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Robert Adam, pen and ink drawing

​Robert Adam, pen and ink drawing, from the book of letters

Letters from the Adam Brothers to Messrs Innes and Clerk

September 2015 witnessed a major two-day Georgian Group Symposium in London on Robert Adam and his Brothers, the first major event for many years to focus on this foremost Scottish family of architects. Historic England published a volume in 2017 based on the symposium papers.

There are well-known collections of Adam correspondence in the Scottish National Archives in Edinburgh and at the family home at Blair Adam in Fife, so London Metropolitan Archives may not seem an obvious place to seek out further material. But LMA holds a significant collection of letters from the four Adam brothers - John (1721-92), Robert (1728-92), James (1732-94) and William (1738-1822) - to Messrs Innes & Clerk, their financial agents in London (CLC/B/227/MS03070). The letters cover the period 1754-1807, but most date from 1754 to 1758 - a key period in the history of the Adam family practice. Colin Thom, Senior Historian at the Survey of London, Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL), explores further.

Robert Adam in Italy

The years covered include Robert Adam’s seminal Grand Tour to Italy and extended stay in Rome in 1754-8. His exposure to and experience of the remains of ancient Rome helped transform him from a capable provincial architect into a designer of international significance. His regular letters home to his family and to Innes & Clerk (usually asking for more money) chart this development and also provide interesting snippets about his life in Rome. Those interested in the everyday aspects of Georgian travel in mid century at a time of war will find much of interest. A case of books and some Parmesan cheeses were sent home to Edinburgh by ‘Bob’ (as he was known to his family) ‘in a convoy of 2 Men of War’, the cheese costing twice as much as the books to carry.

Having saved assiduously and left Scotland in the company of an aristocrat, Robert Adam was able to lead a double life in Rome: rising early to tend to his studies and drawing practice, then returning around noon to his rooms in time to join fashionable society as it began to stir in the early afternoon. The contacts he made among the visiting English milordos would he hoped serve him well on his return to Britain. So he was careful not to allow his vocation to be widely known among the talkative Italians. Ever conscious of status and keen to keep up the appearance of a visiting cavalieri rather than a mere architect, he tells Innes & Clerk: ‘it is not right to put designations on Letters, nor any other than the Simple name, as it is not always propper ones profession Shou’d be known & the Italians are extreamly inquisitive, so that when any one directs for Me you can easyly Scrape out the Designation’.

The Adams as art dealers and business speculators

Other aspects of the Adam brothers’ operations that the correspondence enlightens include their activities as art dealers and agents. One of Robert and Jamie’s chief objectives on their Grand Tours was to acquire pictures, sculptures and other objets d’art as an investment, for resale in London at a profit, and also as part of the fashionable interior design service they were offering aristocrats. Robert’s very first letter home, from Dunkirk in October 1754, is part of this LMA collection. In it he describes his rough sea crossing from England, and ‘the Magnificence of the Waves which we were formerly unacquainted with’; but he also takes the time to inform his brothers that he has already enquired about the best manner of getting prints and pictures from Calais to Dover. The collection of art and antiquities that he and his brother Jamie amassed on their separate travels was one of the biggest and most remarkable ever assembled outside of the British aristocracy. Robert bought at a bargain price six marble tables for Lord Hopetoun, whose house at South Queensferry outside Edinburgh the brothers had been improving and extending. These were shipped in crates aboard a ship at Leghorn, bound for London. Robert also sneaked on board some books of prints for Lord Deskford (later 6th Earl of Seafield, another important Adam patron), hidden underneath the tables in the crates so as to avoid paying duty on them.

View of the Adelphi's south front on the Strand, 1770

​View of the Adelphi's south front, 1770

Changes in the Adam practice

Standing alongside the high art in Adam studies is a family soap opera of equal interest and fascination. The four brothers had inherited the considerable practice of heir father William Adam (d.1748), Scotland’s foremost early Georgian architect. Earlier letters in the collection bear the name ‘Messrs John Robt & James Adam, Architects, in Edinburgh’; but Robert’s experiences in Rome convinced him he had the ability to become Britain’s (rather than Scotland’s) leading architect, and on his return early in 1758 he set up practice in London. This seismic shift in Adam family fortunes is discernible in the everyday matter of the correspondence in 1758. John writes from Edinburgh in February enclosing a letter for Innes & Clerk to pass on to Robert and Jamie, ‘as we are not yet sure where they are settled’. James writes in March from St James’s Place, Mayfair - Robert’s first London office - saying ‘My Brother desires me to drop you this line’; so already James has joined him and is acting on his behalf as his partner, as he would do for the rest of Robert’s life. By April the youngest brother Willie is there too, enquiring about his brother’s account; a merchant by training, he was to be the book-keeper for Robert and James, and also nominally ran the building company (William Adam & Company) in which all four brothers held equal shares, and which built the famous Adelphi development off the Strand in central London (the name Adelphi derives from the Greek for brothers). John still writes from Edinburgh under the name of ‘John & James Adam, Edinburgh’, but by 1760, when James left for his own Grand Tour, the break was complete. John Adam writes: ‘My Brother James being now gone abroad, He & I have dissolved our Copartnership during his absence, which is the reason of my writing in my own name’.  Thereafter the three London ‘Adelphi’, as John often referred to them, grew further apart from their older brother. Their once close relationship later soured when the London brothers’ finances crashed during the building of the Adelphi, dragging John in Edinburgh into terrible debt as they drew heavily on loans from him - which were never repaid - to keep going.

Adam craftsmen; and more financial trouble

Anyone interested in how the Adam practice went about its various activities in these early London years of the late 1750s and early 1760s will find much of interest. There are requests from the Adams to Innes & Clerk to make payments to well-known craftsmen who worked on some of the brothers’ buildings, for example: the Danish-born sculptor and statuary Michael Henry Spang (d. 1762), who was paid £50 in this way in September 1760, the year that he carved the dolphins and prows of ships on Adam’s first public work in London, the Admiralty Screen in Whitehall. (It was also Spang who in 1762 carved the monument to James Thomson, designed by Robert Adam, that stands next to Shakespeare’s memorial in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey.) And another Dane, the woodcarver and frame maker Sefferin Alken (1717-82), was paid £40 in August 1759 - around the time that he carved some of the earliest neo-classical picture frames in England, for paintings made by Agostino Brunias to decorate Robert Adam’s Breakfast Room for Sir Nathaniel Curzon at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire (the paintings and frames are now in Victoria & Albert Museum).

There is also an indication that all was not well with the Adam finances as early as March 1772, before the catastrophic bank crash that summer, which until now has always been thought the principal cause of their problems at the Adelphi. William Adam wrote that month to Mr Innes asking if they could have some extra credit, as ‘My Brothers and I find it necessary to raise a little money for our extensive Works till they are more compleat’.  Mr. Innes, already a heavy investor in West India concerns, was unable to assist. And finally, some of the later letters by William Adam of the early 1800s, by which time his three architect brothers were dead, show him struggling financially, seeking loans to help with the construction works he was still tendering for - a sad tale that would eventually end with bankruptcy in 1801 and again in 1817, and his suicide at the age of 84 in 1822.

22 October 2015
Last Modified:
27 August 2019