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Maxwell, William Stirling, Sir

    Full Name: Maxwell, William Stirling, Sir

    Other Names:

    • né William Stirling

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1818

    Date Died: 1878

    Place Born: Kirkintilloch, East Dunbartonshire, Scotland, UK

    Place Died: Venice, Veneto, Italy

    Home Country/ies: Scotland

    Subject Area(s): photographs and Spanish (culture or style)

    Career(s): art collectors


    Historian of Spanish art and embelmata book collector; first art historian to use photo-reproduction in an art history book. Stirling was the son of Archibald Stirling of Keir and Cawder (1769-1847) and Elizabeth Maxwell (Stirling) (1793-1822), both among Scotland’s oldest families. He was born in Kirkintilloch, Scotland, UK, near Glasgow. He was educated privately at Pilton Rectory, Northamptonshire, and Cossington Rectory, Leicestershire, before attending Trinity College, Cambridge. He graduated in 1839, the same year making a grand tour with George Holland of Germany, Switzerland, France, and Italy. After a fail attempt as a tory seat in Perthshire in 1841, Stirling made a second tour, now including Spain and the Middle East. He received an M.A. from Cambridge in 1943. In 1846, Stirling published his mid-eastern experiences in Songs of the Holy Land. His Spanish travels–and Seville in particular–convinced him in early 1843 to write a history of Spanish art. Stirling made a second trip to Spain educating himself on Spanish art in collections there and in Britain. His Annals of the Artists of Spain appeared in 1848. Annals broke ground in several ways, particularly its chronological organization and groupings by ruling monarch. Stirling’s work was well received in Britain, though another art historian of Spanish art, Carl Nicolaus Heinrich Justi, ceased upon Stirling’s scant treatment of artistic technique. In 1852 Stirliing published The Cloister Life of the Emperor Charles the Fifth, a book about the emperor whose religious conviction led to his abdication to a monastery. The volume was his most popular in terms of sales and quickly appeared in German, Dutch, and Spanish. In 1855, Stirling re-edited the portions of the Annals Velazquez, producing a separate volume, Velazquez and his Works, adding a separate catalog of prints after his paintings. Although Justi’s longer study soon supplanted it, the book became a benchmark of the “monographic study” in art history publishing (Macartney). The book was serialized in its Spanish translation in the Gaceta de Madrid. German and French translations also followed, including catalog in the French edition written by Willem Bürger (Etienne-Joseph-Théophile Thoré). Around 1859 he completed the research for a two-volume Charles’ illegitimate son, Don John of Austria, or, Passages from the History of the Sixteenth Century, however, the work was only published posthumously in 1883. Between 1857 and 1859 Stirling worked to translate the Annals into Spanish, but publication never happened. He issued an extremely small print run (25 copies) of a fourth volume, employing a photo-reproductive process developed by William Fox Talbot called Talbotype, the first art history book to use photographs. Stirling’s father died in 1847, inheriting the estates of Keir and Cawder. He became a noted book collector, rehabbing a room in his estates as a cedar-lined library. His emblem book collection is now part of the Glasgow University Library. At the same time, Stirling began collecting art, particularly the Spanish art about which he wrote. These included the collections of Louis-Philippe (his Galerie Espagnole) and the Frank Hall Standish collection as well as works by El Greco and Goya prints. He was as interested in facsimile (copies) as originals, adding to the accusation that he was a weak connoisseur. His commitment to the photographic process (and slight allegiance to the original) resulted in facsimile prints books for popular consumption. These included Examples of the Engraved Portraiture of the Sixteenth Century (1872), Solyman the Magnificent Going to Mosque (1877), and the anatomical tables of Vesalius ( 1874). In 1852 Stirling was elected the Conservative MP for Perthshire and except for a loss in 1868 and re-instatement in 1874, held the office the rest of his life. As a government official, he served on the select committee on the fine arts in 1853 and later was named a trustee of all the major public art museums, National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and the British Museum. After the death of his uncle, Sir John Maxwell, Stirling succeeded him to the Pollok estate near Glasgow, becoming Sir William Stirling Maxwell in 1863. In 1865 he married Lady Anna Maria Leslie Melville; she was killed in a fire at Keir in 1874. Maxwell married a second time in 1877 to Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton, née Sheridan (1808-1877). However she, too, died later the same year. Early in 1878 Maxwell contracted a fever in Venice and died. He is buried in the Keir crypt at Lecropt kirk, a gothic revival church near Dunblane, Scotland. His art collection at Keir House as well as the estates were sold by his grandson. Remnants still remain at Pollok House, Glasgow. Maxwell was among the most important English-writer of Spanish art, a genre underappreciated for most of the nineteenth century. Modern scholars found his research extraordinary in scope and seriousness (Brown). His most famous work, the Annals organized the art in Spain around a broad social, cultural, and historical context, perhaps the first to the art of Velázquez and Murillo as cultural phenomenon and not simply unique, artistic genius. His personal art collection is remarked upon by Gustav Friedrich Waagen. His Goya proofs of the Disasters of War were acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and published by the prints curator Eleanor Sayre.

    Selected Bibliography

    [collected works:] The Works of Sir Wm. Stirling-Maxwell, Baronet. 6 vols. London: John C. Nimmo, 1891; Velazqvez and his Works. London: J. W. Parker and Son, 1855, [French, with Velazquez catalog by Thoré] Velazquez et ses œuvres. Paris: J. Renouard, 1865; The Cloister Life of the Emperor Charles the Fifth. London: J. W. Parker and Son, 1852; Annals of the Artists of Spain. 3 vols. London: J. Ollivier, 1848, [addendum] Talbotype Illustrations to the Annals of the Artists of Spain. London: s. n., 1847; Songs of the Holy Land. Edinburgh: privately printed, 1846 [first public issue, London: John Ollivier, 1848].


    Waagen, Gustav. Galleries and Cabinets of Art in Great Britain. London: J. Murray, 1857, pp. 448-53; Black, Hester, and Weston, Dvid, eds., A Short title Catalogue of the Emblem Books and Related Works in the Stirling Maxwell Collection of Glasgow University Library Aldershot, Hants: Scolar Press, 1988; Rowan, A. “Keir House, Perthshire, III.” Country Life 158 (1975): 506-10; Harris, Eveyln. “Sir William Stirling-Maxwell and the History of Spanish Art.” Apollo 79 (1964): 73-7; Macartney, Hilary. “Maxwell, Sir William Stirling, ninth baronet (1818-1878).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Brown, Jonathan. “Observations on the Historiography of Seventeenth-century Spanish Painting.” Images and Ideas in Seventeenth-century Spanish Painting. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978, pp. 3-18; [obituary:] The Times (London) January 17, 1878, p. 1?.


    "Maxwell, William Stirling, Sir." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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