James Fergusson (architect)

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James Fergusson (22 January 1808 – 9 January 1886) was a Scottish architectural historian, mainly remembered for his interest in Indian historical architecture and antiquities. He was an important figure in the 19th century rediscovery of ancient India. He was originally a businessman, and though not formally trained as an architect, designed some buildings and decorative schemes.

Fergusson was born at Ayr, the son of William Fergusson (1773–1846) an army surgeon. After being educated first at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and then at a private school in Hounslow, he went to Calcutta as a partner in a mercantile house. Here he became interested in the remains of the ancient architecture of India, little known or understood at that time. The successful conduct of an indigo factory, as he states in his own account, enabled him to retire from business after about ten years and settle in London. His observations on Indian architecture were first published in his book on The Rock-cut Temples of India, published in 1845.

 

The task of analysing the historic and aesthetic relations of this type of ancient buildings led him further to undertake a historical and critical comparative survey of the whole subject of architecture in The Handbook of Architecture, a work which first appeared in 1855. This did not satisfy him, and the work was reissued ten years later in a much more extended form under the title of The History of Architecture.

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The chapters on Indian architecture, which had been considered at rather disproportionate length in the Handbook, were removed from the general History, and the whole of this subject treated more fully in a separate volume, The History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, which appeared in 1876, and, although complete in itself, formed a kind of appendix to The History of Architecture. Previously to this, in 1862, he issued his History of Modern Architecture, in which the subject was continued from the Renaissance to the present day, the period of modern architecture being distinguished as that of revivals and imitations of ancient styles, which began with the Renaissance.

Fergusson was the first clearly to point out and characterise the essential difference between this and the spontaneously evolved architecture of preceding ages his treatise on The True Principles of Beauty in Art, an early publication, is a most thoughtful metaphysical study. Some of his essays on special points in archaeology, such as the treatise on The Mode in which Light was introduced into Greek Temples, included theories on Greek Temples which have not received general acceptance

He received the gold medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1871. Among his works, besides those already mentioned, are: A Proposed New System of Fortification (1849), Palaces of Nineveh and Persepolis restored (1851), Mausoleum at Halicarnassus restored (1862), Tree and Serpent Wo

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rship (1868), Rude Stone Monuments in all Countries (1872), and The Temples of the Jews and the other Buildings in the Haram Area at Jerusalem (1878). The sessional papers of the Institute of British Architects include papers by him on The History of the Pointed Arch, Architecture of Southern India, and Architectural Splendour of the City of Beeja pore, on the Erechtheum and on the Temple of Diana at Ephesus

Although not a prolific practising architect, a small number of examples of Fergusson’s architecture remain in existence, the most notable of which are the parliament building of Jamaica, and the Marianne North Gallery in Kew Gardens.

 

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Fergusson took a keen interest in all the professional work of his time. He was adviser with Austen Henry Layard in the scheme of decoration for the Assyrian court at The Crystal Palace, and in 1856 assumed the duties of general manager to the Crystal Palace Company, a post which he held for two years. In 1866 he was a member of a committee to advise Henry Scott on design aspects of the Royal Albert Hall, along with architects William Tite and Matthew Digby Wyatt, and the engineers John Hawkshaw and John Fowler.

In 1847 Fergusson published an Essay on the Ancient Topography of Jerusalem, in which he contended that the Mosque of Omar was the identical church built by Constantine the Great over the tomb of our Lord at Jerusalem, and that it, and not the present church of the Holy Sepulchre, was the genuine burial-place of Jesus. The burden of this contention was further explained by the publication in 1860 of his Notes on the Site of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem; and The Temples of the Jews and the other Buildings in the Haram Area at Jerusalem, published in 1878, which was a further elaboration of these theories, which are said to have been the origin of the establishment of the Palestine Exploration Fund.

His manifold activities continued till his death in London on 9 January 1886.  He is buried in Highgate Cemetary, London.

References – Kew staff (30 November 2004) “The Marianne North Gallery”. Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

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