Profitable Ventures

August, around, what Public Works I see!

Lo! Stately Street, lo! Squares that court the breeze!

See long Canals and deepened Rivers join

Each part with each, with the circling Main

The whole enlivened Isle.

—James Thomson, Liberty, 1736


Scottish Whigs had helped to defeat Jacobitism in order to give birth to a new enlightened Scotland. They got their wish— with a vengeance. The years after 1745 witnessed an explosion of cultural and economic activity all across Scotland, as if the collapse of the Jacobite and Highland threat had released a tremendous pent-up store of national energy. It was economic “takeoff” in the full modern sense.

Scots were not the first, or certainly the last, people to experience it. But they were the first to recognize it for what it was, and to realize how economic growth could suddenly transform an entire society for (on the whole) the better. As the century proceeded, merchants, scholars, clerics, and professional men—a Scottish middle class—pushed themselves front and center. Progress was no longer just a question of creating a polite or even commercial society. Scots were engaged in creating the new capitalist future of the world, with its self-renewing productive growth and “economies of scale,” and Adam Smith would be its prophet.

The epicenter of this transformation was Glasgow. It became the emporium of Scotland, a thriving international port city on the Atlantic, commanding the sea routes south and east. In 1707, Glasgow had fought hard against union, since it cost the city its independent political clout. Within a generation, however, Glaswegians carved out a place for themselves in Britain’s trade with the American colonies, particularly the trade in tobacco. The men who confronted Prince Charles with their sullen resistance, and raised a regiment of militia to oppose him, enjoyed a perspective on the world that extended to America, Scandinavia, and Russia. After 1745 they became cutthroat competitors for the market in tobacco with their English rivals.

A decade after the Act of Union, the first Glasgow-owned ship had made the seven-week voyage to the tobacco landings on the Chesapeake Bay. By 1727 there were fifty vessels making the trip every year. In 1741 Glasgow shippers dropped off 7 million pounds of tobacco on their wharves at Port Glasgow; in 1752, they were unloading 21 million, three times the volume of just eleven years earlier. From that point on, the rate of growth, as well as the total volume of trade, continued to accelerate, while the British Empire expanded. In 1758, the year after Robert Clive conquered India and the year before James Wolfe captured Quebec and Canada, Scottish tobacco imports from America were larger than those of London and all English ports combined.

Yet the biggest growth in the market was still to come. The true “golden age” of Glasgow and her wealthy tobacco importers, the so-called Tobacco Lords, came in the decade and a half before the American Revolution. In 1771 the trade rose to an incredible 41 million pounds; it totaled more than a third of all Scottish imports, and almost two-thirds of all the nation’s exports. Scottish merchants were a regular part of life in such ports as New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Alexandria, Virginia. Almost half of all American trade in tobacco was in Scottish hands. William Lee wrote his fellow planter Landon Carter in 1771, “I think it self-evident, that Glasgow has almost monopolized Virginia and its inhabitants.” As the most recent historian of the Glasgow trade puts it, “By the 1780s, the city was a player on the world stage.”

The men who made Glasgow a world player came from different backgrounds and circumstances. A few were sons of local artisans and clerics. One, Hugh Wylie, was a sea captain who saved enough money to buy a share in one of the big importing houses. Most, though, were well-to-do Lowlanders, including sons of landowning families. Others belonged to long-established Glaswegian families such as the Bogles, the Dunlops, and the Murdochs, who had been in the American trade since the seventeenth century. Almost all served time in Virginia or Maryland as tobacco warehouse managers (or factors) before returning to Glasgow.

The appellation Tobacco Lords was a tribute to their wealth and power, but also expressed a paradox. Business, rather than birth, had conferred on them an almost aristocratic status. As they walked along the Gallowgate with their scarlet cloaks, satin suits, and gold-tipped canes, awed citizens stepped off the pavement to let them pass. Their town houses and gardens were noted on Glasgow street maps with the same respect as the estates of great peers in county surveys. They were a ruling class made entirely by money—money hard earned and, it must be said, money freely spent.

The Big Three were William Cunninghame, Alexander Spiers, and John Glassford. In the half-decade before the American Revolution, their three firms controlled over half the Glasgow tobacco trade. The rest of the market was divided among their lesser rivals: Bogles, Murdochs, Dunlops, Oswalds, Buchanans, and Ritchies.

William Cunninghame was born in 1715, and started his career working in a tobacco warehouse in Virginia. In 1775 he was rich enough to loan his brother-in-law Robert Dunlaw 150,000 pounds, perhaps $60 million in today’s money (albeit over ten years). His company owned fourteen warehouses just in Virginia, and his famous company ships such as the Patuxent and the Cunninghame regularly set records on the seven-thousand-mile, three-month round trip to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The Cunninghame alone made the run fifteen times in seven years. Cunninghame built himself a magnificent town house in Glasgow that cost over 10,000 pounds, while Alexander Spiers’s mansion nearby ran to nearly 5,300 pounds. Spiers, Bowman, and Company had had a total capitalization of just over 16,000 pounds in 1744; in 1773 it was worth 152,280 pounds. Spiers’s personal fortune made him one of the richest men in Britain.

How did they do it? Some pointed to Glasgow’s geography. Like the rest of western Scotland, its westerly projection into the Atlantic made it uniquely situated to benefit from American trade. A journey from Port Glasgow, the heart of Glaswegian shipping, to Charleston, South Carolina, or Annapolis, Maryland, could shave two to three weeks off the same trip from London or Bristol. Faster time meant lower costs, of course, and quicker return on investors’ money. Many of those investors were also immediate family members. This was another feature of the big Glasgow firms: their reliance on a loyal circle of uncles and aunts, nephews and sons-in-law, to pool capital and lay off risk.

This “clannishness” of Scottish business firms, past and present, used to be supposed to be crucial to their success. This is a myth. Similarly, the economic advantage Glasgow enjoyed on the Atlantic end of the tobacco run was more than offset by the long trip to re-export it into the Mediterranean and the Baltic—which is where one could make real money. Instead, the secret of the Tobacco Lords’ success lay in their balance sheets: their ability to summon up capital from a wide variety of sources, while ruthlessly cutting costs. Investment money for ships, warehouses, and inventories (since Scottish firms, unlike their English rivals, bought the tobacco from planters outright instead of selling it abroad on commission) came from a wide variety of sources, including banks set up to finance the trade. Between 1740 and 1770 no less than six banks were chartered in Glasgow for this purpose, including the Glasgow Ship Bank and the Thistle Bank.

In addition, partners were paid only 5 percent interest on their shares. The rest of their profits, an overwhelming sum of money in good times, had to be plowed back into the business. The result of all this was that the Glasgow tobacco trade was one of the most heavily capitalized industries in Britain, giving merchants the flexibility to expand when things went well, or sit out the storm when they did not.

The eighteenth-century Glasgow tobacco trade was run by entrepreneurs in the classic sense: men who took risks in order to make money, and who paid the price when their enterprises failed. One of the oldest participants, the Bogle family firm, had to go into receivership in 1772 when it could no longer pay its debts. Established figures such as Hugh Wylie, George McCall, James Dunlop, and William French all went through the ordeal of bankruptcy. But, for every firm that went under, new syndicates of investors took its place. This was a constantly self-renewing industry, drawing on fresh outside blood and investors even as competition compelled everyone to keep costs down and services at their deliverable best. Glasgow’s tobacco trade offered up an image of capitalism in its purest and most dynamic form.

It was by watching the city’s tobacco trade that Adam Smith, professor at the University of Glasgow from 1751 to 1764, made his first real acquaintance with large-scale business enterprise, and with the businessmen who ran it. Smith struck up a close acquaintance with John Glassford, who kept him informed of events in America and also took a keen interest in Smith’s progress with his Wealth of Nations. Glasgow Provost Andrew Cochrane organized a Political Economy Club, whose members included Smith, Glassford, and another wealthy tobacco merchant, Richard Oswald. Cochrane even presided over a special session of the Glasgow Town Council on May 3, 1762, when Professor Smith was made an honorary burgess of the city.

This sort of thing happened because the Glasgow merchant community, like other middle-class Scots, ranked education almost, though not quite, as high as good business sense. Most merchants could read Greek and Latin as well as a ledger and balance sheet. The heirs of firms such as Glassford, Ingram regularly went for one or two years at the university. Several almost certainly sat in on Adam Smith’s lectures on philosophy and jurisprudence, just as their fathers had attended Francis Hutcheson’s classes. Their numbers at the University of Glasgow grew as the century wore on. In fact, by one count fully one-half of the students enrolled by 1790 were sons of “industry and commerce.” This compares with less than 8 percent at Cambridge University in the same period—indicating how much the Scots, and Glaswegians in particular, not only talked about the alliance between commerce and “politeness” or cultural excellence, but lived it as well.

“The connection between Commerce and the liberal arts is so well known,” wrote Glaswegian John Mennons, “that such as cultivate the latter naturally seek the patronage of those who are the greatest friends to the latter.” Education and the arts did find generous patrons among the Tobacco Lords. Affluence and long months between the departure and return of shipping fleets meant that Glasgow’s elite had plenty of time on their hands. Alexander Bogle alleged that “all the merchants in Glasgow . . . are quite idle for one half or two-thirds of the year” when their ships were at sea and so had to find other ways to keep themselves occupied. They joined the Literary Society of Glasgow, and the Sacred Music Institution, and founded the Hodge Podge Club, which invited luminaries such as Adam Smith and Thomas Reid to speak. They gathered in the coffee room of the Tontine Hotel for polite conversation or a glass of rum punch, the drink of choice among the Tobacco Lords and Glasgow’s West Indian merchants.

It was tobacco merchant George Bogle who cast the deciding vote on the university board of regents enabling Francis Hutcheson’s friend William Leechman to become professor of theology, over the objections of Presbyterian hard-liners. And it was John Glassford and his partner Archibald Ingram who put up the initial funding for the most farsighted cultural project in the city’s history, the brainchild of the Glasgow Enlightenment’s most unusual and eccentric figure.

Francis Hutcheson first noticed him sitting in on his lectures in the 1730s. Although Robert Foulis was not a regular student, Hutcheson was so impressed with this “singular worthy soul,” as he called him, that he offered to hire Foulis as his classroom tutor. Foulis was working class, the son of a maltman and apprenticed to become a barber. However, his thirst for learning had driven him into Hutcheson’s classroom as well as that of professor of mathematics Robert Simson. Foulis became devoted to Hutcheson’s vision of education as a means of teaching human beings to be free and good. But because he had no university degree (although he read Greek and Latin fluently, as did his younger brother Andrew), a career in teaching was closed to him. The next best thing, he decided, was to open a bookshop, as a kind of import-export business in enlightened ideas and culture.

Like Allan Ramsay before him, Foulis used his bookshop as a vehicle for branching out into other cultural projects. He soon turned from just selling books to printing them. In 1741 he and his brother became the official “university printers,” and since they both knew Latin and Greek, their editions of ancient classical texts were far more accurate than those of any other Scottish or even English publisher. The Foulis brothers’ meticulous attention to detail even extended down to designing new and clearer typefaces for Roman and Greek letters, with the help of the university’s type founder, Alexander Wilson. Their edition of Homer’s Iliad in 1756 defined the state of the art, and won a medal from the Edinburgh Society for Encouraging Arts, Sciences, Manufactures, and Agriculture—a rare tribute to a Glaswegian from a rival sister city.

The award, like the edition itself, went to the heart of what Foulis saw as his personal mission: to make the “practical” arts such as printing, engraving, and stencilmaking as important and significant to polite society as the “fine” arts, such as painting, sculpture, and music. It was to pursue this that in 1753 Foulis established his School for the Art of Design, with the help of Glassford and Ingram. The University of Glasgow gave its imprimatur to the school, making it an official appendage of the university, like Foulis’s press and bookshop. Adam Smith helped him find rooms for classes and faculty, and Britain’s first academic school for design was launched.

Foulis hoped that his classes in sculpture, drawing, and printmaking would become as essential to the curriculum as philosophy, mathematics, or theology. “It is to be wished,” he said, “that all Universities were also academies, in order that artists should never be without learning, nor learned men without a taste for those arts, that in all enlightened ages, have been deemed liberal and polite.” He deliberately set up his printmaking classes to appeal to local linen and cotton manufacturers, as a place to devise new patterns and designs for their cloths.

In Foulis’s mind, the practical was inseparable from the theoretical. There was no sense of the artist or the intellectual pursuing a “higher” or more spiritual goal than the craftsman or businessman. Everyone, the artist and the artisan, the philosopher and the mechanic, the scholar and the manufacturer, was engaged in the same project: creating a polite, humane, enlightened culture. This intermingling of the practical and the intellectual was in fact a keynote of the Glasgow Enlightenment. It explains why engineer James Watt, who helped build Scotland’s first dry dock at Port Glasgow in 1762, was just as highly regarded by university professors such as Adam Smith and Joseph Black as he was by Glasgow’s merchants, and why type maker Alexander Wilson could also be named Professor of Practical Astronomy in 1760.

After its promising start, Foulis’s academy faltered. “The fine arts do not ripen quickly,” he wrote to anatomy professor William Hunter, “especially in a cold climate.” The academy was forced to close its doors in 1775, and Foulis had to sell the pictures he had accumulated in the academy’s art gallery to cover his debts. His brother Andrew died at the same time. Depressed and financially ruined, Robert Foulis caught pneumonia and passed away in November 1776.

His great dream had failed. But Foulis had put into play a basic principle of his teacher Francis Hutcheson’s view of art in relation to life. This was that God had made human virtue beautiful as well as useful, and that physical beauty, or “uniformity amidst variety,” was, like the arts, essential to human happiness. It is the spirit of Scottish neoclassicism, and would carry over in the works of two other Scots— Edinburgh men this time, not Glaswegians—Robert and James Adam.

In any case, Glasgow’s breakthrough was complete. The Foulis Press had spawned a host of imitators and offshoots. The number of books printed in Glasgow increased by 500 percent. By the 1770s the city could boast of fourteen booksellers, as well as three engravers, four architects, two marble cutters, an imported-carpet warehouse, two coach builders, fourteen saddlers, three fine jewelers, and twenty-three different cabinetmakers—not to mention twenty-six hairdressers and thirteen barbers. Service industries and consumer goods, or what the more old-fashioned still called luxuries, were now a fixed part of the Glasgow scene, as newly acquired wealth poured into desirable new channels like a river into a multitude of streams and tributaries. “Whenever capital predominates,” Adam Smith noted, “industry prevails, which increases the real wealth and revenue of all its inhabitants.” This “trickle down” economics turned overseas tobacco money into local jobs, just as the smart tobacco dynasties diversified their investments into the wine and sugar trade, marine insurance, linen and cotton textiles, and iron foundries. Mercantile Glasgow laid the foundations for industrial Glasgow in the nineteenth century. Even after the tobacco trade declined, the city’s capitalist base turned out to be self-perpetuating. Once started, economic growth was hard to shut down.

Economic growth proved to be the engine of change in other ways, as well. When the Glasgow Town Council decided to demolish the city’s old West Port in 1749, it opened up croft land west of Glasgow to development and purchase. Many leading tobacco lords bought parcels for their mansions, with gardens opening onto the new streets laid out north to south: Virginia Street, Havannah Street, Jamaica Street, Queen Street, Dunlop Street (named after the merchant family), Buchanan Street (ditto). The Buchanans themselves had built their residence, Virginia House, slightly east of these later residential developments, with an arrow-straight drive leading to the front door. The tide of urbanization soon swept on past them, however, dotting the vicinity with houses and shops, and their long drive became Virginia Street instead.

In 1740, 17,000 people lived in Glasgow. In 1780 the population had swelled to over 42,000. Developers had laid out thirteen new streets and squares in the new western district of Glasgow, in hopes of attracting merchants and other homebuilders to an affluent urban lifestyle very different from that of the crowded old inner city. Streets were wide (twenty-three meters across in the case of Jamaica Street), with flagstone sidewalks on either side, and urban planners banned unpleasant or noisome businesses, such as skinning or tanning factories, and tallow and soap works. Surveyor James Barrie laid out an entire residential suburb on the Ramshorn and Meadowflat Crofts, by extending Miller, Queen, and Buchanan Streets northward. Back Cow Loan, the rural dirt track Prince Charlie had used to enter Glasgow in December of 1745, became Ingram Street, in honor of tobacco merchant and financier Alexander Ingram.

As with Foulis’s academy of the arts, not everything went according to plan. Construction took time, lots sat empty for long periods, and conditions in the crowded old city remained a nuisance. But a new middle-class urban community was taking physical, as well as economic, shape. Its institutional emblem was Glasgow’s Chamber of Commerce, the first in Britain, formed on New Year’s Day, 1783, with a hefty round of rum toasts. Its more obvious and visible emblem was Barrie’s George Square, laid out in his Meadowflats development between Queen and Frederick Streets. Unfortunately, by the time building actually began at Meadowflats in 1787, Glasgow had been upstaged by another, even more successful design for the new urban lifestyle: Edinburgh’s New Town.


“Look at those fields,” George Drummond said to a young friend who was standing beside him at a window looking north of Edinburgh Castle. It was 1763. Drummond, the belated hero of the city’s failed resistance against the Jacobites, was approaching the end of his fourth consecutive, and last, term as Lord Provost. He was seventy-five and the most revered figure in Edinburgh. Certainly no one laughed at the commander of the Lawnmarket volunteers now.

Drummond was staring out across the North Loch, at the empty area beyond that residents knew by the charming name of Barefoot’s Park. He pointed and turned to his guest.

“You, Mr. Somerville,” he said, “are a young man and may probably live, though I will not, to see all these fields covered with houses, forming a splendid and magnificent city.” Drummond explained how this could be done, by draining the North Loch and building a causeway linking it to the old town. “I have never lost sight of this object since the year 1725,” he confessed, “when I was first elected provost.” Now Drummond’s dream was about to come true.

Everyone recognized that as modern cities went, Edinburgh left much to be desired. It was “that most picturesque (at a distance) and nastiest (when near) of all capital cities,” according to the poet Thomas Gray. Clustered at the foot of Edinburgh Castle, the city earned its nickname “Auld Reekie” from the forest of chimneys belching smoke from fires that burned coal at the rate of five hundred tons a day, choking residents and visitors alike. Its central avenue, the so-called Royal Mile, was a dark, narrow canyon of rickety buildings, some stacked ten or even twelve stories high, thronging with people, vehicles, animals, and refuse.

To visualize what Edinburgh was like in 1763, one has to imagine a network of shadowy, twisting streets, each branching out into a bewildering labyrinth of wynds (or through alleys) and dead-end courts and closes, all lined with blackened, narrow-faced houses and tenements. The typical tenement saw several families jammed together on each floor, all sharing a common stairway—the servants and lower classes occupying the lowest and highest stories, and the upper and middle class—including nobles and supreme court justices like Kames and Auchinleck—ensconced in the middle. Daniel Defoe said, “I believe that in no city in the world so many people have so little room.” Sanitation was nonexistent. Pigs, sheep, and the occasional cow wandered the pavement. A familiar figure in the neighborhood was the “Wha’ wants me?” man, who carried a portable toilet (with small, discreet black curtain) for the use of passersby. For residents, a cry of “Gardy loo!” (from the French: “Prenez garde à l’eau!”) from an overhead window was the only warning before a chamber pot was emptied on the heads of anyone in the street or courtyard.

When Defoe visited, Edinburgh still had a population of less than thirty thousand. By 1755 it had grown to almost sixty thousand, all crowded into the same tight, medieval urban space. To relieve the congestion, citizens had constructed some new buildings and carried out renovations of others. After a disastrous fire, Parliament House had been extensively rebuilt. The Royal Infirmary had gone up in 1727, and the Edinburgh Exchange in 1753 (both involved architects from the Adam family). There was even an attempt to create a couple of model residential developments, one at James’s Court in the late 1720s and the other at George Court. One of the first homeowners there was Sir Walter Scott’s father. But the truth was that there was simply no room for any extensive building in the confines of the old city, which was also, thanks to overcrowding, a natural breeding ground for disease and epidemics.

Now, in the flush of confidence following the defeat of the Forty-five, the Edinburgh Town Council, under Drummond’s prodding, decided to do something about the congestion. It proposed buying up enough land north of the city to permit the construction of what would eventually be an entirely new city, to be called the New Town. Its goal was “to enlarge and improve this city, to adorn it with public buildings,” to celebrate Edinburgh’s growth of “husbandry, manufacturers, general commerce, and the increase of useful people.” The proposal concluded with this stirring exhortation to loyal Scotsmen:

What greater object can be presented to their view, that of enlarging, beautifying, and improving the capital of their native country? What can redound more to their honour? What prove more beneficial to SCOTLAND and by consequence to UNITED BRITAIN?

With this in view, in March 1766 the city fathers sponsored a competition for developing the one hundred or so acres of land above the North Loch as a single residential area. Architects and builders could submit whatever kinds of plans they wished. The only requirements were that there had to be room for two churches, and that each house had to be a maximum height of three stories totaling forty-eight feet from basement to wall-head, to give the New Town an even skyline.

Three months later the award went to a twenty-one-year-old mason named James Craig. The choice seems odd. He was certainly no rising star as an architect; his only other claim to fame, then or later, was that he was the nephew of poet James Thomson. Yet personal connections—the standard “it’s not what you do, but whom you know”—seem to have played no part in the decision.

Craig’s plan was simple, almost mechanically so. It consisted of a gridiron of three principal longitudinal avenues intersected by a series of north-south streets, with two large open squares at either end. Its real virtue, however, was that Craig had grasped at once the political agenda behind the New Town proposal. It showed in his choice of street names—George Street, Hanover Street, Princes Street (after the Prince of Wales and his brother the Duke of York) and Queen Street—and the names he gave to the two open squares: St. Georges Square, after the patron saint of England, and St. Andrews Square, after the patron saint of his native Scotland. Two east-west streets were named after the national flower of each kingdom, Rose Street and Thistle Street. Craig capped it all by laying out the streets and avenues in the shape of a Union Jack (the town council finally decided that was going too far and modified the design into its present shape).

Nevertheless, the point was made. The New Town would commemorate the new Whig Scotland, a modern commercial society that was to be the equal partner of its neighbor to the south, with Edinburgh its modern capital.

When Craig learned he had won the competition, he printed up a copy of the plan for the public to see, and put at the top a passage from his uncle’s poem “Liberty”:

August, around, what Public Works I see!

Lo! Stately Street, lo! Squares that court the breeze!

See long Canals and deepened Rivers join

Each part with each, with the circling Main

The whole enlivened Isle.

When Thomson had composed the poem in 1736, the only place in “the whole enlivened Isle” of Britain to find “stately Streets” and elegant squares had been in England. Now, Craig and the Edinburgh Town Council were saying, it was Scotland’s turn.

Development got under way almost at once. The first building, the Theatre Royal, went up in 1768—a monument to refined taste and polite culture, and a rebuke to the old Presbyterian culture that had condemned and banned “the lies of the theatre.” In 1772 the North Bridge connecting the New Town with the Old Town was finished, launching another spurt of development that did not let up until the American Revolution. Once peace returned in 1783, the rest of the development filled in fast, until only the far western quadrant remained.

Who moved in? Most of the buyers of building lots, or feus as they were called, were members of Edinburgh’s commercial class. Only one great aristocrat, Sir Laurence Dundas, built himself a mansion in the New Town facing St. Andrews Square (today it houses the Royal Bank of Scotland). Otherwise, unlike similar residential developments in London or in France, the New Town left no room for large, aristocratic residences or private parks. Its residents were by and large representatives of the new Scotland: merchants (including many members of the Town Council itself), bankers, well-to-do master craftsmen, professional men, clerics, and professors from the university.

Purchasing the grounds and building a house of the acceptable height and in the New Town’s standard yellow-gray sandstone was expensive—around two thousand pounds—but not prohibitively so in the affluent Edinburgh of the 1770s and 1780s. Coach builder John Home (no relation to the writer) bought his lot on the south side of Princes Street; wright John Young, who was also a member of the Town Council, initially bought on George Street, although the city had to buy the lot back from him in order to build St. Andrews Church. The church’s architect, William Pirnie, liked the neighborhood so much that he, too, bought and built in the New Town. Upholsterer John Brough was another resident; so was the philosopher David Hume.

Hume decided to move out of his home in James Court because it had become too small. He bought a lot on the northwest corner of St. Andrews Square, one block north of Princes Street. He liked the spot because of the view: like Queen Street to the north, Princes Street had houses on only one side of the street, so that residents looked onto gardens and the picturesque (at least at a distance) view of Edinburgh proper, now dubbed the Old Town. Hume planned for himself a house, coach-shed, and stables, and set to work finding a builder. “I am engaged in building a house,” he wrote to a friend, “which is the second great operation of human life.” The first, he explained, was marriage (Hume was a bachelor). What finally arose was a tidy and confortable urban town house—“a small house,” he used to say, although “a large house for an author.” Hume let his old place to James Boswell, and happily settled into life in his fashionable new neighborhood. “Our New Town,” he wrote enthusiastically to a correspondent, “exceeds anything you have in any part of the world.”

Edinburgh’s New Town was, and still is, a model of successful urban planning (although, interestingly, it took almost twenty years before it began to break even). It is the model, one might almost say the ideal, of all middle-class residential suburbs and “planned communities,” from Milton Keynes and Hampstead in England to Scarsdale (New York) and Reston (Virginia). It combined elegant urban living with beautiful natural views, charming, flower-lined parks, and discreetly convenient shops, taverns, and oyster houses clustered around Shakespeare Square. It formed a coherent, visually harmonious community, yet was open to all.

Two groups, and two only, were left out. The first were aristocrats, since there was no space allotted for their usual mansions and parks. Although some did eventually buy and build, particularly in later stages of the development, the New Town’s rule required that their houses could look no different from, or any larger than, those of their middle-class “tradesmen” neighbors.

The second group was the laboring masses and working poor. Increasingly, the Old Town became their preserve, as more and more wealthy people left its narrow, teeming streets to find a place in the wide-open spaces north of the city. Class division in Edinburgh was no longer vertical (servants and laborers in the attic, well-to-do in the middle, artisans and shopkeepers at street level) but horizontal. A distance, physical as well as cultural, had opened up between those who were affluent enough to escape the dirty and unpleasant “inner city” and escape to the suburbs, and those who were not. To us, it is a familiar story, even depressingly so. Without knowing it, Edinburgh’s New Town had opened a new chapter in modern urban history, the social and cultural costs of which we are still struggling to overcome.

In the 1780s, however, this class segregation was one of the things that made moving to the New Town so appealing. Demand for lots was running high when the city fathers prepared to develop the last and westernmost section of Craig’s original plan, Charlotte Square. That development would make the New Town even more famous, by linking it to the single most important architect in Britain: Robert Adam.


Robert Adam transformed the art of building in the modern world, and it is worth taking time to understand how and why.

His father, William Adam, born and bred in Kirkcaldy in Fife, “had established himself the universal architect of his county.” He was Master Mason of North Britain for the Board of Ordnance, and had executed famous commissions across the country, including the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh and the Glasgow University Library. But William Adam’s interests extended beyond just architecture. He invested his money in the Pinkie coalfields, the manufacturing of Dutch pantiles, and a brewery, as well as a large landed estate, which he named Blair Adam, near Fife. He belonged to that first generation of Scottish “improving” landlords who were remaking the face of the rural Lowlands. From their father, Robert Adam and his brothers learned a very important lesson. It was not enough for an architect to make beautiful or visionary buildings; he must also make a lot of money.

William Adam’s own reputation rested on his connection to the new, sophisticated architectural style coming up from London, the style called Palladian after the Renaissance Italian architect Andrea Palladio. Although its best-known exponents were aristocratic English amateurs such as Lord Burlington, many of the finest examples of the style came from the brains and drawing tables of Scotsmen working in England, such as James Gibbs (a former student of Christopher Wren, and builder of London’s St. Martin-in-the-Field) and Colen Campbell.17 Campbell had even put together a popular and influential book of plates highlighting the trend, called Vitruvius Britannicus. It showed how British builders of large houses and public buildings were moving away from French and Italian models to create a new classical architecture that was also distinctly “British”—hence the book’s title. The book’s success was yet another example of how Scottish intellectual discipline and energy could take an English idea or insight and turn it into a powerful instrument for remaking the intellectual, social, political, or in this case visual, landscape.

The hallmarks of this British Palladian style were clean lines (lots of smooth stone walls and friezes shorn of excess frills or decoration) and monumentality: massive porticos with large classical pillars or pilasters, topped by gleaming white round domes in the manner of Rome’s Pantheon, and flanked by row upon row of marble steps. Everything was designed to impress the onlooker with the grandeur of the building as well as the importance of its wealthy owner. Scotsmen Campbell and Gibbs used it to great effect in England, but it was William Adam who made it the fashionable style in Scotland as well, beginning with his renovations in the late 1720s of Hopetoun House, the country residence of the well-connected Hope family.

William remained loyal to the Palladian canon all his life. Porticos and domes, deeply cut lines and decorative motifs, heavy window surrounds with double flanked giant pilasters on either side—whether public building or private residence, it did not matter. Everything had to impress, and everything had to conform to the classical order as defined by Palladio in his books on architecture. Yet it was precisely this fashionable and successful style that his sons would rebel against, beginning with Robert.

Robert Adam was born on July 3, 1728. He was, according to an early biographer, “from his infancy of a feeble constitution, which frequently seems the attendant of genius and refined taste.” He went to the Edinburgh High School at age six to learn his Latin, and then to the University of Edinburgh. There he studied mathematics with Colin Maclaurin and soon fell in with that same crowd of young, intellectually alert Whig students: John Home, Alexander Carlyle, William Wilkie, and William Robertson, who also happened to be Robert Adam’s first cousin. It is even possible that he may have joined their ill-fated company of volunteers, although he would have been barely seventeen. He certainly helped Maclaurin with his rebuilding of Edinburgh’s walls and defenses.

His real education began, however, when he left the university to apprentice for his father. Since William Adam was Master Mason for the Board of Ordnance, part of that work included construction of Fort George for the British Army. Adam turned out to be quite adept at military architecture, perhaps in part from his exposure to the late Colin Maclaurin’s visionary plans (or perhaps in spite of them). In any case, his work designing and supervising the building of parapets, glacis, and reinforced trenches made him financially independent—indeed, he is said to have made over ten thousand pounds. His father’s death in 1748 also left him with a small estate, Dowhill, whose most prominent visual feature was a semiruined medieval tower—something that would inspire some of his later experiments with the neo-Gothic.

But Robert Adam had bigger plans than just building forts. His father’s business had gone to his older brother John. If he was going to achieve fame and money as an architect, he would have to do it on his own. In 1749 Robert made his first visit to London to see the English Palladian style for himself. That experience “first began to curb the exuberance of his fancy and polish his taste,” as a friend later wrote. He then decided he needed to go to Italy, not just for a brief visit but for an extended stay, in order to build up a visual data bank of classical designs and motifs—cornices, friezes, figures, bas-reliefs, vases, altars, columns, windows, and doorways—which he could use for his own designs. He joined forces with his younger sibling James, and together they decided Robert should go to Italy for four years to do nothing but see and draw. They scraped together five thousand pounds to pay his expenses, and in the spring of 1754 he set off. It was in both their minds an investment in their joint future, which would, if they did it right, pay them back many times over.

The visit to Rome, Naples, Venice, Vicenza, and other famous sites revealed to Robert Adam just how far from the original classical perfection and proportion of the ancients later modern imitators, including Andrea Palladio himself, had fallen. Brother James agreed: when he did his own Italian tour in 1760–63, he found the villas Palladio had designed for wealthy Venetian patrons “ill-adjusted both in their plans and elevations.” In Robert’s judgment, thanks to the Italians, “all Europe has been misled, and has been servilely groaning under their load for three centuries past.”

They had been misled above all by the heavy, ponderous scale of Roman buildings such as the Pantheon and the Colosseum. It was true that on the outside, ancient temples and palaces showed “the strength, magnitude, and height of the building.” But, as Robert noted, “on the inside of their edifices the Ancients were extremely careful to proportion both the size and depth of their components and panels.” If their public buildings paid attention to proportion and the human scale, their domestic ones did so even more. “And with regard to the decoration of their private and bathing apartments, they were all delicacy, gaiety, grace, and beauty.”

This point was effectively demonstrated by Robert’s trip to Spalato (modern-day Split) to see the remains of the retirement residence of the Roman emperor Diocletian. Robert spent five weeks there, surveying and drawing. The palaces’s light, elegant colonnades and surrounding gardens with views of the mountains and the sea confirmed everything Robert believed about the true classical style: the builders’ goal had been not to overawe or weigh down the viewer, but to please and delight. The result was “not only picturesque but magnificent.”

The term picturesque captured the new architectural style that was taking shape in Robert’s mind, and that would eventually set off a revolution in modern building and design. The architect, Adam decided, had to learn to compose the elements of his building in much the way an artist composes the elements of a painting: the setting, foreground and background objects, points of perspective, even the lighting, all had to be taken into consideration before construction could even start. Just as a picture should provide the spectator with a new view of his world, so should a building.

The other key word was movement. Robert Adam had become fed up with the rigidly inflexible uniform façades of doctrinaire Palladianism and neoclassicism. Movement in architecture meant “the rise and fall, the advance and recess, with other diversity of form, in the different parts of the building,” as it stood before the viewer. To achieve it, Adam was ready to break another neoclassical taboo by using decoration. He saw that the discreet use of decorative elements—statues, vases, trophies, rams’ heads, twisting acanthus, grotesque faces and masks— could “add greatly to the picturesque of the composition.” Adam was even willing to accept the occasional use of trefoil and quatrefoil leaf designs from the medieval Gothic, something that would make the average British Palladian faint dead away.

His brother James was even more emphatic on this. James was in many ways the real theorist of the pair, and in his diary from his Italian travels he jotted down the key ideas that he and Robert would publish, almost word for word, ten years later in their Works in Architecture. James Adam advocated the use of decorations because they “give such amazing magnificence and render an edifice so wonderfully interesting to every spectator. . . . This, then, is the great secret of beauty in architecture and what every artist who would please must study with the greatest attention.”

James also advanced another notion, which has continued to influence architects down to our own day: form must follow function. “ I am more persuaded than ever that architecture is capable of receiving any sort of character one pleases to give it, so that nobody would be at a loss to say to what purpose such a building was put.”

This meant various things, but two stand out. First, obviously, was that a church or a temple should look like a church or a temple, a house like a house, and not vice versa. But the Adam brothers would also assert that an architectural style must be flexible enough to compose and decorate any type of building. Therefore any building could be made to be beautiful, not only a town house or a commercial building, but even a warehouse—or a factory.

If European architecture had been “servilely groaning” under the burden of a misleading neo-Palladian dogma “for three centuries past,” then the time had come to set it free again. The place to do that was London. Robert Adam returned to Edinburgh in 1757, but stayed only long enough to gather up and organize his drawings and materials. He then set off for London to establish himself and begin scouting up the necessary connections that would enable him to launch his own architecture business.

Fortune, and friendship, worked to his advantage. He managed to arrange meetings with two of the most influential Scots living in London. One was Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, who promised to help Robert with “all his interest.” Eventually, Robert would work on his country estate at Kenwood. The other Scot, even more important, was John Stuart, Lord Bute.

Bute was the nephew of the Duke of Argyll, a Scottish peer in his own right, and virtual monarch of the Isle of Bute. But he owed his real political prestige to the fact that he had been tutor to the new king, George III. The king made him his chief political adviser, and then, in 1761, First Lord of the Treasury. Bute was probably the worst prime minister of the century—given his competition, no mean accomplishment. But he had sense enough to try to surround himself in a hostile England with talented and ambitious Scots, and his private secretary happened to be Adam’s old friend John Home. Home introduced the two.

The first meeting was not a success. Bute’s natural temper, according to one observer, was “dry, unconciliatory, and sullen.” Afterwards, Robert stepped outside and “fell acursing and swearing. What! Had he been presented to all the princes of Italy and France and most graciously received, to come and be treated with such distance and pride by the youngest earl but one in all Scotland!” The second and subsequent meetings went better, though, and with Bute’s help, Robert Adam began to secure his first significant commissions. Whatever else history may say about Bute, he does deserve thanks for recognizing the talent and genius of Robert Adam, so much so that in November 1761 Bute secured for him the title of Architect of the King’s Works—a title Robert shared with William Chambers, who also happened to be a Scot.

Even with Bute’s help, it took nearly three years before Adam’s architectural business began to bring him substantial financial reward. Many of the buildings he built or decorated in the next ten years are familiar names to students of architecture and art history: Harewood, Compton Verney, Croome, Luton Hoo, Kedleston, Lansdowne House, and Syon House. Robert learned to supervise everything connected with his projects, not just the architecture and the construction inside and out, but what we today would call the interior decorating, including the furniture, rugs, doors, chimney pieces, and display porcelain. Everything had to reflect the neoclassical vernacular he and James (who joined his brother in London after his Italian tour in 1763) were bent on creating, a language of design that would create a new visual lifestyle down to the last detail, even the window latches and candle snuffers.

Where did this Adam style come from? Part of it was inspired by the archaeological discoveries in southern Italy at Pompeii and Herculaneum, which showed Europeans for the first time what ancient domestic interiors really looked like. Part of it, too, came from a source of ancient building ideas that, it is astonishing to realize, had been almost unknown to previous architects: Athens in Greece. Neither Adam brother had been there but another Scottish artist, James Stuart, had. He and Nicholas Revett had lived in Athens from 1751 to 1755, and had brought back an inventory of drawings and etchings that they published in their multivolume Antiquities of Athens. It became as influential as Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus in changing the visual taste of a generation. But its most immediate effect was to reinforce the insights of Robert Adam that the key to all ancient design was the projection not of weight and power, but of elegance and sophistication. Refinement, one might even say. So here were the elements for constructing a setting for the social morality of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, not to mention the new urban Scotland.

This fit nicely with the other great, but more unexpected, source of inspiration for the Adam style: the writings of Lord Kames. Kames’s theory of art, summarized in his Elements of Criticism, was that beauty truly is (as the cliché has it) in the eye of the beholder. Human beings have an innate sense of beauty, which objects—paintings, houses, landscapes, a bar of music or a couplet of poetry—trigger in our consciousness. The job of the artist, Kames suggested, was to create and arrange those elements that would generate that response.18

This notion of beauty as a universal human response to certain objects had a huge impact on both brothers, and particularly James. But unlike Kames, they did not believe that there was a single objective formula for achieving it. Instead, the artist had to be willing to be flexible and adaptable, even to the point of breaking all the rules, in order to bring out what was, after all, a subjective response from his audience or patron. Robert Adam confessed in a letter to Kames that this approach “may do harm in the hands of rash innovators or mere retailers in the art, who have neither eyes nor judgement.” But by knowing his material thoroughly, by supervising every nuance and detail, as Robert Adam did, and, of course, by drawing on his own sense of the “picturesque,” the skilled artist or architect could bring it off.

Yet the ideas of Kames and the Scottish Enlightenment entered into the Adam brothers’ program in a more subtle way. The point of turning to the ancient Romans, Greeks, Etruscans, and even Egyptians was not merely to copy their designs, but to translate their sense of refinement and beauty in a new, modern idiom. The new design style would provide a visual environment to remind moderns of the virtues of their ancient predecessors, but would also be suited to contemporary living. Progress was possible, in the arts just as in society. By drawing on the best of the past, by combining and recombining it with elements already at hand, the Adam brothers believed they could turn domestic architecture into a civilizing instrument. It could offer material comfort together with moral uplift: it would pass on to modern Britons the spiritual power of ancient Greece and Rome, while still providing the viewer with “great variety and amusement.”

To our eyes, jaded by nearly a hundred years of modernist pseudo-Bauhaus starkness and streamlining, the result may seem frilly and fussy. Robert Adam’s Drawing Room from Lansdowne House (now housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and his “Etruscan Room” at Osterley Park, with their gilded stucco, blue and gold trophy panels, and liberal uses of pastel reds and greens, remind us painfully of another eighteenth-century domestic style, French rococo—a style the Adam brothers actively detested. We miss what contemporaries, who had grown tired of the cold, empty, and impersonal interiors the Adam style replaced, all recognized in the brothers’ work: the promise of becoming “modern ancients,” as it were, combining Stoic moral seriousness with a sense of individual freedom and comfort. The Adam brothers themselves were convinced they had revived an ancient standard of artistic perfection for a modern audience. “We flatter ourselves we have been able to seize, with some degree of success, the beautiful spirit of antiquity, and to transfuse it, with novelty and variety, through all our numerous works.” Whether they had carried this off or not, “we shall leave to the impartial public.”

Insofar as that impartial public consisted of wealthy patrons in both England and Scotland, the answer was resoundingly positive. In 1764 their bank account at Drummonds stood at 6,620 pounds. Seven years later, in 1771, it had grown to over 40,000 pounds. Robert Adam had become a man of substance. He owned a splendid house off St. James’s Park, where he entertained friends such as the famous actor David Garrick and visitors such as David Hume and James Boswell, and played golf in the park. He also sat as member of parliament for Kinross-shire. He employed the best craftsmen and artists he could find for his projects: Thomas Chippendale for furniture, Joseph Rose for plasterwork, Josiah Wedgewood for porcelain, Matthew Boulton for ironwork, and painters such as Angelica Kaufmann and her husband, Antonio Zucchi, for frescoes and painted friezes. According to a letter Hume wrote to Adam Smith, the Adam brothers employed more than three thousand craftsmen in their English workshops alone, while still maintaining an equally active business in Edinburgh.

Yet they almost destroyed it all with their one great failure, Adelphi Terrace. It was to be their crowning glory (the name Adelphi came from the Greek for “brothers”) and the Adam version of the New Town: a magnificent residential apartment complex or “terrace” rising up from the mudflats along the Thames, at Durham Yard, north of Westminster. The plan combined elegant apartments above, with startling river views, and warehouses and commercial wharves underneath: as complete a fusion of politeness and commerce as one could expect.

Constructing it brought an epic battle with the London City Council that ultimately required an Act of Parliament to resolve. The Adam brothers managed to tie up most of their personal fortune in Adelphi Terrace. Finally, with great fanfare, it opened in 1771. Robert Adam himself took apartment number 4; David Garrick and his wife settled into number 6. Josiah Wedgewood agreed to open a pottery showroom in the galleries below. The British government also contracted to use the lower floors and wharf space, which was supposed to defray costs. But in the end the government reneged. Robert and James Adam lost almost everything; only the massive scale of their architecture business, with important commissions pouring in by the week, saved them from bankruptcy. David Hume, who had advised them against it, confessed “my wonder is how they could have gone on so long.” It was in fact a pure ego play, akin to the real-estate-development mogul’s ego, with which we are today so familiar. As with Robert Foulis, the dream failed—but the terrace remained (until it was demolished in the 1930s), and the subterranean complex of galleries became the foundations, literally, for another great urban project: the London Embankment.

What Robert Adam had attempted at Adelphi Terrace—applying the Adam style to middle-class urban living—he had a second chance to do with Charlotte Square in Edinburgh’s New Town. It marked his triumphant return to his native Scotland, after having conquered the wealthy and powerful in England. It was the last remaining piece of James Craig’s original plan—the city did not even own the land when Craig was drawing his final sketches—and the city fathers had decided that the natural candidate for completing it was Robert Adam. Work began in 1792, just as his health was failing, but Adam labored to give the project the pictorial harmony he believed all domestic architecture deserved.

The result still looks very much as it did when it was finally completed in 1820, almost thirty years after Robert Adam’s death. The three-story terraced houses, with their elegant Corinthian pilasters in the center topped by full-bodied sphinxes at each end, surround an open square on four sides, while streets enter at each corner. The façade of the north side reproduces exactly that of the south side, giving the square the sort of architectural unity the city fathers wanted for this west end of the New Town. Built in the pale yellow-gray sandstone that characterizes so much of the New Town, Charlotte Square still projects a serene, almost glowing effect.

Like so many of Robert Adam’s later designs, exteriors at Charlotte Square stayed simple while the interiors became more ornate. At number 1, which has the best original interior, and number 7, the so-called Georgian House, we can still get a sense of how he adopted his unique stylistic idiom to the environment of the Edinburgh upper middle class (Charlotte Square attracted lots of lawyers and doctors). But the real revolution he introduced was in the floor plans, adding a new feature he had experimented with in town houses he had built in London’s Portman Square. This involved installing separate back staircases for servants and domestics, away from the main hall. This not only added to the family’s privacy, along with separate “tradesmen’s entrances,” but also marked a major social change. In the new design for middle-class living, servants, like children, were to be seen and not heard. The logistics of domestic life were made as unobtrusive as possible, much as they are now. The focus of the middle-class home, like that of the noble’s country house, becomes “presentation of self”: polite, refined, and highly individual in character.

Robert Adam died in 1792. At the time of his death, he was working on eight public buildings and twenty-five private ones, most of them in Scotland. William Robertson, by then Principal of the University of Edinburgh, said of his cousin, “I have lived long and much with many of the most distinguished men in my own times, but for genius, for worth, and for agreeable manners, I know none whom I should rank above the friend we have lost.” Coming from a man who had been the intimate friend of David Hume and Adam Smith, it was the highest possible compliment.

At his funeral, the pallbearers included the Duke of Buccleuch, the Earl of Coventry, the Earl of Lauderdale, Lord Frederick Campbell, and William Pulteney, whose house at Bathwick was one of Robert’s last completed commissions. The titled and powerful bore his coffin to Westminster Abbey, where he was interred—ironically enough, next to his fellow Scotsman and old rival, Sir William Chambers.

Together they had revolutionized the artistic scene in Britain. Chambers had persuaded George III to create the Royal Academy, and acted as its first treasurer. Thanks to Chambers, Robert Foulis’s dream of a public institution devoted exclusively to the training of artists, painters, and sculptors had come to life in the very heart of the British capital. Chambers also trained the man who would become the most important neoclassical architect of the nineteenth century and a great admirer of the Adam style, the Englishman Sir John Soane.

Robert Adam, meanwhile, had carried out the sort of cultural conquest every Scottish Whig dreamed of: he had gone south and made the taste of Englishmen bend to the will and imagination of a Scot. In fact, his impact reached out beyond Britain and across the Atlantic. The Adam brothers’ manifesto of their new design idiom, Works in Architecture, became a fixture in the library of every American interested in art and taste. As early as 1775, George Washington was borrowing elements for the building of Mount Vernon. Charles Bulfinch studied with Adam in London, and brought the full “Adam style” with him back to America, where it became the foundation for both the Federal style and Greek Revival. Bulfinch’s designs for the United States Capitol and his Massachusetts House of Delegates make Robert Adam the spiritual father of American public building. Thomas Jefferson even bought lengths of prefabricated ornamentation in the Adam style from London, for chimney pieces and panels at his private mansion at Monticello.

Another Scottish Adam disciple, Charles Cameron, made an even more amazing cultural journey. An exhibit of his architectural drawings attracted the admiration of Catherine the Great, who invited him to come to Russia to work on her various private palaces. Cameron left for St. Petersburg in 1774 and proceeded to shake up the jaded and worn-out Russian architectural establishment. He extensively rebuilt Catherine’s Great Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, and designed the façade and various rooms for her son’s palace in Pavlovsk. Cameron’s Green Dining Room at Tsarskoe Selo (now Pushkino) and Grecian Hall at Pavlovsk are brilliant adaptations of the Adam style, and they made neoclassicism the architectural idiom of imperial Russia.

Through Cameron, Robert Adam’s artistic vision reached out toward the Urals; through Bulfinch and Jefferson, to the foothills of the Appalachians. Adam’s neoclassicism was the first truly international style in the modern West, much in the same way that Scottish-style commercial society was about to become the paradigm for modern capitalism.

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