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Robert Adam

Robert Adam, by George Willison, circa 1770-1774 -NPG 2953 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Mid-Georgian Portraits Catalogue

Robert Adam

attributed to George Willison
circa 1770-1774
50 in. x 40 in. (1270 mm x 1016 mm)
NPG 2953

This portraitback to top

Although Adam was for a time the most fashionable architect in London, and by no means averse to self-advertisement, his portraiture presents a meagre study. Contemporary references are confined to portraits painted in Rome in 1756 by Allan Ramsay and Laurent Pêcheux, of which the first is untraced. When, after his death, James Tassie was commissioned to produce a medallion, he could find as a guide only the death mask taken by Nollekens (untraced) but, while the Adam family considered the result to show 'something of the general air of the face', the features were considered 'not like'. [1] In 1821 two unattributed portraits were offered for sale by the family, one showing him 'earlier in life', conceivably the Pêcheux, [2] the other conceivably NPG 2953.
NPG 2953 is generally considered to be the only life-size portrait of Robert Adam in existence but, owing to a lack of documentation and comparative material, the identification cannot be proved absolutely, as Kerslake first emphasised. [3] It depends largely on the provenance but, as Tait has argued, Robert Adam's niece Susannah Clerk and Admiral Sir Charles Adam, the grandson of his brother John, must have known ‘either what he looked like or what his appearance was supposed to be’. [4] Lt. Cdr. Adam, writing in 1932, said the portrait had always been known at Blair Adam as Robert Adam [5] and the features sufficiently agree with those shown by Pêcheux and Tassie (but do not include the wart on the right cheek). There is at least a strong family likeness in the two portraits of James Adam, by Allan Ramsay c.1754 and the so-called Batoni dated 1763 (once thought to show Robert Adam). [6]
NPG 2953 lacks the quality of both these James Adam portraits; the drawing is hard, the elegance rather forced - and the safety of the folio volume is disregarded. Costume suggests a date of c.1770, but an attribution has proved contentious. Sold in 1926 as English School, it was subsequently attributed to Zoffany in 1936, to an unknown artist in 1948, to Willison in 1971 and to David Martin in 1989. Of these names Zoffany may be discounted and Martin’s work provides no completely persuasive comparison, [7] although his studio chair has been provisionally identified in NPG 2953. [8] The attribution to Willison, first suggested (verbally) by Robin Hutchison, is supported by comparison with Willison’s Archibald Douglas of 1769; [9] since Willison was in India 1774-78, a date before 1774 would be implied.
The anonymous folio volume may refer to Robert Adam’s Ruins of the Palace of Diocletian at Spalatro, published in 1764 [10] or, less likely, to the first volume of Robert and James Adam’s Works in Architecture, published in 1773. [11] But if either of these celebrated volumes was intended, it is odd that they were not identified.
A 20th-century copy is at Blair Adam.

Footnotesback to top

1) Margaret Adam to John Clerk, 13 February 1793; see I. G. Brown, 'Commemorative Portraits of Robert Adam', Burl. Mag., CXX, 1978, p 451.
2) Lot 86, showing Adam ‘earlier in life’, fetched 7s., compared with prices between one and two guineas for the other Adam portraits in this sale. The sale cat. had previously been misread so that both Robert’s portraits, which were unattributed, were described as by Fragonard (A. T. Bolton, Architecture of Robert and James Adam, II, 1922, p 337, and W. T. Whitley, Art in England 1821-37, 1930, p 15). Fragonard and Adam were together in Rome in 1756-57.
3) J. Kerslake, Burl. Mag., CXX, 1978, p 762.
4) A. A. Tait, Burl. Mag., CXXI, 1979, p 38.
5) Letter of 26 September 1932 (NPG archive).
6) Respectively, A. Smart ed. J. Ingamells, Allan Ramsay, a complete catalogue of his Paintings, 1999, no.3, and J. Fleming, Robert Adam and His Circle, 1962, pl.88 (see Doubtful Portraits). These may have been lots 83 and 84 in the Adam sale, Christie’s, 11 July 1821 ('Fragonard, Portrait of James Adam, Esq when young', and [unattributed] 'Portrait of ditto, executed later in life').
7) An opinion shared, for example, by Lucy Dixon (organiser of the Martin exhibition at St Andrews, 1997).
8) J. Holloway, Patrons and Painters, 1989, p 130.
9) Private collection; exhibited Boswell 1967, no.31 illus.; Willison’s portrait of General Robert Clerk (private collection) uses comparable flecked lights on the uniform facings, while his Boswell (Scottish NPG) has a related cross-legged pose.
10) Suggested, for example, by D. King, Complete Works of Robert and James Adam, 1991, p vii, and S. Parissien, The Adam Style, 1992, p 9.
11) Suggested in the 1938 Batsford cat. and G. Beard, Work of Robert Adam, 1978, p 35.

Physical descriptionback to top

Grey eyes, white powdered wig, deep brown coat with brown buttons; silver waistcoat with turquoise gold-edged lapel and gold buttons; white breeches; green damask chair; holding an unlettered elephant folio.

Provenanceback to top

By descent at Penicuik House from the sitter to his sister Margaret, his niece Susannah Clerk, and his nephew William Clerk (d. 1847), by whom bequeathed to Adm. Sir Charles Adam (d. 1853) of Blair Adam;1 by descent to Lt.-Com. C. K. Adam; Sotheby’s, 19 May 1926, lot 35 as English School, bought Batsford,2 from whom purchased 1938.

1 Provenance as cited by A. A. Tait, Burl. Mag., CXXI, 1979, p 38. It is remotely possible that NPG 2953 was one of ‘Fragonard’ portraits of Adam in the Adam sale, Christie's, 3rd day, 11 July 1821 - lot 85 in the Christie’s copy of the sale cat. is marked 1.10.- A, probably indicating it was bought in.
2 Listed in a 1938 Batsford cat. of Old and Rare Books, no.103 (as by Zoffany and holding the first volume of Robert and James Adam’s Works in Architecture). According to a letter by Lt.-Com. Adam (26 November 1932; NPG archive) the portrait was sold without his authority when he was serving abroad.

Exhibitionsback to top

Scottish NPG, July 1939; English Taste in the 18th century, RA, 1955-56 (409 as unknown artist); Lord Mansfield, Kenwood, 1971 (60 as attributed to Willison); Age of Neo-Classicism, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1972 (276 as attributed to Willison); Bicentenary Exhibition, Register House, Edinburgh, 1974; Art in Scotland 1650-1760, Scottish NPG, 1989 (99 as Martin); Robert Adam & the Emperor's Palace, National Library of Scotland, Kenwood, 1992-93, as Martin.


This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: John Ingamells, National Portrait Gallery: Mid-Georgian Portraits 1760-1790, National Portrait Gallery, 2004, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.

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