One of the most celebrated of British architects, decorators, and interior designers in the later part of C18. The second surviving son of William Adam, he matriculated at Edinburgh University, and knew the leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. On the death of William, he entered into partnership with his brother John, and by 1754 had enough capital to set out on the Grand Tour. In Italy he employed Clérisseau (who joined him in his travels, instructed the young Scot in draughtsmanship, and influenced him to appreciate the possibilities of Neo-Classicism), studied Classical Antiquities, and met Piranesi (who incorporated a monument to Adam in his Antichità Romane (1756), and later dedicated his Campo Marzio (1762) to ‘Roberto Adam’). In 1755 Adam and Clérisseau visited Naples and Herculaneum to see the excavations, and in 1757 proceeded to Spalato, where they surveyed the huge Roman Palace: their labours appeared as Ruins of the Palace of Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia (1764), illustrated with fine engravings.
Adam settled in London in 1758, was joined by his brothers James and William (1738–1822), and set out to establish himself as the leading architect in Great Britain. From that time Robert was the dominant director of the family firm, assisted by James and William, while John helped out with capital. His fellow-Scots the Duke of Argyll and the Earl of Bute supported him, and in 1761 he obtained one of the two posts of Architect of the King's Works. He began to change domestic architecture (dominated then by Burlingtonian Palladianism) by providing a fresh vocabulary of Classicism with elements drawn from a range of sources from Antiquity to the Cinquecento. He advertised himself as an authority on Antique Roman architecture, and in 1773 the first sumptuous volume of the Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam appeared, in which the brothers staked their claim to have ‘brought about … a kind of revolution’ in English architecture. At Kedleston Hall, Derbys., for example, the Adam Brothers took over and completed the house after Matthew Brettingham and James Paine had started the central block and the quadrants: the Adams were responsible for the noble, domed Pantheon-like saloon and the triumphal arch applied to the south front, while the Palladian marble hall was a reworking of Paine's version of Palladio's reconstruction of Vitruvius's Egyptian hall. Indeed, it was in interior design that the Adam Brothers had their greatest influence: essentially, they eschewed a violent change of established canons, but they succeeded in evolving a Neo-Classical style that avoided Greek severity or old-fashioned Palladianism by expanding the available ranges of decorative elements and by inventing a sumptuous and elegant array of details drawn from various sources. Their ceilings were often enriched with painted panels by talented Italian artists, while Joseph Rose sen. (c. 1723–80) and jun. (1745–99) realized their designs for plasterwork. The firm employed several draughtsmen to facilitate its enormous practice: among them were George Richardson, Joseph Bonomi, and Antonio Zucchi (1726–96). The Adams juxtaposed room-plans of various shapes and forms that had their origins in Antique interiors from Spalato and from the Roman thermae. Such variations of form and the judicious use of apses, niches, and colonnaded screens created spatial complexities that were a welcome contrast to the older Palladian arrangements.