Authors
28/09/18

Stevenson, Henry James, two chairs and five tables

Robert Louis Stevenson was always a restless ass. Tiny and sickly, he lived in many houses, visited many countries and went to die in Samoa, where the locals did not comprehend that a story could be invented and they believed all the amazing stories that Tusitala told them. Perhaps because as a child the doctor prescribed him endless mornings in bed, he had a thorny relationship with the chairs that, according to the critic and friend Edmund William Gosse, he always used eccentrically, "with his legs placed across the arms of the lounge chairs or sitting at the head of a sofa". In a somewhat enigmatic way, Gosse points out that "he very sincerely spoke with us (he and his wife) about the immorality of chairs and tables". Louis could not stay still, so he got along poorly with those furnishings that invited stagnancy. John Singer Sargent portrayed it in 1885 in an extraordinary painting in the hall of Skerryvore, the Bournemouth house that he baptized with the name of one of the lighthouses designed by his grandfather in the Sea of the Hebrides, walking and talking nervously while stroking the long and sparse mustache. It is one of those rare prodigious portraits that put us before the character as vividly as if we were in the room with him.

 

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Stevenson had written the previous year a text describing his ideal home where the most important space was his work room, very spacious and furnished with two chairs and five tables: one for the subject in which one is working at that moment, another one for the reference books that are being used, another one for "manuscripts or tests waiting for their turn", a fourth "creaks under a cluster of large scale maps and nautical charts" and one more is empty and ready for what may arise.
A study to go from one table to another and find recurring arguments to never sit down. It is not surprising that two chairs are enough for such a mess, detailing that the one used for writing must be "very low and comfortable, backed by a corner". And indeed, very low and comfortable is the wicker chair in which Sargent portrays again the Treasure Island author in 1887.
A wicker chair in a gloomy interior, a Martian idea in those Victorian times, although Louis is in it at ease, slouched over, occupying all the generous surface of the seat with his long legs crossed and the consumptive fingers fiddling with the cigarette. Also, very low is the armchair or canapé upholstered in blue, in which, in the 1885 painting, Fanny Stevenson is dressed up as an Indian princess, barely having dialogue on the far right. That chair, says Stevenson in a letter, was once from his grandfather, the lighthouse builder, "but for months it has been named after Henry James, because that's where the novelist loved to sit". Such was Stevenson's restless ass that his chairs bore the name of another.

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