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Exhibition: Charles Stewart at the Royal Academy

I’ve been having a mini-meltdown recently, as a rather on-off thing with my house sale takes place, with possible exchange and completion some time during the week beginning Monday 16th February… or possibly not, as all the negotiations and paperwork are still ongoing.

I have disappeared into a world of music and writing, which thankfully takes me away from everything, and also reminding myself to “just breathe!”  Which is why I’ve been quiet recently.

It wasn’t therefore great timing for one of my friends to mention that she’d curated an exhibition at the Royal Academy, and it was closing next weekend.  But I couldn’t not go (how often do people get to curate exhibitions at the RA??), and when Amanda said she’d be there this weekend, I thought what a great thing it would be to get my very own personal tour 🙂 considering I didn’t know anything about Charles Stewart.

Charles Stewart (1915-2001) was a graphic artist who became obsessed with the gothic Victorian novel Uncle Silas, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.  The novel has been the basis for several film and TV adaptations, and follows the adventures of innocent heiress Maud Ruthyn.  Stewart ploughed his energies into extensive research on the settings and costumes, and into numerous sketches, finally producing dozens of incredibly detailed illustrations for the book in 1948.  Despite the illustrations being well received by the publisher, the amount of detail meant that it would have been ultimately too costly to include in the sale copies using the technology of the time, so it wasn’t until the eighties that an edition that included the illustrations could be made up.

I think the Victorian Gothic is very interesting, and channels a lot of sexuality and emotion in an acceptable way, which the Victorians wouldn’t otherwise have been able to express in public.  Amanda said that Charles Stewart had a terribly lonely and unhappy childhood, and was never accepted or supported emotionally by his family (although they managed to pay for an expensive school).  She said it was very sad that it seemed Charles Stewart never found happiness with a partner.

I said I thought it was a problem of a certain kind of upbringing – if as a child you are taught to repress everything emotional, it’s very difficult subsequently to work out how to cope with healthy adult relationships.  What you tend to do is hide the problems and deny them, and channel the things you really want into obsessions.  I feel really lucky that I’ve realised now in my mid-thirties that there is another, warmer way to live life than what I knew until that point, but every so often, I still feel enormous grief for all the friendships I was never able to build, at school, at University, during early motherhood.  I’ve been trying to deal with the feelings of loss by writing about how people cope when they’re not shown warmth early on in their lives, and how people come to realise it and change their lives, and what happens when people don’t realise it, and don’t change.

Amanda and I talked about the difficulties acknowledging these problems the older you get, and the more of your life you have to admit that you’ve lost if you do admit where you really are, which ties in with my current interest in the phenomenon of what I call “completeness”: in fiction, there’s a need to provide for the reader an emotionally satisfying closure.  Whereas in real life, quite often things are messy and don’t turn out as they “should”.  I’m interested in bringing “messy endings,” a bit like Charles Stewart’s lack of a happy ending, to what I write, and working out how to make something emotionally satisfying out of them.

If you are near the Royal Academy before next Sunday, the exhibition is only £3 and well worth a look.  One of the most stunning parts is life size blow up of one of the small pictures – the original is so detailed that it reproduces as if it could have been that size originally!  Make sure to get a free show guide – they’d all gone by the time I got there, which meant that before Amanda arrived and got some out of the store room, the exhibition made no sense to me at all!

freegle(Click on the image to enlarge.  The detail is fantastic!)



  1. So many things to comment here Denise! Firstly I’ve been wondering how you were getting on house wise, i’ll be keeping everything crossed for the week after next. Really hope it doesn’t drag on. Secondly, the exhibition sounds fab, and well done to your friend, that’s a pretty big coup!

    Gosh where to start on life’s messy endings, and the complications left behind after a childhood that is less than perfect? I’m just so very pleased that you managed to work it all out for yourself hon. Try not to be too hard on yourself for the loss of what could have been. Just make sure you get it right next time (I know you will)!

    Can’t wait to read some of your fiction. Have a lovely week 🙂

  2. Aargh! I was on Piccadilly today and I walked on past the RA to the National Gallery. Wish I’d read this post this morning.
    Hope all goes well with your move, Denise – as my sister has just settled into her new house I know how stressful time can be until you actually open your new front door.

    • Oh what a shame, that would have been so ace if you had known it was there!
      Fingers crossed for the move. You could almost hear the relief in my estate agent’s reply to my email when I said it might be do-able.

  3. I’ve never heard of Charles Stewart either but I love your write-up about and the exhibition looks really interesting. Good luck with house sale!

  4. I’ve been wondering where and how you were! I will keep everything crossed for a smooth couple of weeks in which everything goes your way. Your post is fascinating, and funnily enough so very pertinent. I’ve been annoyed with my husband this weekend who had a very unemotional childhood and suffers still from being unable to act, and completely passive, when anything is not perfect between us. Drives me insane, because I end up having to manage the relationship all the time. It was good for me to read your post – and appreciate its insights. I do wish he’d try to alter his behaviour, but you’re right that it’s not easy. The exhibition sounds extremely interesting!

    • I also think for us deny-ers (or ex-deny-ers in my case) it’s so much easier to hide and pretend nothing is wrong, it just takes a huge seismic shove to *make* us see things differently. I am not saying you should give your husband a seismic shove! Just perhaps he has it a bit comfy and doesn’t realise how lucky he is to have you 🙂

  5. I’m sure everything with the house will work out the way that it should but I do not envy you the state of it right now! House buying and selling is a unique kind of all-encompassing stress. Sounds like escaping into music and writing is an excellent decision right now. That exhibition sounds great – jealous that I’m not anywhere near it!

  6. Oh Denise, I’ve been thinking of you and wondering how things are going for you, but so sorry to read that it’s been such a stressful time. Selling/buying/moving house can be hell, I do know that and all I can say is that come Monday, I do really hope that everything falls into place for you with an exchange and date for completion. I’ve never heard of Charles Stewart but I adore Victorian Gothic, darn, wish there was a way we could get to the RA this weekend but it’s not going to happen. Love the image, and I did enlarge it. Repression of emotion as a child is certainly detrimental in so many ways and of course isn’t even recognised as such until adulthood. It’s wonderful that you are exploring this in your writing. Life certainly is both stranger and more complicated than fiction…and so often not with a pretty ending. I am beginning to understand the beauty of the written word through flash fiction when manipulating the endings as we desire. I’ll be in touch Denise, I hope you can get some time to unwind a little this weekend, lost in your music and writing >3

  7. You packed a lot into this post. Firstly I never knew anything about Charles Stewart but agree his work is amazing in all of the fine details.
    I lingered on your comments about repressed emotions shown to us in childhood and found this both personally enlightening and very valid. Our house was a warm place but we were never given hugs or kisses, it just didn’t happen. Looking back on it now I can see it made me wary of those who were so open in expressing their love for each other by a mere hug or peck on the cheek. It made me as a young adult seek out those who “got me” whereas my brother went the other route and had a huge bunch of friends who merely hung out together in a group. He is now a very stand offish character who hates to show emotion at all. I am the opposite, will cry at a drop of a hat, hug and be hugged, smile with enthusiasm and a friend for me is a friend for life.
    Lastly I would like to thank you for being such a strong supporter of my writing and I promise I will get better.

  8. Hi Denise,

    I can presume that your house sale has indeed taken place since the time you wrote this and you are now more at peace.

    Indeed, we avoid thinking of uncomfortable situations and ‘escape’ into our comfort zone. For you, clearly the latter is Blogging and Music. I believe there is really no harm in escaping thus provided we gain the mental strength to come back and grapple with that from which we escaped in the first place.

    Do you see your situations occurring in this manner?


    • It’s funny, after my writing blogging, I lapsed into a kind of not-doing anything, right up until Sunday morning. Then I got a surge of energy as I knew the deadline was getting close and I had to get myself ready. I need to be pushed sometimes to get back into the reality of a situation and that does it for me.

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