Images Throughout the Ages
What did William Adams look like? The truth be told, we have no accurate idea. Sometimes referred to as the Blue-eyed Samurai, the fact is we have no idea what colour Adams’ eyes were, even with modern DNA testing techniques.
Depictions of William Adams have appeared over the ages since his death but as none are from his lifetime, when portraiture was an expensive undertaking usually reserved for the society’s elites, and we can never have any accurate notion of how he looked. The earliest known depiction of Adams is from the 1600's, a sketch by Dorothy Burmingham, which was based on a description by Melchoir van Santvoor (1570 - 1641). Ever since then, all images have been created from the mind’s eye of the artist, including one commissioned by the William Adams Club in 2021. It graces this website’s home page and follows below as the latest rendering of Adams’ portraits.
Dorothy Burmingham's sketch of William Adams.
The Dutch publisher Pieter van der Aa (1659-1733) was known for creating maps for the known world as it was in his day. In the corner of this one dated 1707, is a depiction of William Adams in an audience with Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), the first Tokugawa shogun.
Please click on the images to see them in full resolution.
Included in William Dalton’s book, Will Adams. The first Englishman in Japan first published in 1861 is found this image, another showing Adams’ in an audience with Tokugawa Ieyasu. Dalton’s book was the first novel of Adams life. It was followed in 1975 by James Clavell’s Shogun, a epic novel inspired by Adams loosely based on the his exploits in Japan. Clavell’s fictional hero is John Blackthorne.
Shogun is a 1975 best selling novel by James Clavell relating the exploits of Richard Blackthorne, a fictional character who is loosely based on our eponymous hero's life in Japan.
Clavell (1921-1994), an Australia-born British who later naturalised as American, himself led an intriguing life as a prisoner of war, script writer and film director. He is best known as a writer particularly for his Far East Asia themed novels, which include King Rat, Tai-Pan, Noble House, Gai-jin as well as Shogun. All were best sellers and, with the exception of Gai-jin, made into films or TV mini-series.
The first edition cover of James Clavell's 1975 novel 'Shogun', based on the story of William Adams. Credit: Wikimedia
Clavell was executive producer on the Shogun TV mini-series, which starred Richard Chamberlain as Blackthorne and Toshiro Mifune as Lord Toranaga (a fictionalised version of Tokugawa Ieyasu), a favourite actor of the inspirational Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa. It was first shown in 1980 receiving a good reception and awards, including Emmy, Golden Globe and Peabody in many markets around the world except Japan. A remake is due in 2023 starring Cosmo Jarvis and Hiroyuki Sanada as Lord Toranaga play the two eponymous heros.
The trailer for the TV series "Shogun", based on of James Clavell's 1971 novel, starring Richard Chamberlin. Credit: Youtube
In Ito, on the riverside site, where Adams built two western-style galleons under orders from Tokugawa Ieyasu, is a depiction in tiles of Adams as shipwright, directing operations.
Nearby, aside the sea are two intriguing depictions; one an almost messiah-like statue of Adams and a sculpture of the San Buena Ventura, one of the two ships Adams built here. Look closely and you find Adams’ disembodied head resting happily on the deck.
On Kuroshima, in Usuki, is a frieze of Adams’ arrival in Japan. Adams came first ashore here with his surviving crew mates, including Jan Joostens, from the de Liefde on 19th April 1600. Aside this are busts of both Adams and Joostens, the former looking perhaps more Japanese and the latter more like one of the 12 apostles.
Nioh is a role-playing game set in Japan during 1600. Players take the role of William, a westerner-made-samurai who story is based on Adams but depicted as an Irishman.
Created in 2017 Playstation 4 and PC video game series, Nioh blends elements of Adams’ legend with supernatural and historical fiction elements. William is depicted as a blond and sports four different hairstyles: Ponytail, Samurai Knot, Pirate Bun, Wakajishi, and three varieties of beard: Sailor Cut, Five O'clock Shadow, Jurojin, and Youthful Look.
My name is William Adams is a manga story created in the Japanese style by Mark Barnes. Barnes was commissioned by Medway Council for the Gillingham POW! Arts Trail in 2021 in commemoration of Adams birth connection to this corner of Kent in the south-east of England.
Illustrations/text Copyright © Mark Barnes 2022. All Rights Reserved.
Please click the images to see the manga in full.
Portrait of William Adams commissioned by William Adams Club founder Robin James Maynard, MBE.
The WAC portrait: Another recent depictions of William Adams is by Nicky Farrell, a British artist commissioned by the William Adams Club Founder & President Emeritus, Robin Maynard MBE.
As related here, there are many images of William Adams but no one really knows quite what he looked like, hence such artwork is imaginary. We wanted to do better than that, and claim some reasonable level of provenance.
It transpires that one of the survivors - along with Adams - from the voyage to Japan was a Dutchman by the name of Melchoir van Santvoort, and it is known that the two socialised in Japan during the following years. It is stated that in the fullness of time Melchoir van Santvoort described Adams to an artist by the name of Dorothy Burmingham, and based on that description she drew a sketch. Using a copy of that sketch Nicky Farrell created the WAC official portrait, which unlike all the others can claim some elementary provenance.
Although sporting a more coiffured appearance than we may normally wish on our rugged hero, we think it does William Adams and his legacy good justice.