Charles Stewart

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Charles Stewart, artist, collector and benefactor

Born: 18 November, 1915, in the Philippines Died: 3 October, 2001, in Oxford, aged 85

CHARLES Stewart led a delightfully unconventional life. It varied from running an estate in Dumfriesshire to amassing a remarkable collection of costumes alongside, in his youth, dancing on the stage at Covent Garden. Twenty-five years ago, he handed over the responsibility for his collection to the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh. Much can be seen in Chamber Street, while an exhibition is on view at Shambellie House in Dumfriesshire.

Stewart, a gentle, courteous man, was a committed enthusiast and enjoyed all aspects of the theatre. But it was as a book illustrator that he made a career. He was particularly recognised for his designs for many classic novels.

Charles William Stewart’s father worked for the Far East merchants Smith, Bell & Company and he was brought up by his mother in Edinburgh’s New Town. He attended Radley College but, at an early age, he was smitten with the performing bug and while studying at an art college in London he danced with Sir Thomas Beecham’s opera company, then resident at Covent Garden.

Stewart appeared in several productions there before going to dance in the opening production of the Glyndebourne Festival, Marriage of Figaro, in 1937. That year he was offered a scholarship at the collage: on condition his dancing nights were terminated. He finished his studies at the Byam Shaw College and was to return there as a lecturer in 1950.

Throughout the war he was classed as a conscientious objector but acted as an air-raid warden in London. It was near the end of the war that Stewart received a commission from the publishers Bodley Head to design the graphics for Sheridan La Fanu’s Uncle Silas. Further commissions followed from the Folio Society and the Limited Editions Club of New York.

Stewart’s father had inherited Shambellie House before the war. The house is an impressive Victorian mansion designed by David Bryce (who was also responsible for Fettes College) and Stewart went north in 1960 to assist his father in its management.

But maintaining the estate proved a drain on Stewart’s resources and in 1962 he approached the Royal Scottish Museum regarding the house and his costume collection. After several years of negotiation, the Secretary of State for Scotland accepted the gift in 1976. Thus Stewart handed over the entire collection to the RSM and the house to the Department of the Environment.

The collection comprises over 2,000 costumes which Stewart had bought over many years. Such was Stewart’s expertise the collection also included underwear (corsets, etc) and additional adornments. He had a particular fascination for the 19th-century dresses and formal wear - particularly the 1830s - but some costumes are as modern as the 1950s.

He discovered a complete family wardrobe of children’s dresses which belonged to a wealthy South African family (Lord and Lady Robinson) and had been worn at balls in the 1910s. Otherwise he amassed his collection through endless browsing in the likes of Portobello Road in London and shops in Dumfries, Castle Douglas and Mrs Locke’s in Edinburgh.

It certainly became his life-time’s work. He took immense care of the dresses and each one told a story; many were donated by friends with recollections of who wore them and at what function. These personal histories form a delightful addition to the dresses on view in Chambers Street.

"It is an extraordinarily rich collection," commented Naomi Tarrant, the costume curator of the RSM. "He loved ‘things’ and had an excellent eye for interesting objects and pieces. He collected - and we are lucky now to own - some exceptional items. And with these personal memories they seem to take on a life of their own. It is no coincidence, I like to think, that he titled the introduction to his collection Holy Greed.

The rooms at Shambellie House have been given over to displays since it was opened in 1982. "By changing the displays we can incorporate many different costumes," Naomi Tarrant says. "At present one room is themed around ‘Christmas Eve, 1905’ which allows us not only to accurately incorporate the interior of the house but also the Stewart family portraits."

Stewart was unmarried.