ADAM, Robert (1728-92), of Dowhill, Kinross.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1768 - 1774

Family and Education

b. 3 July 1728, 2nd s. of William Adam of Maryburgh, Kinross, architect and master mason to the Board of Ordnance in Scotland, by Mary, da. of William Robertson of Gladney, Fife; uncle of William Adam. educ.Kirkcaldy; Edinburgh h.s.; Edinburgh Univ. 1743, unm. suc. to the ruined castle of Dowhill on d. of fa. 1748.

Offices Held

Jt. architect to Board of Works 1762-8.


Adam’s father, having made a fortune in private practice and by Ordnance contracts, purchased a 4,000 acre estate in Kinross and an interest in the Pinkie coalfield. Robert, the most brilliant of four brothers, all architects, was a handsome, high-spirited, ambitious young man, the close friend of his cousin William Robertson, David Hume, John Home, Gilbert Elliot, and other Edinburgh literati.1 From 1754 to 1757 he travelled widely in Italy,2 made a detailed study of Diocletian’s palace at Spalato (Split) in Dalmatia, and on his return in January 1758 set up in practice in London.

Introduced to Bute by John Home in May 1758, he was mortified by his curt and haughty reception,3 and as a ‘free Scot’ with a good conceit of his own ‘infinite merit’, strongly resented Bute’s indifference.4 With the assistance of Gilbert Elliot and Archibald, Duke of Argyll, Adam soon found other patrons. Admiral Boscawen and the Admiralty gave him important commissions (including the Admiralty House pillared screen, Whitehall), and the Adam style became the vogue, revolutionizing eighteenth-century taste. By 1760 Bute was won over and in 1761 presented him to George III, who appointed him and his rival, Sir William Chambers, royal architects. Joined in London by his two younger brothers, Adam numbered among his clients and friends many of the Bute family connexions, Shelburne, Sir Lawrence Dundas, Lord Mansfield and Charles Townshend.

Inundated with lucrative commissions, but disappointed in his ambition to erect a royal palace or vast public building in ‘pure style’,5 Adam sought the prestige of a parliamentary seat. In 1768 he relinquished his place as King’s architect, which was given to his brother James; and at the general election defeated John Irwin in a contest for Kinross-shire.

A perfervid Scot,6 and a regular Government supporter, he was chiefly connected in Parliament with the friends of Bute and Argyll in Administration, whose assistance he sought over his extravagant building project, the Adelphi. In 1768 the brothers obtained a lease of the Durham Yard river bank area, began operations in 1769, and, to complete their design, proposed to embank and reclaim the swampy foreshore. Their petition seeking parliamentary sanction was supported by the King and North, but opposed by the City of London and the companies of watermen and lightermen. It was managed chiefly by Adam’s friends, Archibald Edmonstone, Lord Frederick Campbell, Sir George Colebrooke, and Jeremiah Dyson. The Adams’s bill was backed by almost all their fellow Scots, of whom only Henry Dundas, otherwise friendly, demurred at the proposal of 6 Mar. 1771 to exclude additional Opposition evidence. During the stormy debates Adam himself spoke only once, on 20 Mar. 1771, when he repudiated the charge that the bill was being rushed through by ‘parliamentary craft’.7

In June 1772 the brothers’ speculative building schemes were halted by the general credit crisis. On 27 June David Hume wrote to Adam Smith:8

Of all the sufferers I am the most concerned for the Adams ... But their undertakings were so rash that nothing could support them. They must dismiss 3,000 workmen, who, comprehending the materials, must have expended above £100,000 a year. They have great funds but if these must be disposed of in a hurry and to disadvantage, I am afraid the remainder will amount to little or nothing ... If Sir George Colebrooke stop, it will probably disconcert all the plans of our friends, as it will diminish their patrons’ influence, which is a new misfortune.

The brothers, having failed to raise sufficient funds by a loan on the family estate and a sale of their art collections, petitioned Parliament on 25 May 1773 for permission to dispose of all their assets (except the estate) by a lottery. After considerable debate, the bill, prepared by Thomas Walpole, William Pulteney, and other friends, passed both Houses. Horace Walpole commented:9 ‘What patronage of the arts in Parliament to vote the City’s land to these brothers and then sanctify the sale by a bubble.’ Two days before the draw, Robert wrote to William Mure, 28 Feb. 1774:10

The lottery goes on most swimmingly ... [and] bids fair to take off every ticket before the wheel turns round. We have this day paid the half of all our mortgages and whenever the deeds of assignment are ready will pay the whole. This is real felicity to honest minds.

Despite his preoccupation with finance, professional commissions, and the publication (July 1773) of the Works in Architecture, Adam was assiduous in attending the House. Kinross was not represented in the 1774 Parliament; Adam did not apparently seek a seat elsewhere, and for the rest of his life devoted himself to his profession.

Sensible, liberal-minded, somewhat vain, and a lively conversationalist, Adam retained the friendship and patronage of many of the leading men of his day, but, partly by the intrigues of Sir William Chambers, lost the favour of the King.11  He died Mar. 1792.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest


  • 1. For anecdotes of Adam’s youth, see Carlyle, Autobiog. 285, 319 n.
  • 2. Ibid. 375. A. T. Bolton, Architecture of R. and J. Adam, ii. 318.
  • 3. Carlyle, 375.
  • 4. Adam to Alex. Macmillan, 11 Aug. 1758, James lees-Milne, Age of Adam, 24-25.
  • 5. Adam to Lord Kames, 31 Mar. 1763, Bolton, i. 52-54.
  • 6. Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, ii. 160.
  • 7. Cavendish’s ‘Debates’, Egerton 226, f. 212.
  • 8. Letters of D. Hume ed. Greig, ii. 263.
  • 9. Walpole to Rev. W. Mason, 17 Sept. 1773.
  • 10. Caldwell Pprs. ii(2), p. 230.
  • 11. The King to North, 5 June 1777, Fortescue, iii. 452; Adam to Lord Buchan, 19 Sept. 1781, Bolton, i. 123.