Adam’s London: Then and Now – Buckingham House

For the next in her series discussing Robert and James Adam’s work in London Dr Frances Sands will focus on Buckingham House.

Between St James’s Park and Green Park, Buckingham House was built in 1702-5 by John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham (1647-1721) at a cost of £8,000, to designs by William Winde (died 1722) possibly in consultation with William Talman (1650-1719). Buckingham had been able to lease this royal land owing to Queen Anne’s fondness for him. On Buckingham’s death the house passed to his illegitimate son Sir Charles Sheffield (1706-74), who in 1760 approached the Treasury in the hope of renewing his lease of the land on which around half of the house had been built. Following negotiations the house and its 30 acre garden were purchased in 1762 by King George III for £28,000. It was intended to replace Somerset House as a dower house for Queen Charlotte, whom the King had married the previous year, but the royal family began to use it as their private family home, as it provided a more domestic atmosphere than the formality of the court at St James’s Palace.

During the 1760s, ‘70s and ‘80s the house was adapted for use by the ever increasing royal family – 15 children in total – and the King’s ever increasing library. This work was principally done by Sir William Chambers (1722-96), George III’s former tutor, and friend, who added large wings to either side. Minor additions were also made by Robert Adam in 1761-63. George III had met Adam in 1761, when he was appointed joint Architect to the King. We know from Adam’s obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine that he relinquished this position in 1768 when he was elected to serve as MP for Kinross, and was succeeded as Architect to the King by his brother James, who retained the position until its abolition in 1782.


Previously unattributed preliminary design for unexecuted alterations to Buckingham House, c.1761-63Previously unattributed preliminary design for unexecuted alterations to Buckingham House, c.1761-63 (SM Adam volume 4/138)

Although the fabric of Buckingham House was altered for George III by Chambers, it is interesting to note that Adam did make a proposal for this work in the early 1760s. Six preliminary designs for a quadrangular building in Robert Adam’s own hand are preserved at the Soane Museum, including two recently identified by me, and there is a finished drawing for the scheme within the collection at Hovingham Hall. We can see that Adam was taking Buckingham’s original house, and doubling its size by extending the pavilions to each side, and closing the courtyard by the addition of a fourth range. Professor Alan Tait has noted that Adam’s scheme for remodelling the principal (east) front of the house, differed very little from Chambers’ executed design, suggesting that Chambers may have been aware of Adam’s scheme before he made his own.


Design for a door between the stairwell and the saloon at Buckingham House, c.1762-63
Design for a door between the stairwell and the saloon at Buckingham House, c.1762-63 (SM Adam volume 49/7)

During the 1760s various internal alterations were made to Buckingham House, and all of the doorcases and chimneypieces were replaced, as well as the installation of various new ceilings. Adam was responsible for the chimneypiece in the saloon, the doorcase between the staircase and the saloon, and the ceiling in the Japanned room. Adam’s chimneypiece in the saloon was removed to the Queen’s Presence Chamber at Windsor Castle by King William IV, but the rest of Adam’s work was lost during alterations in the 1820s. Adam’s designs for these lost works survive at Windsor Castle, the RIBA drawings collection, and in the first volume of the Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam (1773-78), as well as the Soane Museum. His drawing for the saloon doorcase at the Soane Museum beautifully exemplifies the new way in which the royal family was conducting itself, in a more domestic and private manner than had previously been the case at St James’s Palace. This was a new door, providing direct access from the staircase into the saloon, where previously it had been necessary to pass through the ante room, and the Japanned room to reach the saloon. Adam’s new door provided greater privacy to these other areas of the drawing room suite, preventing them from being used as byways, and allowing them to become the preserve of family life.

Adam was also responsible for some more frivolous designs for Buckingham House, including some gilded clock brackets ornamented with royal insignia, although there is no evidence that these were executed. Other designs were commissioned by Queen Charlotte, first in 1763 for an illumination in the garden as a 25th birthday surprise for the King, and then in 1780 for a pianoforte case.


Photograph of Buckingham Palace, taken in December 2013Photograph of Buckingham Palace, taken in December 2013


Apparently prompted by his sentiment for the family home, King George III’s son, King George IV, applied to Parliament for the money to renovate Buckingham House. The commission resulted in a large-scale remodelling of the building, beginning in 1825, and completed at vast expense to designs by John Nash (1752-1835). These works began the process of transforming Buckingham House into the 600-room palace that we know today. Buckingham Palace is – of course – the principal residence of the British sovereign, first lived-in by Queen Victoria, and currently the home of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.


Dr Frances Sands has been working on a project to make 4,000 drawings from the Adam collection available to view online

As part of the Museum’s programme of digitization and improved access to collections the Adam drawings will also be amongst the 50,000 – 60,000 works of art, books and drawings, plus the Soane Archive to be transferred into the Collections Index+ Collections Management System (CMS) that will for the first time ever allow the Museum to store and sort records of all the items in the Museum’s collection. This has been made possible with thanks to funding from the HLF and an additional year’s funding by the Arts Council England’s Designation Development Fund for the collections information to become available to the public, starting from late 2013.

Posted on 16 January 2014 in Looking at Drawings
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