By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

BOOK & EXHIBITION

REVIEW

James 'Athenian' Stuart 1713-1788 - The Rediscovery of Antiquity Edited by Susan Webber Soros. Yale University Press, 2007. £60.00 At the V&A, London SW7, until 24 June

Most architects are celebrated for what they build, but James Stuart's greatest legacy was a publication. His four-volume Antiquities of Athens contained measured drawings of the ancient works of the Greek world, all made with his co-author Nicholas Revett.

Between them, these four books brought the Greek style of architecture to a new generation of architects, who then supplanted the previously fashionable Roman and Palladian revival with it.

As David Watkin puts it in the handsome and very substantial book that accompanies this exhibition: 'Stuart and Revett's Antiquities of Athens might be seen as a very small stone thrown into a very large English pond which nonetheless produced ripples that moved in ever-widening circles throughout Europe and America for up to two centuries.' Stuart's impact was great indeed.

Born of humble origins in London around 1713, Stuart first worked as an artist copyist and fan-maker. Though responsible for the support of his family after the death of his father, he set off for Rome in about 1740-41, 'on foot' and 'with a scanty pittance in his pocket'. When he eventually reached Rome a year later, he began painting portraits of Grand Tour travellers. His growing social connections brought him contact with inuential patrons, as well as fellow artists and architects such as Nicholas Revett and Matthew Brettingham, with whom he visited Naples and Paestum. The Greek temples he saw there may have encouraged Stuart to plan a trip to Greece, then a somewhat dangerous territory still occupied by the Turks. Travel was awkward but the journey was made, and Stuart and Revett spent the next two and a half years measuring the ruins of ancient Athens.

While any exhibition about architecture is challenged to make its material enticing, Stuart's original gouache paintings of Greece are worth serious study as they immediately bring to life the excitement he experienced on his visit there. For instance, the celebrated Tower of the Winds in Athens appears half-buried and rather charmingly surrounded by pantiled hovels, one of which Stuart reportedly demolished in order to make his measurements. Elsewhere, there is a drawing of the Theatre of Bacchus, with Nicolas Revett in the foreground dressed as a Turk, presumably to avoid raising alarm with the locals. It is hard not to be moved by the whole sense of adventure that Stuart and Revett must have experienced in charting these important ancient survivals in a remote and occupied land.

Having seen these magnificent Classical buildings in their ravishing and still unspoiled Greek landscape, Stuart unsurprisingly sought to reproduce them in three dimensions on his return to England. The parkland settings of the country houses of Hagley and Shugborough would soon find themselves host to the first scholarly reproductions of Greek architecture since Antiquity. In the oil-painted view of Shugborough and the Park from the East (c. 1768-9), Stuart's remaking of the Tower of the Winds appears amid a picturesque cluster of red-tiled roofs and trees, and could almost be the Athenian original.

All too few Stuart buildings remain. The one stand-alone country house at Belvedere in Kent was demolished in 1959, and the image of it on a pub sign across the way from where it stood is inevitably a much poorer painting than anything made by Stuart. Montague House at Portman Square in London (c.1771-81) has also gone, although the very fine and crisp Ionic facade of Lichfield House, St James' Square (1764-6) survives. The important interiors to Spencer House have recently been restored, as has the remarkable Chapel of the Royal Hospital for Seamen in Greenwich (1779-89). There are tombs, church memorials and furnishings, a number of which would have quite an inuence on the decoration and interiors of Robert Adam. Plasterwork is painstakingly detailed, and reveals the serious, academic nature of Stuart's work.

Stuart well deserves this exhibition, even if the inevitable dim lighting combines unhappily with small text captions and rough-textured panels that blur the definition of the photographs. Fortunately, the clarity of Stuart's own drawings, which are all beautifully reproduced in Yale University Press' book, illustrate, if nothing else, the value of the architect's own process of looking and seeing.

Ptolemy Dean is an architect and writer in London

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters