Sidney Colvin: A Norwood Man Of Letters

Some time ago I found, while browsing in a second hand book shop in Arundel, a memoir of the life of Sidney Colvin, the late Victorian and Edwardian man of letters and art historian who is remembered (if at all) as the friend of Robert Louis Stevenson and the editor of his letters and of the Edinburgh edition of his works. The book, “The Colvins and Their Friends”, was published in 1928 (my copy is the second edition of that year) just a year after Colvin’s death and its author was EV Lucas, known in his day for his books on art, literature and travel.

I was struck by the opening sentence of Lucas’s book, “Sidney Colvin was born at Norwood on June 18, 1845.” His birthplace was St John’s Lodge on Knight’s Hill, a house long since demolished, which his father Bassett David Colvin (an East India merchant) had rented at the time. The property was described in an 1847 sale catalogue as “a perfect bijou”. It had nine bedrooms, two gate- keepers’ lodges and twenty one acres of grounds. The family estate was The Grove, Little Bealings, near Woodbridge in Suffolk and Bassett David Colvin preferred to live in the country, but his wife liked to spend some of the year within easy reach of the amenities of London and so they adopted the habit of renting houses near the capital, of which St John’s Lodge in Norwood was one. Sidney’s parents were friends of John Ruskin’s parents and he recalled visits their house on Denmark Hill as a boy where he met the great art critic. What he remembered most about these boyhood visits, however, was the sweet sherry served by John’s mother! His father was a wealthy sherry shipper.

Sidney Colvin proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge and after he came down devoted himself to the study of the fine arts. Quite early in life he began writing reviews for such well-known periodicals as “The Pall Mall Gazette” and “The Fortnightly Review”. Already established on the London literary scene by the time Robert Louis Stevenson (five years his junior) arrived in the capital, he befriended him and helped him to make vital early contacts which assisted Stevenson in getting his first works published. Colvin returned to live in Norwood (at Woodbury Cottage in Biggin Hill) between 1873 and 1876 and Stevenson visited him there on at least one occasion. Apparently, Stevenson walked from London to Norwood dressed only in rags, but received no harassment from the police on his way. Every time he opened his mouth to ask for directions he was taken for an educated man and not arrested, as might have been the case had he really been a tramp. It appears that at some point during his childhood or youth Colvin lived with his mother in Westwood Cottage on Westwood Hill, then known simply as West Hill. Between 1875 and 1881 the house was greatly enlarged and was renamed Horner Grange. The house survives as the main building of Sydenham High School (GDST). The building was severely damaged by fire in 1997, but has since been restored. The dining hall (with a minstrel’s gallery and panelled ceiling) is preserved, but this is a feature that may have been one that was added after Colvin’s time.

Sidney Colvin was appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge at the early age of twenty seven, at a time when Ruskin held the Slade Chair at Oxford. Although a friend of Colvin’s, Ruskin was not in favour of his appointment. He thought that the Slade professorship should only be held by a man who was himself an artist, as Ruskin was. He was also surprised that Colvin had been appointed to this post at so young an age. He wrote to him pointing out that “it seems to me deeply desirable that our teachings should be in consent with one another.” In those days there was no honours school of Fine Art leading to a degree and the duties of the Slade Professor were really extra-curricular ones. Undergraduates and others would attend his lectures as an addition to their normal course of study. Colvin remained the Slade Professor at Cambridge until 1885. In 1876 he added to his professorship the post of Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and in 1883 he transferred to London to become Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum where he remained until his retirement in 1912 at the age of 67. Our modern museum directors have to retire at the normal Civil Service retirement age of 60! He was knighted in the New Year Honours of 1911 and this distinction brought his wife a letter of congratulation from no less a person than the playwright JM Barrie, then at the height of his fame.

Through his work at Cambridge, at the British Museum and through his articles in the well-known periodicals of the day, Colvin did much to shape the artistic taste of the late Victorian public. Not an artist himself, he was acquainted with many of the famous artists of the day. As a young man he was drawn by the glamour of the artist and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and through the latter’s friend and fellow painter Edward Burne-Jones (with whom Colvin was already acquainted) he was introduced to Rossetti, was kindly received by him and, as he was to note in his memoirs, saw much of him in the years 1868-1872. He has left a description of visits to Rossetti’s “handsome old red-brick house” on Cheyne Row and recalled “the long green and shady garden at the back, with its uncanny menagerie of wombat, raccoon, armadillo, kangaroo, or whatever might be the special pet or pets of the moment;…”.

It was in 1873 that Colvin met Robert Louis Stevenson, in company with Mrs Frances Sitwell, the estranged wife of an Anglican clergyman, with whom he was already acquainted. The three became firm friends and to this group there would be added in later years Fanny Osbourne (the American lady who became Stevenson’s wife in 1880 after her divorce from her first husband) and Henry James, the American novelist who had settled in England in 1876. When the Stevensons left England (they had been living in Bournemouth) for the South Seas in 1887 in search of restored health for RLS, Colvin became the author’s London agent. Their friendship was maintained through frequent correspondence. Colvin published the “Vailima Letters”, the letters RLS had written to him between 1890 and 1894, just a year after his death. He added an editorial note to Stevenson’s unfinished masterpiece, “Weir of Hermiston” and edited the Edinburgh edition of Stevenson’s complete works which appeared between 1894 and 1897. He later published his letters in two volumes.

Frances Sitwell, a spirited and intellectual woman, was Colvin’s senior by six years. She had a son Bertie by her husband, the Rev. Albert Sitwell, who died of tuberculosis in January 1881 at the age of eighteen. Stevenson wrote a poem for Frances, “In Memoriam, FAS” which is particularly poignant in view of the poet’s own affliction with that same disease:

“Yet, O stricken heart, remember, O remember
How of human days he lived the better part.
April came to bloom and never dim December
Breathed its killing chills upon the head or heart.”

It is clear from EV Lucas’s account that the estrangement between Frances Sitwell and her husband occurred fairly early in their marriage and that she had been on terms of intimate friendship with Colvin for several years at the time of Bertie’s death. But they did not marry until 1903 (long after Mr Sitwell’s death) when Colvin was almost fifty-eight and his bride was sixty-four. They married in Marylebone Church, where nearly sixty years earlier Robert Browning (whom they had both known) had married Elizabeth Barrett. Among the very few guests at the wedding (and at the reception afterwards at the Great Central Hotel) was Henry James, who travelled up from Lamb House, Rye. Arriving early at the church with another guest, James noticed some beautiful floral decorations and asked the verger if they were for Mr Colvin’s wedding. “No,” replied the verger with a snort, “they are for a fashionable wedding at half-past two.” The marriage was a very happy one and the Colvins entertained many friends from the literary and artistic worlds for many years. Lady Colvin’s death in 1924 made Colvin’s own declining years sad ones for him.

In 1887 Colvin had written a short life of John Keats for the “English Men of Letters” series. This book won praise from the Poet Laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and from Robert Browning, the two greatest English poets of the Victorian age. In his retirement Colvin returned to the study of Keats and in 1917 published to critical acclaim a full scholarly biography. Yet it is from the world of music rather than from that of literature or art that we find Colvin’s memorial. The Colvins had been on terms of intimacy with Edward Elgar for some years. When he had finished composing his Cello Concerto just after the end of the First World War he wrote to Colvin (both Elgar and his wife and the Colvins were staying not far from each other near Petworth in Sussex) telling him that he had written “a real large work and I think good and alive”. He continued:

“Would you allow me to put on the title page ‘To Sidney and Frances Colvin’? Your friendship is such a real and precious thing that I would like some record of it; I cannot say the music is worthy of you both (or either!) but our three names would be in print together even if the music is dull and of the kind which perisheth.”

It is extraordinary that Elgar should have been so diffident about the merits of what is now regarded as one of his deepest and very greatest works. Sidney Colvin is forgotten by all but Stevenson scholars and I doubt if Frances is remembered at all, yet is fitting that that these two distinguished representatives of the late Victorian and Edwardian age should be linked with a great contemporary composer and with a lovely piece of music which can be regarded in many ways as an elegy for those vanished years.

Richard Lines 2008

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