In an article in the Burlington Magazine marking the 250th anniversary of Robert Adam’s birth, in 1978, A.A. Tait explored the history of the sale of the Adam drawings collection. Robert and James Adam’s effects were inherited by two spinster sisters and their brother William, who, still struggling with the Adelphi debts, suffered insurmountable financial strife. In an attempt to raise funds, William sold his brothers’ belongings at Christie’s sales in 1818 and 1821. However, by that time the Adam style had dropped from favour, and not being old enough to garner any antiquarian interest, the Adam brothers’ architectural drawings collection went unsold. In the year of his suicide, in 1822, William was left with little other than his brothers’ office drawings collection. This was inherited by Susannah Clerk, the Adams’ niece, who had moved to London in c.1810 to care for her elderly relatives. Together, William and Susannah had contrived to make the drawings more saleable by editing the collection, and pasting the drawings into 54 typologically-arranged folios. What treasures were lost during this editing process we can never know. As the surviving drawings collection is far from comprehensive it is suspects that a great number of drawings were thrown away. Moreover, this process unravelled the original arrangement – or archaeology – of the office collection, in which the drawings had been kept in rolls on shelves, arranged by architectural project. Discolouration from the dust which settled on the inside and outside edges of these rolls is still evident on numerous drawings two centuries later. As the drawings are now divided typologically, into folios of ceilings, chimneypieces, friezes, and so on, it is often impossible to know for which patron or project a drawing was produced.
The Adam drawings collection was finally sold by Susannah in 1833 to Sir John Soane, who preserved the collection at his house-museum; since 2008 within bespoke American black walnut folio presses by the cabinetmakers Senior and Carmichael: a gift from the American Soane Foundation. These are housed on the second floor of the Museum, in the Adam Study Centre. Soane had also purchased a handful of Adam drawings piecemeal, and these were later pasted into three additional volumes. As such the Soane Museum’s Adam drawings collection contains some 9,000 drawings, comprising over 80% of the known surviving Adam drawings in the world. However, because of William and Susannah’s efforts to arrange the drawings into their volumes, almost 4,000 of them were rendered ‘unknown’. Efforts to catalogue the Adam office drawings since 2010 have reduced this number considerably, but the remaining ‘unknown’ or ‘unattributed’ Adam drawings are catalogued here typologically. It is hoped that eagle-eyed members of the public might recognise some of these and let us know for whom, or for where particular designs were made.
A.A. Tait, ‘The sale of Robert Adam’s drawings’, Burlington Magazine, July 1978, pp. 451-55.
Frances Sands, 2021
Unattributed Adam drawings catalogued by Emily Cox, Anna McAlaney and Frances Sands, 2020-2023