From islands of spice

In the third week of December 1873, Sidney Colvin goes out to join his friend RLS for a part of the Christmas vacation, and finds him without tangible disease, but very weak and ailing; ill-health and anxiety, however, don’t diminish his charm as a companion. RLS leaves Mentone to meet him at Monaco, where they spend a few days.

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sir Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 1, 191].

To Fanny Sitwell [Colvin 1912, pp. 43-45]

Monaco, Tuesday [December 16, 1873].

 We have been out all day in a boat; lovely weather and almost dead calm, only the most infinitesimal and indeterminate of oscillations moved us hither and thither; the sails were duly set, and flapped about idly overhead. Our boatman was a man of a delightful humour, who told us many tales of the sea, notably one of a doctor, who was an Englishman, and who seemed almost an epitome of vices – drunken, dishonest, and utterly without faith; and yet he was a charmant garçon. He told us many amusing circumstances of the doctor’s incompetence and dishonesty, and imitated his accent with a singular success. I couldn’t quite see that he was a charming garçon – “O, oui – comme caractère, un charmant garçon.” We landed on that Cap Martin, the place of firs and rocks and myrtle and rosemary of which I spoke to you. As we pulled along in the fresh shadow, the wonderfully clean scents blew out upon us, as if from islands of spice – only how much better than cloves and cinnamon! […]

P.-A. Renoir, ‘View From Cap Martin of Monte Carlo’ , c. 1884 []
Cl. Monet, ‘Cap Martin near Menton’, 1884 []
Cl. Monet, ‘View From Cap Martin of Monte Carlo’, 1884 []


Friday. – Colvin and I are sitting on a seat on the battlemented gardens of Old Monaco. The day is grey and clouded, with a little red light on the horizon, and the sea, hundreds of feet below us, is a sort of purple dove-colour. Shrub-geraniums, firs, and aloes cover all available shelves and terraces, and where these become impossible, the prickly pear precipitates headlong downwards its bunches of oval plates; so that the whole face of the cliff is covered with an arrested fall (please excuse clumsy language), a sort of fail of the evil angels petrified midway on its career. White gulls sail past below us every now and then, sometimes singly, sometimes by twos and threes, and sometimes in a great flight. The sharp perfume of the shrub-geraniums fills the air.

Sir Sidney Colvin (1845-1927), art and literary scholar and museum administrator, will become director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge from 1876 to 1884, and then keeper of the department of prints and drawings in the British Museum []
L.B. Holst (1848-1934), ‘Monte Carlo and Monaco from Cap Martin’, []
R. Caldecott, ‘Monaco’, 1877 []
Marianne North, ‘Aloe and Cochineal Cactus in Flower’, 1875 []

I cannot write, in any sense of the word; but I am as happy as can be, and wish to notify the fact, before it passes. […] The sea is blue, grey, purple and green; very subdued and peaceful; earlier in the day it was marbled by small keen specks of sun and larger spaces of faint irradiation; but the clouds have closed together now, and these appearances are no more. Voices of children and occasional crying of gulls; the mechanical noise of a gardener somewhere behind us in the scented thicket; and the faint report and rustle of the waves on the precipice far below, only break in upon the quietness to render it more complete and perfect.

[…] Ever your faithful friend,

Robert Louis Stevenson

H. Moret (1856-1913), ‘Calm Sea at L’Ile de Groux ‘ []
Cl. Monet, ‘Cliffs of the Porte d’Aval’, 1885 []
Cl. Monet, ‘Shadows on the sea, the cliffs at Pourville’, 1882 []
Cl. Monet, ‘Cliffs of Varengeville, gust of Wind’, 1882 []
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