In John Singer Sargent’s curious 1885 portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife, the novelist seems to be escaping from the composition. The author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped and the hallucinogenic Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was famously restless, and after sailing the South Seas, died in Samoa in 1894. As it turned out, that love of saltwater, ships and extreme adventure had a solid physical base: lighthouses.
Between them, generations of RLS’s extraordinary scientific family — the ‘Lighthouse Stevensons’ — built 97 lighthouses round the coasts of Scotland from 1790 to 1940. So Scottish poet Kate Clanchy told me after a Royal Society of Literature lecture on Sargent’s little masterpiece, now on show in the London National Portrait Gallery exhibition of this insightful and innovative painter’s work.
RLS was the odd one out in his sprawling clan of engineers, abandoning his studies in the field early on to pursue the building of books. He was nevertheless vastly proud of his stalwart relatives, writing in 1880:
There is scarce a deep sea light from the Isle of Man to North Berwick, but one of my blood designed it. The Bell Rock stands monument for my grandfather, the Skerry Vhor for my Uncle Alan and when the lights come on at sundown along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think they burn more brightly for the genius of my father.
The star was arguably RSL’s grandfather, Robert. Bell Rock, his masterwork, is
35 metres of solid engineering jutting from a sea-washed rock in the North Sea, kilometres out from Dundee. Finished in 1811 after three years of punishing labour, it is a wonder of innovation, from the stone floors that prevent outward thrust to the tools used in its construction. (As engineer in charge, Robert invented the moveable jib crane, now used round the world, for the job.) Equally radical was its optical apparatus, a revolving parabolic reflector designed to flash red and white, operated by a clockwork mechanism.
The indefatigable Stevensons were tinkering away at catroptic or reflecting lighthouse lights years before Augustin Fresnel’s groundbreaking dioptric refracting system began its march round the world. (See Jo Baker’s review of Theresa Leavitt’s 2013 A Short Bright Flash, on the Fresnel revolution.) And they were at it long after: Robert’s son Alan, for instance, improved Fresnel’s model by adding prismatic rings below the lenses.
As for Sargent, as Clanchy pointed out, his work has remarkable immediacy. Not unlike photographs, his paintings capture his subjects in mid-motion, even mid-thought (RLS will forever be walking out of that frame). She described it, in fact, as “flash” — an ideal quality for conveying the restive brilliance of a scion of luminaries.
Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends shows at London’s National Portrait Gallery through 25 May. Bella Bathurst’s 1999 The Lighthouse Stevensons gives a full account of RLS’s remarkable family and their works.
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