Adamson was a member of a mechanically minded family, but he was artistically inclined. He was born at Hawick, Scotland, on 27 June 1829, and came to South Australia on the ship Recovery in 1839. While his father and brothers were laying the foundations of a successful agricultural implement-making business in Adelaide, James Adamson was following his interest in art. In the 1850s he worked as a topographical artist and portrait painter, exhibiting 75 of his watercolours and sketches of the country around Adelaide in 1854. In 1856 Adamson moved to Melbourne where he practised as a photographer as well as an artist.
By the late 1860s he was back in South Australia, at Auburn, where the expanding firm of Adamson Brothers had established a branch of their business. He was president of the Auburn Mutual Improvement Society when they held their Art Exhibition and Conversazione in December 1867. Among the exhibits were his prize painting, The Wreck of the Admella, and a display of scientific instruments which he had probably borrowed from his brother, David B. Adamson (q.v.). In January 1872 Adamson entertained the children of the Auburn Presbyterian Sabbath School with views projected with his magic lantern. A month later the local auctioneer announced that Mr J.H. Adamson was leaving the district and listed the goods he had for sale. Among the items advertised were several hundred books; a ‘very chaste and well-finished buggy designed and built by Mr Adamson for his own special use – the only one of the kind in the colony’; a portable gasworks, suitable for lighting large rooms at a small cost, and probably used to operate his magic lantern;
and ‘a first-class photographic apparatus, complete, with every requisite.’ 4
It appears James Adamson moved to New South Wales, as he was exhibiting paintings in Sydney in 1874–75. However, he eventually returned to Adelaide where he died on 2 May 1902. Further details of his career as an artist, and as a photographer in Victoria, can be found in Kerr’s Dictionary of Australian Artists.
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