John Stuart

Scholar of icon painting and expert on Russian history
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The Independent Online

John Spencer Innes Stuart, Russian scholar and writer: born Aberdeen 20 May 1940; died Ockley, Surrey 12 July 2003.

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 émigré 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 émigré 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.

During these years he made many important discoveries; a parcel of dog-eared papers that appeared on his desk in 1990 turned out to be the long lost "Sokolov Archive", evidence collected at the scene of the crime of the murder of the Imperial Family lost since the 1920s. Stuart's sale catalogue made headlines in Russia, which was going through perestroika, and the archive is now in the Russian State Archive. A small panel believed by the owner to be a Russian 19th-century icon was identified by him as the only known Byzantine depiction of the Triumph of Orthodoxy (the defeat of iconoclasm) and was then acquired by the British Museum. With his uncanny ability to identify everybody, he single-handedly created a market for Imperial photographs; a sale of the personal albums of Grand Duchess Xenia, sister of the last Emperor, was widely written about in the press at the time and sold for many times its pre-sale estimate thanks to his expert cataloguing.

History was alive for John Stuart; he read memoirs avidly, collected portraits and had a personal relationship with his favourite historical figures. He often started anecdotes with the words "of course, I remember when the beautiful Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna . . ." and it soon became clear that he was "remembering" things that had happened a century ago. Once, when interrupted in one of these reminiscences by someone who questioned whether he could really have witnessed these events, he irritatedly started remembering things that happened in the 18th century. He hated historical cliché and inaccuracy; the common perception of Rasputin, for instance, was one of his bêtes noires; a sure way to make him cross was to hum Boney M's song, and the lines ". . . lover of the Russian queen". He was not her lover, nor was she a queen.

In museums in Soviet times, when Imperial portraits were mysteriously labelled if they were labelled at all, he used to cause consternation amongst the curators and guards by identifying all the sitters loudly by name; worse, he used to point out buildings, and even rooms within buildings, and talk about their former inhabitants as if they were still there. But it was for this reason that he made so many friends in Russia, intellectuals and artists who were bowled over by this handsome, long-haired English gentleman who knew so much about their country, and who was not even slightly taken in by the drab fellow-traveller-ism that submerged so many foreign Russophiles. Mstislav Rostropovich, in an eloquent tribute to John Stuart, remarked that his knowledge of Russian culture was such that he often wondered whether it was not a Russian heart that was beating in his chest.

He spoke many languages, and was an expert mimic, which allowed him to give the impression that he spoke a language when in fact he did not, often with unexpected results. Like a piece of linguistic blotting paper, he would absorb his interlocutor's intonations, accent, and even grammatical mistakes. When you met John, it was always obvious from his voice whom he had just been talking to. He had an extremely wide circle of friends, and his glamorous parties would see Romanov Grand Duchesses rub shoulders with members of the Clash.

He loved Coronation Street, daytime TV adverts (especially ones where unfortunates received money unexpectedly just by ringing a telephone number) and the idiotic tunes of children's TV. In many ways he was an innocent in the modern technological world: he never knew what day or even month it was, and I quickly understood that his timekeeping was a sort of code: "half hour" (for some reason in a German accent) meant sometime in the future, possibly today; a "quick lie-down" would mean that you would probably not see him again until the morning. Just as time outside of John Stuart was a meaningless measure, so inside him he preserved a child-like quality, a spiritual simplicity and directness that was all-conquering.

On a crowded aeroplane he once gave up his seat to a lady, and made as if to stand, bus-style, at the back of the plane: he was quickly ushered into first class. In general, he had to be shepherded around airports; on his own he more than once ended up in queues that would have taken him to Cairo when his destination was St Petersburg, and once he was found in the right seat but on the wrong aeroplane. And during his final illness, he told with relish of a visit from the hospital psychiatrist who asked him what the highest mountain in the world was, and to subtract seven from 100. He thought he got one of the questions right. He was the finest and most brilliant man.

Ivan Samarine

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