This elegant watercolour offers important evidence of the early nineteenth-century interest in Greek vase painting. Drawn by Adam Buck in 1813 the composition is a transcription of a design from an antique vase and shows Buck’s characteristic neo-classical interpretation of an antique source.
Born and trained in Dublin, Adam Buck practiced first as a miniaturist before moving to London in 1795 where he worked for a fashionable clientele, which included George, Prince of Wales and the Duke of York. His elegant and spare portrait drawings were in great demand and he was a prolific exhibitor at the Royal Academy between 1795 and 1833. As well as portraiture, Buck also produced a large number of fashion plates, decorative compositions of loosely allegorical subject-matter, such as Faith, Hope and Charity. His subsequent reputation has largely rested on the proliferation of these prints and their use as designs in fan and on transfer-printed porcelain. But Buck was a committed and intelligent interpreter of ancient Greek forms.
The seriousness with which he engaged with the antique led Anthony Pasquin to observe: ‘he appears to study the antique more rigorously than any of our emerging artists and by that means he will imbibe a chastity of thinking, which may eventually lead him to the personification of apparent beauty.’ In London he not only studied and collected the newly fashionable Greek vases, in 1811 he published a prospectus for a book on vase painting: Proposals for publishing by subscription 100 engravings from paintings on Greek vases which have never been published, drawn and etched by Adam Buck from private collections now in England. The publication was intended as a continuation of Sir William Hamilton’s Collection of Engravings from Ancient Vases (1791-7). Buck painted an ambitious self-portrait with his family in 1813, which is now in the Yale Center for British Art, including nine of the Greek vases he planned to engrave. One of the vases is a pelike painted with a scene of the Expiation of Orestes, based, as Jenkins first established, on a vase published in 1802 by A. L. Millin in his Monuments Antiques. The vase was recorded by Millin as being in the possession of ‘M. Le Chanoine Zuppi’ of Naples.
In the present watercolour Buck has taken the scene depicted by Millin and transposed it into a contemporary neo-classical composition. Orestes avenges the death of his father Agamemnon, by killing his mother Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. According to Aeschylus, Orestes is pursued by the Erinyes for this deed. Driven mad, he takes refuge with the goddess Athena who intervenes to end Orestes’ persecution, as a result he dedicates an altar to Athena. In this watercolour, Buck shows Orestes seated before a standing sculpture of Athena.
- Anthony Pasquin, An Authentic history of the professors of painting, sculpture, and architecture who have practiced in Ireland … to which are added, Memoirs of the royal academicians, 1796, p.41.
- I. Jenkin, ‘Adam Buck and the Vogue for Greek Vases’, The Burlington Magazine, vol.130, no.1023, June, 1988, p.448-457.