James "Athenian" Stuart

1713-1788

V&A Museum – to 24th June 2007, admission free
The Old Royal Naval College Chapel

There is nothing quite like losing oneself in one of The Big London Museums on a dark, wet May afternoon. And the V&A is one of the best to lose oneself in because it’s so full of twists and turns and dark Victorian corners filled with dark Victorian delights. Even better are the exhibitions – at the moment Surrealism and Kylie (complete with a costume by our own Johnny Rocket) are selling out, but I wasn’t there for either of these big-hitters.

James “Athenian” Stuart may not trip off the tongue the way that contemporaries such as Robert Adam, Josiah Wedgewood and John Soane might, but his pioneering work in bringing neo-classicism to late 18th-century Britain is extraordinary and, along with all his great country piles and elegant townhouses, he found time to beautify Greenwich for us. It’s taken over 200 years to create him a major exhibition, but at least now the V&A has done the right thing.

Born in London the son of a Scottish sailor, Stuart was not from wealthy stock. Things got worse when his father died and the family was plunged into poverty. He was apprenticed to a fan painter (I wonder if there are any of his efforts in the museum in Crooms Hill…?) but he longed for adventure. He decided to walk to Italy to learn about culture and architecture, antiquity and style. This was, after all, the beginning of the age of The Grand Tour. To start with he supported himself as an itinerant fan-painter (how much more romantic than working in the Rome branch of McDonald’s during your gap-year, eh?)

James was doing okay in Italy, picking up the odd wealthy sponsor and portrait commission, but he craved more. He and his mate Nicholas Revett hitched down to Greece to really find out about the ancients and this was when James and Nick’s Excellent Adventure began…

The pair of them had a whale of a time. Their sketchbooks still exist, showing them wearing Turkish robes, pretending to be Ottoman princes, clambering over precariously crumbling ruins making measurements and delighting in Local Colour. Stuart’s sketches depict the minutiae of life – farmers toiling amongst vegetables – a friar blessing a diseased sheep – peasants escaping plague – and themselves – escaping the local law enforcement officers.

Only one of Stuart’s own textbooks still exists – carefully annotated with corrections – he clearly didn’t think much of its author, George Wheler – “It isn’t a charger (in the statue’s hand) but a shield from which he showereth down hail and tempests…” he writes. “He holdeth a conch shell,” he points out exasperated at Wheler’s erroneous description of another statue which claims “He holdeth nothing.”

On his return to England, the pair published The Antiquities of Athens, Stuart revising the work, painting the illustrations and even designing the cover. A few copies of this massive tome still exist.

He didn’t go straight from his adventures to grand design jobs. it took a while to get established, during which time he painted a backdrop for a school play – for Westminster School – and became the official portrait painter for the Society of Dilettanti (to which he and Nick had been elected some years before) but once he did, everyone (well all the nobs anyway) wanted him to design for them – everything from elegant furniture to splendidly frivolous garden temples to entire neo-classical palaces. Many of his palladian mansions have been demolished – and not that long ago – the 1960s were the worst culprits, it would seem (that’s when the grand house at Belvedere was pulled down,) but there are a few left – notably at Shugborough in Shropshire, Earl Spencer’s town gaff in Green Park and, on a different note entirely, our own chapel at Greenwich.

He had his critics – Horace Walpole described a closet at his Wimbledon Park stately home as “villainously painted” (though he later softened, describing a later offering as having a “noble, simple edifice” compared to a “harlequinnade” by Adam) but generally by this stage he could do nothing wrong.

He was given the prestigious job of Surveyor for the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich in 1758 and, after designing a few extremely ornate Admiralty Passes (sort of passports for ships – the fancier they were, the more easily British shipping passed through foreign waters) he got stuck in on the chapel. He made sure that there were lots of maritime images and impressive displays though it all got a bit damaged in a fire in 1779 after some rather raucous New Year celebrations in a tailor’s shop above the church.

He also designed a three-tier pulpit, including a clerk’s chair, reader’s desk and ‘preaching platform’ in limewood with Corinthian columns and coadestone roundels(there goes that coadestone again…) A few years ago there was a great deal of excitement when the Reverend of All Saints Church in Belvedere looked a bit more closely at the pulpit that was bought in late Victorian times for a pound and thought it was by Stuart. Sadly it’s unlikely, but you never know…

Stuart did other work in Greenwich, especially on the King’s House and the Infirmary in between flitting around the country designing architectural baubles for the aristocracy. But by this point the bohemian lifestyle of his youth was catching up with him. He had married his 16 year old maidservant in his old age and they had five children in ten years which caused a bit of a scandal, and gout from alcoholism coupled with some chaotic business practices made him unreliable. He spent much of his later life drinking and playing skittles, dying in 1788.

The exhibition at the V&A, tucked away in an upstairs back room, is as elegant as Stuart’s designs. It includes his early sketches, copies of his book, furniture and ornaments, as well as designs for and photographs of his best architectural designs. It’s well worth a look. But if you don’t make it to South Ken, a wander round the chapel in Greenwich, now beautifully restored, will lend some idea of the work of this underrated genius.


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