CHAPTER 13: THE ADELPHI—GENERAL
The Adelphi, which forms one of the most notable works of the
brothers Adam, was developed between the years 1768 and 1774. The design
of the buildings was for the most part the work of Robert Adam, though his
brothers, James and William, were also concerned with the scheme.
The father of this remarkable family, William Adam of Maryburgh
(now Blair Adam), near Kinross, Scotland, had a considerable practice as an
architect. He died in 1748. John, the eldest son, appears to have remained
in Scotland, but the three younger sons, Robert, James and William, all came
to practise architecture in London.
Adam of Maryburgh
Robert Adam was born in 1728 and educated at Edinburgh University.
In 1754 he visited Italy and other countries and studied Greek, Roman and
Italian building. He made a detailed examination of Diocletian's Palace at
Spalatro, his drawings of which he subsequently published in book form. As a
result of such studies he developed a distinctive and original type of
architectural design based upon the decorative expression of Classic domestic
architecture, rather than upon the more severe temple architecture which had
inspired most Renaissance work. The light and elegant treatment thus
evolved resulted in a decorative manner that has come to be considered typical
of the Adam style. The characteristic qualities of Robert Adam's method of
working were well illustrated in the Adelphi group of buildings and the
attractive forms of decorative design developed by him appear, externally, in
doors and door-cases, in the flat but richly ornamented pilasters, entablatures,
string courses, medallion ornaments, etc., applied to the various facades, and,
internally, in door-cases, columned screens, fireplaces, and delicately
At the time the Adelphi scheme was commenced Robert Adam was
about 40 years of age and had already to his credit a number of fine houses
and architectural designs. The Adelphi was an achievement of which,
despite the sneers of Walpole and others, any architect might well be proud,
for Adam transformed a sharply sloping, derelict site, subject to inundations
from the river at high tide, into one of the most desirable residential quarters in
London. He produced a workable gradient for his streets by the expedient of
building them on a series of brick arches, which increased from one to three
tiers as the streets approached the river. Access to these arches was provided
by subterranean streets duplicating those above (see plan, Plate 67).
The architectural design of the Adelphi was a bold one, but the
financial side of the scheme was daring even to rashness; no agreement was
signed with the freeholder of the property, the Duke of St. Albans, until
1769, a year after work had been begun on the site; no authority was sought
from Parliament for the reclamation of land from the river until 1771; the
brothers reckoned on securing a return for their expenditure on the arches,
the most costly part of the scheme, from the Government who they thought
would rent the vaults for Ordnance stores, though they had no kind of
guarantee that any such contract would be forthcoming; and finally the cost
of the enterprise was greatly under-estimated and proved to be far beyond the
resources of the promoters.
When, in 1771, the brothers applied to Parliament for powers to
embank the river, the City of London Corporation opposed the application in
defence of the city's right to the bed of the river. "Mr. Lee," counsel for the
city, acknowledged at the bar of the House of Lords "that Messrs. Adams
were very able and experienced architects; but although he admired the
elegance of their buildings, he never could allow that from thence alone arose
a right of building on that ground." (ref. 303) Nevertheless the Bill went through, (ref. 304)
for the embankment was a definite improvement to the foreshore, which had
previously been filthy and noisome at low tide and no protection to surrounding
property when the tide was high.
At the beginning of 1773 the promoters found their capital exhausted,
while many of the buildings were unfinished and but few had found a
purchaser. In this extremity they decided to promote a lottery, a favourite
method of raising money for London improvements in the eighteenth
and early nineteenth centuries. An Act (ref. 305) authorising the lottery was passed
in July, 1773, provoking Walpole to exclaim: "What patronage of the arts
in Parliament, to vote the City's land to these brothers, and then sanctify the
sale of the houses by a bubble!" (ref. 306) The amount required—calculated by
adding 5 per cent. to the estimated cost of the Adelphi buildings—was
raised by the issue of 4,370 £50 tickets. There were eight principal prizes
and a number of smaller ones, consisting of the houses, shops, warehouses
and vaults in the Adelphi not already sold, and a few houses in Queen Anne
Street and Mansfield Street, as well as a collection of pictures and other works
of art. A prospectus (ref. 307) was published setting out the prizes in detail. One of
these prizes, the value of which was given as £9,960, consisted of:
1. The 10th house west from Adam Street on the south side
of John Street (No. 10) subject to a ground rent of £22 a year.
2. The 11th house there (No. 12) "in the occupation of Mr.
William Adam, and let on a lease" from Ladyday 1773 at £150 per
annum. Ground rent £23 per annum.
3. A house at the corner of John Street and York Buildings
(No. 14) with cellars underneath. Ground rent £34 a year.
4. A house in the Strand at the east corner of Adam Street
(No. 73) "let on lease to Mr. Thomas Becket" from Ladyday 1773
at £163 per annum. Ground rent £70 per annum.
5. "The New Exchange Coffeehouse, being the 4th west
from Adam Street, in the Occupation of and let to Mr. Townshend.
The Front Part on a Lease of 21 years from Midsummer 1771," at £50
per annum, and the "Back Part on a Lease of which 31 years are
unexpired from Michaelmas 1774," at £20 per annum. Ground rent
£44 17s. 9d. per annum.
"N.B. This house is greatly underlet."
The prices at which the houses were assessed proved to be somewhat
optimistic, for when on 11th July, 1774, some of the prize-winning tickets
were put up to auction they fetched considerably less than their nominal
value. (ref. 303)
The scheme of the Adelphi included Adelphi Terrace, Robert Street
and Adam Street to the west and east respectively, John Street to the north
parallel to the Terrace, Durham House Street, and the north-east corner of
York Buildings, etc. It embraced an area of roughly 400 ft. by 360 ft., or
3⅓ acres of ground. It will be seen, therefore, that the development was on
an ambitious scale, comprising several streets and a large number of houses,
practically all of which contained architectural features of distinction and
interest. Adelphi Terrace formed the principal feature of the whole design
and, with the advancing ends of the houses in Adam and Robert Streets,
composed an effective group from the river.
The houses as originally designed showed plain brick facades with
portions emphasised, such as the angles or centres of the blocks, with
ornamented pilasters, entablatures, string courses, etc., in stucco, pleasantly
designed metal balconies to windows, metal railings to areas, with lamp
standards flanking doorways, and enriched door-cases. The character of the
treatment will be seen by reference to the illustrations, which also show parts
of the interior with the characteristic Adam decoration in wall linings, ceilings,
fireplaces, door-cases, staircases, vestibule and other screens, etc. The
ceilings in some cases include paintings by artists of the period, as e.g. that
to the first-floor front room of No. 4, Adelphi Terrace (Plate 78).
Adelphi Terrace formed the most extensive individual group of
houses. The whole of the front was altered by the unfortunate changes made
in 1872, when the facade was cemented over and vulgarised on Victorian
lines, entirely destroying its original character. The general effect of
the buildings facing the river was, moreover, considerably modified when
the Victoria Embankment with its gardens and roadway was formed in
The houses show a good deal of similarity in planning. The most
notable individual building is undoubtedly that occupied by the Royal Society
of Arts in John Street, which, unlike the others, possesses the feature of an
attached order of columns above the ground-floor stage of the front. In
general design and detail its treatment shows a fine appreciation of the
decorative possibilities of Classic Art. The more characteristic facade
treatment in flat pilasters is illustrated in cases such as Nos. 1 and 7, Adam
Street, while interesting examples of doorways occur at Nos. 11, 13 and 20,
John Street. As regards the interiors, the first-floor front room of No. 4,
Adelphi Terrace, was especially notable as shown in the illustrations.
Examples of fine ceilings such as that of the first-floor front room at No. 3,
Adelphi Terrace, and others at Nos. 9 and 13, John Street, are also illustrated.
The beautiful design and workmanship of some of the fireplaces are shown
in Plates 80 and 84 (from No. 8, Adelphi Terrace), and Plate 106b (from
No. 5, Adam Street).
With the disappearance of Adelphi Terrace, it becomes increasingly
important that record should be kept of this notable example of late eighteenthcentury domestic architecture under the hand of one of the most talented
designers of the period.
No. 10, Adelphi Terrace, details of doors and window linings on first floor