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Robert Louis Stevenson and family

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Robert Louis Stevenson and family

by J. Davis
albumen print, circa 1891
7 1/2 in. x 9 1/2 in. (192 mm x 234 mm)
Purchased, 1929
Photographs Collection
NPG x4630

Artistback to top

  • J. Davis (active 1890s), Photographer. Artist of 1 portrait.

Sittersback to top

This portraitback to top

Taken by the local postmaster, this photograph shows Stevenson, seated in the centre, on the verandah of the house he built there. The house was named Vailima, meaning 'five streams', on Mount Vaea. The other sitters are, from left to right, Lloyd Osbourne, his stepson and collaborator; Stevenson's mother, Isobel Osbourne; Mrs Joseph Strong, stepdaughter and amanuensis; Austin Strong, the Strongs' son; Stevenson's wife, and Joseph Strong, his stepson-in-law.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Birkett, Dea; Morris, Jan (foreword), Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers, 2004 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 7 July to 31 October 2004), p. 56
  • Rogers, Malcolm, Camera Portraits, 1989 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 20 October 1989 - 21 January 1990), p. 129 Read entry

    The sitters are (left to right): an unknown woman; Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson's stepson and literary collaborator; Mrs Thomas Stevenson, his mother; Isobel Osbourne, Mrs Joseph Strong, stepdaughter and amanuensis; Stevenson; Austin Strong, the Strongs' son; Fanny van de Grift, Mrs Stevenson (formerly Mrs Osbourne), and Joseph Strong, his stepson-in-law.

    Throughout his life the Scottish novelist, essayist and poet Robert Louis Stevenson led a wandering gipsy existence. This reflected his longing for the primitive, but was also stimulated by the search for a climate which suited his tuberculosis. In 1891 he settled with his family at Apia in Samoa, where the beauty of the scenery, the climate, and the charm of the native population delighted them.

    This photograph was taken by the local postmaster, who also had a photography business, and shows the family on the verandah of the wooden house which Stevenson had built on his four-hundred-acre estate Vailima ('five rivers'). The carefully posed group, grave, and with an air of suspended theatricality, conveys well the atmosphere of this tightly knit community, grouped around Tusitala ('the teller of tales'), hardworking, contented and religious. Lloyd Osbourne, who was collaborating with Stevenson on The Wreckers at this time, wrote that

    he [Stevenson] liked too, best of all, I think, the beautiful and touchingly patriarchal aspect of family devotions; the gathering of the big, hushed household preparatory to the work of the day, and the feeling of unity and fellowship thus engendered … We were the Sa Tusitala, the clan of Stevenson, and this was the daily enunciation of our solidarity.

    The date 1891 is usually associated with this photograph, but it could be a little later. Stevenson died of a brain haemorrhage in 1894.

Placesback to top

  • Place made and portrayed: Samoa (Vailima ('five rivers'), Samoa)

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1891back to top

Current affairs

The Irish Nationalist leader Charles Parnell is forced to resign after being named in the divorce proceedings brought by William O'Shea against his wife Kitty, who had been Parnell's mistress for a decade. The scandal severely damages the campaign for the Home Rule Bill, contributing greatly to its subsequent failure. Parnell's health also suffered; he contracted rheumatic fever and died a few months after resigning.

Art and science

Thomas Hardy's publishes Tess of the D'Urbervilles, a tragedy which explores the consequences of the young Tess's seduction by the wealthy Alec D'Urberville. In the novel, Hardy sets forward his major concerns about the individual's powerlessness before fate, whilst radically critiquing the hypocritical double standards of contemporary morals.


The construction of Trans-Siberian railway, the longest single rail system in Russia, begins in the Urals and at Vladivostock. Running between Moscow and Vladivostock, work was completed in 1917.
The German aviation pioneer Otto Lilenthal takes off in the first glider from a hill near Potsdam, the first of many guided flights and an important step in the development of aerial technology.

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