An Elegant Society: Adam Buck, Artist in the Age of Jane Austen Back

The subtitle of this exhibition indicates the association which the organisers assume is most likely to draw the casual visitor up to the third floor of The Ashmolean Museum this summer. In popular visual culture Jane Austen’s name conjures up an intimate and decorative female world, the white muslin and neoclassical simplicity which can be found on the walls here. Although there is no suggestion that Adam Buck (1759-1833) had any connection with Austen, she does provide a convenient, if abbreviated, metaphor for his style. The museum What’s On brochure informs us that his portraits bring ‘the world of Jane Austen vividly to life.’ The accompanying publication by curator Peter Darvall, A Regency Buck, Adam Buck (1759-1833) (Ashmolean, 2015) discusses the dresses generally worn by Buck’s subjects, pointing out that ‘Mrs. Bennet’s daughters, the young heroines in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, would all have worn similar gowns’ (p.73), in our imagination at least. It might have been desirable to highlight other literary connections. An example is Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849), who was included in a family group watercolour made by Buck in 1787 (National Portrait Gallery, London). Work attributed to Edward Burney (1760-1848), Frances Burney’s favourite cousin, is referenced in the exhibition, in his capacity as engraver and as artist whose style and subject matter resembles that of Buck. The exhibition shows Buck primarily as a portrait specialist, his network of subjects extending from Cork in Ireland to fashionable Georgian and Regency London.

Behind the romantic, idealised world generally depicted in his portraits, the exhibition exposes the volatility of the artist’s career, which was subject to the fluctuations of commercial collaborations, fashion and loyalties. He came from a family of silversmiths, but began as a miniaturist, along with his brother. The technical skills and focus on detail required for silversmithing were readily transferable. The small scale of his pastels and watercolours and the lack of prestigious history paintings in his oeuvre meant that his many attempts to become an Associate Member of the Royal Academy between 1802 and 1829 were unsuccessful, although he exhibited 160 portraits at the Academy throughout his career. His work demonstrated too much of the ‘mechanic’s’ decorative craft, and not enough of the underlying bone and muscle understood through the life class, too much of the particular and not enough of the universal. The introductory wall panel notes that ‘Even when painting more ambitious subjects, he remained a miniaturist at heart’. This becomes clear as we learn more about Buck. An opening display of delicate miniatures encourages the visitor to engage with them closely and with attention before moving chronologically through his work which is shown on walls painted unusually in two subtle tones of turquoise blue. There are over sixty exhibits, many of which are part of the curator’s personal collection representing a forty year interest, alongside loans mainly from British and Irish institutions. The publication is the first major study of Buck with detailed discussion and featuring lavish illustrations which include the work on show, although it is not a catalogue for use in the exhibition since there are no numbered item correlations or dimensions given. This ensures that we focus on the display itself.

Our first encounter with the artist is appropriately in a miniature self-portrait, a watercolour on ivory dated 1804. His gaze concentrates above the viewer’s, with knitted brows. He has somewhat heavy features and carefully tousled Byronic hair and white stock. A brooding sky is painstakingly described in small layered dashes of colour. He is a man of forty-five, and nearby is a larger watercolour marking his marriage that year to twenty-year old Margaret. She gestures to a pencil profile of him in an open portfolio. Her languid rounded arms and soft youthful features can be identified in other portraits made in the same year. The label tells us she is ‘a very handsome person and the idol of her husband’. Another portrait in pencil, dated 1816 and labelled ‘believed to be a portrait of the artist’s wife’ does not seem to be the same person, but the likenesses of Buck’s sitters are still being debated. The Artist and his Family (1813, Yale Centre for British Art) which appears only as a wall illustration, has recently been identified as the artist himself with Margaret and two of their children alongside a bust of one who had died. There are also pencil drawings of their sons in profile which are delicate and immediate, but with the precision of line characterising contemporary sketches from antique marbles.

Buck’s interest in Greek vase painting is apparent throughout the exhibition, in profile poses and gestures, the minimal context and low skylines of his compositions, the limited palette along with the obvious Greek artefacts, vases and ubiquitous klismos chairs. He utilised both printed images and objects, many of which he saw in the British Museum. Marble reliefs and vases reappear in different portraits and on different scales. A curatorial decision was made not to include actual specimens in the exhibition in order to avoid diverting attention from Buck’s interpretations. Whilst integral to his success, this style also rendered him unpopular when fashion moved on. It is significant that the family group mentioned above was once assumed to be that of his contemporary Thomas Hope (1769-1831). There are many obvious reasons for this. The claim that Buck had ‘influence on Georgian art and style’ (Ashmolean’s What’s On guide) can be made with greater conviction about Hope. One could argue that the decoration of his Duchess Street house in London and Deepdene estate in Surrey, and his collections and publications on style all gave him the status and influence on taste which Buck only complemented in his work. Buck depended on commercial success, and exploited a variety of opportunities. Not all of these were realised. From 1811 he proposed a series One Hundred Engravings from Paintings on Greek Vases by subscription, which were conceived as an ambitious continuation of William Hamilton’s publications (Collection of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman antiquities from the cabinet of the Honble. Wm. Hamilton, His Britannick Maiesty’s envoy extraordinary at the Court of Naples, 1766-1776). It seems he was not deterred by the expense and misadventures which beset Hamilton’s enterprise, but was unable to complete the project. A few examples of his prepared drawings and etchings are on display alongside the Yale illustration. They are simple friezes, less lavish than those in the influential Hamilton series, but concerned in the same way with providing practical models for the applied arts.

The exhibition includes a series of sentimental mother-and-child watercolours and their engravings, made between 1807 and 1808. In addition, display cases offer an impressive array of ceramics, tea sets and dinner services, manufactured in Staffordshire and other ceramics centres. Fan and fabric examples are also shown. These all feature variations of the mother and child motif which Buck popularised. A special display has been prepared to demonstrate the method of ‘Bat-printing’ which was used to transfer prints on to the curved surfaces of cups and plates. It is carefully numbered and explained, and articulates the mutual relationship between fine and applied art. The images reproduced in these examples of profitable merchandising immediately find their parallel in the pose chosen for Margaret Buck in the Yale family group. The artist stands facing the viewer but the right half of the painting is a frieze of mother and children. The diagonal of their heads, both the living and the carved, is mirrored in the diagonal of different sized ‘Etruscan’ vases on the alcove shelf above them. Together they are Buck’s personal and artistic inspiration, and his achievement as painter, husband and father. Furthermore, the reminder of William Hamilton’s vase collection in the painting and in Buck’s vase drawings nearby brings to mind Hamilton’s own inspiration in the shape of his wife Emma. Her ‘Attitudes’ were living re-creations of figures from his vases. Margaret demonstrates her own ‘Attitudes’, drawn from her husband’s production. Emma was ‘reproduced’ by the many pencils of visiting artists. The poses of each inspired or was inspired by multiple copies.

Buck’s work for the print publishers William Holland and then Rudolph Ackermann benefited them all. His reasons for later breaking with them are not recorded. A Regency Buck points out that engraving would have been part of the silversmith’s expertise (p.43) so it was a natural development in Buck’s career. The exhibition includes several small quarto-size watercolours and prints after them, illustrating Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), which were published in 1803. They were commissioned by Holland but no edition of the novel appears to have included them. Other prints for Holland were loosely based on literary heroines such as Sophia Western (1800, V&A Museum, London) from Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), although the attribution may have been a business ploy, since the label tells us ‘There is nothing otherwise to suggest a link with Fielding’s heroine. The skipping rope is an invention of the artist and the costume is an anachronism.’ Popular actresses such as Madame Catalani (1807, private collection) were obvious marketable material. Buck contributed to Holland’s attempts to make his output less controversial, following his imprisonment for publishing seditious material in 1793. There was mutual benefit however, following Holland’s commission of a watercolour of The Prince of Wales in Garter Robes (1799). A wall in the exhibition charts Buck’s portraits of Mary Anne Clarke from 1803. She was a mistress of the Duke of York, notoriously taking bribes for the Duke’s favour in awarding army commissions, and giving evidence to a Parliamentary Committee investigating him. She was one example of the high-profile, unexpectedly strong women who populate studies of Georgian scandal, and seems to have collaborated in lucrative commissions with Buck. A Regency Buck details his advertisements for his 1809 print of her in The Monthly Magazine, which significantly notes ‘It is proper to guard against a pretended portrait of Mrs. Clarke, published by Holland’ (p.42). Ambition, pecuniary concerns and professional rivalry seem to have been the predictable reasons for Buck’s falling out with his publishers.

A section of the exhibition spotlights Buck’s 1817-18 portraits of radicals who supported constitutional reform and universal male suffrage, such as Major Cartwright and Lord Cochrane, and John Cam Hobhouse whose ‘post-Byron’ career is less well known. The label notes that in the 1790s Buck was linked to the United Irishmen, a movement which centred on the Presbyterians of Ulster who sought an alliance with the French against the English in Ireland. This perhaps positioned him beyond the feasibility of patronage from the higher echelons of English society. However, he built up a network of friends and subjects which lasted for many years and provided portrait commissions within extended family groups. Jane Austen creeps in again on a label. The variety of professions and callings represented in his portraits are ‘a cast of Regency characters that will strike a chord with readers of Jane Austen’s novels’. This is really saying that his subjects were from the comfortable middle and gentry classes. It does not tell the whole story though of either Austen or Buck, so maybe the more subtle and subversive elements of their respective arts form a link between them in the end.

The final wall shows closely hung individual portraits from the 1820s, Buck’s ‘Portraits in the small’ on card and originally framed uniformly. The faces are finely modelled though the costume and backgrounds are spare and vapid. More interesting for both the artist and the viewer are the ten or more portraits of John Burke’s family. He was the Anglo-Irish publisher of Burke’s Peerage, and A Regency Buck notes that he was ‘the most devoted’ of Buck’s patrons (p.82). The largest painting in the exhibition is of Burke’s sons, John and Bernard Burke, unusually in oil (1833, private collection), and painted with the meticulous care we encountered in the miniatures which introduced us to Buck’s work.

The variety and differing condition of the watercolours and prints, their mounts and frames, tells us of their treasured or neglected histories, and suggests the bare spaces they have left in order to congregate for our enjoyment. Adam Buck’s approach to portraiture and to the decorative arts in his era was highly individual, and makes this exhibition a valuable contribution to our understanding of his time.

An Elegant Society is at The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, from 16th July to 4th October 2015.