On Mother’s Day I thought of Fanny

The mother I thought of this Mother’s Day was Fanny van de Grift Osbourne Stevenson, or plain, unvarnished Fanny Stevenson. She often swirls around my head.

Fanny fascinates me. Her resourcefulness impresses me. A woman of strong views, and many paradoxes, blade-straight, shunning deceit, nursing with dedication those she loved, rolling up her sleeves to tackle work needing done, hands calloused with clearing swamp and jungle, roughened by making furniture for the shacks and apartments in which she stayed. A woman who created gardens from wildernesses, who loved colour, Polynesian garments and old Mexican jewellery, who cooked, painted and wrote with verve and even charmed her new husband’s straight-laced father. A woman who became the doyen of the San Francisco avant garde in the early years of the twentieth century. A woman with talent for whom life was always a challenge.

Before there was a rail link across America she followed her gold prospecting husband from east coast to west, from Indiana to San Francisco via the Isthmus of Panama. She lived in a shack before retreating back to Virginia City. Eventually leaving her philandering husband she returned to San Francisco where she attended classes at the San Francisco School of Design.

Fanny arrived with her family at Paris’ Gare du Nord in October 1875, the disastrous Franco Prussian war and the bloody conflict over the Commune had left their marks on the city. Historic landmarks as well as new buildings had been destroyed or ravaged by flames, those still standing pockmarked by bullet holes.

After the death of her young son, Hervey, a friend suggested Fanny spend some time in Grez-sur-Loing, one of the many villages near Paris where artists spent their summers, putting into practice what had been learnt in ateliers and studios during winter months. It was in Grez that she met Stevenson, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Grez remains a sleepy rural village, situated about thirty five miles south of Paris. The nearest station, the unmanned Bourron-Marlotte, is said to be three kilometres away. But a lack of information both in Paris and at station, meant we took long circuitous routes through the trees of the Forest of Fontainebleau or alongside a major road with no bus or taxis available. As the overcast May day gave way to torrential rain we became soaked to the skin, our shoes filled with fine white sand.

The clock tower at Grez-sur-Loing

The main street of Grez, looking towards the clock tower. Little has probably changed since Fanny’s time.

Grez-sur-Loing, Hotel Chevillon

The Hotel Chevillon in Grez-sur-Loing where so many artists whiled away long summer days, and Fanny met Louis.

The Hotel Chevillon, where Fanny, Stevenson and many other artists stayed, looked dishevelled in the downpour. The grey painted hotel with white wooden shutters, now belonging to a Scandinavian arts foundation, showed no signs of life. Fanny van de Grift Osbourne, her son Sam and daughter Belle stayed here for three summers, painting, relaxing in the garden or boating on the river, returning to Paris for the winter.

View of tower from the bridge

La Tour de Ganne from the bridge at Grez.

About La Tour de Ganne

La Tour de Ganne information board

The scenery of Grez inspired many artists, not least Fanny who, like many others,

painted the  bridge.

Bridge at Grez

The bridge at Grez-sur-Loing

River Loing

Boathouse by the River Loing at Grez

5 rue Ravignon

5 Rue Ravignon in Montmartre where Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson spent their last winter together in Paris.

Louis and Fanny spent their last winter in Paris together a 5 rue Ravignon, the street where thirteen years later Charles Conder the controversial English born artist who spent many years in Australia, took up residence.

The floating wash-house

Bateau Lavoir, the floating wash-house, named by a young Picasso.

A young Pablo Picasso later found studio and accommodation there too, naming the place the ‘Bateau Lavoir’, the floating wash-house.

Square at Bateau Lavoir

The leafy square in front of the Bateau Lavoir

Fanny liked younger men. Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish writer who became her second husband, was ten years younger than she was. When, after Stevenson’s death, she settled in San Francisco, her companion was twenty three year old Ned Field, a journalist with Hearst newspapers. This liking of younger men must have passed from mother to daughter, as after Fanny’s death Belle, her fifty six year old daughter, married thirty four year old Ned.

Some woman! Some daughter!

Hope you all had a great Mother’s Day.


About jingsandthings

I am me. What do I like? Colour Shapes Textures Paintings, photographs, sculptures, woven tapestries, wonderful materials. The love of materials probably comes from my father who was a textile buyer, and I grew up hearing the names of mills and manufacturers which sounded magical and enticing. Glass in all its soft and vibrant colours and flowing shapes, even sixties glass which makes its own proud statement. A book I can immerse myself in. Meals with family or friends with lots of chat and laughter (and probably a bottle or two of wine). The occasional trip abroad to experience the sights, sounds, food, conversation, quality of light and warmth of other countries. To revel in differences and be amazed by similarities. I like to create and to experience, to try and to achieve. And then there are words – read, heard, written at my keyboard, or scrawled on sticky notes, or along the edges of dog-eared supermarket receipts excavated from the unexplored nooks of my handbag. What do I dislike? Cold Snow Bad design Fast food Condescension
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6 Responses to On Mother’s Day I thought of Fanny

  1. MixerUpper says:

    Very interesting post and photos. Thanks Jings!

    • Just a pity it was such a wet day in Grez as it’s a traditional old village with lots of character. Montmartre with all its artist ghosts fascinates me. A wonderful part of Paris. As for Fanny, she was some woman.

  2. d1nx says:

    What a fascinating history lesson – with incredibly beautiful pictures!! Thank you for sharing. xxx

  3. Carol Breslin says:

    Your photographs make me want to go to Grez right now!!! I did not know the story of Fanny, and I loved your telling of it. Lately, I have been reading Robert Louis Stevenson, so this glimpse into Fanny’s life is especially interesting to me.

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