We use cookies to improve your experience online. By using our website, you agree to the use of cookies as described in our cookies policy.

The story of Uncle Silas

Published 19 December 2014

A young girl is trapped in a mansion with her mysterious uncle and a sinister governess. With Charles Stewart’s illustrations to this Gothic novel in our Tennant Gallery, the curator walks us through the story.

  • Charles Stewart’s illustrations for Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas (1864) held a central and formative place in his creative life. Conceived in wartime London in 1940 and finally published in 1988, these drawings of great refinement and atmosphere circumscribe the traditions of 19th and 20th century black and white book illustration.

    Stewart discovered the story – the gothic tale of Maud Ruthyn, a lonely girl left to live with her sinister Uncle Silas after her father dies – during his time as a stretcher-bearer in south London during the Second World War. He later explained its appeal to him: “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.”

    When he began developing his illustrations for this Victorian story, Stewart looked back to the illustrations of the novels of Charles Dickens. Hablot Knight Browne, known as “Phiz”, made extremely detailed engravings to illustrate stories including Bleak House and David Copperfield, and his adeptness at depicting social interior scenes must have been a valuable resource for Stewart on how people lived during the Victorian era.

    Stewart started making designs based on these originals, but as his own style progressed, the images became increasingly modern and psychological, mirroring the way in which Le Fanu wrote the novel. Using accurate details of 19th century fireplaces and bedposts, he created accurate interior scenes which he then layered with dramatic lighting to show how Maud was under threat from her eerie surroundings.

    Let’s take a closer look at the novel that inspired these haunting works.

    • Charles Stewart, 'Uncle Silas’: Title Page

      Charles Stewart, 'Uncle Silas’: Title Page, 1947.

      Pen & ink drawing on Whatman board. © Estate of the artist. RA Inv. 14/2604.

      On the title page, Maud is depicted in a birdcage – a metaphor for her vulnerability and the fact that throughout the story, she is completely trapped.

    • Charles Stewart , ‘Uncle Silas’: Frontispiece

      Charles Stewart, ‘Uncle Silas’: Frontispiece, 1947.

      Pen & ink drawing on Whatman board. © Estate of the artist. RA Inv. 14/2603.

      In much the same way as Dickens did with the frontispiece to his novels, Stewart’s opening image depicts all the key themes of the novel. You can see angels, devils, decaying houses and carriages depicting journeys, showing the novel’s many layers of threat.

    • Charles Stewart, 'We walked in silence to the balustrade'

      Charles Stewart, 'We walked in silence to the balustrade', undated.

      Pen & ink drawing on Whatman board. © Estate of the artist. RA Inv. 14/2606.

      This image from the beginning of the novel shows Maud walking with her father in the garden of their ancient house, Knowl, seen in the background. Although in this picture she is happy, there are sinister shadows. The sky is cloudy and the very high hedge shows how isolated they are from the rest of the world.

    • Charles Stewart, 'She stood scowling into the room with a searching and pallid scrutiny'

      Charles Stewart, 'She stood scowling into the room with a searching and pallid scrutiny', 1946.

      Pen & ink drawing on Whatman board. © Estate of the artist. RA Inv. 14/2613.

      Maud’s governess, Madame de la Rougierre, terrifies her from the moment she meets her. We later find out that she is in fact an accomplice of Uncle Silas and has evil designs on Maud. Here, Stewart makes dramatic use of candlelight and shadows.

    • Charles Stewart, 'Meanwhile, the winter deepened'

      Charles Stewart, 'Meanwhile, the winter deepened', 1947.

      Pen & ink drawing on Whatman board. © Estate of the artist. RA Inv. 14/2833.

      After the sudden death of her father, Maud is sent to live at Bartram-Haugh, a large estate belonging to her uncle. As you can see, the house is creepy and decaying, the balustrades are falling apart and the gardens around the house are overgrown. Uncle Silas struggles to afford the upkeep of the house, and we begin to realize his desperate need for money.

    • Charles Stewart, Illustration for Uncle Silas, 'At the far end of a handsome wainscoted room, sat a singular looking old man'

      Charles Stewart, Illustration for Uncle Silas, 'At the far end of a handsome wainscoted room, sat a singular looking old man', 1947.

      © Estate of the artist. RA Inv. Ref:14/4605.

      Pen & ink drawing on Whatman board.

      Here Maud meets Uncle Silas for the first time. The interior scene looks a bit like a film set, with the figure very deep in shadow and the firelight playing off his features. Maud’s father instilled in her a strong Christian moral framework, and despite all the warning signs about her, she continues to believe the best in her uncle.

      Stewart was perhaps inspired by his visit to the set of the 1947 film Uncle Silas, directed by Charles Frank. Stewart made many sketches of the set and costumes he encountered.

    • Charles Stewart, 'The figure of Uncle Silas rose up, with a death like scowl'

      Charles Stewart, 'The figure of Uncle Silas rose up, with a death like scowl', undated.

      Pen & ink drawing on Whatman board. RA Inv. 14/2838, Royal Academy of Arts. © Estate of the artist..

      After Maud has been forced to return from a party, she lingers by the fireplace where a ghostly image of Uncle Silas appears in the mirror, terrifying her. It is a deeply psychological moment, as we don’t know whether Silas is actually there, in an opium-induced trancelike state, or whether he is an apparition from Maud’s neurosis.

    • Charles Stewart, Illustration for Uncle Silas, 'She clasped me round the waist, and buried her face in my dress'

      Charles Stewart, Illustration for Uncle Silas, 'She clasped me round the waist, and buried her face in my dress', 1947.

      Pen & ink drawing on Whatman board. © Estate of the artist. RA Inv. 14/2844.

      Here, Stewart uses reflected light upon a window to show that Maud is absolutely trapped. She has just been tricked: having been told that she is escaping Bartram-Haugh, Madame de la Rougierre has drugged her and circled the grounds in a carriage. On returning, Maud is locked in a room she has never seen before. The next few hours for Maud bring about a terrifying climax of the novel – but I won’t give the ending away here.

    • Charles Stewart, Self-portrait

      Charles Stewart, Self-portrait, c. 1942.

      Private collection. © Estate of the artist.

      Chalk on paper.

      Charles Stewart’s illustrations to Uncle Silas hint at the artist’s own unusual life. Read five surprising facts.

Comments

comments powered by Disqus