When Sir James Guthrie painted his portrait of Patrick William Adam (1854-1929) in 1918, he was in his mid sixties, President of the Royal Scottish Academy and at the peak of his artistic career. Born in Greenock, he was studying law at Glasgow University when the intervention of the artists James Drummond and John Faed pursuaded his father to allow him to leave without finishing his degree in order to train as a painter. Largely self-taught, Guthrie became an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1888 and a full Member in 1892. In 1902, at the age of just forty-three, he became the Academy's youngest President to date (a position he held until 1919) and the following year he was knighted. As a central figure in the Glasgow School he initially favoured realist subjects, but in 1885 a commission to paint his cousin the Reverend A. Gardiner marked the beginning of his career as a portrait painter. The extent of his achievement in this field was marked on his death with a Memorial Tribute at the Royal Scottish Academy's Annual Exhibition of 1931, which included no less than thirty-nine of his portraits.
Guthrie was therefore an obvious choice when in 1918 Ossian Donner commissioned a portrait of his wife's uncle, Patrick William Adam. Adam, by then in his late sixties, was a leading painter of interiors, based at Ardilea on Dirleton Road in North Berwick. Born in Edinburgh, his artistic career began when as a boy one of his drawings was shown to the artist Sam Bough who pronounced, 'Well, if the boy who did this was a poor lad I would send him to a house-painter's, if he could afford it I would send him to a school to learn to draw' (see P.J. Ford, op. cit, p. 19). He duly studied at the Royal Scottish Academy Schools, becoming an Associate of the Academy in 1883 and a full Member in 1897. By this date Adam and Guthrie were already friends. John Warrack, in his 'Personal Memories of James Guthrie' recalled that his own first encounter with Guthrie was at a gathering of young artists at Adam's house as early as 1886. (see J.L. Caw, op. cit., p. 192).
The friendship that existed between the two artists no doubt contributed to the success of Guthrie's portrait of 1918, for as John Warrack wrote, 'He could not start to paint a sitter til, as he said, he "had him in his head"; till he had clearly decided in his mind what precisely were the elements of effect in the sitter's face, and felt that he had reached an ultimate analysis of the sitter's character' (see J.L. Caw, op. cit., p. 198). With Sargent-like bravura Guthrie depicts Adam poised at his easel, palette and brush in hand, illuminated against a dim room which appears to be based on the interior of the great Palazzo Pitti in Florence. Adam's The Pitti Palace, Florence of 1913 (see P.R. Ford, op. cit., pl. 21) which was exhibited alongside the present portrait at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1919, shows the same distinctive white panelled doors, closely-hung pictures, gilded sculpture stand with marble bust, low covered stools and elaborate chandalier.
A monumental yet highly sensitive portrait, Guthrie's painting of Adam was chosen, over two portraits of the artist by Sir John Lavery, to be the frontispiece of Patrick J. Ford's appreciation of Adam's interiors which was published in 1920 (see P.J. Ford, op. cit., frontispiece and pls. 1 and 2). Twelve years later, Sir James Caw, in his biography of Guthrie (op. cit., p. 148) identified the painting as one of Guthrie's most important portraits. He concluded, 'Pat was a friend of long standing and, to those who knew him, Guthrie's portrait is instinct with the mingling of boyish enthusiasm and ingenuousness with seriousness of purpose which made him such a delightful personality. Wearing a pale blue painting blouse and seated, palette in hand, looking at a picture on an easel, he is seen in a light on the dim side of brightness and comes low down on the canvas against the mystery of half-tone which fills the studio beyond. Rather exceptional in colour and composition, this picture has a place of its own in Guthrie's work'.