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James 'Athenian' Stuart: The architect as landscape painter

Julius Bryant
Keeper of the Word and Image Department, V&A
View of the back of the Temples of Rome and Augustus, Pola by James Stuart

James Stuart - View of the back of the Temples of Rome and Augustus, Pola. 1750-6. Gouache. 29.5 x 47cm. RIBA Library Drawings Collection, SD146/7

For many visitors to the exhibition James 'Athenian' Stuart: the Rediscovery of Antiquity (Bard Graduate Center, New York, 2006-7; Victoria & Albert Museum 15 March-24 June 2007) the surprise was not the quality of Stuart's lost buildings and interiors so much as the striking examples of his art as a painter. The exhibition featured eighteen landscape views, thirteen of which were engraved for the first two volumes of 'Antiquities of Athens' (1762; 1787-9) by Stuart and Nicholas Revett.

On loan from the Drawings Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), they had never been exhibited as a group before. They have also never been published and discussed as a group.  (1)  'Antiquities of Athens' set new standards for archaeological publications, boasting measurements to an impossible hair's-breadth degree of accuracy (one thousandth of an inch, a fraction made meaningless by thermal variation in both instruments and buildings). Stuart had returned from Athens in 1755 but felt driven to such exacting standards by a rushed rival publication, 'Les Ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grèce' by Julien-David LeRoy (Paris, 1758). Stuart's mathematical calculations sharpened up the measured drawings of buildings that had been made by Revett. Stuart's landscape views also seem to have been sharpened up to outdo the views by LeRoy, whose volume was conceived more in the genre of philosophical travel literature. Far more familiar today are the images of another rival, the fantastical views of Rome by G. B. Piranesi, whose 'Della Magnificenza ed Architettura de' Romani' (1761) was published the year before Stuart and Revett's much-anticipated first volume. Lacking Piranesi's awe-struck admirers, shrunken to exaggerate the apparent scale and sublimity of Rome's monuments, Stuart's views may seem conventional. However, they are worthy of attention and further research in their own right as a contribution to the history of British landscape painting, for their origins in the art of decorating fans, for the unusual use of gouache, and for their exceptional ethnographical content. (2)   In their high finish and topographical information they anticipate by two decades the views of Rome and Tivoli by Louis Ducros (1748-1810) that British collectors framed and hung to resemble oil paintings. (3)

Since Stuart's death tradition has held that his failure to establish a Grecian style of design, befitting Britain's new supremacy as head of a maritime mercantile empire, was owing to his own laziness, 'epicureanism' and the determined competition of Robert Adam and William Chambers to promote the Roman school. But for much of his career Stuart saw himself primarily as a painter. Unlike Adam he was not groomed in a family of architects; unlike Chambers he had no formal training as an architect in Paris. Apprenticed to the French artist Louis Goupy (c. 1674-1747), his brother William or their nephew Joseph Goupy (1686-1763), Stuart worked as a fan painter in London until he was twenty-seven; he then walked to Rome, painting fans as he went to pay his way. In the published proposal of 1748 for the Antiquities he explains that he and his collaborator, Revett, have been 'at Rome, where we had already employed 6 or 7 years in the study of Painting'. (4)   The exhibition included portraits by Stuart of James Lee (Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow) and a self portrait by Revett (RIBA), the journeyman character of which suggests that both painters may have regarded architectural field research as a necessary career change. Stuart's dual interest, together with his standing as a connoisseur and cicerone, is confirmed by a surviving sketchbook, one half of which is devoted to architecture, the other to drafts of a treatise on Venetian painting. (5)

In the published proposal for 'Antiquities of Athens' Stuart offered not only accurate records of buildings and sculpture but also of each building's 'circumjacent Country' in 'drawings made on the spot...by the hand of an Artist'. Only three of Stuart's seventy-seven notebooks survive and only one of the field sketches for the vedute has been located. (6)   Despite Stuart's claim in the Antiquities that they were 'painted on the spot' the differences between the sketch and the finished gouaches suggests that all eighteen may have been painted, or extensively worked up, in London. There he joined the artist circles of the St Martin's Lane Academy, numbering among his friends Hogarth and Reynolds. On the strength of his field research alone Stuart presented and promoted himself as a man of dual profession, not primarily as an architect but rather as a painter. On being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1758 he is recorded as a 'history painter and architect'. On his election to the Society of Antiquaries the same year he described himself as a 'painter and architect'. (7)   His earliest known commission was for portraits of William III and George II for the Rockingham Club (unlocated). In 1758 he painted for Westminster School the stage backdrop for their annual Latin play. In 1763 he succeeded George Knapton as portrait painter to the Society of Dilettanti (a position he relinquished to Reynolds in 1769 having failed to produce a single portrait) and in 1764 he succeeded Hogarth as Sergeant-Painter of the Office of Works (a post he held until 1782). In 1764 he employed the young James Barry (1741-1806) to produce oil paintings based on his views of Athens. (8)   A member of over twenty committees at the Society for the Promotion of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, Stuart served as a judge of the premiums for painting and drawing. Between 1765 and 1783 he exhibited 122 works at the Free Society, including designs, book illustrations and paintings with mythological or allegorical subjects. As none of his easel paintings are located today, these gouaches now provide the best evidence of Stuart's abilities as a landscape painter.

One reason for Stuart's omission from histories of British landscape painting is that gouache (or 'bodycolour') is regarded as a continental tradition, one that falls between watercolour and oil painting. (9)   Unlike in 'pure' watercolour, the colours are not mixed simply in water and do not achieve their brilliancy through their translucency over white paper. In gouache, the colours are mixed in water, gum and lead white (after its invention in 1834, Chinese white was used as it did not darken) and can be applied over tinted or blue, grey or buff paper. Working from dark to light, as in oil painting and engraving, the painter in gouache uses an opaque medium and so can correct mistakes. The relative visual weight and strength of colour of gouache made it suitable for fan painting and it became popular among watercolour painters who sought to compete at exhibitions where their works might be hung near oil paintings in relatively dim interiors.

The 'father' of the British school of watercolour painting, Paul Sandby (1731-1809) used gouache for topographical views painted for exhibition from the 1760s. Sandby owned several gouaches by Marco Ricci (1670-1729) who worked in Britain between 1712 and 1716. Ricci's friend, Joseph Goupy, painted in gouache fans and reduced copies of old master paintings for fashionable society. Another source of this continental influence was the landscape painter Francesco Zuccarelli (1702-88) who worked in Britain in the 1740s and between 1752 and 1773. Collectors also helped introduce the medium to Britain, notably William Windham who, in 1742, returned from Italy to Felbrigg in Norfolk with twenty-six gouaches of scenes near Rome, painted by Giovanni Battista Busiri (1698-1757). Ricci was promoted among British visitors to Venice by Consul Smith, from whom George III acquired over thirty gouaches by the artist in about 1762. Particularly popular among gentlemen on the Grand Tour were the gouache views of Roman monuments painted by Charles-Louis Clérisseau (1721–1820) in Italy between 1749 and 1767. In 1757 Clérisseau travelled with Robert Adam to Split to record the Emperor Diocletian's palace, which Adam published in 1764.

Stuart's gouaches record two excursions to survey monuments. Five views are of the Roman antiquities at Pola (now Pula) in Istria, Croatia, where Stuart and Revett practised their recording techniques while waiting for permission to travel from Venice into Greece. Athens had been occupied by the Ottoman Turks for the past 300 years and was a dangerous and unknown land to the British. LeRoy, by contrast, was to benefit from better relations between the French consul and the Turks. The other thirteen gouaches represent Greek monuments in Athens and Thessalonika. Stuart's vivid, colourful and detailed depictions of the monuments in their contemporary settings, amidst Turkish buildings set off by carefully-observed scenes of local life, must have been astonishing at the time. As images of a country regarded as the birthplace of western culture yet almost unknown to living travellers from the west, Stuart's paintings could have aroused as much interest as the first photographs from the lunar surface. Compositionally, several appear to follow the semi-circular format to which Stuart must have become accustomed as a fan painter. The vivid colours and wealth of anecdotal incident at the centre and base of each image were customary requirements to enhance any fan when wielded by a social wallflower, whether in self-defence or as a source of shared amusement. The screening and framing devices used in some, such as arches or trees in silhouette in the foreground, suggest that the paintings may have been finished to hang together as a group.

Compared to British topographical watercolours of the 1750s, Stuart's views are exceptional, not only in using the gouache medium but also in the care with which he has created figure compositions and recorded local costume. Paul Sandby may have been influenced by Stuart's example in the figure groups in his topographical watercolours of British antiquities. Michael 'Angelo' Rooker (1746-1801) is known to have used engravings after Dutch seventeenth-century painters to animate his views of ruined abbeys and castles with rustic figures. (10)   Through exhibiting at the Free Society and through his publications Stuart could have set a new standard for picturesque staffage. Stuart's figures have an ethnographical quality that anticipates the topographical views commissioned by publishers from J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851). The more immediate heir of Stuart's concern to record both the antiquities and the street life of modern Greece is William Pars (1742-82) who accompanied Revett in a similar expedition between 1764 and 1766 that resulted in the Ionian Antiquities (1769, 1797) which was also sponsored by the Society of Dilettanti. (11)

Stuart and Revett star in their own production, their cameo roles in the gouaches serving to verify their actual presence in Greece. Here is the proof that they heeded Stuart's own advice, as expressed in the published proposal for the Antiquities: 'Artists who aim at perfection must…approach the Fountain-Head of their art'. They first appear at Pola, standing precariously on top of the Arch of the Sergii where Stuart is shown taking notes while Revett measures the monument. In the view of the Monument of Philopappus above Athens, Stuart and Revett wear Turkish kaftans while chatting with James Dawkins while Robert Wood copies down inscriptions. (Dawkins and Wood visited Athens in May 1751 and later published their own books on the antiquities of Palmyra and Baalbec). (12)   The visitors may have been included by way of acknowledgement of Dawkins's sponsorship of the project. This is the least finished of the gouaches and lacks the servant making coffee that appears in the published engraving. This difference further suggests that the gouaches were worked up, if not entirely painted, in London. In addition to the recorded assistance from James Barry, there is the visual evidence of other hands at work in the gouaches, such as the poorly-drawn group of riders in the view of the Temple of Apollo at Corinth.

Revett appears sketching in the foreground of the view of the Theatre of Bacchus. His Turkish dress underlines the artists' presence on site and further suggests both their need to avoid drawing attention to themselves and the years of field study when their clothes would simply have worn out. Stuart chose to present himself on the Acropolis, sketching the Caryatid Porch of the Erechtheion, presumably as this was the source of the Ionic order that he would employ in his own designs. The published text may be indebted to LeRoy's first volume in its sense of travelogue. Stuart describes how his labourers are excavating beneath the caryatids while Turkish officials and spies keep watch to prevent them removing treasures, convinced that there could be no other point in digging.

To the view of the Ionic Temple on the River Ilissus (a monument destroyed by the Turks around 1778) Stuart has added a colourful scene of the Turkish governor hunting with his entourage, a picturesque detail not in the field sketch. While Revett produced the measured outlines of the ancient buildings Stuart took the opportunity of these vedute to record the landscape setting, the encroaching miscellany of later constructions, the local way of life and to document the extent of their own labours as archaeologists (no doubt, once again, to outdo his rival LeRoy). In his view of the Tower of the Winds, set against the fortified walls of the Acropolis, he shows his workmen excavating the doorway. Stuart and Revett did not simply measure and paint but also had 2,700 cubic feet of earth removed from the interior, taking it down some fourteen feet to its original floor level, and in so doing discovered the tower's original function as a water clock. Stuart also notes that it is now a Turkish chapel where whirling dervishes dance inside. They even took the trouble to dismantle a house adjoining the tower in order to see all eight sides.

Stuart was affable company and could not keep his sense of humour out of his work. The panoramic view of the interior of the amphitheatre at Pola has its foreground filled with a scene of a friar blessing a flock of diseased sheep and in the view of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, embedded in the wall of a monastery, a dozing monk seated before a skull enjoys the cool shade of a well-tended vegetable garden.

Art history may have been kind to Stuart in leaving lost his endeavours as a history painter in oils. According to the greatest living painter of the day, Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-79), Stuart was an artist of 'superior genius'. (13)   According to James Barry, 'The pictures, and every thing of his designing, are distinguished by that unaffected air of the ancients, which alone constitutes true taste'. (14)   However, Stuart's ceiling paintings in the Tapestry Room at Hagley Hall (1758-9) are in a late rococo mode. His gifts as a landscape painter of detail and colour were put to better use in enriching his designs for interiors at Kedleston. (15)   These designs were seen in December 1758 by his rival Robert Adam (1728-92) who learnt from them how to seduce clients with his characteristic colourful presentation drawings of complete interiors. In his designs for Kedleston's interiors Stuart showed that he still fancied his chances as a painter of large oil paintings for he included a history painting showing the capture of Bacchus by pirates (based on the scene in the frieze of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates) and a double full-length portrait of his patron with his wife. Neither was commissioned. When he did secure a commission, to decorate Georgiana Spencer's closet at Wimbledon House with scenes from Milton (1758, destroyed by fire 1785), Horace Walpole described it as 'villainously painted'. (16)   Best known today is Stuart's Painted Room at Spencer House, London, where he and assistants painted from 1758 grotesque decoration in the spirit of Raphael's garden loggia of the Villa Madama around inset paintings that do not suggest any great loss.

The influence of Stuart's gouaches should not be underestimated as they were available through engravings and included in public exhibitions. Of the 122 works exhibited by Stuart at the Free Society, eighty-two related to the Antiquities of Athens. As exhibition pieces, they would have promoted the authority of Stuart as an intrepid field researcher and the myth of Greece as both the cradle of civilisation and as a nation under alien occupation. There must be many more awaiting rediscovery. After his death seven were included in the sale of Stuart's effects; two were sold at Phillips in 1799. The present group was donated to the RIBA in 1873. (17)   They may be consulted in the RIBA Drawings Collection at the V&A.


I would like to thank Charles Hind, H. J. Heinz Curator of Drawings at the RIBA, for reading this article and making several helpful suggestions.


(1) The paintings are listed in Soros, Susan Weber, ed. James 'Athenian' Stuart 1713-1718: the Rediscovery of Antiquity. New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2006: 591-5 Based on Richardson, Margaret, ed. Catalogue of the Drawings Collection of the RIBA, vol. S. Farnborough, Gregg International, 1976. The publication for the 2006/7 exhibition includes distributed illustrations of the drawings but does not include a chapter on Stuart as a painter. Stuart's work as a topographical artist features in the chapter by Frank Salmon 'Stuart as Antiquary and Archaeologist in Italy and Greece'.

(2) Reference to Stuart is surprisingly brief in the two classic studies of British watercolours where he is cited as context for William Pars (1742-82): Williams, Iolo. Early English Watercolours and some cognate drawings by Artists born not later than 1785. London, The Connoisseur, 1952: 74 and Hardie, Martin. Water-Colour Painting in Britain, vol.1, The Eighteenth Century. London, Batsford, 1966: 89.

(3) Ducros, Louis. 1748-1810: Images of the Grand Tour. Exhib. cat., The Iveagh Bequest. Kenwood, 1985; Julius Bryant, 'Ducros: Master of the Grand-Tour Watercolour', Apollo, CXXII, no. 284, October 1985, p.311.

(4) Stuart James and Nicholas Revett. The Antiquities of Athens, vol.1. London: J. Haberkorn, 1762, preface, footnote (a).

(5) RIBA Drawings Collection SKB 336/2.

(6) Stuart's View of the Amphitheatre at Pola, 1750, British Museum, is illustrated in Soros, Susan Weber, ed. James 'Athenian' Stuart 1713-1718: the Rediscovery of Antiquity. New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2006: 120.

(7) Cited in Soros, Susan Weber, ed. James 'Athenian' Stuart 1713-1718: the Rediscovery of Antiquity. New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2006:72, 95, no.147.

(8) Pressly, William L. The Life and Art of James Barry. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981: 6.

(9) For gouache see Hardie, Martin. Water-Colour Painting in Britain, vol.1, The Eighteenth Century. London, Batsford, 1966: 14-15, 105, 110-117.

(10) For the changing character of figure groups in British topographical watercolours see Bryant, Julius. The English Grand Tour. Swindon: English Heritage, 2005, and by the same author Turner: Painting the Nation. Swindon: English Heritage, 199.

(11) Hardie, Martin. Water-Colour Painting in Britain, vol.1, The Eighteenth Century. London, Batsford, 1966: 89.

(12) The finished drawings by Giovanni Battista Borra (1713-70) for Ruins of Palmyra (1753) and Ruins of Balbec (1757), are also owned by the RIBA (volumes VOS/147 and VOS/149).

(13) Garlick, Kenneth and Angus Macintyre, eds. The Diary of Joseph Farington. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979, vol.4: 1554.

(14) Pressly, William L. The Life and Art of James Barry. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981: 47-8.

(15) Stuart's designs for country house interiors are illustrated in Bryant, Julius. '"The Purest Taste" - James "Athenan" Stuart's work in Villas and Country Houses'. Soros, Susan Weber, ed. James 'Athenian' Stuart 1713-1718: the Rediscovery of Antiquity. New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2006: 265-316.

(16) Cited in Soros, Susan Weber, ed. James 'Athenian' Stuart 1713-1718: the Rediscovery of Antiquity. New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2006: 297.

(17) Originally 20 were donated but two were stolen in the 1960s.