Adventures in Reading

18th Century English Domestic Architecture: Robert Adam
September 30, 2007, 5:11 pm
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05450a.jpg“Central to Enlightenment thought was the conviction that through rational enquiry a knowledge of basic laws and principles was attainable and doctrines could be formulated afresh, in politics, religion, art or any other sphere of human thought.” David Irwin’s Neoclassicism

Jane Austen’s novels are centered around locations and structures, and to such a degree that Netherfield, Rosings, and Pemberley become (sedentary) characters of the novels. I have commented about Austen’s distinct lack of description and I am going to spend some time today exploring some of her domestic settings. However, like the fictional homes I have previously mentioned, these structures are going to be more favored by the aristocratic Darcy-set versus the burgeoning middle class of the Bennets.ante_room.jpg

The first picture displayed is of Syon House in Middlesex. The Duke of Northumberland commissioned Robert Adam to work on the house during the 1760s. “As so often during his career, Adam had to cope with the existing fabric of an older house, rather than building a totally new structure” (Irwin 97). Adams embraced the idea of unified design and in addition to remodeling outside portions of the home he spent a great deal of time harmonizing the interior of the house with his ideas of design. (This included manufacturing his own carpets, wallpapers, and furniture.) In class there was much discourse on the exterior versus the interior of these homes as well as the significant difference between the public and private rooms. Much of the Neo-Classical style seems to embrace simplistic (or primitive – though this is an outdated term) structures and designs (some of which we will look at) so when we begin to examine the images of the interior of Syon House we might become bewildered at the bold and imposing decor. In class we discussed how in some ways the whim and opulence displayed in Syon’s ante-room (the second picture displayed) seems a throwback to the Rococo era.

great_hall.jpgAfter rereading David Irwin’s passages on Syon House, I am beginning to disagree with that idea, as Syon House seems more and more of the interpretation and representation of Enlightenment and Neo-Classicism by the peerage. Adam was commissioned by a Duke and seemingly had a blank check when it came to furnishing the house. The Great Hall (the third picture) had columns from classical antiquity while other homes (including some Adam designed) had new columns carved or even used faux columns. Think of it as owning a nice reproduction of the Mona Lisa versus owning the actual Mona Lisa. Thus these homes very much reflected the patron and the patron’s decisions very much reflected their socio-economic status.2004_3207.JPG

Dropping down on the English peerage scale would be Lord Scarsdale’s home Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire (c. 1765 – 1770). This (fourth picture) is the south or rear view of Kedleston Hall, which Adam worked on as well. Here we can see an example of the Grand Tour’s influence as the façade is influenced by the Arch of Constantine (BCE 312 – 315). The central portion of the house is nearly an exact replica with some minor alterations to better suit the building. However, these alterations are interesting in illustrating how flexible Neo-Classical architects and Adam were at combining ancient influences (Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Etruscan, etc.) as well as developing them to meet modern demands.

etruscan_room.jpgOne more interior scene of Adam’s that I would like to show is the Etruscan dressing room at Osterley Park in Middlesex. This latter room perhaps will seem somewhat more familiar in interior design than Syon House, as it is indeed elegant and superbly done. The suggestion of opulence is more reserved than the gold gilding of the Ante-Room. The Etruscan room (fifth picture) has to be my favorite domestic scene I have seen by Adam. It is a private room, a lady’s dressing room, where much of the decoration is indeed the wall and ceiling panels and decorations and inserted paintings. By modern comparison the room certainly appears to be rather “busy” with the elongated figures and extreme details (meant to replicate Etruscan vases) of the wall’s artwork, but it is refined and beautiful.

Adam was from a family of architects and though the most notable was one of four brothers. Their firm was immense and during his time, Adam was one of the reigning king’s of architecture and leaves a legacy of the “Adam Style.” To place Adam more within his artistic period I would like to comment on some of the ideas buzzing about in this period. “Two of the leading concepts of the eighteenth century, reason and nature” (Irwin 73) can certainly be observed in Adam’s work. If you are unfamiliar with the art proceeding Adam this maybe an unreasonable observation. However, for centuries prior to Adam many artists and architects employed trompe l’oeil, which describes an illusionary quality meant to trick or deceive the viewer. Thus (and try to look beyond some of the interior decorating if this is still confusing) a source of clarity was presented in Adam’s work. Nature perhaps seems just as confusing but if we look back to Van Loon’s description of the English country side as durchkomponiert perhaps it begins to make more sense in nature being manicured and this quality of being beyond nature as more aesthetically pleasing than the natural landscape. I suppose what I am saying is that in regards to the 18th Century’s standards of reason and nature Adam seems to make perfect sense.

Additionally, an important aspect of Adam’s work is his use of color. “Unlike many of his contemporaries, Adam regardde colour as a very important element in architecture. Instead of the prevailing palette of white, greys and natural tones he used a multi-coloured palette, favouring paler shades interspersed on occasions with richer and deeper colours, sometimes in unexpected combinations” (98).



Lovely post. Scotland also has fine buildings by Adam, including the Old College at the University of Edinburgh, and others in the “Adam Style.” Many performances at the Festival take place in that area. So the Old College might be more accessible to some people than the Adam projects in rural areas; it’s in the heart of Edinburgh. But Adam is worth a trip to rural areas, too.

Thanks a million for the blogroll link.
Jan Harayda
One-Minute Book Reviews

Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom

Can’t help but wander back to your blog even while travelling. Very detailed and impressive account here on architecture in Austen’s days. Also, thanks for including link to ripple effects in your blogroll.

Comment by artidkc

[…] 18th Century English Domestic Architecture: Robert Adam is an excellent post about the architect in the blog,  Adventures in Reading. […]

Pingback by Robert Adam Interior: Video « Jane Austen’s World

What a pleasure to see such elegance of an era gone by. The proportions of the entrance halls alone and the furnishings that came with the period houses are delightful.
Many of these establishments are within quite easy reach for me and it has made me determined to visit some of the historic mansions again.
Thanks for bring the details to my attention.


Comment by beryl

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