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Adam Buck (1760–1833) – Maestro of the Georgian Miniature

Adam Buck’s miniature self-portrait, painted in 1804, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Born in Cork in 1760, Adam Buck was one of the finest neo-classical portrait and miniature painters of the Georgian Age. Known for his watercolour portraits during the Regency era, with neo-classical backdrops, his works are a perfect complement to the world depicted in the novels of Jane Austen. This is the story of a remarkable Irishman who pushed the erotic buttons of Georgian art.


Adam Buck was by no means the only Irish artist from Cork to start anew in London during the Georgian Age but he was certainly one of the most successful. Having painted some of the key players of the United Irishmen during the 1790s, Buck’s arrival in London coincided with the age of Jane Austen and the Prince Regent. Within a few short years he was the predominant miniature artist in the British capital but his latter years were to be blighted by poverty when a Royal scandal brought his patron crashing down.

Adam Buck was born in 1760 on Bachelor’s Quay, which was then one of Cork’s most fashionable promenades. His family were Protestant silversmiths who had moved from Dublin to Limerick earlier in the century. In 1729 his grandfather Jonathan Buck had been censured by the Dublin Goldsmith Company for illegally soldering an existing hallmark onto a new piece made of sub-standard silver. [1]

Buck’s father moved to Cork in 1756 and opened a studio gallery and cooperative workshop on Castle Street, operating as goldsmiths, silversmiths, jewelers and frame-makers. By the 1780s, the family had a new string to its bow in the form of miniatures and small portraits painted by Adam and his younger brother Frederick. [2]

The brothers are said to have been self-taught although Adam may have studied in Dublin, either at the Royal Dublin Society’s Drawing School in Leinster House or at The Hibernian Academy on King Street, Oxmantown. [3]

The Edgeworth family by Adam Buck, 1787. One copy of this work is held by the National Gallery of Ireland, while a second is at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Adam Buck’s first commission appears to have been to illustrate ‘The Gentleman’s Catch Book’ between 1778 and 1786. Edited and published by the distinguished Dublin violinist Henry Mountain, the book was dedicated to the Hibernian Catch Club, a male voice choir founded in 1680 by the vicars-choral of Christ Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedrals in Dublin. [4]

Shortly after his father’s death in 1786, Buck was commissioned by the County Longford based engineer and inventor Richard Lovell Edgeworth to paint a group portrait of his family. [5] Edgeworth was thrilled with the result, hailing Buck as ‘a man of genius in the art of painting’ who had produced the ‘most striking likenesses’ of his ten children, including Maria Edgeworth, the celebrated author of ‘Castle Rackrent’.

Buck clearly had a soft spot for political reform. Richard Edgeworth campaigned for Catholic emancipation and greater parliamentary democracy, as did the Whig politician Lord Henry Fitzgerald and the United Irishmen leader John Sheares, two more of Buck’s early sitters. [6] Sheares was subsequently executed for his role in the 1798 Rising.  He also painted a portrait of Roger O’Connor, the Cork-born nationalist, published while O’Connor was in prison on a charge of treason in 1798. The following year, a government informer named Buck as a supporter of the United Irishmen although by that time he was living in London and no charges were ever pressed.

Adam Buck’s portrait of John Sheares, the United Irishman leader from Cork who was executed in 1798.

Buck’s younger brother Frederick also established himself as a successful painter of miniatures, moving into Fenn’s Quay after their father’s death in 1786. He moved to Buckingham Square in 1812 and remained in Cork for the rest of his life, primarily painting the Cork gentry, their relations and visitors, as well as the military who came and went. One of his subjects was the actress Dora Bland who, as Mrs Jordan, was to become mistress to the future King William IV, and mother to ten of his children. By 1824, Frederick had ceased painting in favour of property development. He died in Cork in 1840.

Meanwhile, Adam Buck crossed the Irish Sea in the early spring of 1795 to begin a new life in London where he was presumably attracted by the prospect of a sterling network of contacts and golden opportunities. This was a path many Irish artists generally, and Cork artists in particular, took during this period, notably James Barry (1741–1806).

By the summer of 1795 Buck had established his first studio-residence at 174 Piccadilly (close to the Neapolitan artist Giacomo Antonio Minasi with whom he may have studied) and presented his debut exhibition at the Royal Academy. He was to exhibit there every year, up to and including 1833, the year of his death. In total he produced an impressive 179 works for the RA’s summer exhibitions over 38 years, as well as works for the British Institution, the Society of British Artists and the New Watercolour Society. The only exhibit he ever sent to Ireland was an unidentified portrait, which went on show at Parliament House, Dublin, in 1802. [7]

As well as the miniature head portrait, Buck excelled at small portraits in watercolours, in which women, full length, were shown standing or walking against a low horizon in an open landscape. [8] He had painted his first successful one, A Portrait of an Irish Girl, in 1790. Now, soon after his arrival in London, he met with William Holland, another radical and one of the city’s leading publishers and print sellers. Holland duly published Serena, an aquatint after one of Buck’s female water-colours which sold handsomely. Through Holland and other print sellers, Buck ensured he had a ready supply of outfits ready to engrave and distribute his works as and when he supplied them.

Within four years of his arrival in London, Holland commissioned Buck to paint a full-length portrait of the Prince of Wales (later George IV). That same year, he painted Archers, dedicated to Prince George and featuring three maidens with free-flowing hair, two of whom are intimately engaged in synchronized archery, all of which was symbolic of sexual radiance, ignited by a dash of lesbianism.

This nipple-exposing portrait of Sophia Western by Adam Buck was the “must-have pin-up” of 1800.
The full caption reads: ‘Adorned with all the charms in which Nature can array her, bedecked with beauty, youth, sprightliness, innocence, modesty and tenderness, breathing sweetness from her rosy lips and darting brightness from her sparkling eyes, the lovely Sophia comes!’

Buck had certainly found his mojo and the Georgians lapped it up. They were particularly enamoured by his painting of Sophie Western, the heroine of Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones, which appears at the top of this page. Published in 1800, he depicted her in such a flimsy dress that her left nipple was exposed. It became the must-have pin up of the year, complete with a caption that applauded how Sophie was ‘adorned with all the charms in which Nature can array her.’

He had by now relocated his studio to Frith Street, an artistic hub in Soho, where he remained until 1813. Here he met with the doyens of London society who were all-agog to have their profiles drawn for one of his neoclassical miniatures. An enthusiast for all things Greek, Buck often painted the women dressed in the light and airy gowns of Grecian goddesses. [9]

In 1803 Holland published a series of ten prints after watercolours which Buck based on ‘A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy’, a novel by Clonmel-born author Laurence Sterne. Undeniably elegant, the prints also offered a series of risqué pictures of demure young women, feeding a growing appetite among Georgians for such works.

Enter Mary Anne Clarke, the flamboyant, curly-haired mistress of the Prince of Wales’ younger brother Frederick, Duke of York. In 1803 Buck gamely painted a miniature on ivory of Mrs Clarke scantily clad in a thin muslin gown through which her shapely form and pale skin were ‘shown to advantage’. Society either ooohed appreciatively or tsked with indignation but either way Buck had blown open the gates as to what was acceptable portraiture in the neoclassical world.

Buck also painted Mrs Clarke in 1809, the year in which she and the Duke of York were embroiled in a major scandal. The couple had separated four years earlier but the Duke underestimated her when he failed to provide his ex-mistress with a promised annuity. She duly stood before a Parliamentary Committee and testified that she had funded her lavish lifestyle by accepting payments from those seeking commissions and appointments in the army. Given that the Duke was the army’s commander-in-chief at the time, this became huge news and, although cleared of corruption charges, the Duke was ultimately forced to resign.
While the Duke was lampooned in caricatures, Mrs Clarke emerged as a heroine because of her willingness to come clean.

Buck didn’t miss a trick. Within days of Mrs Clarke’s revelations, he had produced a full-length portrait of her – ‘by permission’ – and was selling copies of it from his studio in Soho. The Monthly Magazine praised his bestselling portrait ‘of this celebrated character, to whom the nation is under such great and lasting obligation, for the last interesting exposure of corrupt practices, which have at once degraded and ruined the country.’

He later painted Mrs Clarke’s portrait for the frontispiece of a book called ‘The Rival Princes’ in which she spilled more beans on the Hanoverian dynasty. In 1811, she commissioned Irish sculptor Lawrence Gahagan to sculpt a marble bust of her. However, her star fell two years later when she was sent to prison for publishing an inflammatory attack on William Vesey Fitzgerald, Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer. Upon her release, she retired to Boulogne where she died in 1852. She was the great-great-grand-mother of Daphne du Maurier.

Buck’s other patrons in this period included the opera singer Angelica Catalani, the actor John Philip Kemble, the Earl of Cavan and John Burke, the Tipperary-born publisher of the famous Burke’s Peerage.

Archers by Adam Buck

In 1804, the 45-year-old Irishman married Margaret George, the 20-year old daughter of a Yorkshire solicitor, Sampson George. They had at least five children between 1809 and 1826; there may have been more. [10]

However, Buck’s heyday was already nearing an end. The Royal scandal had given fresh impetus to moralists who regained the high ground and slammed his risqué works. A further blow fell when doctors began complaining about a rampant escalation in colds and chills amongst such scantily clad maidens.

He also fell out with Holland, possibly having recognized that his style was now considered passé. He teamed up with German-born publisher Rudolph Ackermann to produce images that were infinitely more respectable, depicting sentimental scenes of motherhood, domesticity and happy children.

Inspired by the success of his self-published speculative print of Mrs Clarke in 1809, he also tried to establish himself as a publisher and print-maker. To this end, he issued a prospectus for a folio of prints called “Paintings on Greek Vases” in 1811, offering a scholarly book about vases in private English collections, most notably those of Sir William Hamilton, whose wife Emma was Nelson’s mistress. Buck was an avid collector of all things Grecian, modelling many of his best miniatures, as well as his pencil groups, on the classic attitudes found on Greek vases and giving his sitters ancient Greek costumes and hairstyles. The Greek project failed to take off but the 157 pen-and-ink drawings Buck sketched of vases were bound into a single volume which, now held in Trinity College, Dublin, stands as an invaluable pictorial record of an 18th century vase collection.

In 1813 he moved to Bentinck Street in London’s West End, from where he published a series of prints of British Radicals but it failed to generate the desired heat among public and press alike. He duly abandoned printing and, while his contributions to the Royal Academy exhibitions declined, he renewed his efforts with a series known as ‘Portraits in the Small’, which ran into the hundreds and sustained him during the 1820s. He may also have earned some money by taking in pupils, and he certainly did some decorative work for furniture, such as ‘the painted panels of a beautiful satin-wood sideboard which belonged to the late Mr. J. H. FitzHenry.’

He had one final stab at printing his own works in 1830, possibly inspired by his fellow Corkman, the antiquarian, folklorist and amateur artist Thomas Crofton Croker.

During this prolonged period of financial trouble, he was extremely unsettled, moving almost every year until 1823 when he and his wife settled at 15 Upper Seymour Street. They remained at this fashionable address for ten years before he moved to Ebury Street, a new development in Pimlico, where he died suddenly in August 1833, aged 74.

The Court Journal carried a sad note about the status of his widow and their three surviving children, all under fifteen:

‘Owing to the late distresses among artists, Mr Buck has left his family in circumstances, we are sorry to say, very far from prosperous. We mention this as we believe some members, high in the profession, charitably intend forming a subscription for the relief of his widow – a subscription to which every true lover of the art should, in a certain measure, feel himself bound to contribute.’ [11]

However, the Royal Academy had voted a small annual subscription of £10 for three years to help them. Margaret survived her husband by over thirty years, passing in Acton, West London, in 1867 aged 82.

As Regency neo-classicism gave way to Victorian Rococo, so Adam Buck’s reputation faded from memory. His son Sydney Buck was the only child to followed his profession becoming a successful if unremarkable artist in London. There was a resurgence of interest in his stipple engravings during the late Victorian Age and with the Ashmolean exhibition in 2016, the Corkman’s star was once again in the ascent.

With thanks to Tom Jowett and Matthew Dennison.

Adam Buck’s portrait of himself and his family, circa 1813.

Buck’s Work

In 2016, Buck’s remarkable story was reinvigorated by an exhibition of his work entitled ‘Adam Buck (1759-1833): A Regency Artist from Cork’ at the Crawford Art Gallery, Emmet Place, Cork ( The Crawford teamed up with Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum and curator Peter Darvall to feature the first show of work by the Cork-born Regency artist in his native city.

@ Ashmolean

V& A Collection

National Portrait Gallery Collection

Further Reading


[1] The late Rosemary ffolliott, founder and editor of The Irish Ancestor, spent many years researching the Bucks of Limerick, Cork and Dublin. The Bucks were an Anglican family whose first named ancestor was another Adam Buck, a member of the Earl of Ormonde’s militia in 1642. Fifty years later, another Adam Buck was recorded as a silversmith in Dublin.

The younger Adam’s son Jonathan Buck worked as a silversmith in Limerick but became the subject of much gossip when hauled before the Dublin Goldsmith Company in 1729 for illegally soldering an existing hallmark onto a new piece made of inferior silver. He is also thought to have earned the wrath of the Irish Revenue Commissioners in 1731 when he purchasing a quantity of Danish silver stolen from a Dutch East India Company ship stranded on the Irish coast. Jonathan later moved to Cork where he died at his home on Castle Street in 1762. His son, also Jonathan, a goldsmith, married Elizabeth Stedman in St John’s Limerick in 1751 and moved to Cork 5 years later. Among their children were Adam, the artist, born in 1760, and Frederick, born in 1765.

[2] Their attention to detail in their work echoed the precision of a silversmith. The engraving technique would also have been known to them as children of a silversmith.

[3] See ‘Adam Buck’ record in ‘An Authentic History of the Professors of Painting, Sculpture etc.’ by Anthony PASQUIN (pseud. [i.e. John Williams.])

[4] The collection was first published in 1778 but I am unsure that Buck was involved in any edition before 1786. ‘Henry Mountain, who published the collection, was a musician and music publisher who was active at Whitefriar Street circa 1785–90 and then moved to Grafton Street. He was City Musician for many years. The City Musician had responsibility for playing at the great festivals and accompanying the Lord Mayor when he went out to ride the franchises.’

[5] Jonathan Buck died in 1786. Adam’s widowed mother Elizabeth, outlived her husband by thirty-one years and died in Dublin in 1817.

[6] Another sitter in this period was the Countess of Kingston, but I am unsure which one she was.

[7] In 1802, Buck sent a portrait drawing to the Third Exhibition of the Society of Artists of Ireland in Parliament House, Dublin. The sitter’s identity is unknown but this was the only time Buck ever exhibited in his native country after his departure in 1795.

[8] The National Gallery of Ireland holds three good examples of his miniatures, namely Admiral and Mrs Plampin, and an anonymous lady.

[9] Buck often painted his linear miniatures, lightly coloured directly onto cards, using either watercolours or slightly tinted wax crayons, described by a contemporary as ‘an admirable invention of his own.’ See ‘Adam Buck’ record in An authentic History of the Professors of Painting, Sculpture etc.’ by Anthony PASQUIN (pseud. [i.e. John Williams.]) ‘They are generally in profile, and although often awkwardly posed and drawn, are not without a certain charm,’ opined A Dictionary of Irish Artists, 1913.

[10] Their first-born son was buried in Yorkshire in 1811.

[11] The Court Journal: Court Circular & Fashionable Gazette, August 10th 1833, Volume 5, p. 547.