Past Exhibitions

VAULTING AMBITION The Adam Brothers, Contractors to the Metropolis in the Reign of George III

An exhibition in the Soane Gallery from 14 September 2007 to 12 January 2008

The development of London by speculative entrepreneurs is not a new story. In the eighteenth century four Scottish brothers embarked on a stunning regeneration scheme for a huge brownfield site in the centre of London to be known as the Adelphi. The story of this architecturally ambitious project and of the men behind it will be the focus of a visually-stunning exhibition at Sir John Soane's Museum in London throughout the autumn of 2007. Exquisite drawings from the Adam collection in the Soane Museum will be displayed alongside impressive paintings of the Adelphi, along with documents, drawings, paintings and family portraits lent by public and private collections - many never seen before.

The architect Robert Adam is famous for creating the elegantly refined 'Adam Style' in interior design - less well known are the extraordinary activities of the building company run by himself and his three brothers. Vaulting Ambition will focus on the story of the Adam brothers and on the rupture in their relationships caused by the uncertain nature of their grand venture; the devastating bank crashes of 1772 and their recourse to a Lottery to escape financial disaster. The organisation, energy and novelty that they brought to the Adelphi project was phenomenal: the story of their company is fascinating and ultimately touching.

Johnny, Bob, Jamie and Willy, as they were known to each other, were sons of the most eminent Scottish architect of the eighteenth century, William Adam. The business they established under the name of William Adam & Company in 1764 became the biggest building company of the age - a company that encompassed supply, materials, contracting and speculative development on a breathtaking scale. At its height the firm employed 3,000 men, a large number even by today's standards and truly exceptional for the eighteenth century. In many ways their ground-breaking Adelphi scheme set the template for modern metropolitan development, and its influence can still be felt today.

Four years after William Adam & Co. was established, the brothers began their great business adventure, building some 69 houses overlooking the Thames by the Strand on a run-down site that had belonged to the Duke of St Albans. The houses were constructed on a great sequence of brick vaults in order to raise them up to the level of the Strand. The development was to be called the Adelphi - after the Greek word 'Adelphoi' meaning brothers - a neat example of the Adams' unabashed and surprisingly modern grasp of self-promotion. Indeed the Adams presented themselves, to a modern eye, as big developers and ambitious men unwilling to let anything stand in their way.

The Adelphi was a 'showcase' for elegant new architecture, setting standards for urban development throughout Britain. It established the ideal of civilised domestic design in the late Georgian age. Magnificent drawings - one almost nine feet long of Royal Terrace, a series of intricate and colourful ceiling designs almost certainly used for promotional purposes, chimney pieces, proposals for a fashionable church and delightful sketches of 'sentry boxes' will combine to tell the story of this astonishing scheme and the family that planned and promoted it. The exhibition will also explore the subsequent speculative projects of the Adams in Portland Place and Fitzroy Square, as well as Robert's visionary designs for Bath and his magnificent proposals for Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Besides the richness of their creativity, the exhibition will explore how, in an very modern way, these Scottish entrepreneurs promoted their scheme, installed anchor tenants within the development to attract potential investors and purchasers, targeted clients of high net worth, faced down a potentially devastating financial crisis - and yet, in the end, were forced - like Macbeth - to pay an exceptional price for that “vaulting ambition which ore' leaps itself and falls on t'other”.

The exhibition will tour to three regional venues in 2008-09. Subject to confirmation the first venues of the tour will be the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh, Robert Adam's great University building, and Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum.

This exhibition, together with A Passion for Buildings - The Amateur Architect in England 1650 - 1850 was supported by the MLA Designation Challenge Fund as part of the 'A Passion for Building' project. Both exhibitions will tour three regional UK venues during 2007 - 09.