Who is Stewart?

Stewart IrwinPlease get in touch if you have biographical details you would like to add.

Stewart Irwin was born in 1923 and died in 2012 aged 89. He lived in a town in Oxfordshire in the UK.

He made his living as a freelance commercial artist, and also painted for pleasure and because, like all artists, he was compelled to do so.

He was conscripted to the army in 1942 and served until 1947. Stewart suffered a breakdown relating to his experiences during the war, earlier health problems and childhood.

Stewart was gay, which was a criminal offence in the UK until he was 44 years old. He went to Campaign for Homosexual Equality meetings at Reading University, and then went on to host them. He told me that he was once propositioned by one of the Krays, notorious East End gangsters.

He was a vegetarian and a lover and believer of mysticism and esotericism.

Stewart was my friend.

I met him in 2003 when I was an oral history worker on a project called Before Stonewall. I had made some flyers and put the word out that I was looking for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people aged 55 and over to talk on camera about their lives, particularly pre-gay liberation. One of Stewart’s friends got in touch, so did Stewart, and I interviewed them both.

Stewart was the oldest person that I interviewed, he was nearly 80 at the time. I had been quite intimidated by him on the phone when I’d called to arrange the meeting, but I warmed to him in person. He was cranky, sardonic, funny, an oddball – like me! I kept him informed of the progress of his interview and then, when the project ended, we kept in touch via letters, occasional phonecalls and visits. I bought one of his paintings and he gave me others. He came to be a treasured friend.

I never really knew my own grandparents, but I had spent plenty of time with older people. I’d been a care worker, and my mum was a geriatric nurse and had friends who were much older than her. I greatly enjoy the company of older people, and don’t get to do it much. In the UK at least, there are few intergenerational social spaces where you might meet friends of a different age to you, especially in queer life. Stewart was someone I would have wanted to be friends with at any age. I was 34 years old at the time I met him, and he was 46 years my senior. I was always aware of the age difference, I knew that our friendship would likely be short and that his life would run out at some point, and probably before mine. Sometimes our age, gender and class differences intruded; it was really weird, for example, to be shielded in the street from passing traffic by this skinny old guy acting out his gentlemanly impulses without a thought for my feminism. Mostly the difference was there but didn’t matter. In our letters we talked about our friends, my work, art, his frustration at not being able to sell his work, his past, his health, queerness, beliefs, sex, death. We had ten years of top quality friendship.

Around 2011 his letters petered out somewhat. Stewart was having an increasing number of health crises and I was too embroiled in my work to be much help to him. I got a call from his friend, the same person who had introduced me to him years previously, and he told me that Stewart had been in a bad way and was now living in a home where he was doing well and was happy. It was difficult to contact Stewart now he was in an institution, but I managed to get a message through and my girlfriend and I went to see him in January 2012.

This was the last time I saw him. There was a lot of frost on the ground, he was unsteady on his feet, but he took us for a walk around the garden, and we had a good sit and a talk. We both knew he didn’t have much time left and when I said that I would miss him when he had gone, he grabbed my hand tightly. As we drove away, Stewart mugged at the window, waving wildly, making me laugh. At every step in our friendship we had been able to express that we each thought the other was wonderful. His paintings are all over my house, and even adorn a couple of coffee mugs. I enjoy them every day, and remember him each time I see them.

If you would like to know more about our friendship, you can take a look at our correspondence which has been archived at the Bishopsgate Institute.