R L Stevenson – The Wrong Box, 1889

CHAPTER VII. In Which William Dent Pitman takes Legal Advice

Norfolk Street, King’s Road—jocularly known among Mr Pitman’s lodgers as ‘Norfolk Island’—is neither a long, a handsome, nor a pleasing thoroughfare. Dirty, undersized maids-of-all-work issue from it in pursuit of beer, or linger on its sidewalk listening to the voice of love. The cat’s-meat man passes twice a day. An occasional organ-grinder wanders in and wanders out again, disgusted. In holiday-time the street is the arena of the young bloods of the neighbourhood, and the householders have an opportunity of studying the manly art of self-defence. And yet Norfolk Street has one claim to be respectable, for it contains not a single shop—unless you count the public-house at the corner, which is really in the King’s Road.

The door of No. 7 bore a brass plate inscribed with the legend ‘W. D. Pitman, Artist’. It was not a particularly clean brass plate, nor was No. 7 itself a particularly inviting place of residence. And yet it had a character of its own, such as may well quicken the pulse of the reader’s curiosity. For here was the home of an artist—and a distinguished artist too, highly distinguished by his ill-success—which had never been made the subject of an article in the illustrated magazines. No wood-engraver had ever reproduced ‘a corner in the back drawing-room’ or ‘the studio mantelpiece’ of No. 7; no young lady author had ever commented on ‘the unaffected simplicity’ with which Mr Pitman received her in the midst of his ‘treasures’. It is an omission I would gladly supply, but our business is only with the backward parts and ‘abject rear’ of this aesthetic dwelling.

Here was a garden, boasting a dwarf fountain (that never played) in the centre, a few grimy-looking flowers in pots, two or three newly planted trees which the spring of Chelsea visited without noticeable consequence, and two or three statues after the antique, representing satyrs and nymphs in the worst possible style of sculptured art. On one side the garden was overshadowed by a pair of crazy studios, usually hired out to the more obscure and youthful practitioners of British art. Opposite these another lofty out-building, somewhat more carefully finished, and boasting of a communication with the house and a private door on the back lane, enshrined the multifarious industry of Mr Pitman. All day, it is true, he was engaged in the work of education at a seminary for young ladies; but the evenings at least were his own, and these he would prolong far into the night, now dashing off ‘A landscape with waterfall’ in oil, now a volunteer bust (‘in marble’, as he would gently but proudly observe) of some public character, now stooping his chisel to a mere ‘nymph’ for a gasbracket on a stair, sir’, or a life-size ‘Infant Samuel’ for a religious nursery. Mr Pitman had studied in Paris, and he had studied in Rome, supplied with funds by a fond parent who went subsequently bankrupt in consequence of a fall in corsets; and though he was never thought to have the smallest modicum of talent, it was at one time supposed that he had learned his business. Eighteen years of what is called ‘tuition’ had relieved him of the dangerous knowledge. His artist lodgers would sometimes reason with him; they would point out to him how impossible it was to paint by gaslight, or to sculpture life-sized nymphs without a model.

‘I know that,’ he would reply. ‘No one in Norfolk Street knows it better; and if I were rich I should certainly employ the best models in London; but, being poor, I have taught myself to do without them. An occasional model would only disturb my ideal conception of the figure, and be a positive impediment in my career. As for painting by an artificial light,’ he would continue, ‘that is simply a knack I have found it necessary to acquire, my days being engrossed in the work of tuition.’

At the moment when we must present him to our readers, Pitman was in his studio alone, by the dying light of the October day. He sat (sure enough with ‘unaffected simplicity’) in a Windsor chair, his low-crowned black felt hat by his side; a dark, weak, harmless, pathetic little man, clad in the hue of mourning, his coat longer than is usual with the laity, his neck enclosed in a collar without a parting, his neckcloth pale in hue and simply tied; the whole outward man, except for a pointed beard, tentatively clerical. There was a thinning on the top of Pitman’s head, there were silver hairs at Pitman’s temple. Poor gentleman, he was no longer young; and years, and poverty, and humble ambition thwarted, make a cheerless lot.

Robert Louis Stevenson (written in collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne)

The Wrong Box, 1889

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space - creator of art projects - writer on art

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