Surgeon illustrates mom’s prized poetry

Dr Leith Stewart in his Kingsbury rooms.

A Constantia orthopaedic surgeon is celebrating a partnership between the dynamic art of reconstructing hips and knees and illustrating the poetry of his mother, Sheila Eagle.

Sitting in his office in the Kingsbury Medical Centre, in Claremont, Dr Stewart confesses that he’s the dumb one in the family. He says the others are academic – his dad was a lecturer in Latin and Greek and his brother is a senior magistrate – but he went off to work with his hands.

“A glorified carpenter,” he laughs, “but in a highly restricted and regulated career where if you want to do things, you can’t because they haven’t been proven. With art, you can do what you want, no-one is going to sue you.”

As for his mother, her passion is English, spanning a career of teaching and lecturing in South Africa and Scotland.

Ms Eagle was born in King William’s Town in 1929, and, at the age of 19, met and fell in love with John Damant.

He asked her to marry him, but her dad said no. She later married someone else who whisked her off to Scotland where they had three sons.

Six years later, after living in Scotland, they returned to South Africa minus all their possessions which were lost when the Seafarer sank off Mouille Point in 1966. This marriage, however, didn’t last and his mother later remarried. Her second husband died.

Ms Eagle later developed an interest in poetry and metaphysics. She has produced two books of poetry, Spaces in 2001, and Having Been in 2015.

She retired to Knysna where she had weekly phone calls with her son. This suddenly changed a few years ago when out of the blue she had a call from Mr Damant, 60 years after she last saw him. He invited her to his Clarens home, in the eastern Free State. She has never returned and lives happily with her husband John surrounded by mountains and a beautiful garden.

She calls her son about once a month. As for Dr Stewart, he studied medicine at Natal and Stellenbosch universities financing his studies with a hockey sport bursary. But it was an innocuous comment that turned his strong hands in another direction.

Having casually mentioned to his wife, Lauren, that he had always wanted to paint she produced a palette and paint and enrolled him in art classes.

That was 15 years ago and now, about 50 large and small paintings later he continues with the classes every Tuesday evening along with five others under the paintbrush of Hilary Adams who teaches from her Constantia studio.

Dr Stewart originally worked in acrylics, starting with impasto, a technique in which the paint is laid onto the surface very thickly, often with a palette knife. Over time he changed to using more fluid acrylics on wet canvas.

“This requires fast, exact handiwork which cannot be undone or over painted,” said Dr Stewart.

He says the technique is similar to his orthopaedic work which requires precision, speed, strength and accuracy. He rarely paints from pictures or images, drawing on his imagination instead.

The idea to produce a book came from international magazine publisher Edna Fortescue, who had her hips replaced by Dr Stewart.

“I was invited to the annual doctors’ art exhibition at the Kingsbury and was astounded to see the large, powerful and very original oil paintings by Dr Stewart. There seemed to be no connection between the orthopaedic surgeon and the art, except that strong, capable hands were applying paint to canvas,” she writes in the book.

The next discovery was that Dr Stewart’s mother was a published poet and then came the idea of combining the talents of mother and son in book form to celebrate their work.

However, Ms Fortescue confesses that it wasn’t an easy project because the modest son and mother didn’t want to promote themselves. A helping hand was provided by Vanessa Aldridge, Dr Stewart’s personal assistant for the past 18 years.

Dr Stewart no longer plays hockey, having taken up strenuous mountain biking locally and overseas. He recently cycled across Zambia with explorer Kingsley Holgate. As for the future, he has announced that he is taking up the saxophone.

“We hope that this book, a labour of love indeed, will be a tribute to the creativity of Leith Stewart and Sheila Eagle, and provide a wider audience for their truly unique talents,” says Ms Fortescue.