RALPH STEADMAN FEATURE
perfect candidate to illustrate a Stevenson book. This might come as a shocker to those who’ve suffered under the misapprehensions fostered by literary revisionists and the tourist industry, who seem to have dedicated themselves to re- creating the writer as a super-saccharine author of kids’ stories and A Child ’5 Garden Of Verses, but in his day there was an element of HS. Thompson about R.L. Stevenson. The latter’s revolt against the repressive norms of the Edinburgh of the day was a rebellion the city’s stolid burghers could have measured only on a Miltonic scale: here was a respectable boy who paid no attention to his studies, frequented Cowgate Taverns, consorted with prostitutes, wore a disreputable — if not outright bohemian — black velvet jacket and, most outrageous of all, wore his hair long.
The young R.L.S. was also doing his sickly frame some serious Thompsonesque damage in those Cowgate Taverns, as a display in the City Arts Centre Jekyll 0r Hyde exhibition points out. Apparently the writer’s overindulgence in opium and wine left him worrying each morning whether he was to slide permanently to the bottom of the pit.
Stevenson was to carry the legacy ot Edinburgh’s Calvinist schizophrenia with him throughout his brief lite.
Stevenson did of course escape Edinburgh, but he was to carry the legacy of that city’s Calvinist schizophrenia with him for the rest of his brief life. Physical violence among the proletariat and emotional oppression among the upper classes, poverty and wealth, the Old Town and the New, such were the ever present and not exactly uplifting dualities of Edinburgh life which were later to appear in his art, through pieces such as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the children’s classic Treasure Island. Take, for instance, the moment of rather disturbing violence when the sailor Tom, observed by a hidden Jim Hawkins, refuses to join Long John Silver’s conspiracy:
‘And with that, this brave fellow turned his back directly on the cook, and set off walking for the beach. But he was not destined to go far. With a cry, John seized the branch of a tree, whipped the crutch out of his arm pit, and sent that uncouth missile hurtling through the air. It struck poor Tom, point foremost, and with stunning violence, right between the shoulders in the middle of his back. His hands flew up, he gave a sort of gasp, and fell.
‘Whether he were injured much or little, none could ever tell. Like enough, to judge from the sound, his back was broken on the spot.’
It’s not surprising that this was one of the illustrations Steadman provided for the book: all gaping mouths, broken teeth, groping, suffocating branches, glaring eyes, and in the distance the promise of a sunlit beach. Originally contracted to create twelve drawings, he completed twenty-four, moving, he claims, with ease once he’d found his angle on the characters: ‘Even the supposedly good people in Treasure Island were in fact greedy. They were all there for one particular reason: treasure. And none of them - Squire Trelawney, Doctor Livesey, none of them were absolved from the avarice. They’re after the treasure, and they’re using respectability as a means to get it. They
‘Even the supposedly good people in treasure Island were In tact greedy. They were all there for one particular reason: treasure.’ take along with them Jim Hawkins, in his innocence, who as far as I’m concerned became as guilty as the rest of them - and no less villainous than Israel Hands, who tried to kill him on the boat when they both realised that they could possibly be the inheritors of great wealth. Everybody in that book, as far as I’m concerned, comes out hideous. Human nature in the raw. That’s a wonderful book to write, isn’t it?’
Steadman rejects Stevenson the ‘corny adventure writer’ and prefers to see him as a ‘quintessential story-teller, the man who knows how to tell a story and get you involved, and tell you, without being didactic, all the foibles of man. His work should be examined as documents of social mores. He’s got as much balls and social energy and conscience as Joseph Conrad.’
Or even, it could be said, as much of a latent satirical bite as Steadman himself. Even the drawings of wine and wine swillers which adorn the Steadman-produced Oddbins wine catalogue seem to bear some inherent if
unintentional malice, despite the artist’s obvious fascination for and love of viticulture. His current exhibition at the Edinburgh College of Art is a continuation of his yeast-based researches, comprising illustrations from his book on whisky, Still Life With Battle.
The interview is accordingly concluded in the Scottish Malt Whisky Society, with Steadman desperate to send a bottle back to Hunter. Unfortunately, due to a number of bizarre Customs and Excise laws, he can’t, so he’s trying to think of ways of smuggling it across. Does he have any ﬁnal thoughts on Art, Violence, Stevenson? ‘I think it was his tortured soul, at odds with the society that he lived in, that gave his work that added frisson and lasting value.’ He concludes, ‘You can’t really fault a tortured soul’ as he tortures his liver with something expensive, the picture of contentment. Cl Ralph Steadman — Wine and New Whisky Drawing, Edinburgh College of A rt until 3 Sept. R.LS. Exhibitions and Events Pictures of the Mind: R.L.S. 1850—1894, National Library of Scotland until 30 Oct. Treasure Islands, Royal Museum Of Scotland until 3 Jan.
R.LS..° Jekyll 0r Hyde?, City Art Centre until 1 Oct.
Robert Louis Stevenson (Fringe) Second Splinter Theatre C 0., Diverse Attractions ( Venue II) 225 8961, 25—27 Aug, 7pm, £3 (£2.50).
The Land Of Counterpawe (Fringe) Jestris, Diverse Attractions (Venue I I) 225 896/, until 20 Aug, 11.30pm, £3.50 (£2.50).
R.L.S..' The New Musical Adventure (Fringe) The Edinburgh Footlights Theatre Company, Reid Concert Hall (Venue 8) until 3 Sept, 6pm, £6 (£4).
An Evening With Robert Louis Stevenson (Fringe) Philomusica of Edinburgh, St Mark 's Unitarian Church (Venue 125) 20 Aug, 8.30pm, £5 (£4).
Songs of Travel: Robert Louis Stevenson Centenary Celebration (Fringe) Valvona & Crolla (Venue 67) 556 6066, until 27 Aug, various times, £6.
Robert louls Stevenson and his wife Fanny In the Marquesas Islands
The List 19—25 August I994 9