Basic Biographical Details

Name: James Stuart
Designation: Architect
Born: 1713
Died: 2 February 1788
Bio Notes: James Stuart was born at Creed Lane, London in 1813, the son of a Scottish mariner who died when he was a boy, leaving the family in straightened circumstances. To make ends meet, the young James took a job as a fan painter. He also studied mathematics, geometry and anatomy at the same time. He became a fine draughtsman and water-colourist. He also taught himself Latin and Greek.

After the death of his mother when his brother and sister were gainfully employed he fulfilled a long-held ambition of visiting Rome. He travelled to Rome in 1742 mainly on foot and took jobs along the way. When in Rome he acquired a reputation for being a good judge of pictures and probably acted as a guide as well. He made drawings of the obelisk which had been found in the Campius Martius. These were published by Bandini in his treatise entitled ‘De Obelisco Caesaris Augusti’ in 1750. This contained an appendix which took the form of a letter by Stuart to Charles Wentworth, Earl of Malton, later to become an influential patron.

In 1748 he had accompanied Gavin Hamilton, Nicholas Revett and Matthew Brettingham to Naples during which the plan to visit Athens was formed and to publish a description of the antiquities. They drew up their scheme as ‘Proposals for Publishing an Accurate Description of the Antiquities of Athens’. They left Rome in 1750 travelling to Venice where they became acquainted with a member of the Society of Dilettanti. They were elected to the Society and the Society published their proposals in London. The members subscribed to the proposed publication.

They embarked for Athens on 19 January 1751. Greece was potentially a dangerous place. The Turkish garrison was stationed on the southern ridge of the Acropolis and everywhere they aroused suspicion. However their access to the monuments and their stay in Athens was made easier because of the protection of James Porter, Ambassador at Constantinople. Nevertheless Stuart was forced to leave Athens during riots that followed the death of the chief of the black eunuchs. He met up with Revett again in Salonika and they toured the Aegean islands. They were unable to return to Athens because of an outbreak of the plague and returned to London in 1755 although some of the major monuments had not yet been properly surveyed.

Stuart and Revett were compelled to alter the contents of their book because it omitted the major monuments on the Acropolis. Instead it illustrated smaller monuments, mainly Hellenistic, reserving the larger buildings for the second volume (which appeared many years later). The first volume was published in 1762 and became a prime source book for the Greek Revival. It was published as ‘The Antiquities of Athens measured and delineated by James Stuart, FRS and FSA and Nicolas Revett, Painters and Architects. It was immediately recognised as a work architectural scholarship. However Stuart did not see himself as the leader of a new architectural style and his work had little immediate effect on contemporary architecture. It was only much later in the 19th century that the promoters of the style used the book to give it a respectable ancestry. The publication of the first book had been delayed while Stuart re-wrote the text to expose errors in Le Roy’s rival publication ‘Les Ruines des plus beaux Monuments de la Grèce’ in 1758. This and other matters caused a rift between Stuart and Revett; Stuart then bought out Revett’s share, although it was the latter that made the measured drawings.

The publication of the book resulted in Stuart obtaining more commissions as an architect and painter than he could handle. He had been appointed surveyor to Greenwich Hospital in 1758. In 1763 he was appointed painter to the Society of Dilettanti. He was instructed to paint portraits of members but failed to do so and was superseded by Reynolds. In 1764 he succeeded Hogarth as Sergeant Painter to the Office of Works. Josiah Wedgwood consulted him frequently. He was regarded as an arbiter of taste.

Stuart had received no conventional architectural training and seems to have relied on others to make working drawings. He obtained a reputation as a designer of neo-classical interiors but he was not business-like in running a practice. Many clients (who were mainly members of the Society of Dilettanti) complained about this and at Greenwich it is clear that his conduct was unsatisfactory. He seems to have preferred an easy and sociable life rather than applying himself to the rigours of an architectural practice. However two early commissions are noteworthy. In the garden temple designed for George Lyttleton ay Hagley Park (1759-61) he used the fluted baseless columns of the Greek Doric order, their first use since antiquity. Likewise at Shugborough (1760s) he designed various garden buildings in different styles for Thomas Anson, a founder member of the Society of Dilettanti including a version of the choragic monument of Lysicrates.

Although features of Greek derivation are to be found in Stuart’s interior work, he drew widely on a variety of ancient sources: Greek and Palmyran ornament as well as elements from ancient and Renaissance Rome. At Spencer House the decoration of the Great Room and the Painted Room drew from a vast range of sources, in particular the ancient Roman grotesque type of decoration which had been revived by Raphael and Vasari.

Stuart made a series of designs for interiors at Kedleston (begun about 1757) which Robert Adam described as ‘ridiculously bad’. However when Adam supplanted Stuart at Kedleston, he borrowed much from Stuart’s designs. The success of the Adam brothers was partly the result of Stuart and Revett’s failure to capitalise on what they had begun. A commission which was highly regarded at the time was the free-standing mansion for Mrs Montagu in Portman Square in London. At the time it excited so much interest that she arranged for it to be opened to the public by ticket. The plan was original: five intercommunicating rooms opened off the stair with separate private apartments with separate staircase for the client. However by 1780s Stuart’s indolence and drinking habits meant that it was completed to the designs of Joseph Bonomi.

Apart from his architectural practice, limited mainly to interiors and garden buildings Stuart designed furniture, medals and many monuments of which there is one example in Scotland.

The second volume of ‘Antiquities’ (dated 1787) was further delayed by his death on 2 February 1788. It eventually appeared in January 1790 and was published by Stuart’s widow. He also left material for a third volume which appeared in 1795 and a fourth which comprised miscellaneous drawings, mainly those of the Roman antiquities at Pola which appeared in 1816. A final volume appeared in 1830, edited by Charles Robert Cockerell.

Stuart married twice, first to a lady who was described as his ‘housekeeper’ and ‘a Grecian lady’ and second at the age of sixty-seven to a woman aged 20 by whom he had five children. He was well off at his death, his rather indolent habits sustained by this private fortune, based on mortgages on new buildings in Marylebone.

There are numerous portraits of Stuart including those of Stuart and his second wife in the National Portrait Gallery. There is a self-portrait in the RIBA drawings collection.

A selection of bibliographical references are included below.

Buildings and Designs

This architect was involved with the following buildings or structures from the date specified (click on an item to view details):
 Date startedBuilding nameTown, district or villageIslandCity or countyCountryNotes
Item 1 of 11776Greyfriars Churchyard, Monument to Lady Catherine Drummond  EdinburghScotland 


Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this architect:
Item 1 of 7APSD The Dictionary of Architectureed Wyatt PapworthThe Architectural Publication Society (8v 1852-1892) 
Item 2 of 7Colvin, Howard2008A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840 London: YUP. 4th edition 
Item 3 of 7Harris, Eileen1990British Architectural Books and Writers 1556-1785  pp439-50
Item 4 of 7New DNB New Dictionary of National Biography  Article by David Watkin
Item 5 of 7Soros, Susan (ed.)2006James 'Athenian' Stuart: The Rediscovery of Antiquity New York 
Item 6 of 7Stuart, James1816Antiquities of Athens  Memoir prefixed to volume iv of this edition
Item 7 of 7Watkin, David1982Athenian Stuart   

Periodical References

The following periodicals contain references to this architect:
 Periodical NameDateEditionPublisherNotes
Item 1 of 3European Magazine1788xiii pp68, 143, 284
Item 2 of 3European Magazine1804xlvi p369. Account of escape of Stuart.
Item 3 of 3Gentleman's Magazine1788i pp95-6 Obituary

Archive References

The following archives hold material relating to this architect:
 SourceArchive NameSource Catalogue No.Notes
Item 1 of 2Pierpont Morgan LibraryDrawings of decorative designs by Stuart  
Item 2 of 2RIBA Archive, Victoria & Albert MuseumRIBA Drawings Collection