Adam’s Ruined Megastructure

Dr Fran Sands considers the influence of the remains of the Emporer Diocletian's palace at Split on the work of Robert Adam.

The relationship between Robert Adam and architectural ruins involves a complex and subtle interplay between archaeological engagement, and artistic inspiration. On this topic one’s mind is immediately focussed on the colossal fabric of the Emperor Diocletian’s palace at Split, which Adam had visited during his Grand Tour, and his publication, articulating that structure, The Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia (1764). Within Soane’s collections there are three copies of this publication, and in the preface Adam writes:

They who aim at eminence, wither in the knowledge or in practice of Architecture, find it necessary to view with their own eyes the works of the Ancients which remain, that they may catch from them those ideas of grandeur and beauty, which nothing, perhaps, but such an observation can suggest.

If observation of the ruins of antiquity were essential to the education of an architect, with his publication of Ruins, Adam was providing a tangible record of Diocletian’s palace. The popularity of such architectural treatises – cataloguing extant remains – was at its peak during the middle decades of the eighteenth century. Diocletian’s palace walls are shown in several of Adam’s engravings both in their ruined state of the eighteenth century, as well as in pristine condition, as if new. In this manner Adam’s illustrations provide a forcible contrast between the old and new, but with neither shown as superior.

The north wall of Diocletian’s palace, from Robert Adam’s Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia, 1764, plate xi.

The north wall of Diocletian’s palace, from Robert Adam’s Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia, 1764, plate xi

Significantly, the megastructure of the palace is given, with illustrations of entire facades of the curtain wall. Such monumentality clearly remained with Adam as he reused this device – the imitation of the megastructure of an entire antique city – in other designs, for example, in his elevations of the Royal Terrace on the river front at the Adelphi, or his unexecuted designs for the South Bridge in Edinburgh. In these cases, clearly, the pristine version of the palace had lent a hand. Unlike the neo-Palladians, archaeological accuracy was never Adam’s goal, but rather, the implementation of all that antique architecture had to teach. Adam suffered no creative timidity in utilising a classical arsenal of motifs, forms, and arrangements in an innovative way, as per the requirements of any given project. Certainly, on the Royal Terrace, and the South Bridge, Adam had allowed his engravings of the as-new, pristine Diocletian’s palace to inform his work but not to dictate its exact composition.

What then of the influence of the ruinous – almost fragmentary – illustrations of Diocletian’s palace, as seen in Adam’s own time? The architectural ruin was no new concept, but the total recreation of a ruined antique city megastructure was deeply ambitious. Adam attempted it only once, with his unexecuted design of ruins for Brampton Bryan, Hereford.

Brampton Bryan, unexecuted design for ruins, 1777, Robert Adam. SM Adam volume 37/59

Brampton Bryan, unexecuted design for ruins, 1777, Robert Adam. SM Adam volume 37/59

Brampton Bryan came into the possession of the Harley family in 1309 through marriage with the Brampton family – the powerful March Earls – who had held the estate since Domesday. The castle, Brampton Bryan itself, was gradually built between the early fourteenth and late sixteenth centuries, and was made famous by its siege during the Civil War when it was defended by the Parliamentarian, Lady Brilliana Harley. Incredibly, the core of the estate remains in the ownership of the Harley family today, albeit housed within an elegant Georgian brick house a little to the west of the original castle.

In 1755 the estate was inherited by Edward Harley, 4th Earl of Oxford and Mortimer (1726-90), and in 1777 he commissioned Robert Adam to make designs for various facilities within the park. None were executed, but these included stables, entrances gates, and a large ruinous folly or domestic offices. For each of these a drawing survives at the Soane Museum, now catalogued online. For the latter, the description as a ‘ruinous folly’ is somewhat understating the nature of the design. The extant drawing shows – in Robert Adam’s own hand – a panoramic perspective landscape containing a ruinous castellated curtain wall megastructure, large enough to encompass an entire city, albeit devoid of any visible keep or internal structures. The curtain wall is punctuated by towers, one of which is vast enough to contain an amphitheatre, and there are various carriage arches, mimicking the gated entrances to an antique city.

Crucially, the curtain wall of Adam’s vast Brampton Bryan folly, or domestic offices, is shown as a ruin, with prominent breaches in the masonry. It calls to mind Adam’s similarly ruinous engravings of Diocletian’s palace, and – as Prof Alan Tait explained in his exhibition Robert Adam: The Creative Mind (1996) – there are also similarities to Adam’s Grand Tour sketches of the vast Aurelian walls of Rome itself.

Further to Adam’s engravings of the ruined walls of Diocletian’s palace in Ruins, this design for Brampton Bryan is the only known instance in which Adam drew a ruined megastructure of this sort. His only other ruinous design which can attempt to rival it, is shown in a drawings at the V&A for an unexpected ruined castle at Osterley, although this is much smaller; purporting to be medieval, rather than classical in origin; and clearly intended as an emblem of dynastic longevity rather than an architectural amusement. Indeed, an architectural amusement is surely how the Brampton Bryan ruin design should be viewed. Its colossal size is fantastical beyond belief, taking on the characteristics of a fictional ruinscape rather than an architectural design, and one wonders what might have prompted the 4th Earl of Oxford to commission his very own antique ruined city in the first place.

By the end of 2013, 4000 drawings from the Adam collection will be available to view online.  Dr Fran Sands continues her work to make the remaining drawings collection digitally available. 

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 15 August 2013 in Looking at Drawings
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