WHEN THE BANKER Sir Francis Child (1642-1713) acquired Osterley Park in the 18th century, its Elizabethan manor house was in a poor state of repair. His grandsons, Francis and Robert, employed the famous architect, Robert Adam (1728-1792) to give the house a major ‘makeover’ including adding a grandiose neo-classical front portico. And that is what he did on a grand scale. Adam was no ordinary architect. Not only did he plan buildings (and modifications to them), but he also designed their interiors: everything from ceilings and wall decorations to furniture and doorhandles. Osterley Park offers a magnificent display of his wide-ranging skills.
The visitor to Osterley Park, now managed by the National Trust, usually gets to see a series of wonderful rooms on the ground floor of the house. All the rooms except one have beautifully decorated ceilings, all designed by Adam. Some of them have paintings created by Adam’s favourite painter, the Venetian Antonio Zucchi (1726-1795). Amongst my favourite ceilings are those in the Etruscan Dressing Room and the Drawing Room. The latter has a fantastic ceiling that was inspired by drawings in “The Ruins of Palmyra otherwise Tedmor in the Desert” by James Dawkin and Robert Wood (published in 1753).The ruins were those that were recently badly vandalised by the IS group. In each of the rooms, except the long gallery, the visitor’s attention is dominated by the eye-catching ceilings.
The ceiling of the long gallery is devoid of decoration. It was in this room that the Child family’s collection of fine paintings used to be displayed. The gallery’s ceiling was left plain, without decoration, deliberately, so that the viewer’s attention would be concentrated on the paintings. Sadly, the paintings are no more. After WW2, the house’s owner, George Francis Child-Villiers, 9th Earl of Jersey (1910 -1998) gave the house and its grounds to the National Trust. He moved to Jersey, taking with him most of the paintings that had hung at Osterley. Unfortunately, many of these works were destroyed in a warehouse fire soon after he donated the house. The artworks in the gallery have since been replaced with other paintings and because the ceiling is naked, you can give them your full attention.
WHEN I WAS BORN, my parents wanted to call me ‘Adam’. That was in the early 1950s. However, Mom and Dad were worried that Adam was a relatively unusual first name in those far-off days and that with such a name I might have been teased at school. As it happened, I only attended schools where the pupils were addressed by their surnames and mine, Yamey, was subject of a lot of mirth amongst my schoolmates. In view of their concerns, I was named ‘Robert Adam’, but have always been called ‘Adam’. My father, an economist, was all for calling me ‘Adam Smith Yamey’ in memory of the father of economics Adam Smith (1723-1790), but my mother was not keen giving me this name. The choice of Robert was possibly influenced by the fact that one of my mother’s brothers bore this name. It is also very vaguely possible that the name ‘Robert Adam’ was chosen in memory of another man who was alive during Adam Smith’s lifetime, the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792).
Maybe because I share his name, I have grown to like and appreciate the architecture and interior decors created by the 18th century Robert Adam. However, you do not need to be called Robert Adam to enjoy Adam’s great works.
Last year, we visited Osterley Park on an extremely rainy day and were able to wander around the interior of Osterley Park House (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2020/11/02/at-home-with-adam/). Built by the merchant and founder of London’s Royal Exchange Sir Thomas Gresham (c1519-1579) in about 1575, the house was extensively remodelled by the Child family, who owned it, during the 1760s and 1770s. The remodelling was to the detailed designs of Robert Adam.
When we visited the house on that rainy day in November 2020, we omitted walking around the house’s fine semi-formal gardens. On our recent visit, the house was not open because of covid19 prevention measures and there was no rainfall. So, we wandered around the lovely gardens. Like so many other 18th century landscaped gardens attached to stately homes, that at Osterley contains several buildings that were placed to add to the picturesqueness of the grounds.
The Doric Temple of Pan with four columns and four pilasters was built in the 18th century, probably to the design of the Scottish-Swedish architect William Chambers (1723-1796), who was born in the Swedish city of Gothenburg. Between 1740 and 1749, while in the employ of the Swedish East India Company, he made three voyages to China, where he learnt Chinese. A major rival of Robert Adam, he was an exponent of neo-classicism, of which the small Temple of Pan is a fine example. The interior of the temple, which we were unable to see because of covid19 prevention measures, contains, according to Nikolaus Pevsner and Bridget Cherry:
“… mid c18 interior plasterwork with Rococo flourishes and medallions of Colen Campbell and Sir Isaac Newton.”
The front of the temple faces across a lawn towards a structure, 175 yards away, designed by Chambers’ rival Robert Adam: The Garden House.
Adam designed the Garden House in about 1780. It has a semi-circular façade with five large windows within frames topped with semi-circular arches. Pevsner and Cherry describe these windows as “five linked Venetian windows”. A balustrade tops the façade and almost hides the conical roof. Between the windows, there are roundels containing bas-relief depictions of classical scenes with bucolic themes. The building was part of Mrs Child’s Flower Garden. The National Trust, which manages Osterley Park, notes in its website (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/osterley-park-and-house/features/the-garden-house-at-osterley-park-and-house) that the Garden House’s original purpose was:
“… a display house for the collection of rare trees and shrubs that were housed here in the 18thC. The main type of plant that we always grow and display in this building is lemon trees as we have historic evidence that 45 lemon trees were on show here in the 1780’s. We choose to have a mixed display of other interesting specimens alongside the lemons so as to give a greater display and range of interest for our visitors. All of these plants are known to have been either at Osterley in the 18thC or to have been available to grow at that time.”
Although it is not as spectacular as Adam’s interiors of Osterley Park, the Garden House is both delightful and elegant, a fine feature that enhances the appearance of the formal part of the gardens. This and other buildings designed by the same architect makes me proud to have been given, maybe accidentally, the name Robert Adam Yamey.
IN CASE YOU ARE WONDERING, this piece is not all about me, Adam Robert Yamey. My father, a well-known economist, was all for calling me ‘Adam Smith Yamey’, in honour of the famous Scottish economist and author of “The Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith (1723-1790), but my mother was against this. My ‘Robert’ might have been chosen because my mother had a brother called Robert, but maybe they chose the name because they knew about a more celebrated Robert, the Scottish architect and Adam Smith’s contemporary, Robert Adam (1728-1792). Lately, we have visited two buildings whose appearances owe much to Adam the architect. One is Osterley House, west of London, and the other Kenwood House in north London.
According to a mine of information, “Handbook to the Environs of London” by James Thorne (published in 1876), the manor of ‘Osterlee’ belonged to John de Osterlee in the reign of Edward I (lived 1239-1307). Through the years it moved through the hands of men such as John Somerseth (died 1454), Henry Marquis of Exeter (1498-1538), Edward Seymour (Protector Somerset 1500-1552), Augustin Thaier, and then Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579).
Gresham was, according to Thorne, was “… the prince of merchants”. An able financier, he worked on behalf of King Edward VI, Queen Mary I, and Queen Elizabeth I, and was also the founder of the Royal Exchange in London. In 1857, the economist Henry Dunning Macleod, used Thomas’s surname to name a law of economics, namely ‘bad money drives out good’. By 1577, Gresham enclosed Osterley Park and constructed a magnificent mansion. Although there are no surviving images of this building, its architectural style can be imagined by looking at the Tudor stable block (c1560) that stands next to the present Osterley House.
After Gresham’s death, the building began to decline even while his widow, Anne (née Ferneley), continued to dwell in it. After her death in 1596 at the age of 75, Osterley House and its grounds were owned by a series of people until about 1713, when the banker Sir Francis Child (1642-1713) bought the property.
Sir Francis left the place to his sons Robert (1674-1721), Francis (1684-1740), and Samuel (1693- 1752). It was the latter’s son, the third Francis Child (1735-1763), who engaged the fashionable architect Robert Adam to make improvements to Osterley House. His was employed in the 1760s to modernise Gresham’s house. The most obvious of Adam’s works can be seen before you enter the house, the neo-classical portico supported by two rows of six Ionic columns that evokes memories of the Propylaeum of the Parthenon in Athens, which Adam might well have known about after his Grand Tour of Europe undertaken between 1755 and 1757, which, incidentally, included a visit to the ruins at Split (now in Croatia). The portico joins two wings of the building that Child inherited.
In addition to the magnificent portico that contrasts with the Tudor brickwork of the rest of the building, Adam redesigned the entire interior of the building, creating a series of beautifully decorated rooms, most of which have eye-catching ornate ceilings. One room, which does not have a decorated ceiling is the Long Gallery which was used to house some of the large collection of paintings that used to hang in the Child’s London home, which they sold in 1767. Most of these artworks were removed from the house when Lord Jersey gifted the house to the National Trust in 1949, and then lost in a fire. They have been replaced by other fine paintings. Many of the chairs and sofas and other furnishings in the Long Gallery (and other rooms) were designed by Robert Adam, who took great interest in every detail of what he created. The absence of ceiling decorations, it was explained to us, was intentional; the ceiling was left unadorned so that viewers of the paintings were not distracted by decorative features above them. In the other rooms, the ceilings rival other aspects for the viewer’s attention. From the grand entrance hall onwards, the visitor is faced with a series of rooms that compete for his or her admiration. Amongst these marvels of interior decoration, I was particularly impressed by the Drawing Room that drew inspiration from the Temple of the Sun at Palmyra (destroyed by ISIS in 2009), the Tapestry Room, and the delicately decorated Etruscan Dressing Room. I have singled out these rooms, but the others are also magnificent. Adam’s creations make a visit to Osterley Park a breath-takingly exciting visual experience.
As the crow flies, Kenwood House is ten miles northeast of Osterley House, or about 15 miles by road. Osterley House was completely remodelled by Robert Adam. Beneath his modifications, its structure is basically the Tudor mansion that the Child family purchased. The situation is different at Kenwood.
“… addition of a new entrance on the north front in 1764, which created the existing full-height giant pedimented portico … modernised the existing interiors, notably the entrance hall (1773), Great Stairs and antechamber, and built a new ‘Great Room’ or library (1767–9) for entertaining. The ground-floor rooms on the south front all received Adam’s new decorative schemes. These social spaces for the family included a drawing room, parlour and ‘My Lord’s Dressing Room’ … designed the south front elevation in 1764, but changed it in 1768 in order to insert attic-storey bedrooms.”
So, he added to the existing building rather than working within its original ‘footprint’. The ‘pièce de résistance’ of Adam’s work at Kenwood is without doubt the Library. It must be seen to be believed. Reluctantly, because I was really impressed by his creations at Osterley, this library exceeds the splendour of all the rooms at Osterley. The South façade of Kenwood is also a successful modification of the building, more effective aesthetically than the portico added to the north side of the house.
Seeing Adam’s Library at Kenwood House is just one of the good reasons to visit the place. The other attractions include the wonderful gardens and the collection of masterpieces of British and European painters that are on display. Including works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Bols, Turner, Guardi, Reynolds, and many more celebrated artists, the paintings are part of the collection of the Irish businessman and philanthropist, Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847-1927), which he left to the nation following his death.
Those enamoured by the works of Robert Adam must visit the two houses already described, which are open to the public. There is another place in London, Home House in Portman Square, once the home of Sir Anthony Blunt and the Courtauld Institute and now a private members’ club (Home House Club), whose Adam interiors, which I have seen, are also spectacular examples of his creative powers. If you are not fortunate enough to know a member of this club, you will have to satisfy yourself by visiting Kenwood and Osterley Houses, but you will not be disappointed.