Robert Louis Stevenson

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Monday 24 September 2012
Ron Brownson

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Robert Louis Stevenson passed through Auckland on 24 February 1893 on his way to Sydney from Apia aboard the S.S. Mariposa. He met Sir George Grey here but I haven't found a photograph showing them together. RLS wrote of this meeting “What a wonderful old historic figure to be walking on your arm and recalling ancient events and instances! It makes a man small, and yet the extent to which he approved what I had done—or rather have tried to do—encouraged me. Sir George is an expert, at least he knows these races: he is not a small employé with an ink-pot and a Whitaker.” RLS departed Auckland on 28 February.  

I discovered Edinburgh has a photo-portrait of Robert Louis (pronounced Lewis) Stevenson - it's wonderfully casual. Taken in late July/early August 1889 at Butaritari in Kiribati by Joseph Strong. From left, the sitters are Nantoki, Fanny Vandegrift Stevenson, Natakauti and RLS. This is one of the important images of RLS's Pacific life. It is also one of the rarest portraits of the artist, ranking with those made by Sargent and Nerli.

While plenty has been published about the writer RLS (13 November 1850 – 3 December 1894), there is little about how he appeared to others. Looking at the many photos and paintings produced of him, I reckon he comes across as a Scots dandy. He dressed more casually than 19th century expectation. Some people considered RLS nonchalant, insouciant, in choosing attire that showed him to be a dapper artist.

After arriving in Samoa on 7 December 1889, RLS frequently wore no jacket, a habit he initiated after visiting Hawaii and Kiribati (Gilbert Islands). The Pacific's heat was better for his health. To local colonials RLS's appearance was surprising. Immigrant Germans and Brits went about with boots and woollen serge jackets, preferring rampant perspiration to airy comfort. RLS only wore his boots on formal occasions.

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If you compare Joseph Strong's photograph with two portraits by John Singer Sargent, RLS shifts from wearing his silk velvet smoking jacket to an open cotton duck shirt. While both oil paintings are intimate they do not express the relaxed casualness of the Samoan image. Exceedingly thin and of delicate health, Stevenson is shown by Strong as totally relaxed. Just as you see in family snapshots. Sargent's portraits are among the best he made of any artist.

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Graeme Lay wrote a fine tribute to RLS in 1996. He notes why RLS named his home 'Vailima' - a fact many non-Samoans don't know. Lay's essay is informative, and I hope that the current owners of Vailima will soon make it available to visitors. If they do, I promise to write about the reasons Fanny Stevenson chose to decorate Vailima with siapo. I will even offer to give a curator's tour of Vailima, a pleasure I undertook decades ago.
Graeme Lay

Credit:
attributed to Joseph Strong
Robert Louis Stevenson 1889
photograph
Edinburgh City Libraries and Museums and Galleries, item 20206

John Singer Sargent
Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife 1885
oil on canvas 
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville

John Singer Sargent
Robert Louis Stevenson 1887 
oil on canvas
The Taft Museum, Cincinnati