Donald Adamson

Donald Adamson
Donald Adamson
Born 30 March 1939
Occupation author and historian
Nationality British
Alma mater Magdalen College, Oxford
Subjects history of literature and philosophy
Literary movement Romanticism

Donald Adamson (born 30 March 1939 at Culcheth, Lancashire, now Cheshire) is a historian, biographer, philosophical writer, textual scholar, literary critic, and translator of French literature. The books he has written include "Blaise Pascal: Mathematician, Physicist and Thinker about God", and more recently "The Curriers' Company: A Modern History".



Adamson, elder son of Donald Adamson, a farmer, was born at Culcheth in 1939. He was brought up at Lymm, Cheshire, the county in which his mother's family has been resident for upwards of 500 years[1]. From 1949 to 1956, he attended Manchester Grammar School, before becoming a Scholar of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he graduated B.A. in 1959, proceeding M.A. in 1963. He was Zaharoff Travelling Scholar of the University of Oxford in 1959-1960. In 1962 he took the degree of B.Litt. (proceeding Master of Letters). Prior to graduating B.Litt. he had the privilege of studying under Pierre-Georges Castex at the University of Paris. 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.

Adamson spent most of his career teaching at university level, although he taught at Manchester Grammar School from 1962 to 1964 and then the Lycée Louis-le-Grand from 1964 to 1965, where some students in hypokhâgne, khâgne, hypotaupe and taupe came from Quebec, Mauritius, Martinique, Guadeloupe and other parts of the French-speaking world. After a brief time at J. Walter Thompson, the advertising firm, he taught in 1968 at St. George's School, Gravesend, Kent. He has lived at Meopham since 1966 but has also had a home in Polperro, Cornwall since 1983.

In 1969 Adamson joined Goldsmiths' College, where he lectured for the next twenty years, doing 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.[2] By speaking, writing and, through the Bow Group, submitting (with Sir John Hannam MP) written and oral evidence to a select committee,[3] he worked for the establishment of the National Heritage Memorial Fund. Adamson was a judge 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, rising to be 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). He participated in 2011 in the Priory’s visitation of Truro Cathedral.

In October 2011 he was elected Upper Warden of the Worshipful Company of Curriers of the City of London. He is also a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers.

Fellowships and honours

Over the course of his distinguished career, Adamson has received a number of honours and been elected as a fellow of several prominent societies, including:

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 eighteenth century.

He has completed a study of one year in the life of the artist Oskar Kokoschka,[5][6] as well as another on his recollections of his friend William Golding.[7]

Philosophy of literature

According to Adamson, literature does not necessarily fulfil any social mission or purpose;[8] yet, as with Émile Zola[9] 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".[10] This means that they convey some sort of philosophy of the world (in Arnold's words, "How to live"[11]), though some writers, such as Adalbert Stifter[12] and Jane Austen (to whom, incidentally, he is related through his mother [13]) do this less than most others, whilst on the other hand Samuel Beckett conveys a philosophy of life which is one of profound negativism.

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;[14] not essentially seeking to convince by mathematics;[15] and foreshadowing Søren Kierkegaard[16] and 20th-century existentialism[17] in its appeal to human experience.


Adamson has written numerous articles, as well as eleven books. In addition to the publications listed below, he is currently working on a biography of A. L. Rowse.[18]

  • 1970: The Black Sheep (trans. Balzac's La Rabouilleuse)
  • 1976: Ursule Mirouët (trans. Balzac)
  • 1993: Bed 29 & Other Stories: an anthology of 26 of Maupassant's short stories
Other books
Minor contributions


  1. ^
  2. ^ Weekly Hansard, no. 1054, Pt I, cols 325-336, 25 November 1976.
  3. ^ Hansard, Expenditure Committee, Third Report, Session 1977-78, pp. 128-136, 30 November 1977.
  4. ^ The London Gazette, 22 July 1998, p. 7984, col. 1.
  5. ^ Oskar Kokoschka at Polperro, "The Cornish Banner". November 2009. 
  6. ^ Researching Kokoschka, "The Cornish Banner". November 2010. 
  7. ^ William Golding Remembered, "The Cornish Banner". February 2010. 
  8. ^ Donald Adamson, Reference Guide to World Literature, 1995, vol. I, pp. 434-437, 458-460, 509-511.
  9. ^ Émile Zola, Germinal, 1885.
  10. ^ Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism, second series, 1888, “Wordsworth”, p. 143.
  11. ^ Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism, second series, 1888, "Wordsworth", p. 144.
  12. ^ Adalbert Stifter, Bunte Steine (“Colourful Stones”), e.g., Bergkristall (“Rock Crystal”), Turmalin (“Tourmaline”), 1853.
  13. ^
  14. ^ Donald Adamson, Blaise Pascal: Mathematician, Physicist, and Thinker about God, 1995, pp. 143-160.
  15. ^ Donald Adamson, Mathematics and the Divine: A Historical Study (ed. T. Koetsier and L. Bergmans), 2005, pp. 407-421.
  16. ^ Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, 1843.
  17. ^ Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, 1951.
  18. ^ Donald Adamson (February 2009). "A. L. Rowse: An Appreciation". The International Literary Quarterly. 
  19. ^ St John in Cornwall, "The Cornish Banner". August 2011. 

External links

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