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17 Jul 2020

On the trail of classical architecture: William and Robert Adam

A view standing in front of a large country house, looking up a set of grand stone steps. Neat hedges line the path and clumps of daffodils grow either side of the pillars.
House of Dun
Find out more about the remarkable father and son architects of the 18th century – and their beautiful buildings in our care.

Architecture has arguably been the Scots’ most successful art form. The National Trust for Scotland are proud to have been trusted with the care of a portfolio of buildings that demonstrate the evolution of this art form and the work of some of its most innovative and influential architects.’ (Ian Gow, former Chief Curator at the National Trust for Scotland)

The 17th century saw the rise of named architects in Scotland. By the 18th century, two names stand out as some of the nation’s most famous: William and Robert Adam. Their surname is now synonymous with architectural elegance throughout the world.

Who were William and Robert Adam?

Born in Fife, William Adam (1689–1748) designed and remodelled many country houses. He was regarded as the pre-eminent classical architect of his generation. Having served his apprenticeship as a mason, Adam began to receive large commissions in the 1720s including Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, The Town House in Aberdeen and Hopetoun House in Midlothian. A William Adam house was always well constructed and planned, with architectural splendour both indoors and out. He worked closely with a number of expert plasterers and artists, as can be seen especially at House of Dun.

His three sons – John, Robert and James – all continued the family tradition. Best known is Robert (1728–92), who established an original approach to the use of classical elements in architectural and interior design that made him the most celebrated architect in 18th-century Britain. As a young man, Robert went on the Grand Tour, studying classical architecture in France and Italy. He used the elements, proportions and details of the buildings he viewed to create a new type of domestic architecture. Upon his return, he set up an architectural practice with his brother James in London, from where he was responsible for the design of a series of the grandest country houses and castles throughout Britain. In Scotland his masterworks include Mellerstain, Newliston, and Culzean.

A view of a very large country house, seen from across a very neat lawn.
Haddo House

Haddo House (1731–36)

At Haddo William Adam designed a mansion house that was in stark contrast to anything that had been seen in the north-east of Scotland before, a region characterised by tower houses and castles.

The design of this house was based on the principles devised by Italian architect Palladio in the 16th century, which were being revived in Britain in the 18th century. Haddo House is one of the first Palladian-style buildings built in this area of Scotland. Proportion and symmetry are key features of this style, and Palladian buildings often have an austere exterior with lavish interiors. Although clearly influenced by the style, Adam operated outside the conventions of strict Palladianism with his inventive use of classical elements.

Adam’s design for the house comprised a main central block providing accommodation and entertaining rooms for the Gordon family, as well as two side wings containing stables, a kitchen and services. After climbing a set of stairs outside, visitors and family entered the house through a door on the first floor, into a very grand Entrance Hall.

The interiors of Haddo House underwent alterations by a number of nationally recognised Scottish architects during the 19th century including Archibald Simpson, John Smith and Wardrop and Reid. It now displays significant interior decoration from this time. However, the strength of the original William Adam design still gives Haddo its crisp, elegant appearance.

The front of House of Dun with views over Montrose Basin
House of Dun

House of Dun (1743)

Taking 13 years to complete, William Adam’s design for this house incorporated the ideas of fellow architects Alexander McGill and the Earl of Mar and featured a triumphal arch motif on the entrance front. House of Dun is perhaps the finest surviving example of a William Adam modest-sized country house.

The use of this triumphal arch on a villa façade was the first in Britain and influenced his son Robert’s later design at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire. Although House of Dun underwent alterations in the 19th century, the house retained Adam’s style in the intricate interior containing public rooms for formal entertaining alongside family apartments. Adam drew on both his Scottish architectural roots and on recent classical architecture from England and Continental Europe, with an inventive use of classical elements that was to be influential to later architects.

House of Dun is also significant for its elaborate interior decoration which features allegorical plasterwork by Joseph Enzer in the saloon. Statues of gods and goddesses and scenes from mythology complement Adam’s work and underline his concern that the interior splendour of the house should match the elegant proportions of the exterior.

Culzean Castle seen from Fountains Court on a sunny day.
Culzean Castle

Culzean Castle (1776–92)

Culzean Castle is regarded as the epitome of the Picturesque movement in Scotland. Whilst the Picturesque movement traditionally favoured informality in both architecture and landscaping, at Culzean Robert Adam combined regularly ordered classical features with invented elements.

Adam’s castellated mansions set in Romantic landscapes, such as Culzean Castle, strongly influenced the design of Scottish country houses in the first half of the 19th century. Culzean is seen as the high point of Adam’s castle style. Taking full advantage of its setting on the Ayrshire clifftop, the design evokes notions of the sublime power of nature, an idea that underpinned the Romantic movement of the late 18th century.

Adam was responsible not only for the architectural redesign but also the furnishings, carpets and decorative features including columns, cornices and finishing touches such as mirrors. Many of these are considered to be some of the finest of his later work. The interior includes one of the most imposing staircases in any 18th-century house. Walking down the sweeping Oval Staircase is a memorable experience, with its soaring colonnades and grand oil paintings. The unique Round Drawing Room offers panoramic views over the Firth of Clyde to Arran. There is a wonderful contrast between the elegance and the refined nature of the interior and the stark castle exterior.

Watch a short video about Culzean’s beautiful interiors

The Trust decided long ago that part of caring for our historical buildings meant promoting the traditional skills that make preservation possible. At Culzean, where much of the property is made from local sandstone, we have our own in-house team of skilled stonemasons who maintain the walls, chimneys, fountains and viaducts. We’re also proud to run a stonemason apprenticeship scheme, giving young people across the country the skills they need for a worthwhile career.

A row of terraced townhouses with a unified exterior on a sunny day. A road runs before them.
The palace front on Charlotte Square

The Georgian House (1791–96)

In 1791 Adam was commissioned to design the frontages for Charlotte Square, to complete the western end of the first phase of building the New Town of Edinburgh.

Construction of the New Town had begun in 1767, to the plan of James Craig. It was the most important urban development of the 18th century in Scotland: the development of Charlotte Square in the 1790s is comparable to a London prime site development today.

On the north side of Charlotte Square, Adam designed a symmetrical, neo-classical palace façade, behind which lay a row of terraced houses. This was one of the earliest examples in Scotland of the use of a palace frontage to unify the appearance of a series of individual terraced houses. It was a design which set the pattern for much of the subsequent expansion of the New Town.

Right in the middle of this palace front stand Numbers 5, 6 and 7, all owned by the National Trust for Scotland. Number 5 houses offices for the Edinburgh International Book Festival; Number 6 (Bute House) is the official residence of the First Minister; and Number 7 is our Georgian House – a restored townhouse offering a glimpse of what life was like in the New Town almost 250 years ago.

Robert Adam’s Charlotte Square is widely recognised as a masterpiece of designed urban space and is considered a significant feature of the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A view looking through the white banisters and down the Oval Staircase in Culzean Castle
The Oval Staircase at Culzean Castle

We work hard every day to protect the architectural treasures in our care, from magnificent country houses like those above to tiny ice houses almost hidden in our grounds. Now more than ever, we urgently need your support in helping us to protect our built heritage, so future generations can enjoy these beautiful buildings and the remarkable stories they tell.

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