The neoclassical style was a late eighteenth-century European movement in the decorative arts that embraced a revival of ancient principles derived from the classical Roman and Greek architecture.
In England neoclassicism is also known as the ‘Adam Style’, named for two brothers, Robert and James Adam, who created ingenious designs and decorative interiors for English houses, some of which remain today, such as Kedleston Hall, Harewood, Kenwood, and Syon houses.
Delicacy, Gaiety, Grace and Beauty
It was during Robert Adam’s four years of architecture training in Italy that he was greatly influenced by the interior decoration of private Roman interiors, and the ‘delicacy, gaiety, grace and beauty’ of their ornamentation. He translated this inspiration into his own distinctive ideal, establishing a complete harmony of exterior and interior decoration. Adam closely studied and drew antique examples, objects and wall paintings found in recent excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, and illustrations from contemporary books, such as Piranesi’s etchings of Roman antiquities.
Building upon the classical motifs of columns, pediments, Egyptian terms, interlocking borders of Greek key or fretwork, acanthus leaves, urns, hearts, and arrows; the Adam brothers, commonly used themes of the anthemion, the urn, the husk, festoons (decorative chain of foliage or fruit hanging between two points), the ram’s head, and the sphinx.
Furnishings Designed with Restraint and Lightness of Form
This elliptical giltwood mirror (7173) illustrates the decorative motifs of Adam’s oeuvre, such as the anthemion or honeysuckle at the top which gives way to a Grecian style vase with pendant drapes surrounded by swirling foliates and a continuous strand of campanula or bellflower, leading to the ram’s head at the bottom.
Furniture played a dominant role in his decorative schemes, complementing the motifs and colours of the interior decoration. The furnishings were designed with a restraint and lightness of form never seen before in England.
By the 1780s the style evolved and was adapted by famous furniture makers such as Thomas Chippendale, John Linnell, Hepplewhite, Thomas Sheraton, and Ince and Mayhew, all of who either printed designs or produced furniture that was derivative of Adam’s work.
This influence is evident in this pair of armchairs (ref 8341) as a similar set of armchairs once sat in the dining room at English country house, Syon House, which was decorated by Robert Adam between 1762 and 1769. Another similar set is in the collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, which are described as exemplifying the ‘Adam’ style and similar to the designs by the furniture maker Linnell.
Hand-Painted Details in Classical Ornamentation
Paintings of classical architecture, figurative or allegorical scenes were integrated into the interior decoration of neoclassical interiors. Furniture was also adorned with a similar style of polychrome hand-painted details in classical ornamentation. Most notable and influential painters of this period were Italian artists Angelica Kauffman and Antonio Zucchi. This fireplace mantel piece (ref 7844), circa 1880, is gilded and decorated in the neoclassical style and painted in the manner of Kauffman, with allegorical scenes of Apollo and his Muses.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the style was revived by numerous trends in English decorative arts. Wright and Mansfield, a London firm of cabinet-makers and decorators, exhibited furniture in the ‘Adam style’ in the 1862 and 1867 Exhibitions. Similar pieces to those exhibited were made for esteemed collectors of the time, such as this satinwood side cabinet attributed to Wright and Mansfield, circa 1870 (ref 8000). It is decorated with neoclassical style wood marquetry with gilt metal ornaments, and a central hand painted scene, depicting lovers in a pastoral setting, surrounded with floral decoration.
Spread from England, America and France
The style established itself in public favour that books containing the designs and furniture of Robert and James Adam, quickly spread to from England to America and France. The influences can be seen in this satinwood long case clock by Maple & Company of London (ref 8560), circa 1880, constructed in a hand-painted and gilt decoration, resembles the ornamentation and designs of Robert Adam interiors, or most carefully to the Etruscan Dressing Room, at Osterly Park.