Friday, 14 August 2015

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

A fitting tribute to a Regency artist who was a society favourite but who died penniless

Written by Sandra Smith
Sandra-Smith-colour-176Although little is known of Adam Buck’s early life and artistic training, by the time he left Cork for London in 1795 he was an accomplished miniaturist, his watercolours on ivory quintessentially capturing an era and style that remain synonymous with Jane Austen. However, while he produced portraits of officers, landowners, clergymen and aristocrats seemingly plucked from the pages of celebrated novels, it is unlikely the artist and author (the latter considered her stories to be miniatures) ever met.

Appreciation of an established neoclassicism influenced much of Buck’s work. Elements such as vases, chairs and friezes in many of the paintings reflect this, along with the white, diaphanous gowns adorning his female subjects. Backgrounds mattered little to the artist, facial detail along with minutiae of hair and features forming the essence of his portraits. There is no finer example of this than his full-length painting of Margaret Buck, the 20-year-old whom he married when he was 45, one of the first and most captivating watercolours in this exhibition. With her hand resting on a portfolio – complete with the artist’s signature and the date of their marriage – her enduring beauty is elegantly portrayed.

Such was Buck’s success as a society artist that he received royal commissions, with two portraits of Prince Frederick, Duke of York, exhibited at the Royal Academy. He went on to show over 170 paintings, though a lack of formal training may have foiled his frequent attempts to become a member.

Meanwhile, prints, chiefly published by William Holland, facilitated a wider recognition of his art, charming watercolours of mothers and children – contrasting with the caricatures then flooding society – reflecting his devotion to family life. Many of these sentimental images were printed onto ceramics, examples of which are displayed.

But it is his classical watercolours that form the heart of this exhibition. In these, notwithstanding fading, flashes of colour remain – such as the red book in Portrait Of A Lady, and Portrait Of Three Children’s turquoise shoes and sashes.

That Buck died in poverty in no way reflects his artistic influence. This retrospective celebrates both his affinity with classical elegance and his impact on Regency society.

Until 4 October at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Beaumont Street, Oxford: 01865- 278000, www.ashmolean.org


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