He was the second son of William Adam (1689–1748) of Maryburgh, Fife, a stonemason and architect of some note, appointed Surveyor of the King's Works in Scotland in 1729 and Mason to the Board of Ordnance a year later.
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Robert studied at Edinburgh High School, then entered The University of Edinburgh in 1743 only for his studies to be interrupted by illness and the Jacobite Rising of 1745. In 1746, he joined his older brother, John Adam, as an assistant to his father, and after William Adams death in 1748, the two brothers became partners in the family business, now known as 'Adam Brothers'.
Their first major commission was the decoration of the grand State Apartments on the first floor at Hopetoun House, near South Queensferry west of Edinburgh, followed by projects at Fort George, Dumfries House and Inverary. In 1754, Robert Adam set off for Europe on the Grand Tour of France and Italy, studying classical architecture and honing his drawing skills (his art tutors included French architect Charles Lois Clérisseau and architect and archaeologist Giovanni Battista Piranesi). During this journey, he studied intensively the ruins of Diocletian's palace at Spalato in Dalmatia, later publishing The Ruins of the Palace of Diocletian in 1764.
He returned to Great Britain in 1758 and set up in business in London with his brothers James and William, focused on designing complete schemes for the decoration and furnishing of houses. Palladian design was popular, but Robert evolved a new, more flexible style incorporating elements of classic Roman design alongside influences from Greek, Byzantine and Baroque styles. The Adams success can also be attributed to a desire to design everything down to the smallest detail, ensuring a sense of unity in their designs.
- The Adelphi development, London
- façade of the Admiralty, Whitehall, London
- Alnwick Castle, Northumberland
- Apsley House, London (1778)
- Ballochmyle House, Ayrshire
- Bowood House, near Calne, Wiltshire
- Charlotte Square (north side), Edinburgh (1791)
- Culzean Castle, south Ayrshire (1772–1790)
- Edinburgh University Old College
- Gosford House, near Longniddry, East Lothian (1790–1800)
- Harewood House, West Yorkshire
- Kedleston Hall, near Derby (1759–1765)
- Kenwood House, Hampstead, London (1768)
- Lansdowne House, Berkeley Square, London
- Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire (1766–1770)
- Mistley Towers
- Nostell Priory
- Osterley Park, west London (1761–1780)
- Portland Place, London (1773)
- Pulteney Bridge, Bath (1770)
- Register House, Edinburgh (1774–1789)
- Saltram House, Plymouth, Devon
- Shardeloes, Amersham, Buckinghamshire
- Syon House interior, Brentford (1762–1769)
- Wedderburn Castle, Duns, Berwickshire (1770–1778)
Robert was elected a member of the Royal Society of Arts in 1758 and of the Society of Antiquaries in 1761, the same year he was appointed Architect of the Kings Works (jointly with Sir William Chambers). His younger brother James succeeded him in this post when he relinquished the role in 1768 in order to devote more time to his elected office as Member of Parliament for Kinross.
Robert Adam died suddenly at his home, 11 Albermarle Street, London, after a blood vessel in his stomach burst. He was 64. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
- During their lifetime Robert and James Adam published two volumes of their designs, Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam (in 1773–78 and 1779; a third volume was published posthumously, in 1822).
- A comprehensive account of Roberts furniture work is given in The Furniture of Robert Adam by Eileen Harris (published by Alec Tiranti, London, 1963)
- John Fleming Robert Adam and his Circle (1962)
- Doreen Yarwood Robert Adam (1970)
- D. Stillman The Decorative Work of Robert Adam (1966)
- the Sir John Soane's Museum, London, has a large collection of original Robert Adam drawings