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Fergusson, James


Fergusson, James (1808-1886) was a Scottish writer on architecture, an architectural historian in Britain, the author of some great works on the history of world architecture no less than thirty years earlier than Banister Fletcher's famous 'A History of Architecture'. He was compared to Vitruvius in Roman age in recognition of his deep thinking about architecture and a large number of well-read writings. James Fergusson was also the first among the art-historian to have studied Indian Architecture by analysing the style and distinct characteristics of individual groups of buildings and correlating these to the dated examples.

James Fergusson

Fergusson was born at Ayr, in Scotland on 22 January 1808. He was the son of an army surgeon (Doctor). After being educated first at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and afterwards at a private school at Hounslow, James went to Calcutta as an employer in the firm of Fairlie, Fergusson and Co (a mercantile house), in which his elder brother was a partner. During this period he was attracted by the remains of the ancient architecture of India, little known or understood at that time. The successful conduct of an indigo factory, his scholarly bent of mind and keen sense of observation is revealed in his studies of the Deltaic Changes of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, which he subsequently recorded in the Quarterly Journal of the Geographical Society (August 1863). Simultaneously he also started an independent house of business in Calcutta with his brother William.

This opportunity opened the door to him and he toured India extensively between the year 1835 and 1845 with a view to study the ancient architecture. During this period he traveled in remote places of the country and took detailed notes of each of the monument he visited. Furgusson's approach was marked by an objectivity since his published works are more or less an accurately reproduction in print of the field-note he took during his stopover in India. He reproach his countrymen for having so long processed that noble country and done so little to exemplify its history or antiquities, a fact which resulted in the Court of Directors of the East-India Company to employ competent persons to study and record the antiquities of India.

For the first time Furgusson introduced in the study of Indian architecture an approach based on typological analysis of the structures and fixing up the chronology on the basis of the dated ones. The observations made on Indian architecture were first embodied in his book on The Rock-cut Temples of India, which 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, that was edited by George Kriehn in 1910.

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.

The essential difference between this and the spontaneously evolved architecture of preceding ages Fergusson was the first clearly to point out and characterise. 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. His real monument is his History of Architecture (later edition revised by R. Phen Spiers), which, for grasp of the whole subject, comprehensiveness of plan, and thoughtful critical analysis, stands quite alone in architectural literature.

He received the gold medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1871. Among his works, besides those already mentioned, are: The sessional papers of the Institute of British Architects include papers by him on The History of the Pointed Arch, Architecture of Southern India, a study of Indian Mythology and Art in the early centuries of the Christian era, Architecture of southern India and medieval Muslim monuments of Bijapur, Architectural Splendour of the City of Beejapore, etc. In his Tree and Serpent Worship (1868), he analysed of Buddhist remains at Sanchi and Amaravati. In his Rude Stone Monuments of Many Lands (1872), he stated that the megalithic monuments of India are 'historic' rather than 'prehistoric'. It was also under Fergusson's supervision that the various works of Indian art were exhibited at the Indian Court of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham and the Exposition International at Paris in 1861. Fergusson's feeling regarding Indian antiquities, according his version; '...India is a cosmos in itself ... Every problem ... can be studied here more easily than anywhere else; every art has its living representatives'.

Although a creative architect of his day, only 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. 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 indeed assumed in 1856 the duties of general manager to the 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 M D Wyatt and engineers John Hawkshaw and John Fowler.

Fergusson's contributions to Indian studies can be equated to the pioneering works of Alexander Cunningham. He was his contemporary and associate. His manifold activities continued till his death, which took place in London on 9 January 1886 and was buried at Highgate cemetery. [Nasrin Akhter]

Bibliography CE Buckland, Dictionary of Indian biography; Classic Encyclopedia, Based on the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (pub. 1911); James Fergusson, History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, London, 1910; JW Cousin, A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature.