Monday, March 16, 2020

Adam Street, London

The decorative touch

In London the other week and walking down the Strand, I remembered that I’d promised myself another look at a house in Adam Street, one of the few survivors of the ambitious development called the Adelphi, designed by Robert Adam and built by him and his brothers in the 1770s. I’ve actually posted about this building before (there is a picture of the whole front here), and have also used it in a talk I gave about Georgian London, recalling how the Adams cleared an area of small slum houses and built their streets of grand Georgian terraces – pouring a fortune into the venture. Their investment proved difficult to recoup, because a banking crash sent house prices tumbling. Contemporary engravings show glorious terraces, including a spectacular one overlooking the Thames, but most of them have gone, pray to 20th-century demolitions.

It occurred to me when I spoke about the development in my talk that I really needed a photograph that showed the decorative detailing on the surviving facade in Adam Street, specifically the front of a house that has especially elaborate treatment because it faces up John Adam Street, providing a focus for the view along that street. So I stood in the middle of the road, pointing my phone at stucco pilasters and ornamental ironwork, producing some puzzled glances from passers-by and the photograph above.

What it shows is a pair of vertical pilasters in white stucco, standing out from the dark brickwork. The pilasters are decorated all the way up with repeated anthemion motifs – part of the standard ornamental repertoire of ancient Greek architecture, but not often used up a pilaster like this. Below them are the pilasters flanking the door, similarly ornamental, though here the motifs are framed by ovals made up from snaking bands that make their sinuous way up the pilaster. There aree also swags in the lintel above the door. The ironwork complements all this, but this time in black rather than white.

The Pevsner volume on this part of London adds the interesting note that this ironwork was produced by the Carron Company of Falkirk and was some of their earliest. John Adam, furthermore, was a shareholder in the Carron Company, so the choice was a natural one. The financial difficulties with the Aldephi development reveal that the Adams’ investments did not always work out. John’s stake in Carron probably did well for him though. Carron went on to produce architectural ironwork by the ton. I’ve noticed before their ubiquitous ‘heart and honeysuckle’ ironwork used (as here in little ‘balconettes’ or elsewhere in full-blown balconies) from London to Cheltenham.

The Scottish iron founder’s products work well in the context of the Adams’ decoration and the overall effect of their grand, if ill-fated, scheme. People sometimes think of Georgian architecture as sober and plain. But often it has charming decorative touches. especially in the hands of Robert Adam, who usually had a light and felicitous touch.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

I wonder what happened to the people who lived in the small slum houses - were they offered a place in the new development? (I don't suppose so!)

Refreshing to see you having to take a shot from below. I tried to get some detail in York, but the street was busy, and I couldn't stand on the other pavement. Lovely detailed building in Manchester, but I couldn't figure out how anybody could get an adequate picture of it from the street.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Joseph. I imagine the slum dwellers were not rehoused in the Adelphi. And anyway they'd have had to move before construction started. They probably faced a move to somewhere unpleasant. Although of course, we don't know how bad the slums actually were. Sometimes, alas, it is expedient for developers to brand housing as 'slum' in order to build what they want.

bazza said...

I know Adam Street well. You are probably aware of number ten that looks just like 10 Downing Street. Great for a photo opportunity!
By the way part two of North Hill is now posted.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s unexpectedly uxorious Blog ‘To Discover Ice’