Vaulting Ambition

Friday 05 Oct 2007

The Adam Brothers Exhibition

The development of London by speculative entrepreneurs is not a new story. In the eighteenth century four Scottish brothers, all members of the Adam family, embarked on a stunning regeneration scheme for a huge brownfield site in the centre of London to be known as the Adelphi. The story of this architecturally ambitious scheme and of the men behind it will be the focus of a significant and fascinating new exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London throughout the autumn of 2007. The exhibition, supported by MLA Designation Challenge Fund, will feature magnificent visuals, including some of the most impressive paintings of the Adelphi and drawings from the Adam collection in the Soane Museum, along with documents, drawings, paintings and family portraits lent from other public and private collections – some never seen before. Importantly, Vaulting Ambition will also focus on the story of the Adam brothers themselves and on the rupture in their relationships caused by the uncertain nature of their grand venture; the bank crashes of July 1772 and their recourse to a Lottery to escape financial disaster. In many ways their ground-breaking Adelphi scheme set the template for modern metropolitan development giving this exhibition an unusually contemporary relevance.

Known primarily as the first celebrity architects in Britain, Robert and James Adam were also partners in the biggest building company in the eighteenth century – a company that encompassed supply, materials, contracting and speculative development. Bob and Jamie were the second and third sons of the most eminent Scottish architect, William Adam, who, with their eldest brother Johnny and with Willy, the youngest son, established their business under the name of William Adam & Company in 1764, which remained trading until 1801.

The scale of the company’s operations is astonishing. At its height the firm employed as many as 3,000 men, a large number even by today’s standards and exceptional for the eighteenth century.

Four years after William Adam & Co. was established, the brothers began their great business adventure, building some 69 houses overlooking the Thames at Durham Yard on a run-down site that had belonged to the Duke of St Albans. The development was to be called the Adelphi - so nearly Adelphoi the Greek word for brothers – a neat example of the Adams’ unabashed and surprisingly modern grasp of self-promotion. Indeed the Adams presented themselves, to a modern eye, as big developers and ambitious men unwilling to let anything stand in their way. The organisation, energy and novelty that they brought to the Adelphi project was phenomenal: the story of their company is fascinating and ultimately touching.

The Adelphi was a ‘showcase’ for elegant new architecture, setting standards for urban developments throughout Britain. It established the ideal of civilised domestic design in the late Georgian age. Magnificent drawings – one almost nine feet long of Royal Terrace, a series of intricate and colourful ceiling designs almost certainly used for promotional purposes, chimney pieces, proposals for a fashionable church and delightful sketches of ‘sentry boxes’ will combine to tell the story of this astonishing scheme and the family that planned and promoted it. The Soane’s new exhibition devoted to the Adelphi and to the subsequent speculative projects of the Adams in Portland Place and Fitzroy Square will include Robert’s visionary designs for Bath and his magnificent proposals for Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Vaulting Ambition breaks new ground in a carefully researched presentation of the Adam brothers as business men, working in the building trade as well as their profession. Besides the richness of their creativity, the exhibition will explore how, in an utterly modern way, these Scottish entrepreneurs promoted their scheme, installed anchor tenants within the development to attract potential investors and purchasers, targeted clients of high net worth, faced down a potentially devastating financial crisis – and yet, in the end, were forced – like Macbeth - to pay an exceptional price for that “vaulting ambition which ore’ leaps itself and falls on t’other”.

This is a tale of eighteenth century design and destiny with strong resonance for the moral issues involved in development today.The exhibition will tour to three regional venues in 2008-09. Subject to confirmation the first venues of the tour will be the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh, Robert Adam’s great University building, and Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum.

The exhibition will tour to three regional venues in 2008-09. Subject to confirmation the first venues of the tour will be the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh, Robert Adam’s great University building, and Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum.

Key Facts:

United Kingdom

Want to submit your project to World Architecture News?

Contact The Team