James 'Athenian' Stuart is best known for his work with Nicholas Revett, measuring the antiquities of Athens in the early 1750s. But a recent retrospective organized by the Bard Graduate Center and the Victoria and Albert Museum revealed the range of Stuart's talent as an engraver, architect, furniture designer, and painter. (1) One of the most frustrating problems facing the curators of this exhibition - and Stuart scholars in general--is the paucity of records relating to Stuart's career. Because of this, it is difficult to identify his commissions, which from the known examples, must have been of high quality. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Stuart's work as a portraitist.
Stuart's skill as a portraitist is not well studied, probably because of the lack of surviving examples of his work, and evidence from the 18th century as to his ability is mixed. On the one hand was Thomas Jenkins's 1761 observation to Henry Hoare that Stuart was 'a man that has not succeeded in his first attempts as a Painter and not being able to get up at others may Indeavor to pull them [other artists] down to him'. (2) Jenkins's comment must be taken with a grain of salt considering the fact that he was a competitor with Stuart. In fact, Stuart's emphasis on Greek antiquities was a real threat to Jenkins's business as a dealer in Roman antiquities. Opposing Jenkins's pronouncement on Stuart's skill was Stuart's appointment as the Painter to the Society of Dilettanti in 1763. (3) Stuart succeeded George Knapton, and the group required that he continue Knapton's series of KitCat style portraits. The Society of Dilettanti's appointment of Stuart was an implicit recognition of Stuart's skill by a group of self-professed connoisseurs, although, in the end, Stuart never completed a single Dilettanti portrait.
There are only three known surviving examples of portraits by James Stuart. The first is a Self-portrait as a youth at the Royal Institute of British Architects. The second, at the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow, is of James Lee, a merchant, whom Stuart painted during a short stay in Smyrna during 1753. (4) Stuart also painted a portrait of Nathaniel Lee, James's brother, but this is lost. A third surviving example of Stuart's work is a mezzotint engraving after Stuart by James McArdell. The engraving is a half-length portrait of James Dawkins, a Jamaican plantation owner and patron of Stuart and Revett (Pl 1)...