RLS in France: Enter Will Low

Will Hickock Low was American born in Albany in 1852. At an early age he had chosen to pursue a career in the visual arts and at twenty-two he booked passage to France to make it happen. In Paris he enrolled to study under the painter Carolus-Duran, whose studio covered the third floor of No. 81 Boulevard Mont Parnasse. Among students he befriended there were a fellow American, John Singer Sargent, and a colorful character from Edinburgh, Scotland, Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson or just “Bob,” the cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson. Bob and Will realized they were natural companions and were together much. Bob would arrange for Low to meet his cousin Louis and the long-term effect of that event in June, 1875, would take Will Low into writing a book someday. When it was finished, he called it A Chronicle of Friendships and it went public in 1908 through Charles Scribner’s Sons, N.Y.

“This is a chronicle of small, unimportant happenings,” he said. “The subsequent importance of one of the young men who figures therein should be, I presume, its best excuse for being … few men have left more of themselves to the world than R.L.S. has written into his works, and since his death much has been written of him. From the sad morning when news of my friend’s death came from Samoa, I have been constantly urged that I might fill up a gap in his story by the recital of our life at a period which his correspondence left unfilled.”

In 1916, the brand new and first of its kind organization, the Stevenson Society in Saranac Lake, welcomed Will Low aboard as a most fascinating member. He wasted no time designing the society’s bookplate and today three of his paintings cover wall space in the small room his old friend once called “my study” when Stevenson was paying rent to Andrew Baker in the winter of 1887-88. Two of those paintings hail from that happy, sunny time when “the little band of youths of differing nationalities whom chance threw together in France in the early (eighteen) seventies” were having the time of their lives.

Will Low served a term as president of the Stevenson Society and he and his artistic wife, Mrs. Mary Fairchild Low, made the journey from their home in Bronxville, N.Y. to Saranac Lake several times to attend the annual meetings held on the museum grounds. Low was a guest speaker for two of those occasions, 1923 and 1931. As a source to study Stevenson he is irresistible and passages from A Chronicle of Friendships and the Stevenson Society annual reports contribute not just a little to this account.

Will Hickock Low had no problem recalling the genesis of his friendship with Robert Louis Stevenson. It began in Paris on a spring evening in 1875. He and Bob Stevenson were strolling the heights of Montmartre when the latter opened a letter, and according to Low, “after scanning it, he passed it to me, saying ‘Louis is coming over.’ I read the brief note; it was the first time I saw the handwriting which was to become so familiar to me and by whose medium the world was to gain so greatly … I had heard much of this cousin, of the life which Bob and he had led in Edinburgh, where their revolt against the over-strict conventionality of that famous Town had been flavored with the zest of forbidden fruit.”

A wonderful day in the life for three young artists began the next morning when Bob and Will stood waiting at the station. “At the appointed hour there descended from the Calais train a youth ‘unspeakably slight,’ with the face now familiar to us, the eyes widely spaced. It was not a handsome face until he spoke, and then I can hardly imagine that any could deny the appeal of the vivacious eyes…or fail to realize that here was one so evidently touched with genius that the higher beauty of the soul was his…The appearance and the sense of youth he kept through life.”

“The formalities of the introduction were soon over … His luggage was dispatched to Lavenue’s hotel … and light-handed and light-hearted we proceeded to retrace our steps across Paris … And then began a flow of talk which as I look back, seems to have been an irresistible current flowing through our lives … it was good to be out in the pleasant sunshine, in the city kind above all others to our kind, to be at the threshold of our lives, and even the certainty…that possibly the whole course of art and letters was waiting expectantly for our decision before determining its final direction, may be pardoned us.”

They were having fun. No thought did they give to their destination, they just kept walking and walking until, as Low continues, “Our wandering steps had brought us to that Pont des Arts, bridging the Seine from the Louvre to the Institute…Here we sat on a bench in the sun, looking up to where the boat-shaped Ile de la Cite swims upon the current bearing the proud towers of Notre Dame. To the left we could follow the long facade of the Louvre, and to the right stood the Institute, where, as we knew, forty antiquated gentlemen sat in judgement upon aesthetic France.”

The trio soaked up the sun on that bench all morning until hunger pangs spurred them to hail an open carriage to return them to Louis’s hotel and Lavenue’s restaurant. Most of their wining and dining in Paris happened at Lavenue’s and for years to come, RLS would find ways to praise the place in his letters and published works.

“Here after our lunch,” continued Low, “with coffee and cigarettes we sat, as we did so often on later occasions, until four or five in the afternoon…From Lavenue’s we sought the garden of the Luxembourg where we sat long into the twilight …”

Bohemian is a word commonly applied to individuals like these three gentlemen in regard to their lifestyle. It came first into use in 1603, according to Webster’s to denote natives and dialects of a region in Eastern Europe. The meaning was later expanded to describe the inhabitants of said region, presumably, as vagabonds, wanderers and gypsies. Still later, bohemian could be used to describe “a person (as a writer or an artist) living an unconventional life usually in a colony with others.” In 1848, Thackeray introduced the term in England with the sense of unconventional social gypsy but it took a French novelist, Henri Murger, to seize the European imagination with his Scenes de Boheme starring sponging vagabonds with artistic pretentions operating in a romantic setting. RLS said the book was “sugar-candy pastorals … written in rose-water.”

Will, Bob and Louis fit the Webster’s definition as artistic types living an unconventional life in colonies of peers. Will Low might seem like a more authentic strain of the type because he was winging it financially while his two comrades had a safety net in the growing bank account of the Stevenson family firm of engineers. But as later events would demonstrate, Robert Louis Stevenson was not one to let lack of funds or even the specter of the Grim Reaper get in his way when he knew what he wanted. The time would come when the son of Thomas and Margaret Stevenson would sever all ties and risk everything “to be or not to be” for there was a lot of Hamlet in Louis. Several years earlier Stevenson had written his mother from a London hotel: “You must understand that I shall be a nomad, more or less, until my days be done … you must take my nomadic habit as part of me … I must be a bit of a vagabond.”

‘Bohemia’ as a state of mind and way of living has evolved over time as copy-cat concepts modified to befit whoever, wherever. But for Will, Bob and Louis looking at the stars in Luxembourg garden “this was no Bohemia attempted in stony Edinburgh but the original Bohemia in earnest in a town of pale sun on stucco, as well established as the turbulent and messy Paris Markets. Fifteen years later Louis recalled every smell, every plump of rain, every toothful of red wine in describing Loudon Dodd’s ups and downs in The Wrecker.” (Voyage to Windward: the Life of RLS, J.C. Furnas.)

For the two Stevensons and their American friend, their spring day in Paris closed out at a cafe near the garden where they planned to down a drink or two. A decanter of chartreuse was ordered which came with unspeakably small glass, “and here,” said Low, “the impish extravagance of my new friend, which was at the bottom of so many of the youthful escapades in Edinburgh…became manifest.” As the three began to toast, Louis stopped and said: “I wonder why this sort of thing is always served in such small glasses.” He called for a real glass, filled it and drank it down like water. Low told Stevenson he could get sick doing that but his friend’s reply caught him off guard. “He declared that it did not matter, because,” said Louis, “I have come to Paris to rest and tomorrow I shall lie abed all day.”

For Low, that was his first clue that Louis had health issues.

“It was not until a much later time that I realized that his early sojourns in the South of France were in the quest of health. At Barbizon he was among the foremost in our long walks over the plains or in the forest of Fontainebleau and in the summers of 1876-77 at Grez, where he led a semi-amphibious life, on and in the river Loing, he never seemed ill…It never occurred to us that his slender frame encased a less robust constitution than that of others. ‘My illness is an incident outside my life’ was his watchword later, and I need not enlarge on his brave attitude in that respect.”

Finally, late that night the trio called it a day in the City of Lights, in the spring of 1875. “We sauntered leisurely up the Boulevard St. Michel…Thence descending the Boulevard Mont Parnasse, we escorted Louis to the door of his hostelry…At the appointed time he reappeared feeling, he assured us, much refreshed, and the morning after the two cousins departed for Barbizon.”