Tuesday, March 27, 2007

James Athenian Stuart at the V&A

Engraving and detail: The Tower of the Winds, Athens, built in 50BC, engraving from Stuart and Revett's Antiquities of Athens 1762, octagonal stone town weather station incorporating a water clock, weathervane in the form of the god Triton, sundials, and depictions of eight wind gods (detail). This engraving was the inspiration for many Greek Revival buildings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. [Pic Steedman

Above: The Temple of the Winds, Mount Stewart, Co. Down by James Stuart, 1782-3, plasterwork by William Fitzgerald, marquetry floor by John Ferguson, one of Stuart's last garden buildings, for Robert Stewart, later 1st Marquis of Londonderry. [Photo: National Trust © NTPL

Below: Fabulous gilt and black metal open-backed vase, for an unknown use at Kedleston Hall, Derby, possibly a plate warmer, probably by James Stuart 1760, made by Diederich Nicolaus Anderson. Patinated copper, with applied ormolu ornament and stained wood base [Photo: National Trust © NTPL / Bruce White and Nadia Mackenzie]

London UK - THE Victoria and Albert Museum in London is showing a New York exhibition organised by Susan Soros on the artist, architect and designer James Athenian Stuart, 1713-1788. The free exhibition is on until 24 June. There is a Greek revival study day on 9 June with talks by Susan Soros, Charles Hind on Greek models, Julius Bryant on Stuart and Adam: Greek v Roman, and Frances Collard on Thomas Hope, and a video about Stuart's interiors at Spencer House in London.

This exhibition covers Stuart's work documenting the ruins of Athens in 1750-1753 and when he got back to England publishing a four volume set of the Antiquities of Athens, of which the first volume appeared in 1762 to huge acclaim but the final volume did not appear until 1816 long after Stuart had died.

In short, he was born into a poor London family, worked as a fan painter, and then spent 10 years travelling, walked from London to Rome making a living painting portraits. In Rome he was adopted by the dilletanti and escorted tourists such as Gavin Hamilton and Lord Burlington to the newly discovered remains of Pompeii at Naples. He then struck out for Athens with architect Nicholas Revett, was nearly murdered in Turkey, and was employed as an army campaign engineer by the Queen of Hungary. On his return he obtained a sinecure restoring the Greenwich hospital which had been damaged by fire, and undertook a few commissions to decorate houses and gardens, not many of which survive.

The Greek revival was tacked on to the neo-Palladian Georgian architectural style, represented in particular by the Doric - considered both in Greek and Georgian times to be a masculine style compared to female Ionic and youthful Corinthian. The iconography of the Greek revival, if there was one, is not touched upon at this exhibition. Greek art epitomized what Georgians such as Alexander Pope thought were the antique qualities of calm, simplicity and noble grandeur.

A criticism of this exhibition could be that it does not delve into Greek revival iconography, specifically Stuart's interpretation, but instead concentrates on patronage and an art-for-arts-sake theme, which seems out of place, more akin to the Aesthetic movement decades later. Susan Soros, founded the Bard Decorative Arts Centre in New York, and knows all about patronage. Her billionaire ex-husband George Soros is a great patron. (He also famously made $10 billion out of British taxpayers by currency speculation during the ERM debacle in 1992.)

The art movement that grew out of the publication of Stuart's books, or perhaps whose books were a reflection of an already growing awareness, was neoclassicism. Neoclassicism was art of an ideal. Artists did not copy it in lifeless reproduction, but imbued with its essence created new classically-inspired works. The high artistic standards meant that art was generally not mediocre, and gaffes of taste and failures of craftsmanship are not common neoclassical failings. Novelty, improvisation, self-expression, and blinding inspiration are not neoclassical virtues; neoclassicism exhibits perfect control of an idiom.

It is easy to forget that Stuart, whose influence stretched well into the nineteenth century, was using baroque craftspeople. He used Peter Scheemakers, father and son, for carving his chimneypieces, baroque and rococo stuccadores, and Georgian carpenters and masons. Mistakes were made, including the pediment under pediment or portico, which is baroque not neoclassical, but the exhibition glosses over these.

No event that ever occurred in the history of architecture in England, and thence throughout all Europe, produced so sudden, decided and beneficial effect as did the works of James Stuart. It surprised and delighted the learned and admirers of art; the majestic grandeur and simplicity of form exhibited in the general outline of its beautiful temples, and the exquisite purity and elegance of detail shown in all the profiles of his mouldings fascinated the eye of taste. The natural form proved how pure was the taste of the Athenians . . . unlike the Romans, there were no pediments under pediments, or under porticoes, or in the interior of buildings - to which absurdities the Romans were so partial, as to draw down the rebuke of Cicero, that his countrymen were so fond of pediments, that if they had to erect a temple in Olympus they would cover it with a roof and decorate it with pediments [Architects Journal 1847]

James Athenian Stuart at the V&A

Whoops . . . pediments under a pediment at Lichfield House, 15 St James's Square, London, by James Stuart 1764-6, built for Thomas Anson, Earl of Lichfield. Stuart called the capitals on the facade 'the greatest grace and ornament of the building'. They were copies of the capitals of the portico of Minerva Polias in Athens. This was the first time the Greek Ionic order had been used in a London building.