The work of Adam Buck, Regency portrait and miniature painter, provides a fascinating insight into the faces of his time. John-Paul McCarthy reviews a compelling new history about his long and prolific career.
Above: An 1803 watercolour by Adam Buck of Mary Anne Clarke, mistress of Prince Frederick, The Duke of York
by John-Paul McCarthy
Those who visit the Crawford Art Gallery in the centre of Cork City will doubtlessly be struck by James Barry’s resonant painting on the first floor, Ulysses and his companions escaping from Polyphemus (1776). This features Barry being counselled and/or admonished by a perspiring, John the Baptist-like Edmund Burke. Burke played a crucial role in propelling the Cork-born Roman Catholic ‘history painter’ to the near top of the British profession, and for generations, this painting has symbolised the perils that beset the attempted Irish take-over of London pre-Union. In this charming appreciation, Peter Darvall is clear that Adam Buck (1759-1833) was never in the same technical or imaginative league as Barry, but this Cork-born Anglican portrait artist also had to make his own way across the channel.
As the recent Ashmolean exhibition of Buck’s most interesting paintings makes clear, he chose to court the Regency elite within a few short years of leaving Ireland. Buck painted Mary Anne Clarke, an influential society hostess and one of the Duke of York’s mistresses. Inclining towards Whig-Radical politics himself via an early sympathy with the secular ideals of the United Irishmen at home, Buck also drew a series of effective portraits of leading British reformers whom he hailed as “Friends to a Constitutional Reform of Parliament”. Darvall’s reproduces here Buck’s fine pencil sketches of a jowelly and somewhat oppressed William Cobbett. Admirers of Raymond Williams’ work may well wonder how the Anglican Buck reconciled his political respect for Cobbett with his hero’s insistence “that the Protestant Reformation was the origin of the system of funding and taxing, corruption and privilege, which had pauperism as its most damaging consequence.” (Cobbett (Oxford, New York, 1983).
Above: 'Farewell' by Buck in 1800
In a fascinating chapter, Darvall reconstructs Buck’s relationship with the Edgeworth family, especially with Richard Edgeworth, a champion of Catholic Emancipation and parliamentary reform, whose family Buck painted en masse in two celebrated pictures which hang today in the National Portrait Gallery in London and in the National Gallery of Ireland. Edgeworth’s effusive tribute to Buck is worth recalling, especially considering the precipitate decline in Buck’s professional reputation in the decades after his death. “We have lately had a man of genius in the art of painting upon a visit in this country. I should rather say, in the art of taking portraits, which can scarcely be called the art of painting. He has taken a group of my family (nine children) in Swiss crayons which admit of no erasure or alteration, and has given most striking likenesses of every one of them”. Edgeworth’s arch distinction here between painting and portraiture would haunt Buck towards the end of his career because “neither pastel nor watercolour was as highly respected in academic circles as work in oil.” (The Royal Academy barred their doors to him on fourteen separate occasions between 1802 and 1829). Darvall’s handsome colour plates show how Buck retaliated against this connoisseurship by moving decisively into print-making, ceramic decoration and Greek vases.
Above: First Steps, a popular 1808 watercolour by Buck
Children and mothers featured prominently in all of Buck’s creative endeavours. Some of the most tender portraits in this book focus on young mothers and the fierce love they bear for their off-spring, but then again, children also marred Buck’s eclectic portfolio. Several of his toddlers look frankly menacing, though it is difficult to say whether the aesthetic problem is their hydrocephalic heads or their ashen grins. (Mamma at Romps (1810), for example, looks less like a dance in the garden than an attempted mugging, and the oddly proportioned lad at the centre of Filial Attention (1812) might well be hiding a length of steel behind his back). This handsome and endlessly diverting book makes for a worthy companion to the Ashmolean exhibition. Both do justice to Buck’s uneven, if obvious talents, while also reminding us that few races have bet so heavily on the truth of Dr Johnson’s belief that any Irishman who was tired of London was, in the end, tired of life.
John-Paul McCarthy is reading for his DPhil in Modern History at Exeter. A Regency Buck: Adam Buck (1759-1833) by Peter Darvall is published by The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, RRP: £20
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Images © Ashmolean Museum