This elegant portrait group is a fine example of Adam Buck’s work, displaying a refined neo-classicism which places him amongst European practitioners such as Christian Købke and François-Xavier Fabre. Born in Cork and trained in Dublin, Buck practiced first as a miniaturist before moving to London in 1795 where he worked for a fashionable clientele, which included George IV 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, something apparent in the strength of design in his portrait of Three Young Women.
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 a fine 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. Long thought to depict the collector and pioneering designer Thomas Hope and his family, Ian Jenkins established the identities of the sitters in 1988 re-establishing Buck as one of the pioneers of neo-Greek taste in the first quarter of the nineteenth-century.
This charming portrait is entirely typical of the best of Buck’s mature portraits. The three sitters are music making and the combination of harp and harpsichord neatly evokes their accomplishments. Small details point to Buck’s interest in the antique, one of the women is seated on a modish klismos chair, a similar chair is present in a number of Buck’s portraits of the period. The stark, unadorned interior is entirely typical of Buck’s portraiture, as is the small injection of colour and individuality in the form of the pink chair cover, framing curtain and supine dog. There are obvious compositional similarities with Buck’s most important works such as his Self-Portrait at Yale; Buck uses an identical geometric floor to render the figures in space. Buck’s continuing interest in the power of Attic decoration is seen in the poses of the sitters themselves, which recall the emphatic outlines of Greek vase decoration. With its, economy of form this is an elegant and impressive essay in Buck’s neo-classical portraiture.
- A. 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.
- Ian Jenkin, ‘Adam Buck and the Vogue for Greek Vases’, The Burlington Magazine, vol.130, no.1023, June, 1988, p.448-457.
- For Buck’s portraiture at this period see Peter Darvall, A Regency Buck: Adam Buck (1759-1833), Exh. cat., Oxford (Ashmolean Museum), 2015, pp.79-83.