Style and Serendipity: Adam, Walpole and Strawberry Hill

By Wilton-Ely, John | British Art Journal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Style and Serendipity: Adam, Walpole and Strawberry Hill


Wilton-Ely, John, British Art Journal


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There has always been something of a paradox in the relationship of Horace Walpole to Robert Adam as interior designers of idiosyncratic genius who worked together harmoniously in the 1760s at Strawberry Hill, especially after Walpole acclaimed the architect's early achievements at Syon and Osterley Park. By the 1770s, when the radical principles of the Adam style were announced and disseminated though the plates and text of The Works" in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, Walpole's dismissive comments and sustained attacks on the Scottish architect seem harsh in the light of the innovatory attitudes they had previously shared. This article explores their common originality and attempts some explanations for the breakdown of their productive relationship.

The creation of the Adam style over two decades, between 1760 and 1780, is among the most remarkable episodes in European neo-classical design, both in terms of the conscious intention to fashion a contemporary system of expression in architecture and the decorative arts as well as the unprecedented range of visual sources and ideas on which it was based. Robert Adam had returned from four critical and highly rewarding years of travel and studies in Italy during which he had come under the catalytic force of Piranesi's eclectic vision of antiquity as a endless source of new ideas; a system of design which has much in common with Walpole's invented principle of Serendipity--the process of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. (2) Adam, returning to London from surveying Diocletian's marine palace at Spalato, Dalmatia in January 1758, had set up an office in Lower Grosvenor Street, in partnership with his younger brother James who was to leave for three years travel in Italy himself in 1760. Robert, by means of his acute business sense and effective client relations, was swift to acquire a set of prestigious country house commissions at Harewood, Kedleston, and Bowood as well as lucrative work in other properties such as Shardeloes, Croome Court, Compton Verney and Hatchlands. (3)

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Walpole at the heart of fashionable society had been swift to praise Adam's first major London debut in 1761 when he was commissioned by the Duke of Northumberland to remodel the interiors of his southern seat at Syon House, situated close to the metropolis on the Tharaes and only a few miles down river from Strawberry Hill. (4) Although Walpole mentions in the surviving journals of his visits to country seats that 'in June 1761 this Lord [Northumberland] has begun a magnificent apartment, altering the old vast hall, which had four doors in the corners with six marble steps & a prodigious chimney, & the three next chambers', it is not entirely clear whether he had actually seen the dramatic changes before a visit made in 1764. (5) During that year Adam was then in the process of producing a fifth grand space in the sequence of rooms of parade to replace the Jacobean Long Gallery. As Walpole wrote to the Earl of Hertford on 27 August: 'I have been this evening to Sion [sic], which is becoming another Mount Palatine. Adam has displayed great taste, and the Earl raatches it with magnificence. The gallery is converting into a museum in the style of a columbarium, according to an idea that I proposed to my Lord Northumberland.' (6)

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Clearly Walpole was deeply impressed by Adam's imaginative transformation of a long, narrow and low-vaulted space into an elegant library, embellished with a profusion of ornamental plasterwork, set off by an elaborate ceiling and carpet. The long east wall was to be enlivened by piers with matching mirrors and tables, alternating with the window recesses. Apart from doorcases and chimney-pieces, the corresponding wall opposite and shorter ones to north and south were to be divided by pilastered bookcases, all richly embellished with painted decorations in the Italian grotesque style, inset pictures and niches.

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