Reading with Rose: Treasure Island & The Weir of Hermiston

Books: Treasure Island

               The Weir of Hermiston

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson

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Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent, 1887. Taft Museum of Art.

Robert Louis Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His prolific career produced some of the most enduring novels of the Victorian era. [1] Two of his most significant works, Treasure Island and The Weir of Hermiston, can be found in Rose Standish Nichols’s eclectic library collection.

Treasure Island

Stevenson began writing what is arguably his most famous novel in 1881. This story was originally published between October 1881 and January 1882 in serialized form in a magazine for young boys called Young Folks [2], under the pseudonym “Captain George North.” The wild plot contains the swashbuckling adventures the Scottish author became known for. Upon its release in Young Folks, the story received little fanfare. It was published in book form in November 1883, and was so well-received that to this day it has never been out of print. [3] Rose’s edition of Treasure Island is inscribed “To Rose Standish Nichols 1894.” It lives in the bookcase behind Arthur Nichols’ desk in Rose’s library.

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The Captain’s Papers “The Squire and I were both peering over his shoulder.”-Page 49.

The Weir of Hermiston

The full title of Stevenson’s last novel is, appropriately, The Weir of Hermiston: An Unfinished Romance. Stevenson began writing this novel, which many critics portended to be his true masterpiece, in 1892. Stevenson spent hours working on the story the very day he suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage—leaving Hermiston “unfinished.” Today, this novel is overshadowed by the raw psychological thriller Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Stevenson’s aforementioned children’s stories; however, the plot of The Weir of Hermiston is perhaps his most personal. According to biographers, the damaged relationship between father and son mirrors Stevenson’s own relationship to his father. Furthermore, the figure of Adam Weir was based on the real life Lord Justice Clerk Robert McQueen, Lord Braxfield. [4]

w-colvinAlthough Stevenson died before completing the novel, he reportedly left notes detailing its intended ending. Some of these notes appear in editions edited by the author’s friend Sidney Colvin. [5] Rose’s edition of The Weir of Hermiston was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1896 and is inscribed with her name. It lives in the bookcase Margaret Nichols Shurcliff built for Rose, in the corner of her bedroom.

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[1] Mehew, Ernest. “Stevenson, Robert Louis (1850–1894).” Ernest Mehew In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by David Cannadine, September 2014.

[2]”Chronology.” The RLS Website. http://www.robert-louis-stevenson.org/. 14 October 2016.

[3] Mehew, Ernest. “Stevenson, Robert Louis (1850–1894).” Ernest Mehew In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by David Cannadine, September 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Works. Weir of Hermiston.” The RLS Website. http://www.robert-louis-stevenson.org/. 14 October 2016.

By Victoria Johnson, Visitor Services and Research Associate.

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Makers Marks: A Call for Artists

The “Object of the Month” blog has been a place for staff and interns from the Nichols House Museum to share research and insights about our favorite objects in the collection. Several of the featured objects have been more than just collection objects but were actually made by Rose Standish Nichols herself.

This fall, the Nichols House Museum is seeking art makers who are interested in showing their work alongside the objects in Rose’s collection.

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Detail of Rose Standish Nichols’ hand-embroidered bed hangings. Read more about this object in our October 2015 post.

The three Nichols sisters, Rose, Marian and Margaret, came of age during a critical time in American craft history: the Arts and Crafts movement, active from 1880ー1910. Following the Industrial Revolution and widespread abandonment of cottage industries, champions of the Arts and Crafts movement William Morris and John Ruskin, were calling for a return to handcrafts for the sake of beauty, quality and social progress. The values maintained and taught by members of the Arts and Crafts movement impacted the educations, careers and politics of the Nichols sisters.

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Detail of an oak chair with carved decoration by Rose Standish Nichols. Read more about this object in our July 2015 post.

The Nichols sisters were instructed in handcrafts from a young age. Letters, memoirs, and objects in the museum’s collection tell the story of their work with sewing, pottery and woodworking.

“Once a week we had clay modeling with Mrs. Holland, Any creations we wished to take home were baked for up and transformed from a soft mass of dark damp clay to firm white objects of beauty.”–Margaret Nichols Shurcliff, Lively Days.

“She has taken up carving again and is making some frames. Not having you to get up the designs she expects me to do it and I am helping her all I can.”–Elizabeth Nichols to Rose Nichols about Margaret Nichols, November 30, 1896.

“This is a most delightful morning. Margaret and I are writing on the piazza and Marian sewing in the garden.”–Elizabeth Nichols writing to Rose Nichols, June 5, 1901.

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Margaret Nichols Shurcliff knitting, ca. 1905.

The Nichols House Museum is inviting emerging and student artists working in craft disciplines (textiles, ceramics or woodworking) to submit proposals for site-specific works to be installed in the museum for an exhibit that will be on view from March to August 2017. The exhibit is part of a series of programs entitled “Makers Marks: Art, Craft and the Fiber of Change.” The Nichols House Museum aims to position the history of the Nichols family in dialogue with a wide range of contemporary perspectives to create new and mindful interpretations of the house, collection and family.

Applications are due no later than January 16, 2017. Click here to download the prospectus and application form.

Capturing the Captivating Robert Louis Stevenson

Hidden in plain sight in the halls of the Nichols House Museum is a depiction of one of Victorian literature’s most enduring authors: Robert Louis Stevenson. Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ plaque of Stevenson became one of his most popular works, first modeled in 1887, with copies of it selling well after Saint-Gaudens’ death in 1907. [1] In fact, the plaque was so memorable that Saint-Gaudens was commissioned to create a copy that would serve as Stevenson’s memorial in Edinburgh. This plaque, completed in 1904 and residing in St. Giles Cathedral, remains the only memorial of Stevenson in his native country. The story of how Gaudens’ Robert Louis Stevenson plaque came to be echoes the travels and international friendships that Rose Nichols so appreciated.

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Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial. St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland. Saint-Gaudens’ original plaque depicted Stevenson holding a cigarette in his hand. For the church memorial, Saint-Gaudens changed the cigarette to a quill. [2]
Stevenson, one of Scotland’s greatest literary treasures, belongs to an elite group of writers who can claim success beyond their own lifetimes. His writing inspired even those who seldom read to pick up his stories. One man who falls into this category is none other than “God-like sculptor” Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

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Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1905. Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, New Hampshire.

Saint-Gaudens had little taste in literature until his friend Mr. Wells introduced him to a work entitled “New Arabian Nights,” which “set [him] aflame as have few things in literature.” [3] He was instantly impressed, and when the opportunity presented itself for him to meet the author of these stories, he jumped at the chance. The American painter Will H. Low, a mutual friend of both Stevenson and Saint-Gaudens, arranged for the two to meet in the autumn of 1887, when Stevenson (an avid traveler) was on his way to the Adirondacks. He accepted Saint-Gaudens’ offer to “make his portrait” and first sat for the sculptor at the Hotel Albert on Eleventh Street. [4] The original portrait took five sittings which consisted of two to three hours each. Shortly after this initial meeting, however, Saint-Gaudens decided to expand the portrait to include the author’s hands. He began this expansion by using his own wife Augusta’s hands before realizing that they did not serve the task. [5]

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Self Portrait at Montigny, Will H. Low, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.

Arrangements were made for a second meeting between the sculptor and the author. Upon Stevenson’s move to Manasquan, New Jersey, he once again met with Saint-Gaudens to sit for his portrait. It was this sitting which gave Saint-Gaudens a lasting impression of Stevenson. Because it was decided that the author looked too stiff simply sitting in no useful occupation, Saint-Gaudens suggested he should pose in his natural state: writing. To this Stevenson not only agreed, but took the suggestion to heart by writing a letter to Homer Saint-Gaudens, Augustus’ son. [6]

Once the plaque was completed, the author and the sculptor never met in person again, but did maintain a friendship as evidenced by the exchange of several letters. Stevenson referred to Saint-Gaudens as his “God-like sculptor,” [7] and Saint-Gaudens was pleased to consider the author who captivated his literary attention a friend. After the original rectangular plaque was completed, Saint-Gaudens began casting smaller, circular editions of his work in 1898, including the one that hangs in the hallway of the Nichols House Museum, just outside the parlor—which is inscribed “To Rose Nichols,” his niece. As a tribute to the mutual friend who introduced them, the plaque features the words of Stevenson’s poem “To Will H. Low:”

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Detail of plaque including title, inscription and first stanza of “To Will H. Low”

Youth now flees on feathered foot
Faint and fainter sounds the flute,
Rarer songs of gods; and still
Somewhere on the sunny hill,
Or along the winding stream,
Through the willows, flits a dream;
Flits but shows a smiling face,
Flees but with so quaint a grace,
None can choose to stay at home,
All must follow, all must roam.

This is unborn beauty: she
Now in air floats high and free,
Takes the sun and breaks the blue;—
Late with stooping pinion flew
Raking hedgerow trees, and wet
Her wing in silver streams, and set
Shining foot on temple roof:
Now again she flies aloof,
Coasting mountain clouds and kiss’t
By the evening’s amethyst.

In wet wood and miry lane,
Still we pant and pound in vain;
Still with leaden foot we chase
Waning pinion, fainting face;
Still with gray hair we stumble on,
Till, behold, the vision gone!

Where hath fleeting beauty led?
To the doorway of the dead.
Life is over, life was gay:
We have come the primrose way.

Even though the Nichols family had their own Stevenson plaque to admire, Marian took the opportunity to visit the memorial in St. Giles- a testament to how much the family admired the work of their ‘Uncle Gus.’

“This morning we are going to St. Giles to see the Stevenson monument, and this afternoon we are to drive to Rosalyn. You remember that we couldn’t get into the Chapel before, as it was Sunday so I shall have a chance to see that.”- Marian Nichols to Arthur Nichols, August 30, 1904.

[1] Augustus Saint-Gaudens 1848-1907: A Master of American Sculpture. Toulouse: Musèe des Augustins, 1999.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Saint-Gaudens, Homer. The Reminiscences of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Vol  1. London: Andrew Melrose, 1913: 367-389.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

By Victoria Johnson, Visitor Services and Research Associate.