Charles Stewart

Charles Stewart came from a long line of illustrious Stewarts who had occupied the lands around New Abbey near Dumfries since at least 1625. The family home was Shambellie, a Victorian Mansion house surrounded by the planted woodland and farms owned and managed by the Stewarts.

Charles was born in November 1915, not in Shambellie, but in the Philippines where his father was working.  By the time he was three years old he had returned home to Shambellie and was to spend much of his childhood in this house, a place his family had called home since 1858.

Charles was educated at boarding school, first at a prep school in Surrey and later at Radley College but was to spend much of his holidays at Shambellie. His active imagination was fired by the house and its surroundings. Charles was inspired by all things Gothic and the house played a formative part in this. He later wrote;
   “The house was lit by oil lamps and candles… to a small child it seemed a giant’s castle. The mysterious upper regions emitted startling creaks and bumps and at times a curious slithering sound.”

In 1932 Charles left Radley and enrolled at the Byam Shaw School of Drawing and Painting.  On seeing the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo perform he was captivated by its “poetic fusion of dancing, music and theatrical design” and began to take ballet lessons. By 1936, he was adept enough to perform with the corps de ballet at Covent Garden under Sir Thomas Beecham. Unfortunately the ballet clashed with his drawing studies and he was forced to give up his new career.

He left the Byam Shaw School in 1938 and hoped to work as a theatre designer but the Second World War curtailed his ambitions. Charles was a conscientious objector and spent most of his war years as a stretcher bearer in the ARP (later to become the Civil defence Force) in London. For a short time he worked back in Shambellie supervising German prisoners engaged in forestry work on the estate.

In the little spare time Charles had he discovered that he had a particular talent for book illustration. His first commission came in 1943 for Hob and Bob, a children's story by Rose Fyleman. This was followed A Boy in Kent by C Henry Warren. 

He is perhaps best known for his illustrations of Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu and Mistress Masham's Repose by T H White, both books very well known and loved.   Uncle Silas, is the story of a young girl’s imprisonment in a Gothic mansion at the hands of her scheming uncle and perhaps Charles, reflecting his childhood years at Shambellie, related to this.  He recalled: “The real war seemed curiously remote. In this state of limbo Uncle Silas became a means of withdrawal from the anxieties and disorientation of a life more unreal than the world of the book.”    

By 1950 Stewart taught life drawing and illustration back at the Byam Shaw School, where he eventually became joint principal.  However, maybe as a result of his theatre interests he had also developed another passion, that of Costume.   He began to make first costume purchases and often visited the Portobello Road and Bermondsey markets, Soho and any establishment where old clothes were available.  Old clothes were then regarded as of little interest and were frequently available quite cheaply. At the top of a house in Soho his finds included two 18th men's dressing gowns and theatrical costume which had belonged to an actor in Sir Henry Irving's company.

Charles returned to Shambellie in the 1960s to take care of the estate and his invalid father, leaving his life and job in London.  After a further twenty years at Shambellie he moved to sheltered housing in Oxford where he lived until his death at the age of 85.

Charles was described as, “the kindest and most courteous of men. Good-humoured and good company, he was completely lacking in self-importance. His homes were furnished in great taste and style with books, pictures, antique furniture and objets d'art”.  His most substantial legacy was as the creator of a museum of costume at Shambellie House.   

By 1977 the house was proving to be too expensive and impractical to run and so he donated it along with his collection of 2,000 costumes and accessories to the Royal Scottish Museum. In 1982 Shambellie was opened as the National Museum of Costume but sadly it closed down in 2013.