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The Adam family - enlightened architects of 18th century Edinburgh

The Adam family - enlightened architects of 18th century Edinburgh
The Adam family - enlightened architects of 18th century Edinburgh
In the 18th century, a family of architects placed a lasting mark on Edinburgh’s cityscape. William Adam and his sons John, Robert and James were regarded as leading architects of their time and remain highly respected today.

William Adam and his second son, Robert, are perhaps the better-known names today, but brothers John and James are also credited with significant architectural achievements.

William Adam inherited and expanded his father's business ventures and was a builder as well as an architect. He owned a brickworks in Kirkcaldy, and other supply industries including, highways, timber mills and a marble works. He even acquired the lease at Craigleith Quarry to ensure the supply of stone for the building projects for which he acted as contractor.

William Adam's Vitruvius Scoticus publication was planned by Adam to contain plates of his own work and his architectural predecessors in Scotland. However, the book was only finally published by his grandson William, in 1811, long after his death.

William Adam is probably best known for his work on large stately homes such as Hopetoun House, Mavisbank House for Sir John Clerk, and Duff House in Banffshire. He was though, later commissioned to work on several large public buildings across Scotland and including in Edinburgh, the Orphans' Hospital, George Watson's Hospital and the Royal Infirmary.

When William Adam died in 1748, his eldest son, John, took over his business interests in Scotland, whilst Robert and James continued the architectural legacy.

In 1754, Robert set off on a Grand Tour visiting classical sites in Italy and studying architecture under the French draughtsman, Charles-Louis Clérisseau and Italian artist, Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Robert returned to London in 1757, and afterwards established his architectural practice in partnership with James and with his youngest brother William providing business support. Robert was the dominant figure in the business and had established the 'Adam style' by the time James returned from his own tour of Italy in 1763.

The Adam practice was one of the busiest and most fashionable in England between the 1750s and the 1780s. Despite this, Robert Adam received few opportunities for large-scale design. By the time he returned from Italy, many of the aristocrats had already built their grand houses and Adam was employed to design their interiors. It was rare for Robert Adam to be commissioned to design a building from scratch. In Edinburgh he did receive two notable commissions: University of Edinburgh and Register House. The University Old College building was completed in a different way to his designs, but Register House stands testament to his completed vision for a monumental building.

In the exhibition you’ll also find the Royal Exchange, or as we know it, City Chambers on the High Street, which was built to a modified design by John Adam and has had later alterations. There is also St George's Episcopal Chapel on York Place which is credited to James Adam, but which has since been remodelled and recognisable today as a casino.

Alongside the buildings, the exhibition highlights selected pages from architectural ‘copybooks’ held in the Central Library. Some of these books, like Vitruvius Scoticus and ‘The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, Esquires’, were produced by the Adam architects to showcase their works, while others would have been consulted by them for inspiration and reference.

You can also follow our companion digital story, The Adam Family – enlightened architects of 18th century Edinburgh on Our Town Stories where you can read more about their life, works and social circle.

Sources of further reading:
Dictionary of Scottish Architects
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography available via National Library of Scotland
Robert Adam and the development of eighteenth century Edinburgh by Julian Small for Scran