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Stuart, John Spencer Innes [Johnny] (1940–2003), Russian scholar and art historian, was born on 20 May 1940 at 55 Queen's Road, Aberdeen, the son of Innes Stuart (1905–1992), a Scottish landowner and insurance official then serving as a captain in the Gordon Highlanders, and his wife, Audrey Ruston, née Spencer (1907–1994). His early years were spent in Angus, where his father took up farming after the Second World War. He was educated at Eton College, where his art master, Wilfrid Blunt (brother of Anthony, the art historian and spy), and regular trips to London sale rooms nurtured his love of painting and the decorative arts. His love of Russian history, too, originated at Eton when, urged by Stuart's protestant parents to curb their son's interest in Roman Catholicism, his housemaster gave him a book on the Russian imperial family. The distraction succeeded but it was a pyrrhic victory, for Stuart became so fascinated by Russian culture that he promptly converted to Russian Orthodoxy.

In 1959 Stuart went on to read Slavonic studies at St John's College, Cambridge, under Nikolay Andreyev, the Russian historian and medievalist. On graduating in 1963 he devoted himself to the study of the Eastern Christian world through more direct means, travelling extensively in the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Russia, which he first visited in the mid-1960s with Camilla Gray, the historian of Russian avant-garde art. In 1963 he had joined Sothebys as a porter. George Costakis, a renowned collector of Russian avant-garde painting, remarked to the chairman that the new porter's erudition outshone that of the resident icon expert, and Stuart was soon promoted to work as an assistant in the Russian section of the art department. His was no ordinary progression through the auction house ranks: he temporarily left Sothebys to work with Marina Bowater at her gallery, which specialized in Russian art; in 1970 he studied for a year at the Grabar Central State Restoration Workshop for Medieval Painting in Moscow; and he also spent a year in Greece. His resulting knowledge of the technical production and conservation of icons, as well as of their aesthetic, theological, and historical significance, underpinned his first book, Ikons, which appeared in 1975 to wide and lasting acclaim. The following year he rejoined Sothebys in their new Russian department, which soon became one of the highest earning departments in Sothebys history.

Stuart worked as a consultant for Sothebys Russian department for nineteen years. Those two decades were an era of heady excitement in London's Russian cultural scene, and Stuart stood at its epicentre. His homes in Notting Hill, first in Kensington Park Gardens and later in Colville Mews, were the setting for soirées frequented by the most eminent Russian émigrés, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his opera singer wife Galina Vishnevskaya among them. In 1990 Stuart co-curated the exhibition ‘Gates of Mystery’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the same year he co-wrote St Petersburg: Portrait of an Imperial City. At Sothebys his discerning eye rescued many objects from oblivion. An icon purportedly by a nineteenth-century Russian painter, for example, was identified by Stuart as the only known Byzantine image of the triumph of orthodoxy, and was subsequently bought by the British Museum. Most memorable of all was the panache with which he presided over Sothebys increasingly flamboyant Russian sales. These culminated in the record-breaking ‘Russian week’ in 1995, when such was Sothebys embrace of all things Russian that even the doormen dressed as Cossacks. Stuart, invariably late for appointments and deadlines (a crucial sale catalogue once appeared just one day before the event) but with a fine sense of timing for the pivotal events in life, chose that moment to leave Sothebys. He set up an art consultancy and continued to work on ‘Icons: the triumph of Orthodoxy’, which was unpublished at the time of his death.

Stuart was far from the establishment figure that his education and primary employment might suggest. An avid motorbike owner, in 1987 he published Rockers!, an account of British bike culture that was reputedly the most shoplifted book in London for a time. When not charming Russia's intelligentsia and aristocracy, he was advising pop singers and their video producers on rock culture. Among others, The Clash, Duran Duran, and Kylie Minogue consulted him. Many a Sothebys client was taken aback by Stuart's arrival on a noisy British (never Japanese) motorbike, and he lent bikes, leathers, and accessories to the Victoria and Albert Museum's exhibition, ‘British Street Style’. For all his passion for biking, however, his greatest pride in his final years was an apartment in the heart of St Petersburg, in the building in which the writer Ivan Turgenev once lived, which he renovated so beautifully that it featured in Russian Vogue. He never married, but was a popular uncle and godfather. He died of cancer at Jayes Park, Ockley, Surrey (the home of his sister and brother-in-law), on 12 July 2003.

Rosalind P. Blakesley

Sources  

Daily Telegraph (21 July 2003) · The Independent (22 July 2003) · The Times (6 Aug 2003) · The Guardian (9 Sept 2003) · Daily Express (15 Aug 2007) · personal knowledge (2010) · private information (2010) [G. Lee-Steere, brother-in-law] · b. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

priv. coll.


Likenesses  

photographs, repro. in www.russianartconsultancy.com/index.php?id=8

Wealth at death  

£1,946,093: probate, 18 Feb 2004, CGPLA Eng. & Wales