I was pleasantly surprised by this exhibition of works by late 18th century portraitist and miniaturist Adam Buck.
The work is in mixed media including pencil, water-colour, etchings and print, and on a small scale – most pictures would not look out of place in a modern living room. Buck’s background as a miniaturist is surely responsible for the overall lightness of touch that permeates the exhibition, punctured only by a small display of political cartoons.
Buck’s portraits blend an almost photographic attention to detail in his sitters’ faces with a simplified composition and background. Many works feature women and children, with the women’s poses, hairstyles and white muslin dresses reflecting not only the fashions of the time, but echoing the decorative style of classical Greek vases, one of Buck’s passions. Curiously, a number of the portraits also seem to look forward to the era of Victorian studio photography both in the use of plain backgrounds dressed with simple props and the tendency of subjects to look straight “into camera”.
I particularly liked Skating Lovers (c. 1796), an atypical outdoor scene and a small set of political portraits, primarily etchings and water-colours, including Orator Hunt and William Cobbett.
A small collection of pottery incorporating some of Buck’s work in both colour and monochrome compliments the main exhibition. Particularly striking is a jug made of unashamedly earthy English pottery is decorated with a white, Greek-inspired design on a light blue background, giving the impression that the jug may be some kind of missing link between an earlier functional style and the conscious classicism of Wedgewood.
Despite the title, this exhibition has no connection to Jane Austen, whose only role seems to be to act as cultural click-bait that may leave Austen enthusiasts feeling deceived and others missing out on a really very good little exhibition. An institution of the standing of the Ashmolean should really know better.
Even so, a lovely exhibition, lovingly curated and well worth a visit.
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