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 John Adam Plimmer Houston  (1812 - 1884)

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Lived/Active: United Kingdom      Known for: landscape, genre, portrait painting

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John Adam Plimmer is primarily known as John Adam Plimmer Houston

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from Auction House Records.
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

HOUSTON, John Adam (1812-1884)

Born, Gwydir Castle, Wales, to James and Susannah Muir Houston of Ireland; moved with his family to Edinburgh, c. 1820 where he began his art studies; pursued further studies in Paris and German, prior to returning to Edinburgh where he launched his career as a watercolorist; early success lead to his being made an Associate of the Royal Society of Art in 1841 and a full Associate in 1844; married Caroline Amelia McLean (b. 1830, Edinburgh) c. 1850; one daughter, Caroline Amelia Houston, (b. 1851, Edinburgh) born in 1851; removed to London, 1858 where he remained in residence for the rest of his career; first from a studio at 13 Charlotte Street, and then, after 1863, from a studio at Upper Phillimore Place, Kensington, a neighborhood best known for nearby Holland House, home of Henry Rich, 1rst Earl of Holland whose execution during the English Civil War may have provided the inspiration for Houston’s best known work; Holland Park was also the scene of the high Victorian Art Circle whose members included the history painter George F. Leighton and the seminal Pre-Raphaelite artist Val Prinsep; exhibited at the Royal Academy and the British Institution from 1841 to 1885 (extant record attached) where his work earned very substantial prices ; best known for his work in two genres, as a painter of scenes from English history, particularly the Civil War and as a landscape watercolorist in the Ruskian manner, accurately colored and highly detailed; several of his works were engraved, notably The Earl of Warwick, and Newton Investigating Light, the later of which enjoyed widespread circulation at the time; his most famous painting, The Fugitive Slave is in the Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina; died, Phillimore Place.

Estill Curtis Pennington

Biography from The Johnson Collection:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

In his day, the Scotsman John Adam Houston actively exhibited work in two genres—history paintings and watercolor landscapes—from 1841 to 1885 in both Edinburgh and London. Descended from the celebrated Nasmyth clan of artists, he studied at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh under the tutelage of the institution’s president, Sir William Allan. He subsequently pursued further instruction in Paris and Germany before returning to Edinburgh, where he began his professional career. His first entry in the annual Royal Scottish Academy exhibition, Don Quixote In His Study, occurred in 1837 and, in 1842, he was made an academy associate. In 1858, Houston moved to London, where he remained in residence for the rest of his life. One of his greatest successes, Newton Investigating Light, was exhibited at the Royal Academy there in 1870.

From all extant visual evidence, The Fugitive Slave differs substantially from Houston’s other work in both subject matter and execution. The artist most often favored historic episodes from the English Civil War—executed in intricate detail, with particular regard to costume and architecture, evenly lit and softly colored. In this example, Houston uses light and color to create a highly dramatic atmosphere, at once expressive of danger and hope, and very reminiscent of the luminist style in American art of the same era. The scene offers a striking perspective from which to observe a black man crouched in the lower right foreground, illuminated with a golden radiance. Emanating from a source in the distant rear ground, that glowing light misses the murky mounted figures in the mid-ground. High in the sky directly above the runaway slave’s head shines a cross-shaped star, a symbol of salvation.

First exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1853, this “startling departure for the artist” certainly had some foundation in American historical events, including the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831 and congressional passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. It may also have been inspired by the poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1842 entitled “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp” and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While artists such as Eastman Johnson and William Sidney Mount had produced genre paintings featuring black subjects, no American painter had yet created a visual counterpart to Stowe’s melodrama. Indeed, it would not be until after the Civil War that a Southern artist, Thomas Satterwhite Noble, would address the injustice and cruelty of slavery on canvas. Though he is not known to have visited the United States, John Adam Houston made a seminal contribution to the visual history of the nation, and particularly the South, through this work.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

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