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Robert and James Adam office drawings


Together with the travel drawings of Robert and James Adam, the drawings in this catalogue constitute over 80% of all known drawings from the office of one of the greatest eighteenth-century architects. It is an incomparable, world class collection that has been preserved for nearly 200 years in Sir John Soane's Museum, London. Soane wanted his house and collection to be free for everybody to visit, use and enjoy, and I have no doubt that he would have been delighted that modern technology and the superb photography of Ardon Bar-Hama can now make these extraordinarily beautiful drawings available to users everywhere. I am indebted to our donors who have made this project possible and to the many individuals who have given freely and continue to offer their expertise in assisting Frances Sands in her efforts to make these drawings available for you to use and enjoy.

Tim Knox, Director, 2011

The catalogue of the drawings from the office of Robert and James Adam is a project that has only been made possible with the kind support of a number of generous donors: The Leon Levy Foundation; Mrs Gisela Gledhill; Basil Postan; The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art; The Rootstein Hopkins Foundation; The Foyle Foundation, Simon Hurst and Nick White.


The second of four sons of William Adam (1689-1748), the leading Scottish architect of his day, Robert Adam (1728-92) was brought up amid the intellectual environment of the Scottish Enlightenment. He abandoned his studies at Edinburgh University early in order to join his father's architectural practice. By these means he amassed a personal fortune of £5,000, enabling him to undertake a Grand Tour. The travel drawings of Robert and James Adam were catalogued by Professor A.A. Tait (completed 2008), and are to be found alongside this collection on the Soane Museum's website. Robert returned to England in 1758 to set up his architectural practice in London, and quickly became one of the most influential and important architects of the Georgian period.

The history and archaeology of the Adam Drawings collection at Sir John Soane's Museum is a fascinating one. The combination of a team of professional draughtsmen, and a hard working architect, resulted in a vast array of designs. This collection spanned 36 years of practice: from 1758 when Robert returned from his Grand Tour until 1794 when James Adam died - and encompasses work for over 350 different patrons.

In two articles: A.A. Tait, 'The sale of Robert Adam's drawings', Burlington Magazine, July 1978, and I.G. Brown, 'Robert Adam's Drawings: Edinburgh's Loss, London's Gain', The Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, new series 2, 1992, the history of the Adam drawings collection is explored, but a summary will be given here. On the deaths of Robert (d.1792) and James (1732-94) the brothers' effects were inherited by two spinster sisters, Elizabeth (d.1796), and Margaret (d.1820) - who had acted as their housekeepers - and their youngest brother William (1738-1822). Financial concerns had plagued the Adam family since the failure of the Adelphi scheme in the 1770s, and they were left with very little income. The siblings aged, and their niece Susanna Clerk (the daughter of John Clerk of Eldin: Robert's brother-in-law and biographer) moved to London to care for them. Presently the spinsters passed away, and the collection was left to the mercy of William alone. With Susann's help William heavily edited the drawings collection, keeping only those items he deemed of particular note. The remains were removed from their original order and pasted into 53 folios, arranged typologically, both as a memorial to the architects, and to make the drawings more saleable. An additional folio of friezes is included in the collection - number 53 - but this was a product of the Adam office itself. Sales in 1818 and 1821 saw various personal possessions and loose drawings sold, a number of them to Sir John Soane, and these drawings were arranged into three folios - volumes 55, 56 and 57 - later in the nineteenth century. On William's death Susanna offered the fifty-four folios to the British Museum, without success, and they were removed to Edinburgh when Susanna returned there to act as housekeeper to her brother, Lord Eldin. The folios were then entered into the Eldin sale of 1833 with a reserve of £250, to no avail, and were eventually purchased by Sir John Soane in that year for only £200. The few drawings remaining in Susanna's possession were eventually returned to the Adam family at Blair Adam.

The only previous catalogue of the Adam drawings collection in Sir John Soane's Museum was made by Arthur T. Bolton, Curator of Sir John Soane's Museum (1917-45), based on a topographical index made by Walter Spiers, Curator of Sir John Soane's Museum (1904-17). The history of Bolton's publication, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, is described fully in the introduction to E. Harris, The country houses of Robert Adam from the archives of Country Life, and in summary below. As a great writer of articles for Country Life magazine, Bolton was approached by them in 1913 to produce a monograph on Robert Adam. This was to be one of a series which began with Lutyens, but was postponed by the First World War. Having been made Curator of Sir John Soane's Museum on the death of Walter Spiers in 1917, Bolton was in the perfect position - with the majority of the Adam drawings at his fingertips - to continue this work, and the book was formally contracted in 1919. Sadly this work, being a lavish two-volume publication priced at eight guineas, did not sell well. Moreover, it did not include all of the material Bolton had gathered on the subject of Adam, but does discuss some of the principal commissions, and includes his index, or hand-list of the Adam drawings collection at the Soane Museum. Though occasionally incorrect, and only encompassing around two-thirds of the collection, this work has been the most valuable asset available to the cataloguing process.

Notes to Adam drawings catalogue

FORMAT: The format of the Adam drawings catalogue follows the in-house cataloguing conventions of Sir John Soane's Museum - drawn up for the Soane Office drawings - as closely as the collection allows.

CHRONOLOGY: The first few projects catalogued comprised a broad sweep from within the Adam drawings collection in order for the cataloguer to build-up a familiarity with the collection. Following this, cataloguing has commenced in chronological order.

ARRANGEMENT: Architectural projects are arranged alphabetically within the following typological groupings: commercial buildings, country housec; town houses; monuments and mausolea; Other; projects known only by patron; and public buildings. This arrangement has been devised for ease of use.

PURPOSE: When the purpose of a drawing is clear it is described using one of the following terms:

1. Survey drawing: a means of documenting an existing building/room as a basis for future work. There are various examples of survey drawings within the Adam collection which are not a product of the Adam office, e.g. there are various examples in the hand of Stiff Leadbetter.

2. Preliminary design: used as a means of developing early/initial design ideas. Preliminary designs drawn in free-hand (rough) are usually in the hand of Robert or James Adam, while to scale preliminary designs - often with under drawing evident - are usually in an office hand, and used as a means of translating rough drawings into a more cohesive design.

3. Working drawing: drawn to scale and used as a means of providing comprehensive design instructions to the artisan during construction. Often showing an individual detail in full size.

4. Finished drawing: a fully worked-up drawing, drawn to scale, usually washed in grey or colour, but with no surviving evidence that it was shown/intended to be shown to a client.

5. Presentation drawing: as with finished drawing, but with evidence that it was shown/intended to be shown to a client for the purposes of explaining/proposing a design idea.

6. Drawing made for publication: usually a view of an existing building within the context of its local topography. Not necessarily drawn to scale.

7. Record drawing: an office copy, albeit not necessarily an identical duplicate, made for the purpose of keeping a design record, in an office hand, often partly washes or annotated with details of colour. Often symmetrical designs are only quarter or half washed, as only enough to be able to reproduce the design is required.

Unfinished, full sized, and alternative are stated in addition to these terms where appropriate. If purpose is unclear then a drawing is simply described as a design. If it is known with certainty the executed or unexecuted status of a design is stated at the end of the purpose.

GLOSSARY: Owing to the broad array of dictionaries of architecture and architectural ornament, it has been necessary to compile a list of terminology for use within the catalogue. This terminology is used consistently, and is lifted from sources including: M. Blythe Gerson, 'A glossary of Robert Adam's neoclassical ornament', Architectural History (1981); P. Lewis, and J. Darley, Dictionary of ornament (1986); J. Lever, and J. Harris, Illustrated dictionary of architecture: 800-1914 (1993); J. Fleming, H. Honour, and N. Pevsner, The Penguin dictionary of architecture and landscape architecture (2004).
The Adam catalogue architectural and motifs glossary will soon appear as an appendix.

DIMENSIONS are provided in millimetres, width preceding height.

COLOUR: Coloured wash pigments are described using consistent terminology appropriate to the Adam period e.g. pigments that were commercially available during the second half of the eighteenth century (see colour appendix). This terminology has been carefully selected using R. Harley, Artists' pigments, c1600-1855 (1970), and in consultation with Dr Ian Bristow and Jill Lever.
It has not been possible to undertake polarised light microscopy on the Adam drawings and therefore the specific chemical compositions of any given colour wash used by the Adam office is unknown. Colour attribution - within the range of the pigmentation terminology described - has been made by metameric colour matches.

WATERMARK: The watermark is record as and when it is visible. Many of the drawings are pasted onto the pages of the folios and as such it is not possible to view the watermark without causing material damage to the collection.

HAND: The attribution of hand for any specific drawing within the Adam drawings collection is a complex issue as draughtsmen were expected to use an in-house cartographic style, in imitation of Robert Adam himself. Drawings are not signed by draughtsmen, and there is no archival evidence such as day books to help in this matter. It has been possible to chart the years in which various draughtsmen were employed, and moreover, to build a recognition of certain hands, but as there is no evidence that a specific draughtsman was responsible for a specific drawing it is not possible, in the majority of cases, to state with certainty who the draughtsman was. In most cases a suggestion is made for the possible draughtsman on account of style and date.

INSCRIPTION: Owing to the history of the Adam folios (described above), many of the Adam drawings were inscribed after Robert and James's lifetimes by William Adam, their younger brother. William's hand is distinctive, but the inscriptions are regularly incorrect. Appearances of William's hand are noted within the catalogue, and, where relevant, discussion of inaccuracies can be found in the drawing notes.

LITERATURE: An abridged list of literature is provided within the scheme notes for each project. The use of certain key texts is assumed and they are therefore not included. This includes works such as: J. Ingamells, A dictionary of British and Irish travellers in Italy: 1701-1800 (1997); H.M. Colvin, A biographical dictionary of British architects, 1660-1840 (2008); I. Roscoe, A biographical dictionary of sculptors in Britain, 1660-1851 (2009); and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online. An unabridged bibliography is attached as an appendix (this will continue to expand as the catalogue progresses).

VOLUME 53: As explained above, fifty-three of the folios in the Adam drawings collection were compiled by William Adam; three folios are the product of Soane Museum curators gathering together loose leaf Adam drawings; but only one - volume 53 - is a product of the Adam office. This is a collection of frieze designs for various patrons. They are drawn directly onto the folio pages, in a consistent hand - possibly that of James Adam - and appear to have been compiled as a single project (in one go). Frieze designs for a broad range of Adam patrons are included, and as such it is not possible to accurately date the drawings in this folio. An appendix on volume 53 will follow.


The drawings from the office of Robert and James Adam are catalogued by Frances Sands with the assistance of trainee cataloguers Anna McAlaney and Louisa Catt, and various volunteers. The work has been peer reviewed externally, the majority of which work has been undertaken by Iain Gordon Brown, Consultant to the Adam Drawings Project. We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of:

David Adshead, Ann-Marie Akehurst, Robert Athol, Stephen Astley, Adriano Aymonino, Calre Barry, Charlotte Bassadone, Ian Bliss, Michael Bolton, Ian Bristow, Julius Bryant, Max Bryant, Nora Butler, Lord and Lady Clifford, Alec Cobbe, Edward Copisarow, Alan Cox, Ian Bristow, Kate Fielden, Amy Frost, Anthony Geraghty, Catherine Gordon, Ivan Hall, Eileen Harris, John Harris, Madeleine Helmer, Richard Hewlings, Martin Hillman, Guy Holborn, Laura Houliston, James Jago, Susan Jenkins, Jo Johnston, Sarah Kay, Rose Kerr, Jerzy Kierkuc Bielinski, Tim Knox, Jill Lever, Anthony Lewis, Stephen Massil, Simon McCormack, Jeremy Musson, Elise Naish, Jenny Nex, Eric Nunns, Sue Palmer, Ann Robey, Alistair Rowan,Christopher Rowell, Tim Shepherd, Ann Smith, Michael Snodin, William Stormont, Ana Sverko, Colin Thom, Gilly Thorne, Jill Tovey, Marrikka Trotter, Tom True, William Tyrwhitt-Drake, Edward Valletta, Brigid von Prussen, William Whitaker, Jonny Yarker; the staff of various records offices, the RIBA Drawings Collection, the National Trust, English Heritage, and numerous private properties and property owners.

Frances Sands, 2022
Curator of Drawings and Books



Digitisation of the Drawings Collection has been made possible through the generosity of the Leon Levy Foundation

If you have any further information about this object, please contact us: drawings@soane.org.uk

Sir John Soane's collection includes some 30,000 architectural, design and topographical drawings which is a very important resource for scholars worldwide. His was the first architect’s collection to attempt to preserve the best in design for the architectural profession in the future, and it did so by assembling as exemplars surviving drawings by great Renaissance masters and by the leading architects in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries and his near contemporaries such as Sir William Chambers, Robert Adam and George Dance the Younger. These drawings sit side by side with 9,000 drawings in Soane’s own hand or those of the pupils in his office, covering his early work as a student, his time in Italy and the drawings produced in the course of his architectural practice from 1780 until the 1830s.

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Contents of Robert and James Adam office drawings