bert Stewart 1828-1918

Robert Stewart was born into a family of prominent builders near Toronto. As a young man, in 1851, he worked as a carpenter for two of his uncles who had the contract to build one of Toronto's finest heritage structures - St. Lawrence Hall, designed by architect William Thomas. Through the 1880s its amphitheatre was Toronto's main meeting hall below.

Limestone Hall: Robert decided to become a master builder himself and built Limestone Hall in 1853, right, for John McGregor in Halton County. The following year he married his niece, Ann McGregor. (In the 1960s Limestone Hall was the home of Lt. Col. Allan Burton, DSO, Chairman & CEO of the Robert Simpson Co. of Toronto. Inside was hanging his favourite painting, right, Shooting the Rapids (1930), by renowned Canadian painter Arthur Heming.)

Robert Stewart Company: In 1854, newlyweds Robert and Ann Stewart, moved to Guelph, Ontario, where he started a steam-driven planing, flooring, and sash factory to cater to the enormous building boom going on in this part of Ontario.

Below is the new factory he built in 1869. Robert lived right beside it, in a home he called "The Lilacs," so he could keep an eye on things. The trees on the right are beside The Lilacs, which is shown below right, tight up against the expanded factory in the 1890s. But, adding three extra bays to the factory, above, towards the house, was not a good idea...

The Stewart Chest: As a shelving, sash and flooring maker, Robert Stewart had access to the finest woods to provide to his customers. So it was when Robert - who was one of the leading citizens of Guelph - needed furniture for The Lilacs, that he picked the finest woods and used the best craftsmen in his shop to build it for him.

This chest was probably built, if not in his earlier factory, then in the plant below left, and carried across the yard to The Lilacs, right, where for many decades it would overhear family squabbles and the Scottish burr resound throughout the house. And Robert's children would slam its drawers right open and shut.

The choice woods available to Robert Stewart are evident here in the exquisite bird's eye maple top and tiger maple bottom drawer fronts. And in the finest backsplat we have ever seen adorn a Canadian antique piece of furniture, made of a solid chunk of tiger maple.

The chest would remain in Robert and Ann Stewart's home till 1921. Then it had a close brush with disaster...

FIRE! The biggest fire in Guelph's history broke out in 1921 and destroyed the Wyndham street factory row. Above, the Stewart factory facade is all that remains standing next to the grove of trees around The Lilacs, in the right background, and in the close-up right. Sadly, the mansion was consumed by the fire. Fortunately - one can't help but feel - Robert had died three years earlier, and did not see what became of the dream he had built in Canada for himself, and the Stewart family. It would have broken the heart of the old man.

Luckily, when people saw the fire starting to spread, they began to carry the furniture and belongings from the house. So the chest above, was saved, and remains, today, to represent, what is for many, the finest period of furniture making in Canadian history, and to enshrine the fine crafting traditions of men like Robert Stewart.

Robina Lamont Stewart 1872-1968

Robina was born in 1872, the daughter of Robert Stewart.

She grew up in the house on Wyndham Street, above, and knew the chest of drawers. It may have even been in her room, a fine piece of furniture for a wealthy man's prized daughter. It is certain, nevertheless, that many times the chest heard her childish giggles as she romped around the house with her playmates, and later as a young woman in the early 1890s.

Robina was destined to became Guelph's most famous nurse, and one of Canada's finest ever.

She graduated from renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital Training School, in Baltimore, MD, with three scholarships, became a lifelong friend of Dr. Sir William Osler - who was Director of Medicine there - and rose to become head nurse. She then moved on to become Superintendant of Nurses in hospitals in Millwaukee, WI and Pittsburgh, PA.

In 1910 Robina returned to Canada and became Superintendent of Nurses at the Old Toronto General Hospital, where she supervised the move to the new building on College Street during 1910-13 and the buying of the new equipment and furnishings needed to run a major hospital. (During the TGH's 50 year anniversary celebration, in 1963, she was guest of honour, below right, at 90 years of age. Her picture hangs behind her.)

With the outbreak of war - for the US in 1917 - the Surgeon-General of the United States asked this immensely accomplished professional Canadian woman to become the Director of the US Army School of Nursing at the Walter Reed Army Hospital during World War I.

Canada's most famous and accomplished nurse of the period now held what was probably the top nursing job in the United States.

She moved back to Guelph after the war.

1860s Empire, Cherry, Bird's eye & Tiger Maple, Robert Stewart Chest

The cherry top and sides serve as wonderful counterpoints to set off the golden glow of rare varieties of maple.

Several special features make this chest distinctive and spectacular. The top two drawers overhang the lower three, breaking up the normally straight facade and introducing style and beauty to the design of a functional and private piece of furniture.

The top drawers, again, depart from the usual, in being curve-fronted, and take the square edge off what is often the stiff looking, squarish appearance of many Empire style pieces.

But it is the wood, above all, which transforms this piece.

Whereas many furniture makers would use the valuable bird's eye maple sparingly, and only utilize it as a thin layer of 1/16" or 1/8" veneer glued over pine boards, the Stewart chest departs from the norm in featuring entire drawer fronts of solid exotic parts of the maple, bird's eye for the top two, and tiger for the bottom three.

The difference between figured (bird's eye and tiger) maple is evident.

And below, no it is not painted; God created this glorious golden backsplat which shows the grain running across the board (detail above.)

The pulls on this piece - unlike those on many old pieces of furniture - are not replacements, held in with screws, but are the originals, using peg extensions that were glued in, and that have never been removed. The pulls are the very ones that Robert, Ann, and Robina, once used to tug to open and close the drawers, so many years ago.

A most precious Canadian heritage treasure, enshrining as it does, Great Canadian people, places, and events of long ago.

More Fine Canadian Antique Furniture from the Robert Stewart Factory - Guelph, ON - 1850s

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Robert Stewart Factory, Guelph, ON - c 1865
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
A fine Canadian mid-Victorian dresser manufactured at the Robert Stewart factory in Guelph, Ontario, probably in the 1860's

Once the personal dresser of Robert Stewart himself, this wonderful piece is far above the level of this kind of dresser that one encounters in Ontario and remains with the family of the founder of the company.

It is finished with the finest chestnut and decorated with wonderful bird's eye maple, on the upper drawer fronts and on the chimney pots at the ends of the backsplat.

Though chests with the body case like this are found from time to time, this one has embellishments rarely found, which make it unusual in a number of ways.

The backsplat with bird's eye maple chimney pots is exquisite.

The top drawer - four over three - arrangement is unique, displaying three small drawers for personal effects - pens, papers, keys etc. - and a large one for hats, over three lower drawers where other clothing items would go.

The two central glove boxes on top are wonderful, and rarely encountered, except in the finest gentleman's chests.

To have the whole thing topped off with a mirror, held with scrolled supports, makes this dresser a period piece without parallel, in Ontario produced furniture, and a most worthy memorial to a pioneer Canadian furniture maker and industrialist.

Robert Stewart's Personal Dresser - c 1860
Copyright Goldi Productions Ltd. - 1996, 1999, 2005

Furniture Page 4

Great Canadian Furniture

1860s Empire, Cherry, Bird's eye & Tiger Maple, Robert Stewart Chest

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Seldom do you come across an antique piece of furniture which has it all - It's Canadian, featuring the best native woods, cherry, bird's eye, and tiger maple, in a pleasing configuration, set off by a knock-em-dead backsplat, in untampered original condition, with the original finish, built by a known manufacturer, owned by major figures in Canadian history, and with the family provenance unbroken since it was crafted 150 years ago.

Such is this two over three, cherry, bird's eye, and tiger maple, Empire chest, dating from the 1860s, and built by master craftsmen in the factory of Robert Stewart seen at its peak in Guelph, Ontario below.

Absolutely awesome is this phenomenal example of a well-preserved antique chest built by one of Ontario's leading wood products manufacturers of the 19th century..

Robert Stewart, Empire Chest, c 1860
Orig. chest of drawers - Size - 46 x 46 x 52"
Found - Aberfoyle, ON