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.

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Author: Nichols House Museum

The Nichols House Museum's mission is: To preserve and interpret the 1804 townhouse that was from 1885 until 1960 the home of Rose Standish Nichols, landscape gardener, suffragist and pacifist. The house was built by Jonathan Mason and is attributed to Charles Bulfinch. The museum educates visitors by providing a unique glimpse into the domestic life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries on Boston's historic Beacon Hill.