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Reviewed by ANDRE BEAUMONT
The Victoria & Albert Museum of earlier decades was a most competent protector of the legacy of Robert Adam.
I much appreciated the full-scale reconstruction of the Glass Drawing Room at Northumberland House that used to be on the first floor of the museum. (The model that was later made does not come near to its splendours.)
I also remember talking to Peter Thornton about his bold and imaginative restoration of Osterley Park, with Adam's colours restored a shade or two brighter to allow them to fade with age but nonetheless probably closer to what they had been in Robert Adam's time than after two centuries of coal burning in London.
I had had the advantage of seeing as many of the drawings of Adam's London houses as I could at the Soane Museum and elsewhere and so I agreed with what he had done when we discussed it.
I then lost touch with what had happened to Osterley but it is now under different stewardship.
Unfortunately, Osterley has been subject to some form of artistic mishap in the intervening period - in the Library and in the Etruscan Room, at least.
I have some notes of my impressions of Osterley of that time. They run:
The Library incorporates conflicting architectonic and linear treatments and fails, in some measure, to resolve them. The room is beautiful in both detail and execution but does not have the unified elegance of most Adam rooms.
The ceiling, however, is in very low relief which is characteristic of the very linear work of the 1770's. It appears to have been inspired by Roman stucco-work ceilings seen by Adam on his Grand Tour and is very brightly coloured.
(Adam was proud of his experiments with the use of colour in ceilings and writes of the Kenwood Library in Works in Architecture of Robert & James Adam: 'the grounds of the pannels and freeses are coloured with light tints of pink and green, so as to take off the glare of white, so common in every ceiling till of late. This always appeared to me so cold and unfinished, that I ventured to introduce this variety of grounds, at once to relieve the ornaments, remove the crudeness of the white, and create a harmony between the ceiling and sidewalls.')
Since it has been recently restored to its original colours, it gives something of the flavour of how a newly executed Adam room might have appeared (the rooms would have been brighter in appearance than the faded colours of many Adam rooms might now suggest). The V. & A., however, seem to have restored the ceiling in tones a few shades lighter than those in the Adam drawing (which is on display in the South Passage at Osterley) of this ceiling. It is expected that the paint will dull with age so that the ceiling will resemble more in colour the design. No carpet was ever made for this room which might have echoed the ceiling design.
Since there is no record of when this room was completed (it is only known that it was completed by 1773 when Walpole recorded his visit in a letter), it may be that the ceiling was executed much later than the bookcases, accounting for the contrast between linear and architectonic treatments.
Even setting aside this contrast, the room remains less successful than most Adam rooms. There are numerous square and rectangular elements to the room: the bookcases, the projecting chimneys, fine decorative panels below the frieze by Angelica Kauffmann and over the chimney-pieces by Cipriani, the windows and door frames.
All this rectangularity (including the room itself) is unrelieved by Adam's usual variety and ingenuity of planning (e.g. the rectangular Music Room at Home House is relieved by curved alcoves for the door and window openings) or even by the sinuousness of arabesque wall decoration.
The furniture is of a very high quality but is not Adam work, being probably designed and made by John Linnell. The lyre-back chairs, of which those in the Library are the most handsome, occasioned Walpole to comment that 'the chairs are taken from antique lyres, and make charming harmony.'
It is clear that I did not greatly admire the Library compared with the glories of the rooms wholly by Adam but that is not the point. What characterised it as a room remodelled by Scotland's finest architect is no longer in evidence.
As for the Etruscan Room I wrote:
The Etruscan mode of decoration was entirely developed by Adam and is one of the most significant innovations of the 1770's. It also represents Adam's work at its extreme of linear elegance.
Adam writing of the Etruscan work at Old Derby House in Works in Architecture of Robert & James Adam states that: 'A mode of Decoration has been here attempted which differs from anything hitherto practised in Europe: for although the style of the ornament and the colouring [It is above all 'the style of the ornament and the colouring' that distinguishes an Etruscan room] ... are both evidently imitated from the vases and urns of the Etruscans, yet we have not been able to discover, either in our researches into antiquity, or in the works of modern artists, any idea of applying this taste to the decoration of apartments.'
However, the urns and vases that Adam and his contemporaries believed to have been Etruscan were, in fact, Greek. They had been found in Etruscan tombs and recognized as un-Roman,and assumed to be Etruscan. It had not yet been realized, in the 18th century, that they had been made in Greece or the Greek colonies in southern Italy.
Also, the decoration at Osterley bears only faint resemblance to antique Greek vases. What is more important is that they were combined with Adamatic motifs to create a new decorative treatment. The ornaments used bear greater resemblance to Roman and Renaissance grotesques than any detail found on Greek pottery. Likewise, the use of colour strays considerably from that found in the originals - the black and dull reds of the original Greek vases are used for picking out the detail of the ornaments but not for the ground of the vases as in the Greek versions.
Adam's development of the Etruscan style also corresponded with a growing interest in antique pottery, and Josiah Wedgwood, who was soon imitating the Greek style in his wares, named his new works Etruria. His products became very popular and in 1768 he wrote of his London agent: 'Mr Cox is as mad as a March hare for Etruscan vases'.
The Etruscan Drawing Room at Osterley is the sole Etruscan Room that survives virtually intact, the other Etruscan work (at Home House, Harewood, Old Derby House, Apsley House and Cumberland House) having either been demolished, as at Old Derby House, or had its decoration partially destroyed, as at Home House. Drawings at the Soane Museum, however, provide a comparative reference. From a letter of Mrs. Lybbe Powys, who visited the house in 1788, it appears that the artist who decorated this room was Peter Borgnis (whom Mrs. Lybbe Powys refers to as Berners) who Adam mentions in a letter of 1782 to Paul Sandby as someone who 'paints ornaments and figures'. The wall decoration, door panels and fire screen are executed in painted paper laid on canvas, a treatment which due to its total linearity, may disappoint the visitor as it did Walpole. However, the flatness of the medium allows Adam to detail at his most delicate and elegant, since detail can be much thinner when not in relief. The friezes of the room exemplify this - at cornice level, around the doors and windows, bordering the dado, inset into the doors and painted onto the canvas - all are on a plane surface or in very low relief and all are exceptionally finely detailed with very sharp definition of individual repetitive motifs.
The room, as with so many of his rooms of the 1770's was conceived as an ensemble. Thus the doors have Etruscan panels painted on canvas, the fire screen is decorated with Etruscan ornaments, and the chairs are painted in black and terracotta on a grey ground with splats displaying Etruscan ornaments (n.b. the paterae on the splats are repeated, at a larger scale, on the wall, against which the chairs might have been ranged). Yet although they bear similar motifs to the wall decoration, the designs are not the same. This allows the items to have an individual entity within the room and adds variety to the overall treatment.
The main distinguishing features of the Etruscan style are its elegant lightness and fragility, its distinctive use of certain colours and its use of certain 'Etruscan' motifs. What distinguishes it most, however, from other linear Adam designs (apart from the medium on which it is executed) are its distinctive colours.
Though neither identical nor 'Etruscan', similar vases, urns and tripod motifs are found in the rest of Adam's oeuvre. Other motifs used are not strictly 'Etruscan' at all but unrelated or favourite motifs, such as sphinxes, medallions, husks and even birds inspired perhaps by decorations at Herculaneum and Pompeii. All these are decorated in characteristic terracotta, reds, browns, black and white against a pale blue or pale green ground above a 2 ft. high dado (to protect the canvas from damage) of a slightly darker shade of blue or green. The ceilings incorporate similar colours; at Osterley the ceiling, in bas-relief, has its echoing detail of sphinxes, vases, etc. picked out in rust reds and rust yellows against the pale pinks and creams and lighter tones of other detail.
I was implicitly rebutting Horace Walpole's very amusing but also very brief dismisal of the Etruscan Dressing Room (or Etruscan Room as it became known).
Any dispute between me and Horace Walpole across the centuries is now beyond the point. As far as I can tell, Walpole and I both saw the original work. When I spoke to him, Peter Thornton told me he had left this room in its original condition.
There is now no fire screen, little evidence of painted canvas, of fineness of detail, lightness and fragility and too few subtleties of colour.
The finest example of Robert Adam's unique Etruscan style has been transformed. This room used to be the tour de force at the end of the suite of rooms, not because it was better than all that preceded it but because it was so different, marking a final stage of development in Robert Adam's career and showing off his creation of a further new style (taken up by other architects like Thomas Leverton and James Wyatt) as it turned the corner for you architecturally, with a little aid from the firescreen, out of the long and, at some points in history, glorious suite of rooms.