John Stuart, Sotheby’s expert on Russian icons
Born: 20 May, 1940, in Aberdeen Died: 12 July, 2003, in Surrey, aged 63
"HE WAS a one-off," a colleague at Sotheby’s said of John Stuart. "Hugely knowledgeable on anything to do with Russia, motor bikes or rock and roll."
Stuart had an international reputation for his encyclopaedic knowledge of Russian history and was drawn, in particular, to St Petersburg, which he had visited for many years and where he latterly kept a flat. Indeed, he was often consulted by the Hermitage about the origins of its icons and paintings. He spoke excellent Russian and had converted to the orthodox religion in his late teens.
John Spencer Innes Stuart, the son of an Aberdeenshire farmer, was a man of impeccable manners, unending courtesy - and a total inability to be punctual.
After Eton, he read Slavonic studies at St John’s College, Cambridge. He became involved with the Russian community in London in the early 1960s and met several migrs through the Russian church. It was then that he made his first trip to Moscow and was immediately enraptured with the culture, despite the depressing Soviet conditions at the time.
In 1963 he joined Sotheby’s as a porter but was rapidly promoted when the chairman was informed that he knew more about iconography than the firm’s expert. However, conforming to set working hours didn’t suit his cavalier attitude, and in 1970 he spent a year in a Moscow restorer’s workshop, while remaining with the auction house as a consultant.
As the Iron Curtain slowly disappeared, the art market opened up and Stuart was ideally placed to advise buyers in the West and curate exhibitions of contemporary Russian artists. In 1995 Sotheby’s, under his direct supervision, held an influential sale of paintings and iconography.
"Johnny must have been the greatest authority on Russian art outside Russia," James Dick, his competitor at Christie’s, said. "But there was always a spirituality and charm about his attitude to icons. He believed to appreciate icons you had to be a member of the Orthodox Church. It aided understanding them."
However, Stuart could never conform. He roared round London on his motor bikes, and delighted in wearing heavy leathers at official and grand occasions with stylish aplomb. He never drove or owned a car and, even when cancer was diagnosed, he would arrive at Sotheby’s for major sales on a beloved Triumph motor bike and de-leather himself in the reception area.
This rather glamorous lifestyle was reflected in his love of rock music. He was often in the company of pop idols and even advised the likes of Johnny Rotten and George Michael on lyrics and clothes. "He was a wonderful mimic," Dick recalled affectionately. "He could not only take off individuals but loved chattering away in Doric or Gaelic as if he was a native."
This side of Stuart’s life should not detract from his ability as a scholar. His research into some rather tawdry papers confirmed that they were the Sokolov Archive which gave details of the murder of the Imperial family in 1917. They are now in the Russian State Archives.
In 1987 Stuart was asked to advise on what was considered to be a 19th century icon. After copious research he identified it as a rare example of Byzantine iconography. It is now in the British Museum. He also curated several sales of valuable Imperial photographs.
Nothing typifies his eclectic character more than the books he wrote. In 1990 he captured his favourite city in a realistic, loving manner (St Petersburg: Portrait of an Imperial City). In 1970 he published Ikons, which remains a bible in the business. In 1987 he wrote Rockers!, an account of post-war bike culture in the UK. He also wrote the text for the praised Victoria & Albert exhibition of 1990 (Gates of Mystery) which was one of the largest iconography exhibitions in the West.
Stuart maintained a very Scottish "feel" to his London home. There, among all the Russian pictures and artefacts, were family chests, paintings and quaichs bearing old family crests. He preserved many of his family’s portraits in London and cherished his Scottish origins with a ruthless pride.