Donald Adamson

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Donald Adamson
Donald Adamson 149T42.jpg
Born (1939-03-30) 30 March 1939 (age 78)
Culcheth, Lancashire, England
Occupation Author and historian
Nationality British
Alma mater Magdalen College, Oxford
Genre Literary romanticism
Subject History of literature and philosophy
Spouse Helen née Griffiths (m. 1966)
Children 2 sons

Donald Adamson, FCIL (born 30 March 1939) is a British literary scholar, historian, philosopher and biographer.[1]

Books which Adamson has written include Blaise Pascal: Mathematician, Physicist, and Thinker about God[2] and The Curriers' Company: A Modern History.[3]


Adamson, elder son of the late Donald Adamson,[4] was born at Culcheth, Lancashire, and brought up on his family's farm at Lymm, in the county of Cheshire where his mother's Booth family were resident for upwards of 500 years; his maternal uncle, and godfather, was Gerald Loxley.[5] His father's family is of Scottish extraction, having come south from Lanarkshire in the seventeenth century.

From 1949 to 1956 he attended Manchester Grammar School where he was taught, amongst others, by Eric James (later Lord James of Rusholme). He became a scholar of Magdalen College, Oxford, and was tutored by Austin Gill and Sir Malcolm Pasley, graduating BA in 1959, proceeding MA in 1963. He won the Zaharoff Travelling Scholar Prize of the University of Oxford for 1959–60, thereafter studying at the Sorbonne being tutored by Pierre-Georges Castex. In 1962 he took the degree of BLitt, proceeding Master of Letters (Oxon); his thesis for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil), entitled "Balzac and the Visual Arts", was supervised by Jean Seznec of All Souls College, Oxford.

Adamson spent much of his teaching career at university level, although he taught at Manchester Grammar School from 1962 to 1964 and then at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand from 1964 to 1965. In 1969 he joined Goldsmiths' College and his teaching did much to enhance the University of London's standing throughout French academic circles. In 1971 he was appointed a Recognised 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 at London University from 1983 until 1986, when candidates for undergraduate degrees included external students from the UK and Europe as well as from Asian countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong.

In 1989 he was elected a Visiting Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and has been active in the field of public policy on the arts, libraries and museums.[6] By speaking, writing and, through the Bow Group, submitting (with Sir John Hannam MP) written and oral evidence to a parliamentary select committee,[7] he helped to establish 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 he has donated to the National Library of Wales.

He 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 Adamson served as Master (and from 2015, Senior Court Assistant) of the Worshipful Company of Curriers of the City of London and during his term of office he launched the Curriers' Company London History Essay Prize,[8] which is competed for annually by young graduates of British universities.[9] As Master of the Curriers' Company, he established sixteen annual prizes in mathematics and history for pupils aged 14 to 15 at four London academies,[10]. He also served as a liveryman of the Haberdashers' Company from 1976 until 2018.[11]

Adamson's personal interests include the history of religion and genealogy. He is also an enthusiastic art collector, mainly of English, French and Italian paintings, including a work of Eugene Isabey, and drawings of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Adamson and his wife divide their time between homes in Kent and Polperro, Cornwall. He writes extensively on the history of Cornwall.

Honours and fellowships

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 produced further work on Pascal's mathematical comprehension of God.

His historical writings fall into three categories: a monograph on Spanish art and French Romanticism, illuminating 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.

His study of one year in the life of the celebrated artist Oskar Kokoschka has been published to critical acclaim,[13][14] as have his recollections of his friend Sir William Golding.[15]

Philosophy of literature

According to Adamson, literature does not necessarily need to fulfil any social mission or purpose;[16] yet, as with Émile Zola[17] 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".[18] This means that they convey some sort of philosophy of the world (in Arnold's words, "How to live"[19][20]), though some writers, such as Adalbert Stifter[21] and Jane Austen (to whom, incidentally, he is related through his mother[22]) 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;[23] not essentially seeking to convince by mathematics;[24] and foreshadowing Søren Kierkegaard[25] and 20th-century existentialism[26] in its appeal to human experience.


Adamson has written eleven books, as well as numerous articles, and is completing a biography of A. L. Rowse.[27]

  • 1970: The Black Sheep (trans. Balzac's La Rabouilleuse)
  • 1976: Ursule Mirouët (trans. Balzac), 2nd edn 2015
  • 1993: Bed 29 & Other Stories: an anthology of 26 of Maupassant's short stories
Other works


  1. ^ "Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics". 
  2. ^ "Blaise Pascal". 
  3. ^ "The Curriers' Company London History Essay Prize". 
  4. ^ "Person Page". 
  5. ^ "Burke's Peerage & Baronetage, qv. BOOTH, Bt" (PDF). 
  6. ^ Weekly Hansard, no. 1054, Pt I, cols 325–336, 25 November 1976.
  7. ^ Hansard, Expenditure Committee, Third Report, Session 1977–78, pp. 128–136, 30 November 1977.
  8. ^ "Curriers' Company London History Essay Prize 2014". 
  9. ^ "The Curriers' Company London History Essay Prize". 
  10. ^ Oasis Academies - Curriers' Co.
  11. ^ "Haberdashers Company". 
  12. ^ The London Gazette, 22 July 1998, p. 7984, col. 1.
  13. ^ Oskar Kokoschka at Polperro, "The Cornish Banner". November 2009. 
  14. ^ Researching Kokoschka, "The Cornish Banner". November 2010. 
  15. ^ William Golding Remembered "The Cornish Banner". February 2010. 
  16. ^ Donald Adamson, Reference Guide to World Literature, 1995, vol. I, pp. 434–437, 458–460, 509–511.
  17. ^ Émile Zola, Germinal, 1885.
  18. ^ Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism, second series, 1888, "Wordsworth", p. 143.
  19. ^ Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism, second series, 1888, "Wordsworth", p. 144.
  20. ^ The Walking Penguin. "English Literature Essays". 
  21. ^ Adalbert Stifter, Bunte Steine ("Colourful Stones"), e.g., Bergkristall ("Rock Crystal"), Turmalin ("Tourmaline"), 1853.
  22. ^ "Main Page". 
  23. ^ Donald Adamson, Blaise Pascal: Mathematician, Physicist, and Thinker about God, 1995, pp. 143–160.
  24. ^ Donald Adamson, Mathematics and the Divine: A Historical Study (ed. T. Koetsier and L. Bergmans), 2005, pp. 407–421.
  25. ^ Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, 1843.
  26. ^ Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, 1951.
  27. ^ Donald Adamson (February 2009). "A. L. Rowse: An Appreciation". The International Literary Quarterly. 
  28. ^ "REVIEWS". 
  29. ^ "Blaise Pascal". 
  30. ^ The Three Banks Review, December 1982.
  31. ^ Ideology and Literature. Essays in Honour of Brian Juden
  32. ^ St John in Cornwall, "The Cornish Banner". August 2011. 
  33. ^ Meeting A.L. Rowse, "The Cornish Banner". February 2012. 
  34. ^ Frank Heath, Artist of Polperro and Lamorna, "The Cornish Banner". February 2013. 
  35. ^ Belonging to the Curriers' Company, "The Cornish Banner". February 2014. 
  36. ^ Master of the Curriers' Company, "The Cornish Banner". May 2014. 
  37. ^ Master of the Curriers' Company, "The Cornish Banner". August 2014. 
  38. ^ Rowse and Trevor-Roper defined, "The Cornish Banner". August 2014. 
  39. ^ Malta, its Knights and Grand Masters, "The Cornish Banner". November 2014. 
  40. ^ Malta, its Knights and Grand Masters, "The Cornish Banner". February 2015. 
  41. ^ In Memoriam: Raleigh Trevelyan, "The Cornish Banner". May 2015. 
  42. ^ Cyprus: An Essay, "The Cornish Banner". August 2015. 
  43. ^ Serendipity, "The Cornish Banner". November 2015. 
  44. ^ A Visit to Venice,"The Cornish Banner". February 2016. 
  45. ^ A Visit to Provence and Languedoc,"The Cornish Banner". August 2016. 
  46. ^ The Godolphins (1),"The Cornish Banner". November 2016. 
  47. ^ The Godolphins (2),"The Cornish Banner". February 2017. 
  48. ^ Elba (1),"The Cornish Banner". August 2017. 
  49. ^ Elba (2),"The Cornish Banner". November 2017. 

External links

Preceded by
Peter France
Oxford University Coat Of Arms.svg
Oxford University
Zaharoff Prize

1959 - 1960
Succeeded by
William Bell
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