Robert Adam, Classical Architecture and the Gothic Revival

Posted by Peter Lindfield on October 26, 2015 in Blog, Peter Lindfield tagged with

This is the second of my monthly posts in connection with the AHRC-funded project, Writing Britain’s Ruins, 1700–1850: The Architectural Imagination. The project is developing apace with preparations for the MOOC on the Gothic Revival and a highly subscribed conference, Reading Architecture Across the Arts and Humanities, taking shape (87 people giving papers): more details can be found at

The topic of this post concerns the Gothic Revival architecture of Robert Adam (1728–92), and coincides with a number of my current activities: tidying up my monograph, Georgian Gothic: Designing Medievalist Architecture and Interiors 1730–1840, which I’m submitting to Boydell and Brewer on 1 December 2015; preparing my paper, ‘Robert Adam: A Classical and Antiquarian Goth’ that I’m presenting at the annual BSECS (2016) conference in Oxford (held at the not-so-Gothic St Hugh’s College); and weaving Airthrey Castle, the University of Stirling’s very own piece of Adam Castle architecture, into the Writing Britain’s Ruins MOOC.

So, to Robert Adam (1728–92). He was from a family of Scottish architects, and is certainly one of Scotland’s most prolific architectural designers. He designed outright, extended, remodelled and refurnished a total of 92 country houses across Britain. The majority (73) of these architectural commissions, such as his interventions at Osterley Park, Middlesex, (1763–80) were Classical and influenced heavily by the Grand Tour that he undertook between 1754 and 1758.

Osterley Park, Middlesex

Osterley Park, Middlesex

Adam left Edinburgh in October 1754 and stopped in London, where he met Gavin Hamilton (1723–1798), a Scottish painter, archaeologist and dealer. From London they made their way to Brussels and met up with Charles Hope (1710–91), the younger brother of John Hope, 2nd Earl of Hopetoun (1704–81), of Hopetoun House, Edinburgh. It was hoped that Charles Hope would introduce Adam to all the appropriate aristocrats in Italy, and also help share the cost of the tour. It was in Florence (February 1755) that Adam met Charles-Louis Clérisseau, a French architect, whom he sang praises of: he had

‘the utmost knowledge of Architecture of perspective & of Designing & Colouring I ever saw, or had any Conception of; He rais’d my Ideas, He created emulation & fire in my Breast. I wish’d above all things to learn his manner, to have him with me at Rome, to Study close with him & to purchase of his works’ (Howard, Dr. Kimball, 2006, 49).

Clérisseau guided Adam through the architectural remains of antiquity, and Adam eagerly absorbed these remains. Between February 1755 and May 1757 Adam sketched architecture as well as Renaissance and Baroque buildings. These buildings, especially the ruins, provided him with a kind of ‘architectural inspiration’, the tangible results of which are his imaginary sketches of architecture, known as capricci. The majority of these capricci depict Classical architecture (, however there are a number of Gothic elements, such as pointed arches and towers, one of which resonates with Brizlee tower, which Adam designed as part of the works for Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland, at Anlwick Castle (1777–83)


Brizlee tower reflects a particularly distinctive (re)interpretation of medieval architecture. Adam did not adopt the ogee arch, which was so typical of early and mid eighteenth-century Gothic Revival architecture, and can be seen, for example, in William Kent’s designs for Esher Place, or Shobdon Church, Herefordshire (possibly designed by Kent, though certainly made in imitation of Kent’s style), and also fashionable furniture designs by Thomas Chippendale. Adam’s tower, instead, is punctured by windows with angular heads, giving the whole structure a rectilinear and rigid appearance, rather than an organic, squirming, character typical of the work of earlier Gothic Revival architects and designers.

Adam's Bridle Tower, Northumberland

Adam’s Brizlee Tower, Northumberland


Shobdon Church, Herefordshire, exterior

Shobdon Church, Herefordshire, exterior

This rectilinear Gothic form can be seen in Adam’s proposals for Croome Court’s Church, and the pulpit was made in this style.

Room Church, Worcestershire, Adam's pulpit

Room Church, Worcestershire, Adam’s pulpit

But at Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole’s Gothic villa in Twickenham, Adam proposed something quite exceptional: a canopied settee that merged his prickly rectilinear Gothic with the architectural ornaments he had surveyed whilst on the Continent. The unrealised settee design (now at the Lewis Walpole Library, Farmington, CT, 49 3678) is an extraordinary mixture of opposing architectural styles — Gothic and Classical.

Adam's Design for a Gothic Settee

Adam’s Design for a Gothic Settee. Image courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

These modes were interpreted in binary opposition to one another in the eighteenth century, and their mixture, therefore, flies in the face of eighteenth-century architectural criticism:

In his Anecdotes of Painting Walpole writes that:

‘it is difficult for the noblest Grecian temple to convey half so many impressions to the mind, as a cathedral does to the best Gothic taste — a proof of skill in the architects and of address in the priests who erected them. The latter exhausted their knowledge of the passions in composing edifices whose pomp, mechanism, vaults, tombs, painted windows, gloom and perspectives infused such sensations of romantic devotion; and they were happy in finding artists capable of executing such machinery. One must have taste to be sensible of the beauties of Grecian architecture; one only wants passions to feel Gothic’ (Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting, I, 1765, 14–5).

By blending the two architectural styles, however, Adam united the then contemporary Neoclassical fashion (fuelled by his Grand Tour and those undertaken by wealth Britons) with Walpole’s passionate interest in Gothic design. Adam’s 1767 design is largely ornamented with quatrefoils, which, for example, create a band above and below the rose windows, but also in the lower frieze under the seat. The blind rose windows almost certainly responded Adam’s design for the Round Room’ ceiling at Strawberry Hill, which was based upon that at Old St Paul’s Cathedral, London. In 1766 Walpole ‘sent Mr Adam the two books [Sir William Dugdale’s History of St Paul’s Cathedral in London (1658), with plates by Wenceslaus Hollar, and John Dart’s Westmonasterium, (1742), 49 591 and 49 566], and hopes at his leisure he will think of the ceiling and chimney-piece’ for the Round Room (Lewis et al ed, Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, XLI, 39).

Adam’s integration of Classical ornament is brazen: anthemion-style corbels support conoid vaults and Neoclassical florals decorate the bench ends and at the cresting where the pinnacles spring from. Whilst the Round Room’s ceiling was largely a coherent expression of Gothic design, save for the affected ornament at its centre, and on the room’s frieze, Adam’s Round Room chimney piece is an almost entire Classicisation of a Gothic model — the shrine of St Edward the Confessor.

Adam's chimneypiece for the Round Room, Strawberry Hill, Twickenham

Adam’s chimneypiece for the Round Room, Strawberry Hill, Twickenham

Walpole records that ‘The design of the Chimney-piece is taken from the tomb of Edward the Confessor, improved by Mr. Adam, and beautifully executed in white marble inlaid with scagliola, by Richter’ (Walpole, Description of the Villa of Mr. Horace Walpole, 1784, 53). ‘Improved’ is a dangerous word — John Carter, the prolifically polemic eighteenth-century antiquary, denounced James Wyatt’s improvements to medieval architecture as the ‘sculpting hand’ of modernity and entirely destructive. Walpole, however, did not mid this improvement, writing in 1768 that,

‘for this year past I have been projecting a chimney in imitation of the tomb of Edward the Confessor, and had partly given up, on finding how enormously expensive it would be. Mr Adam had drawn me a design a little in that style, prettier it is true, and at half the price. I had actually agreed to have it executed in scagliola, but have just heard that the man complained he could not perform his compact for the money settled. Your obliging present is I am certain executed by the very person who made the Confessor’s monument’ (Lewis et al eds, Walpole’s Correspondence, XXXV, pp. 406–7).

One of the most critical Georgian commentators of eighteenth-century Gothic design, Walpole, consequently found Adam’s Classicisation of medieval design both acceptable and appealing. This overtly Neoclassical form of the Gothic Revival was not limited to Adam’s interiors: the exterior of Culzean Castle, Ayrshire, for example, mixes Gothic motifs (crenellations, arrow slits, bartizans and so on), with the regularity and symmetry of Classical architecture, and its structural motifs (including relieving arches and venetian windows). A similar, though less Picturesque and spectacular, arrangement was achieved at Airthrey Castle, Stirling. These buildings, and Adam’s other Neoclassical Gothic at Strawberry Hill, are monuments to later eighteenth-century aesthetics and the continuation of the Gothic Revival.

Culzean Castle, Ayrshire

Culzean Castle, Ayrshire

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