Artwork in focus | Antonio Zucchi's portrait of James Adam

In 2019, this spectacular portrait of James Adam by Antonio Zucchi was bought jointly by the National Galleries of Scotland and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, with additional support from the Art Fund.

The painting, which was on display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery during the summer of 2019, can now be viewed at the V&A’s impressive Neoclassicism galleries, where it will remain until its return to Edinburgh.

The picture is well worth a careful look, because it is crammed with fascinating details that tell us a great deal about James Adam and the world he lived and worked in. In this blog I’m going to introduce the painting and explore the symbolism of some of these details.

Henry Cheere William Adam, 1689 - 1748. Architect; father of Robert and John Adam About 1740

First some background. James Adam (1732-1794) was a member of the most celebrated Scottish architectural dynasty of the eighteenth century.

Its founder was his father, William Adam (1689-1748), who was a leading mason, architect and entrepreneur.

He designed and built some of the most celebrated country houses of his time, including Hopetoun House near Edinburgh and our Partner Gallery Duff House in Banff.

However, it was the next generation, and especially James and his elder brother Robert, who took the family’s fame beyond Scotland when they set up their office in London.

Together they pioneered a new, more elegant, ‘Neoclassical’ approach to architecture, with such success that it became known as the ‘Adam style’.

Antonio Zucchi James Adam, 1732 - 1794. Architect and designer 1763

So let’s turn our attention to the portrait itself. Its inscription tells us that it was painted in Rome in 1763. At this moment, James was near to completing the extended 3-year tour of Italy he had begun in May 1760.

This was partly an extended period of professional training: eighteenth-century architects modelled their work on ancient Roman buildings, and Rome was the best place to see their remains. Italy was also full of studios where an aspiring architect could receive training in architectural drawing and design. But James’s trip was also something of a publicity exercise.

He travelled in high style with a large group of servants and hangers-on, all in the hope that he would be recognised as the most brilliant, handsome, wealthy and fashionable young architect of his time.

Zucchi’s portrait is very much part of this strategy. In fact, in terms of its wealth of detail and rich colouring, the painting is by far the most sophisticated portrait of any member of the Adam family.

It is also probably the most ambitious surviving portrait of any professional British Grand Tourist.

Pictured from left, details showing the Medici Vase, the figure of Minerva and the bas relief sculpture and panels of grotesque ornament.

This comes out in every aspect of the painting. James cuts a particularly dramatic and elegant figure on the canvas. Presented as the archetypal Grand Tourist, he wears a lavish blue silk gown with fur-trim and gold embroidered waistcoat. The pair of dividers and scroll of paper he holds are the symbols of his profession and suggest that he is in the midst of study or work.

No less striking is the mass of highly ornamented objects that surround him, all intended to testify to his knowledge and appreciation of Ancient Roman art and architecture.

First we have the Medici Vase, a monumental marble krater (bell-shaped jar or vase) that was sculpted – effectively as a garden ornament – in Athens in the second half of the 1st Century AD. You can see this immediately behind James. It was then on display in the garden of the Villa Medici in Rome and was regarded as the acme of taste and sophistication.

And then there’s a reversed (or variant) version of the Giustiniani Minerva (the goddess of wisdom) in the niche to his right. This was coming to be regarded as the epitome of the purest style of classical sculpture, so James is signalling that he is at the forefront of taste and fashion.

Above the Minerva we see a bas relief sculpture of Bacchus and Ariadne, taken from a celebrated ancient Roman intaglio (engraved) gemstone.

We can also see panels of grotesque ornament, characterised by its extravagant, fantastical forms, framing Minerva’s niche. James was particularly proud of his collection of panels like this, and he and Robert became particularly famous for designs of this kind.

Antonio Zucchi, James Adam (1732-1794), 1763, detail of the bronzed wax model of the capital of the British Order.
Antonio Zucchi after James Adam, Design for the Capital of the British Order, 1762, pen and ink, wash and gouache, 37.80 x 31.10cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1934 (34.78.2(2))

The key to understanding the image, however, is the elaborate bronzed capital that we see in the foreground. While in Rome, James sank his energies into a project to rebuild the Houses of Parliament in London. Keen to show his accomplishment as a designer of ornament, he put much effort into producing a set of stupendously detailed plans with many elaborate symbolic features. As part of this, he invented a whole new ‘British’ architectural order of columns. Instead of the leafy ornaments used on original Roman designs, he substituted the Scottish Unicorn and British Lion. In doing so, James showed that he hoped to establish his reputation across Britain, while still proudly asserting his Scottish identity. 

Whilst we were sad to see Zucchi’s portrait go from the Gallery, it’s good to know that James’s plans for fame beyond Scotland are still working – the painting is sure to make just as striking an impression in London as it has done in Edinburgh.

By Lucinda Lax, Senior Curator, Portraiture 1700-1800, 8 August 2019