Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/May 1887/Sketch of James Fergusson


MR. JAMES FERGUSSON, writer on architecture and its history, who died January 9, 1886, was distinguished for the diligence with which he prosecuted his researches, and for the originality of his conclusions. Although the subject to which he chiefly directed his attention is usually classed among the arts rather than the sciences, he brought so philosophical a spirit to its study; so prominently regarded it in its archaeological and anthropological aspect, and so combined with the questions which it raised those which relate to the development of human civilization; and so faithfully in all his work upon it strove, as he expresses the thought, to raise its study from the "dry details of measurements to the dignity of an historical science," that he may well be considered entitled to a place among scientific men.

Mr. Fergusson was born at Ayr, in Scotland, in 1808, the son of an army-surgeon, who had seen active service abroad, "who had a liking for engineering as applied to architecture," and who wrote on the construction of hospitals. He was taught in the High School at Edinburgh and in a private school at Hounslow, and became a resident of England by the removal of his father to Windsor. When he had reached an age to start out for himself, he went to India, with a determination to work steadily in business for ten years, and then to retire with such fortune as he might have been able to make. He associated himself with a mercantile house in Calcutta, from which he withdrew his interest in time to escape being involved in its failure, and afterward, having filled for a short time two or three administrative positions, became an indigo-planter in Bengal.

He had, however, already developed a high interest in art, and found in India an attractive field, and novel in many of its features, for the cultivation of this taste and the increase of his knowledge. He made a thorough exploration of the whole peninsula, traveling, for the most part, on camel-back, and armed with a camera lucida, with which he was an expert draughtsman. His attention was directed early to the rock-cut temples of Ajunta, Ellora, and other places. "His perspicacity," says a critic of his life in the "Athæneum," "soon guided him to a true explanation of the origin and character of these remains, his familiarity with Indian life and modes of worship gave insight as to the intentions of the excavators, and large comparisons enabled him to decide on the positive as well as the relative ages of these astonishing works. ... In effect, the first fruit of his researches was a denial that the temples were architectural at all in the ordinary sense of that term." His first publication of the results of these studies was the "Illustrations of the Rock-cut Temples of India," which appeared in 1845. It was followed, in 1847, by "Picturesque Illustrations of Ancient Architecture in Hindostan," and at later dates by contributions to the works of Captain Hart, Mr. Hope, and Meadows Taylor, on special or local features in the architecture of India. Another work connected with this subject may be mentioned here—"Archæology in India," published in 1884, which was called forth by strictures on his views, and had much of the controversial in its composition. Mr. Fergusson's studies on these subjects, which he believed were prosecuted under singularly favorable circumstances, assumed such a character that he could say: "Not only was I able to extend my personal observations to the examples found in almost all the countries between China and the Atlantic shore, but I lived familiarly among a people who were still practicing their traditional art on the same principles as those which guided the architects of the middle ages in the production of similar but scarcely more beautiful or more original works. With these antecedents, I found myself in possession of a considerable amount of information regarding buildings which had not previously been described, and—what I considered of more value—of an insight into the theory of the art, which was certainly more novel." On the strength of this knowledge he published, in 1849, "An Historical Inquiry into the Principles of True Beauty in Art, with Especial Reference to Architecture." The book was not written in a popular style, and did not sell. The matter of this essay was afterward written over in a more engaging style, into the "Illustrated Hand-Book of Architecture," a concise and popular account of the different styles prevailing in all ages and countries, which was published in 1855. This book was successful. Having gone out of print, it was again rewritten in an entirely new form, and the result of the remodeling appeared in 1865, as the "History of Architecture in All Countries from the Earliest Times to the Present Day," in three volumes, afterward enlarged into four. This book is described by a critic in the "Academy" as practically standing "quite alone in the English language as an encyclopaedia of architecture; and though its immensely wide scope necessarily forced its author to depend largely on the drawings and statements of others, and so caused many inaccuracies to creep into the text, yet on the whole it is a work of real and, to all appearance, lasting value." The purpose of the work was declared to be to write a universal history of architecture, in which each style shall occupy exactly that amount of space which the extent of the buildings or their merit would appear to justify; and to apply one law of criticism to all styles, ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, showing why one building has been successful or another failed, by a reference to those principles of design in architecture which seem to be universal and are easily understood. While the method of the "Hand-Book" was topographical, the historical method was adopted in the "History" as the one better suited to the purposes of giving a general view of the whole of the subject, and of tracing the connection of the various parts with one another. A great deal had recently been added to knowledge on the subject by the publication of special treatises in particular departments of it, and photography and the careful study of ancient monuments and buildings had furnished means of reaching more correct conclusions. Stress was laid on this last point, for so long, the author said, as our researches are confined to what the ancient authors have written, "many important problems remain unsolved, and must ever remain as unsolvable as they have hitherto proved"; and in the countries and times to which the monuments appertained, "men who had a hankering after immortality were forced to build their aspirations into the walls of their tombs or of their temples. Those who had poetry in their souls, in nine cases out of ten expressed it by the more familiar vehicle of sculpture or painting rather than in writing. To me it appears that to neglect these in trying to understand the manners and customs or the history of an ancient people, is to throw away one half, and generally the most valuable half, in some cases the whole, of the evidence bearing on the subject."

In the second edition of the "History," which was published in 1874, Mr. Fergusson called attention to the need of a comprehensive and systematic study of American architecture, saying: "What is really wanted is that some one should make himself personally acquainted with all the various styles existing between the upper waters of the Colorado and the Desert of Atacama to such an extent as to be able to establish the relative sequence of their dates, and to detect affinities when they exist, or to point out differences that escape the casual observer. . . . The problem is, in fact, identical with that presented to Indian antiquaries some thirty years ago. At that time we knew less of the history of Indian architecture than we now know of American, but at the present day the date of every building and every cave in India can be determined with absolute certainty to within fifty, or at the outside one hundred, years; the sequence is everywhere certain, and all can be referred to the race and religion that practiced that peculiar style. . . . What has been done for India could, I am convinced, easily be accomplished for America, and with even more satisfactory and more important results to the history and ethnography of that great country. The subject is well worthy the attention of any one who may undertake it, as it is the only means we now know of by which the ancient history of the country can be recovered from the darkness that now enshrouds it, and the connection of the Old World with the New—if any existed—can be traced, but it is practically the only chapter in the history of architecture which remains to be written."

Mr. Fergusson had intended to include in his "History" chapters on what were known as Celtic or Druidical remains. But, when the subject came to be looked into, it was found that the whole was such a confused mass of conflicting theories and dreams, that no facts or dates were so established that they could be treated as historical. The materials which had been collected on this subject were, therefore, worked into another book, which appeared in 1872, as "Rude Stone Monuments." Its character was rather argumentative than historical; it presented the view that the style of architecture to which the monuments described belong "is a style, like Gothic, Grecian, Egyptian, Buddhist, or any other. It has a beginning, and middle, and an end; and though we can not make out the sequence in all its details, this at least seems clear—that there is no great hiatus; nor is it that one part is historic, while the other belongs to prehistoric times. All belong to the one epoch or the other. Either it is that Stonehenge and Avebury, and all such, are the temples of a race so ancient as to be beyond the ken of mortal men, or they are the sepulchral monument of a people who lived so nearly within the limits of the true historic times that their story can easily be recovered." The author's belief was that they were of Roman and post-Roman times. These conclusions were disputed; Sir John Lubbock pronounced some of them hasty and untenable, and some seemingly inconsistent with one another; but for all that he accorded the book "the merit of being a rich and trustworthy storehouse of facts." Another critic, Mr. S. P. Oliver, while he accepted Sir John Lubbock's verdict, predicted that the book would doubtless become a text-book on that section of archæology which pertains to megalithic structures.

In his treatise on "Tree and Serpent Worship," which was published in 1868, and in a second edition in 1873, Mr. Fergusson, availing himself of the results of his laborious researches in India, presented some original views respecting the symbolism of the ancient religions, and the primitive conceptions from which they may have arisen.

Another line of work in which Mr. Fergusson distinguished himself by his diligence and the novelty of some of his conclusions, was that of Jewish, Assyrian, and classical antiquities, the fruits of his studies in which were presented in a variety of publications and shapes. In the "Topography of Jerusalem" he set forth some theories in regard to the true site of the temple which appear to have been set aside by later explorations. This was followed by other papers and articles respecting Jerusalem and its sites. In "The Palaces of Nineveh and Persepolis restored" he attempted an exposition of the architecture of Western Asia from the earliest period to the age of Alexander. By papers and suggestions he advised and assisted Sir Henry Layard in restoring the plans and explaining the designs of the temples of Nineveh; and he did a like service for Dr. Schliemann in unraveling the plans of Troy, Mycenæ, and Tiryns. The value of these services was freely acknowledged by Dr. Schliemann, who, dedicating his "Tiryns" to him, styled him "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." He studied the manner in which the Parthenon (and presumably other ancient temples) was lighted, and came out with a conclusion different from any which had been currently held before. It had been supposed that the lighting of the building was hypæthral—that is, through an opening in the roof; Dr. Fergusson maintained that the light was admitted through side-openings, like the clearstory of a cathedral, while the sun and rain were excluded; and the last work he published—"the Parthenon"—presented the considerations in favor of this view.

From 1863 to 1866, Mr. Fergusson was, with the exception of the year 1872, a member of the Council of the Royal Geographical Society. When filling this office, says Major-General Sir Frederick Goldsmid, his advice and assistance, always tendered with readiness, were of a most useful and practical kind, whether in advancement of the science to which the society was dedicated, or in minor details connected with the buildings in which its deliberations were held. In this society he was more frequently heard in participation in the discussions than in the reading of papers; but one of his papers, "On the Delta of the Ganges and the Natural Law regulating the Course of Rivers," was pronounced a most original and valuable contribution to science.

He bestowed much attention on military engineering and fortification. He set forth as early as 1849, in his "New System of Fortification," the advantages of earthworks as defenses against artillery, which have since been conclusively proved many times in real battle. He was appointed, in 1857, a member of the Royal Commission to inquire into the defenses of the United Kingdom; and he afterward served for eight months, or till the retirement of his chief, as assistant to Sir Henry Layard, Chief Commissioner of Public "Works.

Regarding the value of Dr. Fergusson's work, we have the carefully measured estimate in the "Athenæum," that "his acute analysis and criticism, always intended to illustrate the perfection of common sense, did not invariably carry conviction; . . . yet his clear, laborious, and searching methods commanded attention, and never failed to gain respect. Those who could not agree with his views upon the beauty and æsthetic value of Indian architecture, nor accept his version of the history of the holy places at Jerusalem, acknowledged the authority of his masterly and careful studies of whatever kind."