Today, the thirteenth of November, Edinburgh celebrates Robert Louis Stevenson Day, thought the birthday commemoration has in fact spawned a week of events from the ninth to the fifteenth – http://www.cityofliterature.com/rlsday-2015/events/
Robert Louis Stevenson, born in Edinburgh on 13th November 1850, is, according to Amazon, ranked the twenty fifth most translated author in the world. Stevenson was an essayist, poet, travel writer and novelist, his best-known works being Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as well as his children’s poetry collection A Child’s Garden of Verses.
I met Robert Louis Stevenson and his wonderful imagination as a five year old child when my first primary teacher read us poems from A Child’s Garden of Verses, a collection published in 1885 and reprinted many times since. I was thrilled to learn that someone else played in similar ways to me, inhabiting a land where a bed became a boat, and playthings came alive; a land where a horseman gallops on windy nights, and many evenings were happily spent ensconced behind the sofa playing characters read about in books.
Rather than glimpsed and gone forever, Stevenson’s poems painted images that stayed with the young me. I asked for a copy of the book for Christmas. My parents were slightly amused as they expected requests for a doll, a replacement to my ancient, rickety ride-on horse Dobbin, retrieved numerous times from the bin when thrown out by my parents; or surely I would want one of the new games becoming available in shops. The request for the book was noted, but as it was out of print it was months – if not years – after that Christmas before I held it in my hands and drooled over its swirling Art Nouveau pen and ink drawings by Charles Robinson – the first book he illustrated.
An unimaginative teacher in my first year of secondary school almost put me off Stevenson for life when her monotonous drone of a voice hauled us chapter by weary chapter through Treasure Island. All the fizz and excitement of the tale was lost in her reading of it and the way she dissected, picking through parts needing no explanation and drawing them out in long, boring tangles. I can still hear her indifferent voice, flat and gravelly, as she regurgitated the lesson for yet another class.
From then, until many years later, I merely had the occasional brush with the writer. However one day we were at a sale of paintings in a high profile auction house in Glasgow, and my husband and I noticed a framed watercolour sketch of Stevenson, thin faced, wearing an open neck white shirt and sarong. Obviously painted in Samoa, probably not long before his death (3rd December 1894). The auction house representative we spoke to insisted the painting was the work of an amateur whose name they had fudged from the indistinct signature. ‘Look at the hands,’ he said. ‘Mere splodges. Obviously an amateur.’
But I disagreed. There was something about the painting that hinted at the spirit of the man, despite the crudely painted hands. But to me, and the painter, the hands were an irrelevance. The painter in his quick watercolour sketch had sought to catch the face, the expression in the eyes, not the hands. As there was little interest in the painting we bought it at a low price. Some time later the National Portrait Gallery confirmed it as a painting of Stevenson, one of the missing watercolour sketches done by Count Girolamo Nerli in 1892 prior to working on the oil painting of the writer now in the collections of the National Galleries of Scotland, on display in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
For me, the immediacy of the watercolour sketch had captured the magnetism, undiminished by illness, of the passionate and indomitable adventurer; it captured the quintessential spirit of the man, a quality lost in its translation into oils.
Although ownership of a painting of Stevenson sent a frisson up our spines, we eventually decided to sell it, hoping that with its authentication the National Galleries or the Robert Louis Stevenson Society would buy it for others to enjoy it.
Although no longer hanging on our wall, the memory of the painting stayed with me, and later, when I began researching Alexander Reid, the Glasgow art dealer painted by Vincent Van Gogh, I was thrilled to discover Stevenson came into the story, as did a woman I became fascinated with, his wife Fanny van de Grift Osbourne. That the Stevensons and Reid met in London is highly likely as RLS’s cousin Bob Stevenson, like Reid, was deeply involved with the art scene. The other link, though I don’t think Reid and Stevenson ever met there, was the village of Grez-sur-Loing where both the Stevensons and Reid spent time.
So on this Robert Louis Stevenson day I not only remember the poems in A Child’s Garden of Verses and the teacher who passed on her love of them to her pupils, but all the stories and information I later learned about the writer, his circle of friends, his wife and her family.
For those interested in Stevenson, I can recommend reading Fanny Stevenson by Alexandra Lapierre who gives a deeply researched account of his life as well as Fanny’s, their time in Grez and Paris, Edinburgh, America and Samoa, at the end of the nineteenth century.