BMCR 2007.08.26

James “Athenian” Stuart: the Rediscovery of Antiquity

, , , James 'Athenian' Stuart, 1713-1788 : the rediscovery of antiquity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. 672 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 31 cm. ISBN 0300117132. $100.00.

This volume, lavish, weighty and deeply scholarly in its tone, was published in conjunction with an exhibition on James Stuart held at the Bard Graduate Center in New York in the Fall of 2006 and then later in the first months of 2007 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It contains, appropriately enough, a checklist of objects gathered in the exhibition itself, some 204 in all, portraits, sketches, photographs of buildings, views of Greece, furniture designs, medals, even the box Stuart used to store his archaeological measuring objects, now safely ensconced in the Soane Museum at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. But the exhibition itself, as often now, was used as an opportunity to go further in examining the artistic activities of Stuart within a wider historical context. The volume contains some thirteen chapters about his work in architecture and archaeology, interior design, ironwork, furniture and medals, illustrated with an exceptional number of plates, many in color, many familiar, many others not so generally accessible. And the documentation here on Stuart and his friends and patrons, even on the many craftsmen who worked for him, some 144 so identified, will be immensely useful for anyone considering the history of architecture in the XVIIIth century and the general setting of culture in England in those years. It also shows that, despite what has often been seen as his natural indolence, plus what one patron spoke of as his contempt for money, Stuart was busy enough as a designer in the neo-classical taste, at this level quite on a par with William Chambers and Robert Adam, his evidently more professional rivals.1 Here especially striking are his furniture designs and decorations produced for Spencer House, London, concerning which in 1772 the travel writer Arthur Young noted that there was no more beautiful building and none “better worth the view of the curious in architecture, and the fitting up and furnishing great houses”.2

But there is much more to the story of Stuart than such a straightforward record. For running through everything here is an accounting of these activities, and those of his friend and associate Nicholas Revett, within a larger history of classicism, that is to say within the story of the revival of Greek forms in architecture. The story can be signaled in two distinct events; the building by Stuart in 1758 of a Doric temple at Hagley Park, followed, a few years later, by another at Shugborough; and the publication in London, beginning in 1762, of the four volumes of The Antiquities of Athens, Measured and Delineated by James Stuart F.R.S. and F.S.A. These first buildings, small in scale though they were, suggested a new language of design, more chaste and pure than what could be spoken of as the opposite and vicious taste of Adam. And the volumes on the antiquities, the last of which appeared in 1816 — coincidentally the year of the purchase for the nation of the marbles from Phigaleia and the Parthenon — served to show how these new forms were exemplified in the buildings of Attica, documented in the engravings by William Newton and Willey Reveley and in the annotations of Joseph Woods, an architect called in to complete the project by Josiah Taylor, the editor of the final volume.

It is this aspect of Stuart’s work that is fully described by David Watkin in the two chapters that open and close the more particular narratives here, the first setting the labors of Stuart within earlier traditions of archaeological expeditions to Greece, the second documenting the taste in architecture and decoration for all things Greek, from London and Cambridge to Glasgow and Berlin and Oslo to Baltimore and Philadelphia and Richmond, Virginia. Much that Watkin describes here is familiar enough: the earlier travels to Greece in 1675 and 1676 of such curiosity seekers as George Wheler and Dr. Spon, the discovery of polychromy in Greek art, the designs by architects like William Wilkins and Karl Friedrich Schinkel, even certain writings by Johann Winckelmann and Jean-Jacques Rousseau which, at the very moment of the appearance of Stuart’s first volume, called for a similar return to simplicity and to the primary, elemental form of things, to be seen in all Greek culture. But Watkin writes with such authority and grace that anyone interested in the events of these years and this particular chapter in the history of classicism can now begin here, comfortable in both the range of the materials assembled and the conclusions drawn.

The beginnings of Stuart’s interest in Greece are clear enough. It was in 1748 that he and Revett and the artist Gavin Hamilton, all then in Rome, came up with the idea to visit and record the monuments of Athens and publish the results in three volumes, with 191 plates, a task they saw as taking a mere four years, one to be spent in Greece itself, earning them what they optimistically referred to as “a neat profit … after paying every expense while thus employed”. Support was necessary for such an endeavor; but by 1751 they were both in Athens, having secured the appropriate funds and what they spoke of as “recommendatory letters to all the principal persons of the places where they (were) to go”.3 But after this nothing went according to plan. There were political disturbances in Athens and an outbreak of the plague, and instead of beginning with examining the buildings on the Acropolis which, because of their obvious importance, were supposed to be included in the first volume, they were forced to begin with others in the northern part of Athens which were less significant and often also of a later date. Beyond this, as they well knew, they had a rival in this endeavor in Julien-Davide Leroy, whose proposals published in 1756 for a similar volume, Ruines des plus beaux Monuments de la Grèce, brought into the open not only national rivalries but wider questions about the methods of documentation to be used and the whole notion of accuracy which, as Stuart proclaimed at once truthfully and pompously, “is the principal and almost the only merit they (i.e. these volumes) can have”.4 The publication of the last of these volumes, which sputtered to a close years after Stuart had died, was described by Eileen Harris in her magisterial account of English architectural publications.5 But many additionally interesting questions are suggested within the intellectual and historical details Watkin lays out: the degree to which, for all the rigors imposed by the Turkish rulers of Greece, the monuments there had indeed been accessible to earlier visitors in the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries; the question of how far the forms of representation here, especially those showing the ruins of Athens, came from the tradition of the picturesque described earlier in the century by Joseph Addison in the sublimity of Homer and what he called the pleasures of the new, the uncommon;6 and then finally the degree to which, if indeed it was Stuart and Revett who came to shape the whole idea of Greek architecture in Britain in the XVIIIth century, and within that the image of the Parthenon, this was not their intended purpose since, as Harris had put it, they were perhaps merely attempting in these volumes to add examples from Greece to the existing studies of Roman architecture so that a truer general understanding of ancient architecture would be possible. Note here that on the publication of the first volume Winckelman, could expressly criticize it for not being restricted in its examples to the finest of Greek architecture in the city. For as he noted it included also, in the instance of the Tower of the Winds that he cited, what he saw as many insignificant buildings in Athens of the Roman and Hellenistic periods.7 Note here also that at Spencer House some details were indeed taken from models in Athens and Salonica illustrated in these volumes. But the final effect of the decorations was hardly pure or chaste, incorporating as it did a range of styles as rich and dazzling and eclectic as anything done at that moment by Adam or William Chambers or James Wyatt.

History, we know, is written by the victors; historical events, as we also know, are defined often by their consequences. And if Stuart, “Athenian Stuart”, “Athens Stuart”, was praised by Woods in 1816 in the last of the published volumes of The Antiquities … as having erected at Hagley the first building “of real Grecian architecture”, this does not mean that Stuart had any such wider architectural program in mind when first he set out to make a record of the monuments of Athens.8 Clearly in the early years of the next century, in the work of architects like Wilkins and Robert Smirke, even Decimus Burton, something of a new language of architectural form emerged, marked by a preference for the Greek rather than the Roman orders; hence the appropriateness of the term Greek revival, first so explicitly assigned to them in the 1860s. But the connotations of this new taste are not immediately clear. For if, at one level, this new formal language was a response to questions about architectural style itself, raised so seriously in France by the philosophers of the Encyclopédie, in the end in its appearance here the Greek revival became merely one style among others, as erratically tied to its sources as was its counterbalance, the Gothic revival, which appeared in the same years, practiced often by the self-same architects. This is not to dismiss facts of history; even John Summerson, who regarded the Greek revival as a unsatisfactory interlude in the history of English architecture, had to acknowledge that hundreds of houses, churches, institutions and public offices survive or are recorded as being built in England in the post-Waterloo years.9 And, if the quality of these designs often left much to be desired, it was clear elsewhere, as in the work in Germany of architects like Schinkel and Leo von Klenze, that this language, whatever its meaning and however closely or loosely it was tied to its sources, could give birth to an architecture of great inventiveness and authority. At which point we might return to Stuart and to the description of the Temple at Hagley offered by Rudolf Wittkower in 1941: that it followed no particular Greek model but that the gravity and serenity of the structure, combined with its sensitive feeling for proportion “gives this bare little temple surprising expression and life”.10

In the end, as this volume so clearly shows in all the materials it covers, the idea of the revival of Greek architecture, whatever the role of the activities of Stuart and Revett, was based more on particular ideas about the essential nature of architecture than on the reconstitution of a historical style, scrupulously defined. Perhaps, at the level of language, a distinction was always irrevocably recognized, as by the humanists of the Renaissance, between the traditions and practices of Greek and those of Latin, between Homer and Virgil, between Herodotus and Livy. But the forms of architecture, being essentially abstract, are less easily categorized along such lines, and, whatever distinctions we might choose make between the language and the structures of Greek and Roman architecture, any more absolute differentiations often collapse in the face of history itself and in the examples of buildings built. Such confusion can be nicely represented in the terms of simple geography: that there are, of course, Greek buildings in Italy, as at Paestum, as in 1787 Goethe noted with such surprise when he came across what he took there to be a very different style of design;11 that there are, of course, many Roman buildings even in Athens, like the Library of Hadrian, the sole building from Greece that was referred to, from a reference in Pausanias, by Sebastiano Serlio in his treatise on architecture published in the XVIth century.12

At which point, we might acknowledge that if we have recourse still to such categories as Renaissance style, the Greek revival, even the neo-classical, a term first used of art in the 1860s, what we are speaking of at such moments is less about describing individual structures or the origins of such episodes than an idea of intellectual possibilities about architecture and its reasons, purposefully extracted from all the messy details of history. Thus it was possible for Stuart to claim that everything in Greece was Greek, even after Athens was subject to Rome, since, as he claimed, ” though deprived of its liberty and greatly fallen from its ancient splendour, it was still a respectable city, it produced artists and had a taste for magnificence”.13 Thus it was possible also for the origins of the Greek revival to be centered on a Roman building, for as the late Giles Worsley suggested in 1983 it was not at Hagley but earlier in 1756 at Nuneham Park that we first find an example of the use of materials from The Antiquities14 The house itself was designed by the wonderfully named Stiff Leadbetter; but in one detail, suggested by the patron Lord Harcourt, there was a variant of a Venetian window, taken from a similar one at the Aqueduct of Hadrian where, as Lord Harcourt acknowledged, “I have boldly adventured to follow a design of an old building that I have seen among Mr. Stuart’s drawings of Athens”. He did so not only because it looked good but also because, as he said, ” this obviates an objection which upon some occasions had been made to Venetian windows, that the light is too high in the room”. For him this was fundamentally a matter more of practicality than of architectural politics.


1. These comments on Stuart and especially that of Mrs.Elizabeth Montagu for whom he did work in London at 22 Portman Square are noted in H. Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840, 3rd edition, New Haven, London, 1995, p. 939.

2. This somewhat convoluted comment is to be found in see A. Young, A Six Weeks Tour Through the Southern Counties of England and Wales, (3rd edition), London, 1772, p. 114.

3. For these phrases, the first from the Proposals for the Antiquities of Athens (1748), the second in a letter of 26 February 1751 written by Thomas Hollis to John Ward, see D. Wiebenson, Sources of Greek Revival Architecture, London, 1969, p. 75-77.

4. For this comment see The Antiquities of Athens, vol. 1 p. 5

5. Here see E. Harris, British Architectural Books and Writers, 1556-1785, Cambridge, New York, 1990, p. 439-448.

6. These comments by Addison are to be found in The Spectator, no. 412 (24 June 1712)

7. See here a letter of 22 September 1764 to H. Füssli, as in J. J. Winckelmann, Briefe, Berlin, 1952-57, vol. 3, p. 57; “Es its der erste Band der Antiquities of Greece von Mr. Stuart hier angekommen; findet aber eben so wenig als in Engeland Beyfall. Denn dieser ganze grosze erste Bande fangt an mit Kleinigkeiten wie der Thurm der Winde ist, wo alle Figuren auf groszen Blättern gestochen sind, und man siehet, es hat ein grosses Buch werden sollen. Monstrum horrendum ingens, cui lumen ademtum”.

8. For this comment see The Antiquities of Athens, London, 1816, vol. 4, p. xxiii, xxvii, xxviii.

9. Here see J. Summerson, Architecture in Britain, 1530-1830, 4th edition, London, 1965, p. 303.

10. This description of Hagley comes from Guide to the Photographic Exhibition of English Art and the Mediterranean compiled by the Warburg Institute, London, 1941, p. 103.

11. For this now famous response, see most easily J.W. Goethe, Italian Journey (1786-1788), tr. W. H. Auden, E. Mayer, London, 1970, p. 217-18, entry of 23 March, 1787.

12. For this image see S.Serlio, Tutte l’Opere d’Architettura et Prospetiva, (1737), edited and translated V. Hart, P. Hicks, London, 1996, p. 190

13. For this statement, justifying what would be included in the next volume of The Antiquities, see the Advertisement, in The Antiquities of Athens, London, 1762, volume 2, no page number.

14. For this see G. Worsley, “The First Greek Revival Architecture,” Burlington Magazine, CXXVII, 1985, p. 226-9 and especially the quotation from Hovingham MSS 20N 13/3/22.