It did not begin well for the gentry’s future arbiter of taste. Born in London, James Stuart lost his father (a Scottish sailor) when he was just a boy, and his family were left in poverty. He was saved by precocious artistic talent, finding work painting fans. Eventually, Stuart had enough money to travel to Italy to develop his classical learning and artistry – although only enough money to make the tough journey on foot.
In Rome, Stuart learned Latin, Greek, and Italian, and acquired sufficient expertise to work as a learned guide to Grand Tourists. This led to a chance meeting with Nicholas Revett, which proved the turning point in Stuart’s life. Together, they would visit first Naples and then, in the 1750s, Greece. Italy was well trodden by the Grand Tourists, but few dared to explore Greece. Stuart and Revett themselves only narrowly escaped murderous bandits – but, wherever they went, they made diligent drawings of the ancient architecture they found. This work secured both Stuart’s career and his soubriquet ‘Athenian’: with his first-hand knowledge of ancient Greek architecture, Stuart was commissioned soon after his return to England to design a Greek-style temple for Hagley Hall in Worcestershire.
Re-established in Britain, Stuart and Revett published the book that made their fame. The first volume of The Antiquities of Athens and Other Monuments of Greece (1762) had an impressive 500 subscribers, but its influence was most strongly felt only in the early 19th century, when Greek Revival became the dominant style of British architecture. The detailed illustrations established a new fashion for ornamentation based on classical models, serving as a pattern book for a new generation of designers. Even prior to publication, Antiquities of Athens was sufficiently well known for Hogarth to lampoon it.
Stuart’s accurate copies and fanciful reworkings put him at the forefront of Neoclassicism. Though he did design some townhouses (notably Lichfield House on St James’s Square in London), public buildings (the Old Royal Naval College’s Chapel of St Peter and St Paul in Greenwich), and a single country house (Belvedere in Kent), he was more in demand for interior design than architecture, with rich clients seeking to buy the imprimatur of his cultivated taste. He created military medals too, their classical imagery hammering home parallels with the illustrious Roman Empire to legitimise British imperial ambitions during the Seven Years’ War.
Doubtless hampered by his alcoholism and worsening gout, Stuart struggled to finish commissions: one bedroom for bluestocking hostess Elizabeth Montagu took him five years. Certainly, from the early 1780s, he frequented a tavern near his home in London’s Leicester Square to play skittles rather than bothering much with business. Remarried late in life to his 20-year-old maid, Stuart died suddenly on 2 February 1788.
Images: Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation/Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation Library.
Text: Simon Coppock.