Charles W. Stewart

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The Independent Online

Charles William Stewart, artist, collector and teacher: born Iloilo, Philippines 18 November 1915; died Oxford 3 October 2001.

Few leading book illustrators can once have danced in the corps de ballet at Covent Garden, but Charles W. Stewart was proud to have done so. Not long after he became a student at Byam Shaw School of Drawing and Painting, in 1932, the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo came to London and Stewart fell under its spell.

In 1934-35, he began to attend evening ballet classes and take private lessons. In 1936, he said, "by a freak of fortune I was engaged as a member of the corps de ballet for Beecham's forthcoming opera season at Covent Garden, performing in the Tales of Hoffman and Aida". A dream was realised for Stewart when for Aida he designed costumes for the male dancers and for Lydia Sokolova, who took the solo role.

After dancing for Figaro at Glyndebourne, in 1937 Stewart was engaged again at Covent Garden for Die Fledermaus and Salome, the last performance of which was conducted by Richard Strauss himself. When Stewart won a scholarship for an extra year at Byam Shaw, the principal, Ernest Jackson, complained that ballet was hindering his art education and Stewart decided to give up dancing.

The logical step was to design for the theatre. After leaving Byam Shaw in 1938 Stewart did get odd commissions and was assistant to Roger Furse at Peter Bull's Summer Theatre at Perranporth, in Cornwall, but the Second World War curtailed his stage ambitions. Henceforth, his creativity and an innate "romantic and nostalgic interest in the past" would find their outlet on the printed page and through costume collecting.

Charles William Stewart was born in the village of Iloilo, on Panay, part of the Philippine archipelago, in 1915. His father, Alexander, was an accountant with the merchant firm Smith, Bell & Company, eventually becoming a partner. Charles had an older brother, Alec, and a younger sister, Margaret. In 1918, he was sent with his mother to Britain, because he had become ill and was thought unlikely to survive the Filipino climate.

Initially he was billeted near Dumfries, at Shambellie, the estate of his uncle Captain William Stewart. Charles's parents remained in the Philippines, but bought a small house in Edinburgh for him and his sister to live in, cared for by a widow, before the boy was sent to preparatory school in Surrey and in 1928 to Radley College.

When Captain Stewart and his wife died childless Alexander Stewart inherited Shambellie and in 1930 returned to manage the estate. With his firm bankrupted in the Depression, however, Alexander found that he could not afford to live at Shambellie, and became factor for relatives near Knutsford, in Cheshire. It was not until 1936 that the Stewarts could afford to make Shambellie their home.

Charles Stewart refused on humanitarian grounds to take life, so during the war he was a conscientious objector. In 1940, he joined the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) in London as a stretcher bearer. Early in the war, he began drawing with a pen. He received his first book-illustration commission, for Hob and Bob, by Rose Fyleman, which appeared in 1944. A big opportunity came in 1946, when the Bodley Head commissioned Stewart to illustrate Sheridan Le Fanu's Uncle Silas. After demobilisation Stewart worked on this for 18 months, but publication was postponed indefinitely for technical and financial reasons.

Stewart now embarked on a career illustrating calendars, magazines and books, publishers appreciating his ability with pen, pencil and wash to evoke vanished worlds. The wood engraver Thomas Bewick and the Victorian illustrators George Cruikshank and "Phiz" were influences.

In 1950, Stewart returned to Byam Shaw to teach life drawing and illustration, and in 1958, a few years before retiring, became a joint principal. He was still illustrating, being especially proud of his work on Edward Fitzgerald's translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1955), and was excited when the Limited Editions Club, New York, commissioned him to illustrate W.M. Thackeray's Pendennis (1961).

When Stewart's mother died in 1960, he returned to Shambellie to help his invalid father to run the estate, and when Alexander too died, two years later, Charles Stewart inherited (his brother having predeceased his parents). This did not inhibit the illustrating, which included notable series by Barbara Leonie Picard, beginning with The Faun and the Woodcutter's Daughter (1951); by Nicholas Stuart Gray – Grimbold's Other World (1963); and by Margaret Storey – Timothy and the Two Witches (1966).

Work on the 32 illustrations for the aborted Bodley Head Uncle Silas – set in the 1840s – had concentrated Stewart's interest in historical costume. From the time when, aged five in Edinburgh, he had seen a china doll in a shop window in mock 18th-century costume, "which seemed to me supremely beautiful and which I coveted with the sharp acquisitive desire which collectors know so well", he had been interested in styles of the past.

To aid his illustrating, Stewart bought a dressmaker's dummy, supplanted eventually by a good 19th-century life-size lay model, named Rosie, able to take almost any pose. "We travelled home in a taxi and the driver remarked in a confidential tone, 'You're like me, Sir, you likes 'em quiet!' " When Stewart learned that Pietro Annigoni needed a lay-figure to use for his 1956 portrait of the Queen, he offered Rosie. "She drove to Buckingham Palace, seated demurely in a taxi, holding her head in her lap." Annigoni rewarded Stewart with a drawing of Rosie in the Queen's Garter Robes.

Stewart grew concerned that his collection of costumes, fashion plates and stage designs should not be dispersed when he died. In 1977, he handed over the responsibility for over 2,000 costumes and accessories to the Royal Scottish Museum and for Shambellie to the Department of the Environment. It opened in 1982 as Shambellie House Museum of Costume.

Stewart had continued to illustrate. For the Folio Society he did three notable books, Uncle Silas, an ambition at last achieved (1988); Mistress Masham's Repose, by T.H. White (1989); and Ghost Stories and Other Horrid Tales (1997). These last were chosen and illustrated by Stewart.

David Buckman