Obituary: John Stuart ; Scholar of Icon Painting and Expert on Russian History

By Samarine, Ivan | The Independent (London, England), July 22, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: John Stuart ; Scholar of Icon Painting and Expert on Russian History

Samarine, Ivan, The Independent (London, England)

JOHN STUART was a leading scholar of icon painting with an international reputation, and an expert on all aspects of Russian history and culture. He was a man with an intensely developed visual sense, which he brought to bear not only in his chosen field of scholarship, but in every part of his life, from his greatly admired London house to his passion for British bikes, leather jackets and the glamour of rock'n'roll.

He was born in Scotland and educated at Eton. Passionate about art and drawn to spirituality from boyhood, he converted to Russian Orthodoxy at the age of 18, and introduced himself to the small emigre community in London, one of whom, Count Kleinmichel, became his godfather. He went on to St John's, Cambridge, where he read Slavonic Studies under Dr Nicolai Andreyev, the former head of the Kondakov Institute in Prague, a pre-war bastion of Russian emigre thought and culture. His first trip to Russia was in the mid-1960s with his friend Camilla Gray, who was researching her ground- breaking book on the Russian avant-garde. In 1970 he spent a year working in the Grabar Central State Restoration Workshop for Medieval Painting in Moscow studying under the great Adolf Ovchinnikov, its leading restorer.

In 1963 Stuart joined Sotheby's as a porter, and owed his quick promotion to expert status to the legendary Russian collector George Costakis who, in a meeting with Peter Wilson, the then Sotheby's chairman, informed him that the porter in the icon department seemed to know a great deal more about icons than their expert of the time. But timetables and deadlines were not his greatest strength, and Stuart quickly came to grief when a catalogue of important Russian silver only came out a day before the sale, instead of the usual month.

From then on, he took the role of consultant, and from the late 1980s until 1995, the exciting period when Russian clients appeared on the international market for the first time, he oversaw every aspect of the Sotheby's Russian sales. In 1995, after overseeing undoubtedly the finest sale of Russian paintings and works of art ever held anywhere, he left Sotheby's to set up a private art consultancy business and to concentrate on his life's work, a mammoth overview of East Christian painting that will be published in the near future.

His first book, Ikons, published in 1975, remains to this day the best overview of icon painting in English. He also wrote Rockers! (1987), the definitive text on post-war British bike culture, St Petersburg, Portrait of an Imperial City (1990), contributed to numerous publications on Russian art and culture, co-curated the icon exhibition "Gates of Mystery" at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 1990, and advised the same museum, as well as lending exhibits, for their "British Street Style" exhibition a few years later.

It was in 1988 that he asked me to join him at Sotheby's. It was my first "proper" job, and it did not take long to understand what a privilege it was to be working with him. In a few weeks he redirected my entire understanding of history, art and above all quality, and made me rediscover an enthusiasm for applied learning that I had completely lost at university. Like all good teachers, he inspired loyalty and a sense of mission in his pupil. In the world of the Russian market he towered above everybody else in his knowledge and passion for his subject, and he shared this willingly with everybody.

But he was also a glamorous figure, a rebel-scholar, whose arrival in Conduit Street was heralded by the roar and backfire of his Triumph bike, whose telephone book contained the line: "Johnny Rotten: (Mum's number)", and who just because he was Johnny Stuart could get away with wearing motorcycle leathers when everybody else was in a suit and tie. He would dictate a footnote on Hesychasm and 14th-century Byzantine theology, and then answer the telephone and advise George Michael or the Stray Cats on what they should wear for their next video.

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Obituary: John Stuart ; Scholar of Icon Painting and Expert on Russian History


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