Country Houses of Robert Adam

The Country Houses of Robert Adam: From the Archives of Country Life

Eileen Harris

(Aurum Press, £40)

This strikingly beautiful and scholarly book is the most recent volume in the fascinating series, illustrated with plates taken from the Country Life photographic archive, assembled thematically for the first time. Eileen Harris’s book has a particularly strong base in the photographs from Arthur Bolton’s two-volumed monograph The Architecture of Robert and James Adam, published by Country Life in 1922, which was illustrated with photographs that had appeared in the magazine from 1903 onwards. Bolton first proposed a book in 1913, half the length of what event-ually appeared in 1922, which, according to Dr Harris, is still ‘the largest monograph devoted to a British architect’. However, the pre-war lavishness of its presentation led to such financial loss that, aggravated by the 1929 crash, the magazine remaindered the work.

Adam was a revolutionary, who wrote in 1773, in his frankly propagandist work The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, that through his efforts ‘the massive entablature, the ponderous compartment ceiling, the tabernacle frame? are now universally exploded’. In replacing the dull Palladian box with lively vaults, apses, and lacy ornament, his models included ancient Roman planning and that of contemporary Paris. He explained that ‘a proper arrangement and relief of apartments are branches of art in which the French have excelled all other nations’, adding uncompromisingly, ‘to understand thoroughly the art of living, it is necessary perhaps to have passed some time among the French’. Indeed, the glamorous effects at which he aimed required large mirrors, which, as Dr Harris explains, were ‘imported at great expense from France’.

When Adam began his dazzling career in 1758, the age of building vast, new country houses was largely over, so that much of his work consisted of remodelling their outmoded interiors. He is thus particularly associated with interior decoration, but the author stresses that, of all the branches of architecture, he claimed in his own words, to ‘esteem planning above all the others as the most essential to the splendour and convenience of life’. She points as evidence to the fact that ‘the long vista from the library through the sculpture gallery at Newby Hall, Yorkshire, and the oval staircase at Culzean Castle, Ayrshire, are masterpieces of scenic architecture’.

The decision to include in this book a section on town houses is especially welcome for, as we are told, ‘concern about the future of London houses after the First World War led Country Life to photograph and publish the interiors of the survivors’. This fear was justified, as half of the town houses in this book were demolished during the 1930s, but of the 16 country houses included, only Bowood, Wiltshire, has been lost. This was demolished in 1956, following the death in the Second World War of two sons of the 6th Marquess of Lansdowne, and due to the cost of repairs after occupation by the RAF. The comparative rates of demolition typify a familiar story: the far greater attachment of the English to the country house than the town house.

Although the quality of the dignified black-and-white photographs in this book has never been surpassed, it is enlivened with colour photographs taken more recently. This suits the author’s feeling for colour and her knowledge of the many changes which the interiors have undergone. For example, she explains that in Lord Mansfield’s library at Kenwood, ‘among the most important Neo-Classical rooms in Europe’, the columns screening the apse were faux-porphyry in 1815, white in the late-19th century, porphyry in 1950, and recently painted ‘white with a glare that would have startled Adam’. At 20, St James’s Square, for Sir Watkin Williams-Wynne, the ‘Welsh Maecenas’, Adam’s ‘gay colour scheme of pale purple, pink and green’ was replaced, first by ‘anodyne shades of cream’, and then in 1989 by a dull grey and green for corporate use: ‘Gone is Adam’s spirit,’ Dr Harris laments.