Art is a diversion and a decoration, no triumph or effort is of value, nor anything worth reaching except charm

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 4, 1238.]

To Edmund Gosse [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 206-208]

La Solitude, Hyères, March 17, 1884

My dear Gosse,

Your office – office is profanely said – your bower upon the leads is divine.


Gosse had written describing the office which he then occupied, a picturesque old-fashioned chamber in the upper stories of the Board of Trade, in London []


The Board of Trade is a committee of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom, first established as a temporary committee of inquiry in the 17th century that evolved gradually into a government department with a diverse range of functions. In the 19th century it had an advisory function on economic activity in the UK and its empire. During the second half of the 19th century it also dealt with legislation for patents, designs and trade marks, company regulation, labour and factories, merchant shipping, agriculture, transport, power etc. []



Board of Trades, a deputayion []

Have you, like Pepys, ‘the right to fiddle’ there?


In the essay on Pepys (1882), RLS refers to him as ‘just the man to lose a night’s sleep over some paltry question of his right to fiddle on the leads.’ []


Entry of Pepys’ Diary, 29 Oct 1660, recording his distress and lack of sleep because his neighbour locked the door to the leads []


I see you mount the companion, barbiton in hand, and, fluttered about by city sparrows, pour forth your spirit in a voluntary.


Companion ladder []


Etruscan musician playing the barbiton, Tomb of the Triclinium, Tarquinia []


Now when the spring begins, you must lay in your flowers: how do you say about a potted hawthorn?



Would it bloom?



Wallflower is a choice pot-herb;



lily-of-the-valley, too,



and carnation,



and Indian cress trailed about the window, is not only beautiful by colour, but the leaves are good to eat.



I recommend thyme and rosemary for the aroma, which should not be left upon one side; they are good quiet growths.






On one of your tables keep a great map spread out; a chart is still better – it takes one further – the havens with their little anchors, the rocks, banks, and soundings, are adorably marine;



and such furniture will suit your shipshape habitation. I wish I could see those cabins; they smile upon me with the most intimate charm. From your leads, do you behold St. Paul’s? I always like to see the Foolscap; it is London per se and no spot from which it is visible is without romance. Then it is good company for the man of letters, whose veritable nursing Pater-Noster is so near at hand.


St Paul’s Cathedral from Southwark Bridge, 1855-59 []




I am all at a standstill; as idle as a painted ship, but not so pretty.


“As idle as a painted ship / Upon a pinted ocean”: Colerige, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, part II, 1857 ed. []

My romance, which has so nearly butchered me in the writing, not even finished; though so near, thank God, that a few days of tolerable strength will see the roof upon that structure. I have worked very hard at it, and so do not expect any great public favour. In moments of effort, one learns to do the easy things that people like. There is the golden maxim; thus one should strain and then play, strain again and play again. The strain is for us, it educates; the play is for the reader, and pleases. Do you not feel so? We are ever threatened by two contrary faults: both deadly. To sink into what my forefathers would have called ‘rank conformity,’ and to pour forth cheap replicas, upon the one hand; upon the other, and still more insidiously present, to forget that art is a diversion and a decoration, that no triumph or effort is of value, nor anything worth reaching except charm. – Yours affectionately,




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1 Response to Art is a diversion and a decoration, no triumph or effort is of value, nor anything worth reaching except charm

  1. rdury says:

    This letter has so many echoes of ‘The Ideal House’ that it helps fit the latter to a date in or around March 1884.

    Liked by 1 person

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