A key figure in the emergence of neo-classicism in the 18th century, James ‘Athenian’ Stuart was apprenticed as a child to a London fan painter. In 1742 at the age of 29 he set out on foot for Italy – no Grand Tour for this impoverished young man – and once there worked as both a painter and a guide to antiquities. At some point he met the affluent Suffolk gentleman Nicholas Revett and in 1748 the two men, together with painter Gavin Hamilton and architect Matthew Brettingham visited Naples in order to study Greek monuments in that part of the country.
As a result of their Neapolitan excursion, Stuart and Revett determined to travel to Greece to measure and record some of that country’s antiquities; while detailed scholarly studies of Roman ruins had already been undertaken, no equivalent work existed for Greek remains. The pair sought funds to undertake a “new and accurate description of the Antiquities &c. in the Province of Attica.” Under the auspices of the Society of Dilettanti and with donations from other patrons, in 1751 Stuart and Revett set off for Greece – then part of the Ottoman Empire – and remained there for several years during which they took accurate measurements and made drawings of various ancient buildings examined.
Although Stuart and Revett returned to London in 1755, it was only seven years later that the first of their influential five-volume Antiquities of Athens and Other Monuments of Greece appeared. Among the buildings included in this work was the Tower of the Winds or Horologium in Athens. Erected around 100-50 B.C. by Andronicus of Cyrrhus to measure time, it is an octagonal structure 42 feet high and 26 feet wide; each of the building’s eight sides faces a point of the compass and was decorated with a frieze representing a different wind deity and a sundial below. Originally the roof was topped with a weather vane in the form of a bronze triton while the interior contained a water clock to record time when the sun was not shining. By the mid-18th century only half the tower was above ground and in order to produce accurate drawings Stuart and Revett had to organise for a fifteen-feet deep trench to be dug, and for a further seven feet of debris to be removed from its interior, then being used by whirling dervishes.
The ancient Tower of the Winds in Athens was the inspiration for two garden buildings designed by Stuart, the first a Temple of the Winds completed in 1765 at Shugborough, Staffordshire and originally surrounded by an ornamental lake. Almost twenty years later Stuart revisited the concept to create another Temple of the Winds, this time at Mount Stewart, County Down for Robert Stewart, future first Marquess of Londonderry. As their surname indicates, the Stewarts were a Scottish settler family; their wealth was immeasurably increased when Robert’s father married Mary Cowan, an heiress with shares in the East India Company. It was her money that paid for the purchase of the Mount Stewart estate overlooking Strangford Lough. The site chosen for Stuart’s Temple of the Winds is at the top of a rise in the parkland, and offers sweeping views across the lough and towards the Mourne Mountains.
Stuart, who died only a couple of years after the building’s completion, never visited Ireland to see his design put into effect. Nevertheless the quality of workmanship throughout is flawless. Mount Stewart’s Temple of the Winds owes much of its inspiration to the Athens original but is not an exact copy (see the gouache of that building made by Stuart while still in Greece). Faced in local Scrabo sandstone, it does not have a frieze running around the upper walls, and the side porticos are not pedimented but have balustrades or viewing platforms to take advantage of the views. To the rear, as at Shugborough, there is a domed three-quarter-round extension holding a spiral staircase. The interior is of three storeys: a basement for services; a relatively plain ground floor reception room; and, the real glory of the building, a saloon or banqueting hall on the first floor. Every detail of this space is superlatively decorated, from the marble chimneypiece supplied by London carver John Adair through the low relief plasterwork ceiling by Dublin stuccadore William Fitzgerald to the complementarily decorated marquetry floor composed of mahogany, walnut, sycamore, box and bog oak: the result is a room of restrained sumptuosity. In the care of the National Trust for the past half-century, the Temple of the Winds is without question one of the most perfect small buildings in Ireland.