James 'Athenian' Stuart (1713–1788)

Engraved portrait of James 'Athenian' Stuart, by WC Edwards after a painting by Richard Brettingham, 18th century, England, UK. Museum no. 22921

Engraved portrait of James 'Athenian' Stuart, by WC Edwards after a painting by Richard Brettingham, 18th century, England, UK. Museum no. 22921


'Antiquities of Athens', by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, 1762. Courtesy of the Library, The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York

'Antiquities of Athens', by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, 1762. Courtesy of the Library, The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York

'Artists who aim at perfection must … approach the Fountain-Head of their art'
- James 'Athenian' Stuart

James 'Athenian' Stuart is a compelling figure in the history of British design. Widely recognised for his central role in pioneering Neo-Classicism, Stuart developed his influential career across various fields: interior decoration, sculpture, furnishing, metalwork and architecture.

The creation of the 'Greek Style' and its impact on British design in the late 18th century is largely due to Stuart's landmark publication Antiquities of Athens. This influential book, first published 1762, was the first accurate record of Classical Greek architecture and served as a principal source book for architects and designers well into the 19th century.

Early years & artistic training

James Stuart was born in London in 1713, the son of a Scottish sailor whose death left his young family in poverty. A talented artist even as a child, Stuart was apprenticed to a fan painter.

In about 1742 he set off on foot to Italy, intent on improving his artistic skills. Here Stuart worked as a painter and guide to antiquities (or cicerone) while studying art and architecture and also learning Italian, Latin and Greek.

A major work during these years was his De Obelisco, an illustrated treatise on the Egyptian obelisk of Psammetichus II.

Journey to Greece

In 1751 Stuart and his friend Nicholas Revett visited Greece to measure and record antiquities. Detailed scholarly studies of Roman ruins already existed, but this attempt to apply the same approach to Greek remains was new. Stuart and Revett's intention was to increase the repertoire of correct decorative and architectural elements from the classical past, while also making a reputation for themselves.

Antiquities of Athens

After their return to London in 1755, Stuart worked on the first volume of Antiquities of Athens, which was published in 1762. He wrote and revised the text, had the illustrations engraved and designed a binding, as well as painting views of Greece and Pola in gouache for exhibition. The first volume contained details of just five buildings in the northern part of Athens, but more were promised in further volumes.

The first volume had more than 500 subscribers. Few were architects or builders, which limited the impact of the work as a design sourcebook. It was, however, well
received by scholars, antiquaries and gentleman amateurs. The presentation binding that Stuart designed for Antiquities of Athens had a Neo-Classical design and inspired architect Robert Adam to design similar presentation bindings for his work on the antiquities of Spalatro.

Antiquities of Athens helped shape the European understanding of ancient Greece. It brought an entirely new design vocabulary to 18th-century European architecture and design, and later became an essential sourcebook for the 19th-century Greek Revival.

Paintings for exhibition

After his return to London in 1755, Stuart painted views of Greece and Pola (now Pula) in Croatia. These paintings were executed in gouache, a type of opaque watercolour, and were painted for exhibition. A selection of them can be seen below.

In some of the images, Stuart included himself and Nicholas Revett, his friend and traveling partner,in the scenes. This was one of the devices Stuart used in several of his views to call attention to their actual presence in Greece.

View of the Arch of the Sergii at Pola, James Stuart
View of the Ionic temple on the River Ilissus near Athens, James Stuart
Gouache view of the Theatre of Bacchus, Athens James Stuart
View of the Tower of the Winds at Athens, James Stuart
View of the Monument of Philopappus at Athens, James Stuart
View of the Caryatid Porch, the Erechtheion

© RIBA Library Drawings Collection
www.ribapix.com

Kedleston Hall, design for the decoration of the end wall in a state room, James Stuart, 1757-8. Courtesy of Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire, The Scarsdale Collection (The National Trust), © NTPL / John Hammond

Kedleston Hall, design for the decoration of the end wall in a state room, James Stuart, 1757-8. Courtesy of Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire, The Scarsdale Collection (The National Trust), © NTPL / John Hammond


Gilt-bronze perfume burner on marble plinth, designed by James Stuart, made by Diederich Nicolaus Anderson, London, England, about 1760. Museum no. M.46:1-1948

Gilt-bronze perfume burner on marble plinth, designed by James Stuart, made by Diederich Nicolaus Anderson, London, England, about 1760. Museum no. M.46:1-1948


Carved and gilded limewood settee, designed by James Stuart, London, England, 1759-65. Museum no. W.3-1977

Carved and gilded limewood settee, designed by James Stuart, London, England, 1759-65. Museum no. W.3-1977

Country houses

Stuart's work as an architect grew out of his reputation as a painter, connoisseur and authority on Greece. Wealthy patrons employed him for his skill as a designer but also for his judgement in matters of taste.

He only built one complete country house, Belvedere in Kent. Instead, most of his work outside London consisted of alterations to existing houses and villas. Compact buildings near large towns, villas were used by their fashion-conscious owners for hospitality and display. For these projects, Stuart drew on his first-hand experience of Greek and Roman remains to design some of the earliest Neo-classical interiors in Britain.

For example, Stuart created two designs for the end walls of a state room in Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire. In one design the recess contains a portrait of Curzon, the owner of the Kedleston estate, and his wife. They are positioned above a Neo-classical sideboard table  which is flanked by scroll-footed pedestals with griffins, which were a prototype of Stuart's later designs for torchères at Spencer House.

In the second wall design, pictured here, Stuart depicted a temple-like structure, possibly intended to be an organ case with a canopy. Stuart must have meant to complete the central painting himself, as the figures of Bacchus and the lion and attendants were taken from the frieze of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, Athens.

Furnishings

For many of these commissions, Stuart designed furniture and metalware. These are eclectic in design. Fusing Baroque forms with elements taken from early French Neo-classicism, they also include direct copies of Greek and Roman ornament and furniture types.

This tripod perfume burner is one of Stuart's most important and enduring designs. It is is based on his sketch of a reconstruction of the tripod that once stood on the roof of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens. On his return to London, Stuart revived this tripod form, which appears as a decorative object in his drawings dating from as early as 1757.

Tripods would become a standard part of the Neo-classical repertoire, but this one by Stuart appears to be the first made in metal since ancient times.

The seat furniture Stuart created for the Painted Room at Spencer House combined elements from a wide variety of sources. The animal-leg supports for both the armchairs and the settees derived from ancient seating forms. The settees were among the earliest Neo-classical style furniture in Britain.

In the mid to late 18th-century, architects such as Stuart began to focus on furniture as an integral part of a room's decorative scheme. The curved back of this settee, for example, was designed specifically to fit into the curved apse of the painted room.

Hagley Hall, Worcestershire, painted ceiling of the Tapestry Room (detail), James Stuart and Giovanni Battista Cipriani, 1758-9. Photographed in 2006
Hagley Hall, Worcestershire, painted ceiling of the Tapestry Room (detail), James Stuart and Giovanni Battista Cipriani, 1758-9. Photographed in 2006
Hagley Hall, detail of one of the four 'zephyrs' on the painted ceiling of the Tapestry Room, James Stuart, 1758-9. Photographed in 2006
Hagley Hall, detail of one of the four 'zephyrs' on the painted ceiling of the Tapestry Room, James Stuart, 1758-9. Photographed in 2006
Organ case at Newby Hall, James Stuart, About 1767. Photographed in 2006, courtesy of Mr Richard Compton, Newby Hall Estate, Yorkshire
Organ case at Newby Hall, James Stuart, About 1767. Photographed in 2006, courtesy of Mr Richard Compton, Newby Hall Estate, Yorkshire

Garden buildings

More than a third of Stuart's architectural commissions were for garden buildings. His career coincided with the development of the Picturesque in garden design, a style inspired by the landscape paintings of French artists such as Claude Lorrain and Nicholas Poussin. The Picturesque was an aesthetic to which prospects and vistas were vital. Buildings and follies provided focal points within the design, and views to and from them were carefully composed.

For structures derived from classical antiquity, Stuart provided a stamp of authenticity unavailable from other architects as he had visited Greece in person. Many of Stuart's garden buildings were copies of structures he had measured in Athens, while others display his versatility and eclecticism, incorporating sources outside the limits of the Greek style.

The Doric Temple, Shugborough, James Stuart, 1760. Courtesy of Shugborough, Staffordshire (The National Trust)
The Doric Temple, Shugborough, James Stuart, 1760. Courtesy of Shugborough, Staffordshire (The National Trust)
The Temple of the Winds, Mount Stewart, Co. Down, James Stuart, about 1782-3. Courtesy of Mount Stewart, County Down (The National Trust), © NTPL
The Temple of the Winds, Mount Stewart, Co. Down, James Stuart, about 1782-3. Courtesy of Mount Stewart, County Down (The National Trust), © NTPL
Stairwell with coffered dome, James Stuart, about 1782-3. Courtesy of Mount Stewart, County Down (The National Trust), © NTPL
Stairwell with coffered dome, James Stuart, about 1782-3. Courtesy of Mount Stewart, County Down (The National Trust), © NTPL
The upper room, The Temple of the Winds, Mount Stewart, James Stuart, about 1782-3. Courtesy of Mount Stewart, County Down (The National Trust), © NTPL
The upper room, The Temple of the Winds, Mount Stewart, James Stuart, about 1782-3. Courtesy of Mount Stewart, County Down (The National Trust), © NTPL

Town houses

In the 18th century, rich families increasingly spent part of the year in London. The houses that they built were not merely spaces for living, but also an opportunity for entertaining and display. Their lavish interiors were an expression of taste and education as well as wealth.

Stuart's reputation as a man of learning and an authority on classical art and design enabled him to exploit the opportunities that arose in this flourishing market. He provided interior designs and built town town houses, using Greek architectural elements that had never been seen before by the London public. Some examples of his work,including the exterior of 15 St. James's Square and the interior of Lichfield house, can be seen below.

Public commissions

Stuart undertook several commissions that could be described as public works: for the Crown, the Admiralty and at the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, where he held the post of Surveyor from 1758.

Much of the ornament and decorative detail for these public buildings came from Greek public architecture such as temples, amphitheatres and monuments. Stuart had already successfully incorporated these classical elements into his domestic interiors, but they were at their most spectacular when used on a large scale, as in the chapel at Greenwich. Public buildings like the chapel, by their very nature, helped spread the Neo-classical style to a larger audience.

Chapel, interior, looking towards the organ James Stuart, assisted by Robert Mylne and William Newton, 1779-89. Courtesy of James Brittain/ The Greenwich Foundation, © The Greenwich Foundation/ James Brittain

Chapel, interior, looking towards the organ James Stuart, assisted by Robert Mylne and William Newton, 1779-89. Courtesy of James Brittain/ The Greenwich Foundation, © The Greenwich Foundation/ James Brittain

Chapel interior, ceiling detail, Royal Hospital, Greenwich, James Stuart, assisted by Robert Mylne and William Newton, 1779-89. Courtesy of James Brittain/ the Greenwich Foundation, © The Greenwich Foundation/ James Brittain

Chapel interior, ceiling detail, Royal Hospital, Greenwich, James Stuart, assisted by Robert Mylne and William Newton, 1779-89. Courtesy of James Brittain/ the Greenwich Foundation, © The Greenwich Foundation/ James Brittain

Chapel interior, Royal Hospital, Greenwich, James Stuart, 1779 to about 1789, Albumen print, about 1890. Courtesy of the Library, The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York, © Bruce White, 2006

Chapel interior, Royal Hospital, Greenwich, James Stuart, c.1779- 1789, Albumen print, c.1890. Courtesy of the Library, The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture, New York, © Bruce White, 2006

Antiquities of Athens, vol 2, James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, about 1790. Courtesy of the Library, The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York, © BGC / Bruce White

Antiquities of Athens, vol 2, James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, about 1790. Courtesy of the Library, The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York, © BGC / Bruce White


Drawing of a monument to Thomas Bentley, James Stuart, about 1780. Museum no. 8408.9a

Drawing of a monument to Thomas Bentley, James Stuart, about 1780. Museum no. 8408.9a

Books & engravings

Much of Stuart’s fame rests on his role as author and illustrator of Antiquities of Athens; his reputation as an architect and designer has fluctuated with time and fashion. But Stuart was also involved in other publications. After his return to London in 1754 he accepted commissions to produce illustrations for various books, which he exhibited at the Free Society of Artists. These plates were different from those in Antiquities, as they were allegorical in character or depicted events that Stuart had not witnessed at first hand.

Medals

James Stuart designed at least twenty medals, many for the Society for the Promotion of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, also known as the Society of Arts. Stuart and his patrons used the design of these medals not just to promote patriotism, but also as a propaganda tool to influence public opinion and advance a particular political agenda.

Adapting the imagery of classical coinage to celebrate British military, artistic and scientific accomplishments, Stuart made an explicit visual link between the achievements of the Roman and the British empires. This was especially the case with the series of medals commissioned by the Society of Arts to commemorate British victories during the Seven Years' War.

Monuments

In his designs for memorials and monuments Stuart used many of the traditional motifs of 18th-century funerary art, such as sarcophagi, portrait busts, grieving women, putti and obelisks. He was innovative in other ways. His versions of funerary sarcophagi, for example, were specifically Greek, after a model he had sketched for Antiquities of Athens. He was also one of the first designers to use low-relief portrait medallions in monuments instead of the more customary portrait busts.

In his monument designs, Stuart worked closely and almost exclusively with the father and son sculptors Peter and Thomas Scheemakers. This collaboration took place at a time when the standing of stone carvers was rising, and individual sculptors were beginning to lay claim to the status of liberal artists in their own right. The Scheemakers exploited their alliance with Stuart to enhance their reputations.

The next generation of sculptors also owed Stuart a debt. Antiquities of Athens had made available a vast collection of classical ornament, which sculptors could use without the intervention of an architect or designer.

Later years & legacy

Portrait Medallion of James Stuart, Wedgwood and Bentley, after 1777. The Wedgwood Museum Trust, Barlaston, Staffordshire

Portrait medallion of James Stuart, Wedgwood and Bentley, after 1777. The Wedgwood Museum Trust, Barlaston, Staffordshire

From the late 1760s complaints began to surface about Stuart's increasingly chaotic business practices, which were possibly due to his chronic gout and deteriorating health. The problem worsened, and by the early 1780s even his friends noted that he spent his afternoons drinking and playing skittles rather than attending to business. His critics, meanwhile, accused him of 'Epicurianism' – a reference to his recent marriage to a young maidservant as well as to his alcoholism.

However, Stuart continued to work intermittently and also returned to the Antiquities of Athens. This was unfinished at the time of his death in 1788 and the final volume only appeared in 1816, when the Greek Revival was beginning to dominate British architecture. Stuart's London buildings had played a role in the propagation of Neo-classical taste, but it was the Antiquities of Athens that had the greatest impact. As a sourcebook it influenced architects, sculptors and designers in Europe and America for the next two centuries.

Stuart was friends with the potter Josiah Wedgwood and this friendship resulted in several collaborative commissions over the years. Wedgwood had a high regard for Stuart and honoured him in this this portrait medallion, as one of the 'Illustrious Moderns', in a series of Wedgwood portrait busts from the 1770s.

This text was originally written to accompany the  first comprehensive retrospective of Stuart's work, on display at the V&A South Kensington between March and June 2007. The exhibition was organised by the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture, New York in cooperation with the V&A.

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