The greatest architectural book of the 18th century

On 16 January 1773, Robert and James Adam announced the publication of their 'Works in Architecture'. It went on to become possibly the most important architectural book of the 18th century.

Bridge at Sion

The Adam brothers decided to issue the 'Works' in parts rather than publish the book outright. In this way they avoided the lengthy subscription process that would have been required to raise the funds. The money saved was ploughed into the production of the most lavish display of architecture ever commissioned.

Some of the finest engravers available were hired to produce the plates. Elevations, plans, interiors, furniture, fireplaces and more are rendered in the finest detail. Seats of the aristocracy such as those of the Duke of Northumberland, the Earl of Mansfield and the Earl of Bute are represented, as well as designs for the King and Queen and for public buildings. 'Works in architecture' was crucial in making the neo-classical style popular.

Family background

Robert and James, along with their architect brothers John and William, were the sons of William Adam. He had worked with Sir John Vanburgh on Floors Castle, designed improvements to Hopetoun House, and worked with Sir John Clerk of Penicuik on the design of Mavisbank.

The Kirkcaldy-born Robert became the most celebrated of William's sons. During his studies at Edinburgh University he became friends with other future celebrities such as David Hume and Adam Smith.

cornice_t.jpg
Cornice, frieze
and capital.
Larger cornice
image

Grand Tourists and architects to the aristocracy

In 1754 Robert set off on an extensive four-year grand tour of France and Italy, where he studied Roman ruins and developed his skills and taste for classical architecture. James followed in his steps between 1760 and 1763.

By the time of the publication of the 'Works', Robert and James were not only experienced travellers, but had also made their reputation as classical architects. They were prepared to experiment rather than follow the strict rules of the Palladian style fashionable at the time. Their work appealed greatly to fashionable society. With an eye to a wider market the text of 'Works in Architecture' appeared in both English and French.

Publication of the parts

The publication of the five numbers of Volume 1 stretched over a torturous five years. They were issued as follows:

  • No. 1 in July 1773
  • No. 2 in May 1774
  • No. 3 in April 1775
  • No. 4 in September 1776
  • No. 5 in June 1778

The 10-month period between the publication of the first and the second number was described by the brothers themselves as 'longer than we had intended'. However, this would actually be the shortest gap between numbers. The marked delay in publishing the fifth number may have been due to problems with the seller Thomas Becket, who was replaced by Peter Elmsly.

Statue on plinth
End of hall at
Sion.
Larger hall
image

The price of delayed publication

Pattern books of neo-classical style became increasingly popular over the course of the publication of the Adam brothers' Works. Unfortunately, this greatly reduced the book's special status. The most important architectural book to rival the 'Works' was produced by George Richardson, who had worked for the Adam brothers for 18 years. His 'Book of ceilings' was a magnificent work in its own right, and Richardson was quick to thank Messrs. Adam for the experience of working under them. Robert Adam's name however was conspicuously absent from the list of subscribers.

Details of this book

Robert and James Adam. 'The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam'. London, 1773-1779. [Shelfmark: L.C.Fol.1]

Further reading

  • David King. 'Complete Works of Robert and James Adam'. Oxford, 2001. [Shelfmark: Art.S.15.A]
  • Eileen Harris. 'British Architectural Books and Writers 1556-1785'. Cambridge, 1990. [Shelfmark: Art.17.5.B]

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