STEWART, Nellie (1858-1931)


STEWART, Nellie (1858-1931)
actress
was born at Sydney on 20 November 1858. Her father, Richard Stewart (c. 1826-1902), was an excellent actor and singer who in 1857 married Mrs Guerin, née Theodosia Yates, a great-grand-daughter of the famous actor and actress Richard Yates (1706-96) and Mary Ann Yates (1728-87). Mrs Guerin came to Australia in 1840 and took leading parts in opera, she was the original Maritana when it was produced at Sydney. Her two daughters by Guerin were well known on the Australian stage as Dollie and Maggie Stewart. The theatre was thus in Nellie Stewart's blood but she was most carefully and strictly brought up. The family had moved to Melbourne where Miss Stewart went first to the old model school, and afterwards for a time to a boarding-school. She was taught fencing by her father, dancing by Henry Leopold and, later on, singing by David Miranda, father of Lalla Miranda. At about five years of age she played a child's part with Charles Kean in The Stranger, and as the years went on took children's parts in pantomime. In 1877 she sang and danced through seven parts in a family production called Rainbow Revels, and in 1878 was the Ralph Rackstraw in an early production in Melbourne of H.M.S. Pinafore. In the following year she was a member of her father's company which toured India, and then went on to the United States to play a small town tour. Towards the end of 1880 Coppin (q.v.) cabled an offer of principal boy in Sinbad the Sailor at Melbourne which was accepted, and the pantomime had great success, running for 14 weeks. Nellie Stewart realized for the first time that she was a star. In 1881 she was Griolet in La Fille du Tambour Major and the Countess in Olivette, and during the next 13 years was to take leading parts in 35 comic operas. In December 1883 she played Patience and as principal boy in the following Christmas pantomime was careless when climbing the beanstalk, fell and broke her arm, had it set in the theatre, and completed the part. Forty years later she recorded that her under-studies seldom had an opportunity of appearing.
On 26 January 1884 Miss Stewart married Richard Goldsbrough Row—"a girl's mad act" she called it in later years, for she discovered at once that she did not really care for her husband. They parted within a few weeks and Miss Stewart resumed her theatrical work. Among her principal parts in the next three years were Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance, Phyllis in Iolanthe, Yum-Yum in The Mikado, Princess Ida and Clairette in La Fille de Madame Angot. She was a great favourite with the public, but her immense vitality led to restlessness and mannerisms which were commented on by the more intelligent of her critics, whom she afterwards thanked in her autobiography. About this time she formed an association with the well-known theatrical manager, George Musgrove (q.v.), which lasted until his death. She had an unbounded affection and admiration for him, he was the "great and good man" to whose memory was dedicated her My Life Story. In 1887 she retired from the stage for 12 months and went to London with Musgrove, returning in January 1888 to play in Dorothy, with the composer, Alfred Cellier, conducting. In March 1888 she sang Marguerite in Gounod's Faust at Melbourne for 24 consecutive nights, an extraordinary feat, but it was probably the beginning of the overstraining of her voice which some years later she was to lose altogether. In April 1888 she had the principal part in the Yeoman of the Guard, at a salary of £15 a week, her highest salary up to that time. In 1889 a successful season was played in Paul Jones and she then went to London and played Susan in Blue-eyed Susan, a burlesque written by Geo. R. Sims. The play was not a good one and Miss Stewart was not good herself. She had difficulty in getting over her nervousness in London, and seldom sang her best there. She always felt depressed and unable to give her natural vivacity full play. She retired for two years and then returned to Australia and in September 1893 began playing a repertoire of nine operas including Gianetta in The Gondoliers and the title role in La Cigale. During the next two years the principal parts in Ma Mié Rosette and Mam'zelle Nitouche were among Miss Stewart's successes. In 1895 she went to London and, except for one small part in an unsuccessful play, did not appear on the stage for four years. During that period Musgrove had a great success in producing The Belle of New York with Edna May in the principal part. Nellie Stewart returned to the stage at Christmas 1899 as principal boy in the Drury Lane pantomime, The Forty Thieves. Her salary was £50 a week and she felt a special pleasure in working in a theatre with the associations of Drury Lane. She was cast for principal boy in the following year, but became ill on the opening day and returned to Melbourne soon afterwards. When the Duke and Duchess of York came to Australia to open the first federal parliament Miss Stewart sang the ode "Australia" at the beginning of the musical programme. In February 1902 she had one of the greatest parts in her career, Nell Gwynne in Sweet Nell of Old Drury. Other comedy parts followed in Mice and Men and Zaza. It was in the last play that Miss Stewart reached her largest salary, £80 a week.
In 1904 and 1905 Pretty Peggy and Camille were added to the repertoire. A visit to America followed and Sweet Nell proved a great success in San Francisco. It was intended to work over to New York but the earthquake compelled the abandoning of the tour, all the scenery for the repertoire season having been destroyed. Miss Stewart returned to Australia, but it was not until 1909 that she had another success in Sweet Kitty Bellairs, which was alternated with Zaza, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Sweet Nell, over a long season. In March 1910 she essayed a part in pure comedy, Maggie Wylie in What Every Woman Knows, in which the actress's own charm successfully grappled with the problem of playing he part of a woman supposed to have none. This was succeeded by characters the antitheses of Maggie Wylie, Princess Mary in the costume play, When Knighthood was in Flower, and an unforgettable performance of Trilby.
A lean period followed and the effect of the war on the theatres led to Miss Stewart losing practically all her savings. In January 1916 she was prostrated by the death of George Musgrove, until she was persuaded by Hugh D. McIntosh to take up work again in a condensed version of Sweet Nell at the Tivoli Theatre. He also employed her to help in the production of Chu Chin Chow and The Lilac Domino. Later on she did similar work for J. C. Williamson Limited. In 1923 she published her My Life's Story, a most interesting record of her life. In later years she made occasional appearances for charities, on one occasion at over 60 years of age playing Romeo in the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet to the Juliet of her daughter, Nancye. When nearly 70 years of age she played an astonishing revival of Sweet Nell of Old Drury, and took the emotional part of Cavallini in Romance in July 1930. She died after a short illness on 20 June 1931. She was survived by her daughter Nancye, a capable actress. Her portrait is at the national gallery, Melbourne.
Miss Stewart held a place by herself on the Australian stage. Beautiful in face and figure, full of vivacity, a natural actress, she had also an excellent soprano voice which she lost in middle life probably from over-working it. She took her art seriously, lived carefully, and never lost her figure. Probably no other woman has ever so successfully played young parts late in life. She had great versatility, and after being for many years at the head of her profession in Australia in light opera, was able after the loss of her voice to take a leading part in drama. Though scarcely a great actress she was an extremely interesting one in both emotional parts and those calling for a sense of humour. Her autobiography discloses a woman of charming character, well-educated, kindly, appreciative of the good work of others, and completely free from the petty jealousies sometimes associated with stage life. She had the admiration, affection and respect of Australian playgoers both men and women for 50 years.
Nellie Stewart, My Life Story; The Age and The Argus, 22 June 1931; personal knowledge.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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