James Stuart, Chapel at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, situated in the Queen Mary Block, redisigned by Stuart after a 1779 fire, Photo © forbe5.

James Athenian Stuart: Father of Neo-Classical Design in England

James Stuart, Tripod perfume burner for Wentworth Woodhouse (Probably made by Diederich Nicolaus Anderson), 1760, Gilded bronze, cast and chased, with marble base. © Courtesy of Spencer House and the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

James Stuart, Settee for the Painted Room, Spencer House (Probably carved by Thomas Vardy), 1759-66, Carved and gilded limewood, silk damask upholstery (not original). © Courtesy of Spencer House and the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Antiquities of Athens, James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, 1762, Printed in London by John Haberkorn, Courtesy of the Library, The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture, New York.

 

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James 'Athenian' Stuart: 1713-1788:
The Rediscovery of Antiquity

March 15-June 24

The work of James "Athenian" Stuart, the influential 18th-century Neo-Classical architect best known for his interiors of Spencer House, London, is on display at the V&A this spring.

This is the first display devoted solely to the work of Stuart (1713-1788), who was known as the "Athenian" due to his key role in the development of the Neo-Classical style in England. The display will reveal his talents across the visual arts — from paintings to garden monuments and from interior decorative schemes to medals. Over 200 items drawn from private and public collections in Britain and the USA will be on display, including rarely seen sketchbooks, paintings, ornamental objects, furniture and architectural designs.

Stuart’s career paralleled that of the celebrated architect Robert Adam. His influential book Antiquities of Athens (first published 1762) was the first accurate record of Classical Greek architecture and served as a principal source book for architects and designers well into the 19th century. Inspired by antiquity, Stuart created influential buildings such as the Doric temple at Hagley (1758), the earliest Greek-revival style building in Europe.

Today Stuart is best known for his innovative interior decoration at Spencer House, St James’ Park (1756-66) — one of the few great 18th-century town houses to survive in London. Here he was responsible for the painted decorations and architectural details of Lady Spencer’s elegant private drawing room, the Great Room and the famous Painted Room. The V&A display will include some of the furniture Stuart designed for Spencer House together with the original designs for the rooms and specially commissioned photographs of the complete interior schemes.

Dr. Susan Weber Soros, Director of the Bard Graduate Center, New York and curator of the display, said: “James Stuart was one of Britain’s most important architects and designers of the 18th century. He saw the ancient world with fresh eyes. By taking ancient design details and adapting them to modern customs and homes he played a central role in the development of the Neo-Classical style. This display will reveal Stuart’s scholarship, creativity and versatility.”

Stuart and James Revett started work on Antiquities of Athens when they returned to London in 1755, after their journey to Greece. The first volume was published in 1762. It contained details of just five buildings in the northern part of Athens, but more were promised in further volumes.

The first volume had more than five hundred subscribers. Few of the subscribers were architects or builders, which limited the impact of the work as a design sourcebook. It was, however, well received by scholars, antiquaries and gentleman amateurs.

The presentation binding that Stuart designed for Antiquities of Athens had a Neo-classical design. Stuart's binding inspired architect Robert Adam to design similar presentation bindings for his work on the antiquities of Spalatro.

Antiquities of Athens helped shape the European understanding of ancient Greece. It brought an entirely new design vocabulary to 18th-century European architecture and design, and later became an essential sourcebook for the 19th-century Greek Revival.

Stuart created two designs for the end walls of a state room, which may be two variations of designs for the same wall. One recess contains a portrait of Curzon, the owner of the Kedleston estate, and his wife. They are positioned above a Neo-classical sideboard table which is flanked by scroll-footed pedestals with griffins, which were a prototype of Stuart's later designs for torchères at Spencer House.

In the second wall design, Stuart depicted a temple-like structure, possibly intended to be an organ case with a canopy. Stuart must have meant to complete the central painting himself, as the figures of Bacchus and the lion and attendants were taken from the frieze of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, Athens.

 

James Stuart, Armchair for the Painted Room, Spencer House, London, 1759-1766. Probably carved by Thomas Vardy. Carved and gilt limewood, silk damask upholstery (not original). © Courtesy of Spencer House and the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum.