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    James Fergusson

    Map Academy

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    A Scottish architect and historian known for producing the first comprehensive history of architecture in India, James Fergusson undertook several tours across the subcontinent to carry out informal but detailed studies, which culminated in historical accounts that laid down the foundations for the formal disciplinary field of architectural studies. He extensively documented India’s architectural heritage, largely in the form of drawings, plaster casts, lithographs, engravings and photographs, and was known for remarking on the purity and sensibility of form and style of Indian architecture, which he criticised European architectural traditions as lacking.

    Fergusson was born at Ayr, Scotland, and was educated in Edinburgh and London. In 1829, he joined the mercantile firm Fairlie, Fergusson, and Co., Calcutta (now Kolkata), where his brother was a partner. Following a brief employment at the firm, he moved to the town of Jessore, near Calcutta, to work as an indigo planter.

    He continued working in the indigo and opium plantation business until 1835, when he left the enterprise to travel across the country — a decision that stemmed partly from his concern that his land-use practices may be damaging to the fertile lands and traditional livelihoods of the area. During his travels, he used a draughtsman’s pad, a camera lucida and a diary for documentation. His field methods became standard practice for conducting architectural studies, and were subsequently adopted by the Department of Curation of Ancient Monuments for carrying out survey projects in the 1880s.

    In 1839, Fergusson left India for London, where he studied architecture and continued his documentation of Indian architecture through scholarly research. Observations on architecture from his travels were first published in an illustrated volume titled The Rock-Cut Temples of India (1845) and later in a book called Picturesque Illustrations of Ancient Architecture in Hindostan (1848). Fergusson’s 1849 treatise on architecture, A Historical Inquiry into the True Principles of Beauty in Art, reflected his metaphysical and aesthetic meditations on architecture. By this time, his scholarship had also extended into the domain of world architecture, resulting in works such as the two-volume The Illustrated Handbook of Architecture (1855) and A History of the Modern Styles of Architecture (1862), which were compiled and republished over three volumes as A History of Architecture in All Countries from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (1865–67). Other notable publications include Palaces of Nineveh and Persepolis, Restored (1851); Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, Restored (1862); Tree and Serpent Worship (1868); Rude Stone Monuments in all Countries (1872); and The Temples of the Jews and the Other Buildings in the Haram Area at Jerusalem (1878).

    However, Fergusson’s most celebrated work is History of Indian and Eastern Architecture (1876), the first comprehensive history of Indian architecture, in which he classified the monuments of the subcontinent into regional, religious and chronological categories and also charted the history of architecture in India along racial terms, differentiating their development along the trajectories of ‘Aryan’ or ‘Dravidian’ and ‘Sanskritic’ or ‘Non-Sanskritic’ cultures. He also classified built structures into the taxonomic categories of ‘Buddhist,’ ‘northern Hindu,’ ‘Jaina,’ ‘southern or Tamil Hindu’ and ‘modern Hindu,’ which he identified as a synthesis of northern Hindu and ‘Mohammedan’ styles.

    By the end of the nineteenth century, when the colonial empire initiated knowledge projects that were conceived as a scientific enterprise, Fergusson’s reliance on accurate documentation of sites became an important part of his scientific methodology. He was chiefly invested in the documentary project of architectural sites in India, using the photographic archive and its derivative forms, such as lithographs and illustrations, as a primary resource in his scholarship, and insisted on the primacy of visual accuracy, often departing from the picturesque aesthetic being pioneered in India by Thomas Daniell and William Hodges.

    In 1869, Fergusson’s reputation as a scholar led to his appointment as secretary to the then commissioner of public works, AH Layard. In 1871, he was awarded the gold medal for architecture by the Institute of British Architects.

    He died in London in 1886.


    Chisholm, Hugh. ed. “Fergusson, James.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911.
    Guha, Sudeshna. “The Visual in Archaeology: Photographic Representation of Archaeological Practice in British India.” Antiquity 76, no. 291 (2002): 93–100.
    Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. “Fergusson, James.” Grove Art Online. Accessed May 12, 2021.
    Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Postcolonial India. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
    Kohane, Peter. “From Scotland to India: The Sources of Jame Fergusson’s Theory of Architecture’s ‘True Styles’.” ABE Journal (2019):14–15.

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