Adam’s London: Then and Now – The Admiralty Screen, Whitehall
For the next in her series discussing Robert and James Adam’s work in London Dr Frances Sands will focus on The Admiralty Screen, Whitehall.
Fran's previous posts in this series can be found in the 'Looking At Drawings' section of our blog.
The famous location of Charles I’s execution, the thoroughfare now known as Whitehall is of medieval origin, and connects Charing Cross to the north, and Westminster to the south. The foundation of this street dates from 1240 when York Place, the London home of the archbishops of York, was created. This was confiscated by King Henry VIII in 1530 following the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, and renamed as Whitehall in c.1532 after its white ashlar stone. At first this name only applied to the northern portion of the street outside the palace, with the southern half of the current street – previously very narrow – being known as King Street. This was cleared and widened as an extension to Whitehall during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, forming a residential area, although now, of course, Whitehall is largely the seat of government offices.
Beside Whitehall Palace was a timber and carpenters’ yard, and in 1572 this land was leased from the Crown, and Wallingford House was built facing Whitehall by Sir Francis Knollys (died 1596). In 1622 Wallingford House was purchased for £3,000 from the Knollys family by George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, the Lord High Admiral. From that time the site was used as the headquarters of the Royal Navy until the foundation of the Ministry of Defence in 1964. The Duke of Buckingham was assassinated in 1628, but his house continued to be used as the meeting place of the Lords of the Admiralty until 1694 when it burnt down. Wallingford House was replaced with the first purpose-built Admiralty building, constructed by a carpenter, John Evans (ND), and completed in 1695. With time, however, this building proved inadequate, and was replaced on an extended plot in 1723-26 to designs by Thomas Ripley (1682-1758).
Ripley’s Admiralty was built in brick with stone dressings, repeating the U-shaped plan and pediment of the preceding structure. In 1759 the Lords of the Admiralty agreed to sell a portion of the courtyard in front of Ripley’s building for £650 to the Westminster Bridge Commissioners for their street widening scheme (part of the creation of Whitehall as we know it today). Ripley’s boundary wall was demolished and a new wall commissioned. Robert Adam – having only returned from his Grand Tour a few months previously – is thought to have received this early commission for the Admiralty Screen thanks to the influence of two of its members: his neighbour from Kinross-shore, Sir Gilbert Elliott of Minto, and the Rt Hon. Edward Boscawen, for whose wife – the Bluestocking Fanny Boscawen – he was decorating Hatchlands, Surrey.
Design for the Admiralty screen, 1759, as executed (SM Adam volume 35/1)
There are six extant Adam drawings for the Admiralty Screen at the Soane Museum. These show a central triumphal arch (loosely based on the Arch of Titus, Rome), flanked by Doric colonnaded links, and pedimented lodges containing niches. The whole is decorated with nautical sculpted ornament which was carved by the Danish sculptor, Michael Henry Spang (died 1762). The relief panels to either side of the screen arch depicting boys holding dolphin tails were repeated by Adam in the centre of the drawing room ceiling at Hatchlands for Edward and Fanny Boscawen. Figurative sculptures are shown in the Adam office perspective of the screen, but it is unlikely that these were executed by Spang as they do not appear in any other contemporary views.
Perspective of Whitehall, showing the Admiralty screen and Ripley’s Admiralty building behind, 1759 (SM Adam volume 35/4)
(*This sheet has been folded four times, probably when it was sent for engraving. It was published in February 1761 for sale by Andrew Millar in the Strand for 2s.6d. along with an elevation and plan based on the drawing above. Both were also engraved for inclusion in the ‘Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam’)
Photograph of the Admiralty screen, taken in March 2014
It appears that Adam was extremely proud of the Admiralty Screen. Indeed, he included two engravings of it in the ‘Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam’: a perspective (volume I, part IV, plate i), and a plan and elevation (volume II, plate xii). This is an unsurprising inclusion as the widely admired Admiralty Screen was Adam’s first commission for public architecture in London. It is not, however, universally admired. According to Christopher Hussey, the ill proportions of Ripley’s building were accentuated by Adam’s 140-foot screen: ‘the Admiralty building and its screen harmonise as badly as could be expected of a bluff old sea-dog and a genteel dilettante’. This may be true, despite Adam’s pedimented pavilions echoing Ripley’s building above.
Large openings were formed to either side of Adam’s screen in 1827-28 to designs by George Ledwell Taylor (1788-1873), in order to allow freer access for the Duke of Clarence’s carriage. Happily, however, this damage was reversed in 1923 and the screen survives now as it was executed in accordance with Adam’s design.
Dr Frances Sands, Catalogue Editor (Adam drawings project), has been working on a project to make 8,000 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.