Adams, John Clayton (1840-1906)

Adams, John Clayton (1840-1906)
Adams, John Clayton (1840-1906)

John Clayton Adams was a British artist predominantly known for his naturalistic landscape paintings in oil.

A student of nature in the truest sense, Clayton Adams captured the natural world diligently and with high fidelity. The shimmering Derwent River, the rolling Surrey Hills, and the lofty delights of the Scottish mountains were a muse for his analytical eye.

His father, Charles H Adams, was a lecturer on astronomy, and one can imagine a childhood immersed in tales of the solar system amid a family home abundant with charts and detailed draughtsmanship. The young man was evidently inspired to draw and soon sent to Bloomsbury Art School to train under William Wilthieu Fenn (c.1827-1906).

At 23, he debuted at the prestigious Royal Academy with a depiction of a ‘Cottage In Devonshire’. At the time, landscape artists were fringe players, somewhat frowned upon by the Academy elite. ‘Natural’ landscape painters were seen as second-rate when compared to those painting historical scenes, genre or portraits. A review published in the Magazine of Art, 1896, describes their plight: “They are ‘outsiders,’ in high favour with the public, respected by their brethren, and admitted on all sides to be well worthy to continue the work which was begun for them by Constable, Turner, and a host of others, but ‘outsiders’ they remain.”

Regardless, Clayton Adams continued to study nature sympathetically, working predominantly outdoors, immersed in both the scientific and poetic aspects of a view. He married a poet, Mary Frances Tupper, and the two surely travelled together - excited by the next sojourn - captivated by the changing seasons.

Much like his contemporaries, Benjamin Williams Leader and George Vicat Cole, he had an advanced ability for describing light as it flickers across a vista. Tranquil rivers are enlivened with deft reflections while pockets of illumination are derived through passing clouds.

Over the span of his 40-year career, John Clayton Adams exhibited extensively at the Royal Academy and Royal Society of British Artists, particularly with views in Surrey, Kent, Hampshire and, later, Scotland. Today, his works are held in numerous public collections including the V&A Museum and Russell-Cotes Art Gallery.

Biography - Magazine of Art (1896)

Whatever may be the justice of the objections which critics raise against the position taken by British figure painters and decorators beside those of the Continental schools, it is impossible to assign to the landscapes which this country produces any place but one in the front rank of European art. The British landscape school has for many years been regarded as the source of many of the finest qualities which distinguish the performances of artists beyond the Channel, and has set to other nations many an example of acute observation and thoughtful interpretation by which they have not been slow to profit.

In bygone years Constable was to the painters of romantic landscape in France a guide and model, the origin of a large series of noble paintings in which the hints derived from the master were by his followers developed and expanded till they became the principles of a great art-creed. More recently Henry Moore saw himself established as the hero of the Parisian art world, the recipient of high honours, and the acknowledged lender of the school which for many years of his life he represented so worthily. Now and again, as in the case of Bonington, an English artist found in France so much keener appreciation than was vouchsafed to him among his own countrymen, that he was induced to take up his abode where his aims were understood and his works accepted. Always the foreign view of British pictures of the open air has been one of respectful sympathy, and frequently this sympathy has expanded into enthusiasm and worship.

Strangely enough, the attitude of the official lenders of British art is by no means over-friendly to landscape. At the present moment, the Royal Academy is very far from exercising its influence to help on the modern painters who have chosen to tread in the steps of our famous students of inanimate nature. With two or three notable exceptions, all the men whose energies are being devoted to worthily upholding the traditions of our landscape school have not been received within the Burlington House circle.

They are ‘outsiders,’ in high favour with the public, respected by their brethren, and admitted on all sides to be well worthy to continue the work which was begun for them by Constable, Turner, and a host of others, but ‘outsiders’ they remain. That this should be so is the more lamentable because, as a result, the selecting and arranging of the one great annual exhibition which, rightly or wrongly, the public insists upon regarding as an adequate summary of the contemporary art of this country, continue in the hands of artists who are, no doubt, supremely capable, but who have, as often as not, been trained to regard their subjects in a microscopic and short-sighted manner, which has unfitted them to consider the wider and more intangible truths of out-of-door nature.

Landscape certainly needs to be judged by men who paint it, by students of effects of atmosphere rather than by the industrious workers whose view is necessarily limited by the conventions and restrictions of the studio. Under a skylight there are no tender gradations of atmospheric colour, no subtle variations of delicate light and shade, no palpitation of lights and fluctuations of shadow - all is decorously steady and definite. An artist whose working hours are spent under such conditions approaches nature in a spirit which is apt to be out of sympathy with the more rough-and-ready methods of his brother-brush whose painting room is a hillside or a river-bank, and he more often than not shows a disposition to demand in exhibition landscapes qualities which are opposed to the real genius of this particular branch of art practice.

At all events, the blame for the existence of this quite lamentable condition of affairs cannot with justice be laid upon the landscape painters themselves. Rarely have the ranks of the ‘outsiders’ included so many notable men of this school as at the present time. No fair objection on the score of lack of merit can be made against them; nor is it possible to pretend that the approbation of the public has been withheld from them. The popular vote would have placed them in the seats of authority long ago, had there been any means of making such a vote operative. But at times it suits the Academy to disregard both the voice of its supporters and the opinion of the profession, and just now it is prepared to assert its own convictions in opposition to every suggestion which may be made to it.

Certainly, if the adjustment of the balance between the elect inside Burlington House and the crowd waiting outside came to be made in accordance with the demands of the untechnical many, there is one artist who would inevitably have a place in the first batch of admissions. Not many of the landscape painters of the present day can boast of a wider popularity than Mr. John Clayton-Adams. He has for many years been a prime favourite with that very large section of the community which has an affection for the type of picture which presents a pretty, well-selected subject, painted unaffectedly and with sincere desire to attract by the accurate rendering of detail and effect. His place in the modern school of landscape is that of a recorder of facts. His mission is to put down with the loving care of a close student those beauties of nature which appeal to him by their richness of elaboration and by their peculiar appropriateness of material. To this mission, he has assiduously devoted a working life of more than thirty-five years, and his ready acceptance by the public to whom his appeal has been made may be taken as convincing proof that this devotion has been appreciated and that he has followed in a manner altogether judicious the lines which his own tastes and his own individual preferences induced him to lay down for himself.

These individual preferences determined Mr. Clayton-Adams from the first in the choice of his career. His artistic leanings made themselves evident very early in his life, and there never seems to have been any hesitation over his adoption of the painter's profession. He inherited his tastes from his mother's family, some members of which had previously shown considerable artistic capacity. His father, on the other hand, was a scientific expert, a lecturer on astronomy, and a member of a family which had been celebrated through many generations for proficiency in mathematics and various branches of science, That the son should have displayed so marked a preference for the pursuit of art was made the more remarkable by the fact that both the Claytons, his mother's ancestors, and the Adams family were of Puritan stock, the first tracing descent from Cromwell, and the second from the Protector's great lieutenant, Fairfax. Even the non-aesthetic traditions of his ancestry could not, however, restrain the inclinations of the young artist, and he began the systematic study of his profession, with the full consent of his parents, while he was still little more than a child.

His training, judged by the present-day idea, seems to have been slight and somewhat desultory. His chief teacher was Mr. W. W. Fenn; but he also attended, for a while, the Bloomsbury Art School, where he practised figure drawing and the ordinary round of classroom exercises. He began to exhibit at the age of twenty, his first Academy picture, ‘A Devonshire Cottage,’ being hung in the Trafalgar Square galleries in 1860. After this, there was a gap of some years, for it was not till 1867 that his next exhibited works, ‘Wheat’ and ‘The Labourer's Cottage,’ appeared on the same walls. During the remainder of the Academy's stay in Trafalgar Square his only other contributions to its exhibitions were a couple of landscapes, ‘Spring’ and ‘A Mountain Stream;’ but at Burlington House he has been a far more constant exhibitor. Indeed, with the exception of one year, he has not been unrepresented in any of the annual exhibitions held in the present home of the Academy.

Unlike most other artists, who are apt to roam about from subject to subject and to vary their manner frequently while feeling for the path that they intend eventually to follow, he set himself from the first to work at the subjects that have occupied him ever since, and refused all invitations to digress into other walks of art. When he was first commencing to exhibit, he was offered by Grieve, the scene-painter, an engagement as assistant, so that he might study the technicalities of that artistic craft; but the fascinations of open-air painting had by then become more than he could resist, and he decided to go on as he had begun as a landscape-painter. To give anything like a complete list of his exhibited works would be a considerable undertaking, for he has all his life worked with great energy, and has produced a wonderful array of canvases, small and large.

Probably the best known of his Academy pictures are ‘Flowers of the Field,’ painted at Cromer; ‘Where the Waters Gently Pass,’ exhibited in 1882, and now hanging in the Bethnal Green Museum; ‘Meadow-sweet’ and ‘The Rough Road,’ shown in 1888; ‘Down the Valley,’ ‘The Top of the Hill,’ and ‘The Woodman's Path,’ which appeared in 1888, 1890, and 1892 respectively; and ‘The Silver Dart,’ which was exhibited in 1893, and of which an engraving by Mr. David Law was used the following year as one of the Art Union prizes. His 1895 picture, ‘The Golden Vale,’ has also been etched by Mr. David Law for the Fine Art Society the purchasers of the original work.

Another gallery where he is always well represented is that of Messrs. Tooth. It was there that was shown the delightful stretch of distance which is illustrated here under the title ‘From Coneyhurst to Leith Hill.’ Mr. Clayton-Adams may be claimed as an essentially British artist for another reason besides that afforded by the character of his work. He has never painted outside the limits of the British Isles-has, indeed, except for a day, never set his foot on any soil but that of his native land. Everything he has produced has been British and for the most part English. His chief hunting-ground has hitherto been in the southern counties, and especially in Surrey. He has worked in Kent and Hampshire, a little in Devonshire, and now and then in other districts; but the majority of his pictures illustrate the scenery of the immediate neighbourhood of his home, near Guildford.

His house is built upon the very spot from which Vicat Cole painted his well-known canvas, ‘Autumn Gold,’ and it is about the hills and valleys of this still unspoiled region that Mr. Clayton-Adams has occupied himself for more than half his life. Whether he will continue to devote himself so assiduously to the same subjects in the immediate future is, perhaps, open to question. He has come recently under the influence of Scotch scenery, and the influence has been to him an absorbing one. His first sight of Scotland was in 1894, when he paid a flying visit of a week or so; but last summer he went there armed with all materials for a painting campaign. He returned with some forty pictures of various sizes, all records of Deeside scenery, which are early this year to be presented to the public in the galleries of the Fine Art Society.

Concerning his technical methods and modes of picture production there is not much to be said. Like most other artists, he is fond of experiments in mediums and materials, but these experiments are always subordinated to the object he invariably keeps in view - the production of a satisfactory piece of work. His habit is to paint his large canvases entirely out of doors whenever he can, for he prefers to work face to face with Nature and to draw his inspiration immediately from her; but occasionally he finishes in the studio pictures begun in the open.

He works, in point of fact, according to circumstances, and adapts his methods to the exigencies of the moment. He has remained uninfluenced by the unrest which at the present moment pervades the art world, and has had the good judgement to refuse to be turned away from the path which has led him to success and popularity. We may perhaps sum him up as an artist who has painted all his life portraits of Nature, first in one costume, then in another, but who has never allowed himself to depict her at an unlucky moment, neither in ecstasy nor in abandonment. His devotion to her has attracted the attention of those who worship her at a greater distance and has gained him sincere friends and staunch supporters. He certainly deserves their encouragement, for he has served her well.

Examples of Poetry by Mary Frances Clayton Adams (nee Tupper)

A Surrey Song

The Surrey hills are fresh and green,
And though the storm-tossed sea
Might roll its mighty waves between
Those sunny heights and me,
Still in my thoughts they'd be as nigh
As when I sojourned there,
And every breeze that passed me by
Would seem like Surrey air -
For oh! I love the Surrey hills, those hills beyond

The Surrey vales are deep and broad,
The Surrey streams are clear,
And emerald-green with moss the sward
That grows those streamlets near;
And sloping pastures here abound -
They, too, are found elsewhere,
But to my mind, as I look round,
They seem not quite so fair -
For oh! I love the Surrey vales, the streams and pastures rare.

The Surrey woods! words seem too few
To paint their varied charms, -
The tangled briers wet with dew,
The flowers breathing balms,
The great red pines that stand secure
In winter as in spring,
And trembling birches bending o'er
The plants that round them cling -
While from above a golden glow shines down on everything.

The Surrey heaths, the Ewhurst range,
Oh! who can well express
The wonderful and beauteous change
Of Nature's every dress;
The sparkling crystals in the snow,
That gem the wintry dells,
Give place when summer breezes blow
To purple heather bells,
Among whose clustering groups unseen the lonely blackcock dwells.

The Surrey cots, the Surrey halls,
Both are to me most dear;
And not a Surrey sound but falls
Like music on mine ear,
For O, sweet Surrey well I love!
And may earth's joys combine
With choicest blessings from above
On Surrey hearts to shine,
And peace and plenty evermore round Surrey homesteads twine.

Nature's Praise

The dark dull solitude of night
Was smiling into rosy morn,
And many a pearl of glittering light
Was gather'd on the prickly thorn;
The little birds in every tree
Were singing sweetly, loud, and clear,
As if they sang, in shouts of glee,
‘Thanks be to God, who brought us here.’
Beneath the oak-tree, robed in green,
The modest harebell drooping grows;
And o'er that aged trunk is seen
The blushes of the brier rose:
But flowers have a gentle speech,
Though never heard by man's dull ear,
For in their loveliness they teach,
‘Thanks be to God, who brought us here.’


Royal Academy, Royal Society of British Artists, The Fine Art Society in London.

Public Collections

V&A Museum, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Sheffield City Art Galleries, Beverley Art Gallery, Kensington Central Library, Museum of Croydon, Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens, Ulster Museum, Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Laing Art Gallery, Reading Museum & Town Hall, Torre Abbey Museum, Vestry House Museum, Williamson Art Gallery & Museum.



Born in Edmonton, Middlesex, to Charles H Adams, a lecturer on astronomy, and Jane Adams.


Lived in Edmonton, Middlesex, with his parents and siblings.

Trained at the Bloomsbury Art School under William Wilthieu Fenn (c.1827-1906).


Lived in Edmonton, Middlesex, with his parents and siblings. Occupation recorded as ‘Artist in Painting.


Debuted at the Royal Academy with ‘Cottage In Devonshire’ where he continued to exhibit until 1904, showing a total of 93 works.


Debuted at the Royal Society of British Artists with ‘A Rainbow at Night is the Shepherd’s Delight’.


Lived in Edmonton, Middlesex, with his parents and siblings. Occupation recorded as ‘Professor of Painting’. His mother is recorded as a teacher.
Married Mary Frances Clayton Adams (nee Tupper).


Lived in Cranleigh, Surrey, with his wife, two children, mother and sister. Occupation recorded as ‘Artist Landscape’.


Lived in Cranleigh, Surrey, with his wife and two children. Occupation recorded as ‘Artist Landscape’. His daughter, Margaret, is recorded as a flower painter.


Travelled to Scotland.


Lived in Cranleigh, Surrey, with his wife and son. Occupation recorded as ‘Artist Landscape’. His son, Harry, is also recorded as a landscape artist. His wife recorded her occupation as ‘Writer in Prose’.



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