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Belle, part VII

This sketch once formed part of the paneling in Chevillons inn in France, made memorable by the sojourn of Robert Louis Stevenson between 1876 an 1878. It was there that he met his future wife and, with a company of his friends, passed many carefree and happy hours. The panel was found on the wall of the inn in 1927 by Mr. John Percival Jefferson, who presented it to the Stevenson Society of America.

“As summer approached it was always a joy to go back to Grez. How eagerly we looked out the window of our carriage for the first glimpse of the church spire. How pleasant it was, as we neared the inn, to see Madame Chevillon and Ernestine waiting for us under the archway, the little green bough fluttering over their heads. It was like coming home to me as I went about the village greeting old friends.”

With storybook memoirs like that, it’s no wonder that Mrs. Isobel Field — “Belle” — called her autobiography “This Life I’ve Loved,” published in 1934, when she was 76.

Belle was in her late teens when she was living with her mother Mrs. Fanny Osbourne and her brother Lloyd in France. They had migrated there in 1875 from their cottage and little garden in East Oakland, California, to absorb European culture while they focused on art with the purpose of learning to draw and paint pictures. The routine of the Bohemian crowd they fell in with was to winter in Paris and study in the many studios under masters, then hit the countryside for the summer. Grez-sur-Loing was only one of many rustic French villages that catered to the seasonal needs of the artists and writers who flooded the place every spring. However, young Lloyd Osbourne, 8, did not care about art, not then anyway. His reason to be — raison d’etre — in Grez was to fish off the famous medieval bridge that still spans the Loing River, a tributary of the Seine. This bridge at Grez, a short distance from Chevillons inn, is probably the most painted bridge in the history of the world, starting with Camille Corot’s version circa 1850. He was one of the great masters in the picture-making business who had discovered the region of Fontainebleau, formerly the private playground of the monarchy, to be rich with things to paint, out of doors!

Chevillons inn became famous because famous artists and writers over many years liked to stay there. Belle could not have foreseen that her glorious summers in Grez-sur-Loing would become part of the story called “A Romance of Destiny” (a biography about Mrs. RLS by Alexandre Lapierre), a romance that was conceived in the inn’s garden by the river when Belle’s mother, 35, caught the everlasting attention of Robert Louis Stevenson, 25. The rest is history, and Belle and Lloyd are featured in it, which explains their immense value as members of the fledgling Stevenson Society in Saranac Lake. The brother and sister joined it and came here in 1917, bearing gifts of memorabilia that are envied by younger generations of RLS museums from Scotland to Samoa.

“During the summers we were at Grez, some rather interesting people came that way,” continues Belle in her book. “There was the Englishman, Enfield, a hearty jovial soul with a ‘haw, haw’ accent, who always wore a monocle. It contrasted oddly with his usual costume — a ragged bathing suit, espadrilles, and a wide-brimmed straw hat. He came to Grez to paint a picture, and set up his easel in the garden. To my surprise it turned out to be not the bridge, but a full-rigged ship in a stormy sea.”

Henry Enfield was a fellow student along with Will Low, Bob Stevenson, Frank O’Meara, John Sargent, Hiram Bloomer and a few others, in the studio of Carolus Duran at No. 81 on Mount Parnassus or the “Quartier Mont Parnasse,” not far from the tomb of Napoleon in downtown Paris. Will Low, from Albany, New York, had things to say about Henry Enfield in his own book, “A Chronicle of Friendships,” things like “our old friend, whose great stature, broad shoulders, ruddy complexion and broad wave of blonde beard, combined with the use of the single eyeglass, made him the typical Briton of the type then in fashion. He was much more than this, however. Loving the sea, he had voyaged far and near, and with a charming sense of colour and great knowledge of the structure and rigging of vessels and of the forms of wave-torn water, seemed destined to be a great marine painter. He was our comrade in the atelier Duran, with frequent absences, from which he returned with a patina of bronze on his ruddy cheeks and new tales of the sea. … Readers of the ‘Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ will recall the name, described as that of the ‘well-known man about town’ who was the friend of Mr. Utterson.”

To quote Belle again, concerning Enfield: “When the light was not right for painting he spent his time on the river. Scorning canoes as too easy, he got a big tub belonging to Madame Chevillon, and learned to keep his balance in it with a paddle. I doubt if I would have remembered Enfield, were it not for a vivid painting Will Low made of him, red beard, beaming countenance, monocle and all, standing up blandly and triumphantly in his tub.”

This painting survived, much to the surprise of Will Low, and found a permanent home in Saranac Lake in 1928.

In 2000, much to the surprise of the Stevenson Society of America, an inquiry arrived about this piece in connection with an exhibition, “The Painters in Grez-sur-Loing,” then being organized by the Japan Association of Art Museums (JAAM):

“We are currently preparing for the exhibition catalogue. We would like to request the permission to reproduce as a reference illustration in the catalogue the following painting from your collection. We are greatly interested in your sketch by Will Low and our guest curator, Dr. William H. Gerdts, has referred to your collection in his catalogue essay. We would be very grateful …” etc. The Stevenson Society complied with this request, which procured for Henry Enfield his own place in their catalogue with the picture caption above in Japanese.

Of the many aspiring young artists in Grez, Frank O’Meara, Belle’s Irish boyfriend in France, was one of the few to create works of sufficient artistic value to make their way into collections around the world, to this day. Among his favorite themes were twilight and the end of seasons. He is considered to be one of the painters who best captured the ineffable essence of the Fontainebleau region, and for a spell he had the pleasure of capturing it alongside Belle, who made it clear in her book that they had something going. When they were in Paris, says Belle, “O’Meara often led me into the Cathedral of Notre Dame, where after crossing ourselves with holy water we would light a candle to Saint Anthony, and beg him to postpone the day of parting that we knew was ahead of us.”

Then one fateful day, the ax finally fell. Writes Belle: “I don’t know why my mother decided to return to California; she never told me, but suddenly we were leaving. This beautiful adventure was over and I thought my heart would break. O’Meara had already given me a portrait of himself done by a fellow student — a young man named John Sargent. It was a fine likeness and I thought it was very well painted.”

As for Frank O’Meara, unlike most of his peers, he chose to stay at Grez and made it his base of operations and became a central figure in the movement, making the 1880s the “golden age” for the Bohemian community at Grez-sur-Loing. In the spring of 1888, when Robert Louis Stevenson was celebrating the end of winter in Saranac Lake, Frank O’Meara became ill and returned to his birthplace in Carlow, the Republic of Ireland, to die there of malaria, age 35.

Belle continues: “His parting present to me was a little pug dog, a breed that was very fashionable at the time. Barney, for that was his name, made a great sensation wherever he went. He travelled with me across the seas and ended his life peacefully in Honolulu where he lies buried under a palm tree.”

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