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George Stuart Figures History Can Be Fun

March 29, 1990|SUZANNE SCHLOSBERG

Her auburn hair has turned white, and her pink cheeks have gone pale. At 81, with weary eyes and deep creases in her sagging flesh, she appears tired, perhaps resigned. Yet elegantly dressed in black satin and lace, she remains a powerful presence.

She is England's Queen Victoria, in 1900, a year before her death.

Actually, she's a one-quarter life-size figure of Victoria, standing in a case at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art. But the figure has been so carefully crafted that Victoria seems to be breathing.

Queen Victoria is the work of George Stuart, who has brought more than 300 historical personalities to life, including Marie Antoinette, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Louis XIV. He has made several figures of some personalities, tracing them at different stages in their lives.

About 200 of the figures are stored at the museum, which displays two dozen at a time. The exhibit changes every three months. Stuart, a Ventura County Arts Commissioner, keeps the rest of the figures at his home in Ojai.

All of the figures have remarkably human qualities. There's a trace of blue in the bulging veins of young Abraham Lincoln. Even Victoria's ear lobes droop.

It's all the result of an intricate process, which begins with research and a wire skeleton and ends with the application of handmade clothing and jewelry.

"It's important for me to show something the public can't see on TV or video or in a movie," Stuart says. "They can't see the rear end of Queen Victoria, but I can show them that."

Stuart, an accomplished historian, also can tell them about things "intimate and embarrassing." The Queen forbade smoking and drinking in her presence, he says, yet her close friend John Brown often spiked her tea. "She certainly enjoyed the tea," Stuart says.

Stuart, who considers himself an entertainer, makes a living by speaking about the private lives of the personalities he sculpts.

"He's quite dramatic," says Bette MacDonell, who organizes Stuart's lectures at the museum. "He brings unusual aspects of the history of the individuals: their love lives, their romance, the sides of history you don't get in a book. He certainly holds the audience in the palm of his hand." Sometimes Stuart impersonates the subjects of his lectures. But, he says, "I don't do a silly little club act."

A formal man who speaks with his hands clasped behind his back, Stuart takes his work seriously. And he resents people who consider his figures "cute little dolls."

"I do not do 'cute, little,' " he says.

The purpose of Stuart's monologues is to entertain, he says, and, in the process, excite his audience about history.

If presented properly, he believes history is not a boring subject to Americans. "They just hate school," he says. "It's an anti-intellectual environment."

Stuart researches every aspect of his subjects, including their posture, clothing, personality and behavior. His quest for authenticity has taken him to museums nationwide, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where he counted the threads in Abraham Lincoln's shawl.

Once Stuart has completed the research and chosen the pose for his figure, he starts the building process.

First, he takes a jointed iron-wire skeleton, fills the body cavity with Styrofoam and adds cotton padding for "fat." For the body flesh, he mixes a formula of plastics and applies it in layers to give the figures lifelike skin.

For the head, Stuart makes a plaster mold, presses a thin layer of clay into it, and then presses a prefabricated skull of imitation bone into the clay. Later, he removes the skull, with clay attached.

Stuart cuts a scalp with hair attached from Icelandic sheepskin and glues it to the skull. The teeth come from a denture factory in Camarillo, and the eyes are made of glass from Japan.

After painting the eyes, adding eyelashes and facial hair and adjusting the hairline, Stuart wires the head to the torso.

The figure is now ready to be dressed. Stuart cuts and sews the garments, researched from costume and fashion books. He also makes all of the accessories, such as earrings, necklaces and military medals.

"I don't have much respect for found-object art," he says. "It's better history and scholarship to produce everything."

Stuart, who makes about a dozen figures a year, considers himself more a historian than an artist.

"It's a very slow, tedious, inaccurate, unscientific process," Stuart says. "That's as close as it comes to being an art."

Stuart's next lecture, "The Hanovers in England," is at 7:30 p.m., April 13, at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, 100 E. Main St., Ventura. The cost is $7.50. For reservations, call 646-6339.

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