|Born||30 March 1939
|Occupation||author and historian|
|Alma mater||Magdalen College, Oxford|
|Subjects||history of literature and philosophy|
Donald Adamson (born 30 March 1939) is a biographer, historian and literary critic. Books he has written include Blaise Pascal: Mathematician, Physicist, and Thinker about God and The Curriers' Company: A Modern History.
Adamson, elder son of the late Donald Adamson, was born at Culcheth, Lancashire, now Cheshire and brought up on his father's farm at Lymm, Cheshire, the county in which his mother's family has been resident for upwards of 500 years. From 1949 to 1956 he attended Manchester Grammar School where he was taught amongst others by Eric James, Baron James of Rusholme. He became a scholar of Magdalen College, Oxford, and was tutored by Austin Gill and Sir Malcolm Pasley, graduating B.A. in 1959 and proceeding M.A. in 1963. He won the Zaharoff Travelling Scholar prize of the University of Oxford for 1959-1960, thereafter studying at the University of Paris studying under Pierre-Georges Castex. In 1962 he took the degree of B.Litt. (proceeding Master of Letters). His thesis for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (D.Phil.), entitled "Balzac and the Visual Arts", was supervised by Jean Seznec of All Souls College, Oxford.
In 1969 Adamson joined Goldsmiths' College, and his acclaimed teaching did much to enhance London's standing in French academic circles. In 1971 he became a Recognized Teacher in the Faculty of Arts of the University of London, and in 1972 a member of its Faculty of Education, holding both appointments until 1989. He served as Chairman of the Board of Examiners from 1983 until 1986, when candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Arts included external students from the United Kingdom, Europe, as well as from Asian countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong.
In 1989 Adamson became a Visiting Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. His personal interests include the history of religion and genealogy. He is also an enthusiastic art-collector, mainly of English, French and Italian paintings and drawings of the 18th and 19th centuries.
He has been active in the field of public policy on the arts, libraries and museums. By speaking, writing and, through the Bow Group, submitting (with Sir John Hannam MP) written and oral evidence to a select committee, he worked for the establishment of the National Heritage Memorial Fund. Adamson was a member of the judging committee of the Museum of the Year Awards from 1979 to 1983, and has donated to the National Library of Wales.
Adamson served as a ceremonial officer of the Order of St John of Jerusalem from 1981 to 2008, becoming Deputy Director of Ceremonies of the Priory of England and the Islands (the Isle of Wight, the Isles of Scilly, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man).
From 19 October 2012 until 11 October 2013 he was Master of the Worshipful Company of Curriers of the City of London. During his term of office he launched the Curriers' Company Historical Essay Prize on the history of London: this is to be competed for biennially by young graduates of British universities. Under his leadership the Company has also created sixteen annual prizes in mathematics and history for pupils aged 14 to 15 at four London Academies.
He and his wife divide their time between homes in Kent and Polperro, Cornwall. He has written extensively on the history of Cornwall.
Fellowships and honours
- Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
- Fellow of the Royal Historical Society
- Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London
- Chevalier, Ordre des Palmes académiques
- Knight of Justice, Order of St John of Jerusalem
- Service Medal, Order of St John of Jerusalem (with bar)
- Cross of Merit, Order Pro Merito Melitensi
Scope of his writing
The Genesis of Le Cousin Pons, substantially the text of Adamson's (B.Litt.) thesis, is a detailed study of the manuscript and proof-sheets of this very late work. Tracing the progress of the novel through its various editions, it reveals the full extent of Balzac's improvisation from novella to full-length masterpiece.
Illusions Perdues, a critical study of what is Balzac's most mature work, outlines its strong autobiographical element, analysing contrasts of Paris and the provinces, the purity of the artist's life and the corruptions of journalism, and the ambiguity of Balzac's narrative outlook. Major themes of the book are that in "fiction" is truth and in "truth" fiction, and that Illusions Perdues is the first novel by any writer to highlight the shaping of public opinion by the media, usually done in the pursuit of power or money.
Blaise Pascal considers its subject from biographical, theological, religious and mathematical points of view, including the standpoint of physics. There is a chapter on the argument of the Wager. The analysis is slightly inclined in a secular direction, giving greater emphasis to Pascal's concern with the contradictions of human nature, and rather less to his deep and traditional preoccupation with Original Sin. Since writing this book, Adamson has done further work on Pascal’s mathematical comprehension of God.
His historical writings fall into three categories: a monograph on Spanish art and French Romanticism, in which the opening-up of Spain and Spanish art to travellers from France and other parts of Western Europe, and to enthusiasts in those countries; articles on manorial and banking history; and, the modern workings of a City livery company. Adamson has also written on travel in England and Wales in the 18th century.
Philosophy of literature
According to Adamson, literature does not necessarily need to fulfil any social mission or purpose; yet, as with Émile Zola or D. H. Lawrence, there is no reason why it should not highlight social evils. A novel or novella – or a biography – is not merely an absorbing story: in Matthew Arnold’s words, the best prose is, like poetry, "a criticism of life". This means that they convey some sort of philosophy of the world (in Arnold's words, "How to live"), though some writers, such as Adalbert Stifter and Jane Austen (to whom, incidentally, he is related through his mother ) do this less than most others, whilst on the other hand Samuel Beckett conveys a profoundly negative philosophy of life.
All too often, in Adamson's view, people go through their lives without living or seeking any belief. This, for him, is the supreme attractiveness of Blaise Pascal, whose philosophy is of a unique kind: grounded in the vagaries of human nature; not essentially seeking to convince by mathematics; and foreshadowing Søren Kierkegaard and 20th-century existentialism in its appeal to human experience.
- 1970: The Black Sheep (trans. Balzac's La Rabouilleuse)
- 1976: Ursule Mirouët (trans. Balzac)
- 1993: Bed 29 & Other Stories: an anthology of 26 Maupassant's short stories
- Other books
- 1966: The Genesis of "Le Cousin Pons"
- 1971: Dusty Heritage
- 1971: T. S. Eliot: a Memoir (ed.)
- 1974: The House of Nell Gwyn: the fortunes of the Beauclerk family, 1670-1974 (jointly with Peter Beauclerk Dewar)
- 1980: A Rescue Policy for Museums
- 1981: Balzac: Illusions Perdues. London: Grant & Cutler
- 1988: Les Romantiques français devant la peinture espagnole
- (1990: republished as Interprètes français de la peinture espagnole à l'époque romantique)
- 1995: Blaise Pascal: mathematician, physicist, and thinker about God
- 1996: Rides Round Britain: the travel journals of John Byng (ed.)
- 2000: The Curriers' Company: a modern history
- 2001: Balzac and the Tradition of the European Novel
- Minor contributions
- 1991: presented Old Goriot in Everyman Books
- 2005: "Pascal's Views on Mathematics and the Divine"
- 2009: "Oskar Kokoschka at Polperro"
- 2010: "William Golding Remembered"
- 2010: "Researching Kokoschka"
- 2010: "A Passage from Barcelona"
- 2011: "Balzac's Priests"
- 2011: "St John in Cornwall"
- 2012: "Meeting A.L. Rowse". This, somewhat modified, is one of the fifteen chapters of his forthcoming book on A.L. Rowse.
- 2013: "Frank Heath, Artist of Polperro and Lamorna". 
- Lundy, Darryl. "p. 34696 § 346957". The Peerage.
- Weekly Hansard, no. 1054, Pt I, cols 325-336, 25 November 1976.
- Hansard, Expenditure Committee, Third Report, Session 1977-78, pp. 128-136, 30 November 1977.
- The London Gazette, 22 July 1998, p. 7984, col. 1.
- Oskar Kokoschka at Polperro, "The Cornish Banner". November 2009.
- Researching Kokoschka, "The Cornish Banner". November 2010.
- William Golding Remembered, "The Cornish Banner". February 2010.
- Donald Adamson, Reference Guide to World Literature, 1995, vol. I, pp. 434-437, 458-460, 509-511.
- Émile Zola, Germinal, 1885.
- Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism, second series, 1888, “Wordsworth”, p. 143.
- Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism, second series, 1888, "Wordsworth", p. 144.
- Adalbert Stifter, Bunte Steine (“Colourful Stones”), e.g., Bergkristall (“Rock Crystal”), Turmalin (“Tourmaline”), 1853.
- Donald Adamson, Blaise Pascal: Mathematician, Physicist, and Thinker about God, 1995, pp. 143-160.
- Donald Adamson, Mathematics and the Divine: A Historical Study (ed. T. Koetsier and L. Bergmans), 2005, pp. 407-421.
- Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, 1843.
- Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, 1951.
- Donald Adamson (February 2009). "A. L. Rowse: An Appreciation". The International Literary Quarterly.
- St John in Cornwall, "The Cornish Banner". August 2011.
- Meeting A.L. Rowse, "The Cornish Banner". February 2012.
- Frank Heath, Artist of Polperro and Lamorna, "The Cornish Banner". February 2013.