James Fergusson

Birth: 1808


James Fergusson (1808-1886), writer upon architecture, born at Ayr on 22 Jan. 1808, was the second son of Dr. William Fergusson (1773-1846) [q. v.] He was educated first at the Edinburgh High School, and afterwards at a private school at Hounslow to prepare him for a place in the firm of Fairlie, Fergusson, & Company, merchants, Calcutta, in which his elder brother was a partner, and with which his family had long been connected. Soon after his arrival in India at an early age he started an indigo factory on his own account, and as he fortunately left the parent firm before its failure he was able in about ten years' time to retire from business with a moderate competency, and to carry out an early resolution of devoting himself to archaeological studies.

He settled in London, and built for himself the house 20 Langham Place, W., in which he spent the remainder of his life; but his fortune was impaired by responsibility for the ultimate losses of the Calcutta firm, in which he had imprudently allowed his name to remain. His antiquarian zeal was unbounded, and he was a skilled draughtsman with the camera lucida. His last visit to India was in 1845, but already, chiefly between 1835 and 1842, he had made with remarkable energy the lengthened tours in that country which are shown in the map in his 'Picturesque Illustrations of Ancient Architecture in Hindustan,' and in the course of which he prepared the laborious and accurate measurements and drawings of Indian buildings which formed the material of his best-known works. In 1840 he was elected a member of the Royal Asiatic Society, to which, towards the close of 1843, he read a paper on 'The Rock-cut Temples of India,' published in its 'Journal,' vol. viii. He remained through life an active contributor to the 'Proceedings' of this society, of which at his death he was one of the vice-presidents.

The paper in question led to the presentation of a memorial from the council of the society to the court of directors of the East India Company, in consequence of which, much to Fergusson's satisfaction, instructions were sent for the measurement and drawing of the antiquities in the different presidencies of the country. In 1848 he read a paper on 'The Ancient Buddhist Architecture of India' to the Royal Institute of British Architects, the first of a number of papers of great value, which were afterwards published in the 'Transactions' of that body, chief among which were, in 1849, on 'The History of the Pointed Arch;' in 1850 on 'The Architecture of Southern Italy;' in 1851 on 'The Architecture of Nineveh;' in 1851 on 'The Architectural Splendour of the City of Bijapur,' and 'The Great Dome of Muhammad's Tomb, Bijapur.'

In 1849 he published 'An Historical Enquiry into the True Principles of Beauty in Art, more especially with reference to Architecture,' 8vo, London, a work which he himself described at the close of his days as his best, but of which he at the same time averred he had only sold four copies. He gave many away, however, and the book is now extremely rare. It contains the earliest exposition of many of his favorite theories, particularly that regarding the mode in which the ancient Greek temples were lighted by means of a triple roof and clerestory. The preface contains some interesting references to his education and early life, and announces the diversion of his attention to a new study. The main feature of his 'Proposed New System of Fortification,' published also in 1849, was the substitution of earthworks for masonry, and although derided at the time has now been universally adopted.

The subject was followed up by Fergusson in two pamphlets, one entitled 'The Perils of Portsmouth, or French Fleets and English Forts,' London, 8vo, 1852 (3rd ed. in 1853), and a sequel entitled 'Portsmouth Protected … with Notes on Sebastopol and other Sieges during the Present War,' London, 8vo, 1856. Most of his suggestions were appropriated without acknowledgment, but they led to his appointment in 1857 as a member of the royal commission to inquire into the defenses of the United Kingdom. Having been, along with Sir A. H. Layard, the adviser of the Crystal Palace Company in regard to the erection of the Assyrian house, afterwards destroyed by fire, he accepted early in 1856 the post of general manager of the company, which he occupied till the middle of 1858. In 1847 Fergusson had published 'An Essay on the Ancient Topography of Jerusalem.' His views are shortly stated in two remarkable articles contributed to Dr. W. Smith's 'Dictionary of the Bible' (vols. i. and ii.)

The book attracted no notice at the time; but his contention that the 'Mosque of Omer' is the identical church erected by Constantine the Great over the tomb of our Savior at Jerusalem, and that it, and not the present Church of the Holy Sepulcher, is the true burial-place of Jesus, afterwards gave rise to an important controversy. It is to his strenuous advocacy of this theory that the Palestine Exploration Fund is said to owe its origin. In 1860 he succeeded in arousing widespread interest in the subject by his 'Notes on the Site of the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem,' a pamphlet in which he confidently repeated his contention in reply to an article on 'The Churches of the Holy Land' which had shortly before appeared in the 'Edinburgh Review.'

An accurate survey of the Holy City was thereafter carried out by Captain (afterwards Colonel Sir) C. W. Wilson, R.E., at the cost of Baroness (then Miss) Burdett Coutts. The first large map of the Haram area at Jerusalem was prepared at Fergusson's own cost, and he was also ready to bear the expense of excavations, which were not permitted by the sultan. He pursued his inquiries, however, with undiminished energy, and in 1878 developed them still more fully in a large quarto volume on 'The Temples of the Jews and the other Buildings in the Haram Area at Jerusalem,' fully illustrated with plates and woodcuts.

In 1855 Fergusson published 'The Illustrated Handbook of Architecture, being a Concise and Popular Account of the different Styles of Architecture prevailing in all Ages and Countries,' 2 vols. It was followed in 1862 by one entitled 'A History of the Modern Styles of Architecture, being a sequel to the “Handbook of Architecture.”' Both were recast and published during 1865-7 in three volumes, entitled 'A History of Architecture in all Countries from the Earliest Times to the Present Day.' This is the work upon which Fergusson's fame must chiefly rest. It is the first and probably the only one of his many publications from which he received pecuniary profit. In its early form it was at once recognized as a useful manual for the student, and the accuracy of its information and the excellent illustrations render it a standard work. In 1876 he published a fourth volume on 'The History of Indian and Eastern Architecture.' In 1867 he was engaged in arranging the collection of photographs and casts for exhibition in the Indian Court of the International Exhibition held that year in Paris, and in the course of his labors came upon a collection of marbles which had been excavated in 1845 from the Amravati Tope in Gantur, and intended for the Indian Museum, but had been deposited in a disused coachhouse and forgotten.

Photographs of them were arranged in the British exhibit, and the knowledge of ancient Indian art and mythology obtained by poring over these photographs suggested a very valuable paper read by him in 1868 to the Royal Asiatic Society on the Amravati Tope, and led also to the preparation by him, under the authority of the secretary of state for India in council, of the large and valuable work entitled 'Fire and Serpent Worship; or Illustrations of Mythology and Art in India in the First and Fourth Centuries after Christ, from the Sculptures of the Buddhist Topes at Sanchi and Amravati,' which was published by the India office in the same year. Fergusson's reputation enabled his friends to succeed in creating a post for him in the office of public works and buildings, and in 1869 he was appointed secretary to the then first commissioner, Mr. A. H. Layard, on a treasury report that 'the first commissioner required the aid of an officer conversant in a high degree with architecture, in reference to questions connected with existing or contemplated buildings.'

His title was shortly afterwards changed to that of 'inspector of public buildings and monuments,' but strange to say his advice on the erection of the most important public building of the time, the new courts of justice, was not asked, and it is said that he was not even allowed to see the designs. Probably professional jealousy set him down as an amateur and a theorist. In any case he took the opportunity of a change of ministry soon afterwards to retire from his office. In 1856 Fergusson was elected by the committee a member of the Athenæum Club, and in 1871 the Institute of British Architects awarded him the royal gold medal for architecture. Wyatt, president of the institute, warmly acknowledged his merits in presenting the medal.

Fergusson's power of laborious research, and of systematizing the results of his own accurate observation and the labors of others, enabled him to invest the historical study of architecture, particularly Indian architecture, with a new interest. But he threw light on many other subjects. In 1835, while residing as a planter in Bengal, he had observed the changes, and made a sketch survey, afterwards published, of the Lower Ganges and Brahmaputra, and in 1863 he contributed to the 'Quarterly Journal' of the Geological Society, of which he was for many years an active member of council, a remarkably interesting paper on the 'Recent Changes in the Delta of the Ganges, and the Natural Laws regulating the Courses of Rivers.' He was also an active and most efficient member of the several committees engaged in the decoration of St. Paul's Cathedral. So late as 1883 he once more turned his attention to his favorite theory regarding the lighting of the Greek temples, and having prepared a large model of the Parthenon, he published 'The Parthenon: an Essay on the Mode by which Light was introduced in Greek and Roman Temples.' The subject failed apparently to attract the attention either of critics or practical men.

Fergusson fortunately had the opportunity of giving it practical shape in the gallery at Kew in which Miss North's pictures of flowers are exhibited. It is generally admitted to be one of the most successful picture galleries as regards light in the kingdom. In his articles on 'Stonehenge' in the 'Quarterly Review' for July 1860 and on 'Non-historic Times' in the same review for April 1870 he argued that these megalithic remains are of more recent date than is generally supposed; and he afterwards developed his reasons in his 'Rude Stone Monuments in all Countries, their Age and Uses.'

Although never a professional architect he was frequently consulted on architectural questions, and to the close of his life his pen was constantly employed on articles for periodicals and letters to the newspapers. His last contribution of this kind was an article in the 'Nineteenth Century' for November 1885 on 'The Restoration of Westminster Hall.' In the following month he was seized with a second attack of paralysis, to which he succumbed on 9 Jan. 1886. To those who knew him in other than an official or controversial capacity he revealed an affectionate and even tender nature. Schliemann dedicated his great work, 'Tiryns,' to Fergusson, as 'the historian of architecture, eminent alike for his knowledge of art and for the original genius which he has applied to the solution of some of its most difficult problems.'

[Times, 11 Jan. 1886; Athenæum, No. 3038, 16 Jan. 1886; Annual Register, 1886; Journal of the Royal Asiatic Soc. 1886, new ser. vol. xviii.]


George Wardlaw Burnet, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 18. pgs. 360-362

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