The Stevenson medallion
“Where hath fleeting beauty led?
To the doorway of the dead.
Life is over, life was gay.
We have come the primrose way.”
— from “Youth Now Flees” by Robert Louis Stevenson
Will Hickock Low was from Albany, ever since he was born there in 1852. Low was a gregarious artist who wrote a book in 1908 called “A Chronicle of Friendships” in which one of those friends is conspicuous. From his preface: “This is a chronicle of small, unimportant, happenings. The subsequent importance of one of the young men who figures therein (Robert Louis Stevenson), should be, I presume, its best excuse for being.”
Eight years later, in 1916, Low joined the brand-new, first-of-its-kind Stevenson Society in Saranac Lake, which had established a small, two-room museum or shrine in the home of and with the cooperation of Andrew Baker, from whom RLS had once rented said rooms, including the furniture which is still there, for the winter of 1887-88. This new Stevenson Society brought together surviving members of the long-deceased author’s family and friends, his true inner circle, all of which indicates that the genesis of the Saranac Lake memorial was not as a literary attraction but rather as the temple of a personality cult whose members summed up Stevenson’s qualities in this order:
“His genius was so universal, his philosophy so boundless, that no country can claim him; he belongs to the world. His exquisite humor, kindly sympathy and dauntless courage, coupled with his literary talent, created for him a distinctive place in the mystic shrine of Fame.”
Prominent members who thought like that included Sir Sidney Colvin, Graham Balfour, Lord Charles Guthrie and Sir Edmund Gosse. Altogether, they enjoyed distinction because they were called the four British representatives, not just members. Sir Edmund Gosse was “Weg” to RLS, to whom the author wrote his last letter … to anyone, though he couldn’t know it when he wrote it on Dec. 1, 1894. “Weg,” whose literary and scholarship contributions got him knighted, wrote a letter to the Stevenson Society from his home in England, which he mailed too late to have been read aloud at the 1923 annual meeting of the society. He says:
“More than 52 years have passed since Stevenson and I met for the first time, steaming northward from Oban to Skye [at the time, RLS was in his late teens, an unpromising apprentice in the Stevenson family firm of civil engineers, specializing in lighthouses], but this incident and the face of my new friend are as fresh in my memory as if it was yesterday. If someone had told us then that the name of Robert Louis Stevenson would within half a century be honored and loved in every quarter of the globe, I should have received the prophecy with incredulity, and he with derision. But so it is.”
Among the common memberships in the early Stevenson Society, there were some individuals who were distinguished anyway, like the dead author’s two stepchildren, Lloyd Osbourne and Mrs. Isobel Field. Their gifts of RLS memorabilia made for the richest collection of the like under one roof anywhere, or as they say, “the World’s Finest Collection of Stevenson Lore” is in Saranac Lake.
To get back to Will Low, he was distinguished, too, because of his close friendship with RLS. This put him in great demand among the inquisitive, less distinguished members upon whom he let loose barrages of personal memories, much to their satisfaction, as guest speaker at two annual meetings, in 1923 and 1930. Everybody knows by now that three of Low’s paintings are hanging in Stevenson’s former study at Baker’s. What people don’t know is that Low’s second wife was an artist, too, and a large painting she made also takes up space at Baker’s.
This painting by Mrs. Mary Fairchild Low reproduces the sculptured medallion portrait of RLS by Augustus St. Gaudens, as it is set into the chimney breastwork of their studio at Bronxville. The first casting of the medallion was presented by St. Gaudens to Will Low, for Low’s part in introducing the author to the sculptor. The verses inscribed on the background of the medallion are from “Youth Now Flees,” a poem by RLS and dedicated to Mr. Low in “Underwoods.”
To have removed the original casting from Low’s chimney to bring it to Saranac Lake was more than the Stevenson Society dared to ask, but they wanted it. Maybe it was to console the disappointed less distinguished members that Mrs. Low produced this scale reproduction, brick by brick, in paint, which hangs today over the bed in which Louis spent half the winter of 1887-88 and in which he did much of his writing.