Beyond genius: the reception, reputation and afterlife of Robert Adam
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date02/07/2021
Ayers, Sydney Elizabeth
Robert Adam is today remembered as one of the greatest British architects working in the eighteenth century—the moniker ‘genius’ has become a permanent fixture. My doctoral thesis challenges the idea of ‘genius’ as applied to Adam, by exploring how he posthumously entered the British architectural canon. While there has been a great deal of scholarship on Adam and his work, no one has examined his afterlife in a sustained way. Thus my thesis examines Adam’s afterlife: the ebb and flow of Adam’s reputation, as well as the changing reception of his works and the Adam Style, from Adam’s death in 1792 until the first published book on Adam in 1904. Chapter 1 examines Adam’s death and death rituals in the context of celebrity and posthumous fame; comparing Adam’s death, funeral, obituary, and burial to that of Joshua Reynolds, casting them as different types of celebrities in both life and death. Chapter 2 looks at the posthumous dissemination of visual and textual representations of Adam. It considers the relationship between portraiture and biography, specifically in the context of the small number of Adam portraits and the shift from writing about Adam biographically towards writing about his works instead. Chapter 3 explores Adam’s reputation in the first half of the nineteenth century, a period I term the ‘dark age’ of Adam Studies. This chapter connects failures in commercializing Adam’s reputation with changing architectural taste; leading to his exclusion from histories and dictionaries of architecture in this period. Chapter 4 investigates the revival of Adam’s reputation through a new interest in his furniture and interior designs. This chapter shows how, through the display of Neo-Adam furniture at International Exhibitions between 1862 and 1904, the Adam Revival was manipulated to promote ideas of Englishness and nationalism. The aim of my dissertation is to actively change the way in which we study Adam and his architecture, by examining Adam and his works in new contexts and with different approaches. In studying the reception, reputation and afterlife of Adam, we are accessing the wider field of eighteenth-century British architectural history through one of its leading figures. Ultimately the aim of this thesis is to understand the historical process of how an architect enters the canon of architectural history, all the while contending with the role of changing contemporary taste and style.