together with his younger brother James, Robert Adam continued to develop the style. In 1773 the brothers published the first edition of ‘The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam’ (The Works) in which they claimed to have recaptured ‘the beautiful spirit of antiquity …….. by means of a series of delicate ornaments and mouldings’.
By simplifying and combining Greek, Roman and Byzantine decorative elements the Adam brothers had created a new classical or neo-classical style for which they became extremely popular. Soon they were employed to modify and build new homes for the British aristocracy and rising merchant classes. Robert Adam was a perfectionist, designing everything himself from the facade of a building to the plaster mouldings of the ceilings and the shape of the furniture. In 1759 he employed Thomas Chippendale, ten years his senior, to help him furnish his first independent contract at Dumfries House in Scotland and, it was there that the trust between the two men was established. On subsequent commissions, including the work at Harewood House in Yorkshire, Adam could rely on the judgment of Chippendale . Adam’s neo-classical influence is abundantly clear in the contrast between the design publications of Chippendale and Hepplewhite. Chippendale’s, ‘The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director’ (The Director), had preceded his partnership with Adam, but The Guide first published by A. Hepplewhite and Co. in 1788, was packed with Adam’s neo-classical motifs and became instrumental in converting many of Adam’s designs into furniture patterns that could be copied by the chair-makers of London. Hepplewhite’s adaptations of the ‘Adam Style’ are evident on most pages of The Guide from the vase-shaped pediments on the bookcases and chests of drawers to the ribbons and festoons on the shield-back chairs.
Thomas Sheraton was also a great admirer of the Adam Style and many of the illustrations in ‘The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book’ (The Drawing-Book) contain references to the stylised swags and floral-paterae made popular by Robert Adam and his brother almost twenty years earlier. The influence of the Adam brothers extended way beyond architecture and furnishings. During the latter half of the eighteenth century Josiah Wedgwood, quick to recognise the opportunity, applied many of Adam’s motifs to his new range of Jasper Ware. Within a few years, the first wave of the neo-classical movement in Great Britain was well underway. But a second wave had already started to develop across the English Channel and within a few years the Adam Style would give way to the bold straight lines and symbolic ornamentation of the French Empire Style.
We are grateful to Clive Taylor for this contribution.