Expression in the eyes

Bed is boat

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 –

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.

RLS by Clapperton

Robert Louis Stevenson in Old Gala House, Galashiels.

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.

Swirls at bedtime

The wonderful Art Nouveau pen drawings by Charles Robinson.

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.’

18th Arrondisement

Street sign for Rue Ravignon in Montmartre where Fanny and RLS stayed.

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.

Montmartre door

Louis and Fanny spent their last winter in Paris together (1877) at 5 rue Ravignon, the street where thirteen years later the controversial Charles Conder, who whilst in Australia had been greatly influenced by Count Girolamo Nerli, took up residence. A young Pablo Picasso would later find accommodation there too, descriptively naming the place the ‘Bateau Lavoir’, the floating wash-house.

Square with a well/

The leafy square Fanny and RLS’s apartment overlooked.

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.

Where painters flocked

The Hotel Chevillon in Grez-sur-Loing, where Louis met Fanny.

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.

Picasso's patch

The Bateau Lavoire

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.


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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5 Responses to Expression in the eyes

  1. carol1945 says:

    Oh, dear Dorothy, you have written an essay here dear to my heart. I love your love affair with Stevenson’s poems from an early age. I, too, many miles across the sea, was transfixed by A Child’s Garden of Verses. I will never forget my first foray into the library, and I did not know you were supposed to check the book out, and I just walked out with the book. When I realized in my six year old mind, I had made a mistake, I rushed back to correct it. (In those days, our parents did not do all of this for us) All my life, however, I thought Kidnapped and Treasure Island were “boy’s stories”. Right now in my 70th year, I am reading Kidnapped, and listening to it on Audible at the same time. I look up the unfamiliar words in a Scots-English dictionary I found on the internet. I absolutely love this story for many reasons. Listening to it being read in a Scots accent, well, it is just so alive for me. This is the third time I am doing this, and each time, I get more out of it.

    • So good to hear from you, Carol. I think my fascination with A Child’s Garden of Verses shows the influence primary teachers have over pupils. They have the ability to shape likes and dislikes for the rest of our lives.

      I have to admit I don’t think I’ve ever read Kidnapped, though have watched adaptations on television. Must remedy that. Stevenson is always seen as a children’s writer though he didn’t write for children. I think the tag was pinned on him by a friend (perhaps publisher or editor) he had annoyed and who decided to get his own back, and it has since stuck.

      Just heard from a cousin in The States recommending I read ‘Under the wide and starry sky’ by Nancy Horan – a novel about Fanny and RLS. Hotfooted it onto Amazon and have ordered a copy, so on dreary winter evenings I’ll be stretched out by the fire reading about them again.

      • carol1945 says:

        Thank you; I will look into this book as well. I bought the Fanny book, but have not read it yet. Am saving it for a special treat; supposedly we will get a lot of rain this year after a four year drought.

  2. So pleased you bought the Fanny book, Carol. Hope you enjoy it. It’s quite ‘deep’ reading but so worth it. I learnt so much about the period they lived through.

    You look forward to rain (I can’t imagine a four year drought), and we moan that we’re getting so much of it. Chilly and damp today, and now raining again. But shops full of bright Christmas goodies and mouth-watering food to cheer us – even if we have no intention of buying any of it.

    • carol1945 says:

      I did not realize the seriousness of the drought until I tried to revive an old habit of going blackberry picking at a farm about an hour from my home. The vines were stunted and not bearing, and subsequently the business had to close. It is funny how “drought” can sound so general, a person does not relate to it. But to lose my annual blackberries, now that brings it all home!!!

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