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Robert Louis Stevenson: A Memorial
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OF the portraits of Stevenson a word or two may be said. There is a very good early
photograph of him, taken not very long before the date of my visit to him at Braemar in
1881, and is an admirable likeness - characteristic not only in expression, but in pose and
attitude, for it fixes him in a favourite position of his; and is, at the same time, very easy
and natural. The velvet jacket, as I have remarked, was then his habitual wear, and the
thin fingers holding the constant cigarette an inseparable associate and accompaniment.
He acknowledged himself that he was a difficult subject to paint - not at all a good sitter -
impatient and apt to rebel at posing and time spent in arrangement of details - a fact he
has himself, as we shall see, set on record in his funny verses to Count Nerli, who painted
as successful a portrait as any. The little miniature, full-length, by Mr J. S. Sarjent,
A.R.A., which was painted at Bournemouth in 1885, is confessedly a mere sketch and
much of a caricature: it is in America. Sir W. B. Richmond has an unfinished portrait,
painted in 1885 or 1886 - it has never passed out of the hands of the artist, - a
photogravure from it is our frontispiece.
There is a medallion done by St Gauden's, representing Stevenson in bed propped up by
pillows. It is thought to be a pretty good likeness, and it is now in Mr Sidney Colvin's
possession. Others, drawings, etc., are not of much account.
And now we come to the Nerli portrait, of which so much has been written. Stevenson
himself regarded it as the best portrait of him ever painted, and certainly it also is
characteristic and effective, and though not what may be called a pleasant likeness, is
probably a good representation of him in the later years of his life. Count Nerli actually
undertook a voyage to Samoa in 1892, mainly with the idea of painting this portrait. He
and Stevenson became great friends, as Stevenson naively tells in the verses we have
already referred to, but even this did not quite overcome Stevenson's restlessness. He
avenged himself by composing these verses as he sat:
Did ever mortal man hear tell o' sic a ticklin' ferlie
As the comin' on to Apia here o' the painter Mr Nerli?
He cam'; and, O, for o' human freen's o' a' he was the pearlie -
The pearl o' a' the painter folk was surely Mr Nerli.
He took a thraw to paint mysel'; he painted late and early;
O wow! the many a yawn I've yawned i' the beard o' Mr Nerli.
Whiles I wad sleep and whiles wad wake, an' whiles was mair than surly;
I wondered sair as I sat there fornent the eyes o' Nerli.
O will he paint me the way I want, as bonnie as a girlie?
O will he paint me an ugly tyke? - and be d-d to Mr Nerli.
But still an' on whichever it be, he is a canty kerlie,
The Lord protect the back an' neck o' honest Mr Nerli.
Mr Hammerton gives this account of the Nerli portrait: