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Eighteenth-Century Life 25.2 (2001) 147-169

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"Gingerbread and sippets of embroidery":
Horace Walpole and Robert Adam

John Wilton-Ely


"How sick one shall be, after this chaste palace, of Mr Adam's gingerbread and sippets of embroidery."

Thus wrote Horace Walpole to Lady Ossory in 1785 describing a visit to the Prince of Wales' new London residence, Carlton House. 1 This dismissive comment was to be among the last Walpole ever made about a designer whom he had known for over twenty years, during which time he had greeted Adam's early achievements with enthusiasm and employed him at Strawberry Hill in the 1760s before becoming rapidly disenchanted with him. On a superficial level, it might appear paradoxical that, given Walpole's comparable innovative and experimental activities at Strawberry Hill with the Gothic, he should change so swiftly from an unqualified admirer to such a harsh critic. This paper aims to explore some of the deeper reasons for this disillusionment and to suggest a greater coherence in Walpole's attitude than previously recognized.

The creation of the Adam style between 1760 and 1780 is among the most remarkable episodes in European neoclassical design, both in terms of the conscious intention to fashion a contemporary system of expression in architecture and the decorative arts, as well as the unprecedented range of visual sources and ideas on which it was based. Robert Adam had returned from four critical and highly rewarding years of travel and studies in Italy and Dalmatia in January 1758. 2 Once established in London, he had set up an office in Lower Grosvenor Street, in partnership with his younger brother, James, who in 1760 was to leave for three years travel in Italy himself. Robert, by means of a keen business sense and effective client relations, was swift to acquire a set of prestigious country house commissions at Harewood, Kedleston, and Bowood, as well as lucrative work in other properties such as Shardeloes, Croome Court, Compton Verney, and Hatchlands. 3 Walpole, at the heart of fashionable society, had been prompt to praise Adam's first major London debut in 1761 when he was commissioned by the duke of Northumberland to remodel the interiors of his southern seat at Syon House, situated close to the metropolis on the Thames and only a few miles down river from Strawberry Hill. 4 Although Walpole mentions in the surviving journals of his visits to country seats that "in June 1761 this Lord [Northumberland] has begun a magnificent [End Page 147] apartment, altering the old vast hall, which had four doors in the corners with six marble steps & a prodigious chimney, & the three next chambers," it is not clear whether he had actually seen the dramatic changes before a visit made in 1764. 5 During that year, Adam was in the process of producing a fourth grand space in the sequence of rooms of parade to replace the Jacobean Long Gallery. As Walpole wrote to the earl of Hertford on 27 August: "I have been this evening to Sion [sic], which is becoming another Mount Palatine. Adam has displayed great taste, and the Earl matches it with magnificence. The gallery is converting into a museum in the style of a columbarium, according to an idea that I proposed to my Lord Northumberland" (Correspondence, 38:429).

Clearly, Walpole was deeply impressed by Adam's imaginative transformation of a long, narrow, and low-vaulted space into an elegant library, embellished with a profusion of ornamental plasterwork, set off by an elaborate ceiling and carpet. The long east wall was to be enlivened by piers with matching mirrors and tables, alternating with the window recesses. Apart from doorcases and chimneypieces, the corresponding wall opposite and shorter ones to north and south were to be divided by pilastered bookcases, all richly embellished with painted decorations in the Italian grotesque style, inset pictures, and niches. These last were eventually to display antique painted vases in the manner of Roman tomb recesses with cinerary urns, or colombaria, as Walpole mentions.

It was not to...


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