Robert Adam was a star, the leading architect of his time, one of a new wave of artists building a brave new world of aesthetics based on the example of the Greek and Roman classical past. By 1761 he held the position of Arch ...
Robert Adam was a star, the leading architect of his time, one of a new wave of artists building a brave new world of aesthetics based on the example of the Greek and Roman classical past. By 1761 he held the position of Architect of the King’s Works and the practice he had built with his brother James was flourishing as people clamoured for the, ‘Adam Style’.
He was the perfect choice for Lord Mansfield’s upgrade of Kenwood House: both men were Scots, both were at the top pf their game; and both wanted to wow with the project. Adam was busy working on Osterley Park and Syon House at the time but that didn’t stop him accepting Mansfield’s commission.
First things first, Adam had to work with the existing building to some extent so he remodelled the rather awkward orangery to the west and balanced it with a new reception room to the east. Then he created a new entrance on the north front in 1764; basically an oversized pedimented portico with Ionic columns (more graceful than dumpy Doric but more serious than frivolous Corinthian.
Round the back (what could easily be mistaken for the front so let’s call it the south facade), he redesigned the building in order to insert attic-storey bedrooms.
Adam also modernised the existing interiors, notably the entrance hall (1773 – see above), Great Stairs and antechamber. His piece de resistance was the addition of a new ‘Great Room’ or library (1767–9) for entertaining. Adam claimed that Lord Mansfield ‘gave full scope to my ideas’ when he published plans of Kenwood in 1774.
I suspect he was telling the truth when it comes to this room. It isn’t a library really is it? It’s a great big space to show off in, a place which shouts out ‘I have great Taste’, a room which everyone at the time would have been able to read like a book. Here was Lord Mansfield, a man of letters and intellect, a new Roman, powerful yet arty and intellectual, a man who had it all. Taste in those days was spelt with a capital T – it was a defined thing which only the educated and refined soul (and usually rich) had access to. The room opened to huge acclaim and is still considered one of Adam’s lasting achievements.
What didn’t last so long was his building materials – his stucco actually. It was new and experimental and fell off so quickly that the whole facade had to be re-done in 1793.
The recent restoration by English Heritage has respected Adam’s original drawings and all the twiddly bits have been made in long-lasting fibreglass. They’ve done a really excellent job.