The Times/1927/Obituary/Sidney Colvin

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Obituary: Sir Sidney Colvin, art critic and friend of Stevenson  (1927) 

Source: The Times, Thursday, May 12, 1927; Issue 44579; pg. 16 — Obituaries. Sir Sidney Colvin. Art Critic And Friend Of Stevenson.


Sir Sidney Colvin.

Art critic and friend of Stevenson.

We regret to announce that Sir Sidney Colvin, the art and literary critic and friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, died at his house in London last night at the age of 81.

Sidney Colvin came of a family which for many years had been intimately connected with India. His father, Bazett David Colvin, was a partner in the firm of Crawford, Colvin, and Co., East India agents, of Calcutta, and Old Broad-street, London, and his mother was Mary Steuart, daughter of William Butterworth Bayley. On both sides of the family there were many distinguished positions in the East. Colvin was born at Norwood on June 18, 1845, but his childhood was spent at The Grove, Little Bealings, Suffolk, where his father lived for many years. He was privately educated at home by a private tutor, who made him a good classical scholar. He entered at Trinity College, in 1863; in 1865 he obtained the Chancellor' gold medal for an English poem on Florence. Colvin was third in the first-class of the Classical Tripos of 1867, when the Senior Classic was John Edwin Sandys, afterwards Public Orator, and the second was Sir Frederick Pollock. A scholarship (1867) and a fellowship (1868) at Trinity served to fix him at Cambridge.

From about this date he began to contribute regularly to the Pall Mall Gazette' (then under Greenwood), the Fortnightly Review, the Portfolio, the Cornhill, and the Edinburgh. His articles were chiefly on the history and criticism of the fine arts; a selection of them was privately printed in 1873, when he was a candidate for the Slade Professorship at Cambridge. Colvin's first appearance as the author of a single work was rather curious; it was entitled "A Word for Germany, from the English Republican," being a letter to Professor Beesly, and was published at 1d., by E. Truelove, in 1870. Beesly had attacked Germany for its treatment of Republican France, and Colvin, though at that time professing strong Republican principles, had advocated English intervention on behalf of Prussia. But this was Colvin's sole adventure away from the paths of literature and art. He contributed essays to J. B. Atkinson's "English Painters" (1871) and "English Artists" (1872), and published an excellent little book on "Children in Italian and English Design" (1872).

In January, 1873, he was elected Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge; he was re-elected four times, and from 1876 to 1884 was also Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum. His lectures were prepared with great care, and he introduced a system by which facsimiles and illustrations of the subjects of his discourses could be acquired by his hearers. His enthusiasms and the thoroughness which characterized everything that he did made him an inspiring teacher, especially to the young men with whom his lectures brought him into contact.

Apart from his appointment to the Professorship, the year 1873 was a memorable one in Colvin's life, for in it he first made the acquaintance of Robert Louis Stevenson, with whom his name was destined always to be connected. Stevenson, then 23, and Colvin first met at Cockfield Rectory, Suffolk, on a visit to Mrs. Churchill Babington, a cousin of Colvin's. Mrs. Sitwell, who later became Colvin's wife, was of the party, and for the next two years she was Stevenson's "inspier, consoler, and guide." By birth a Fetherstonhaugh, she was remarkable for both beauty and intelligence; she had made an unhappy marriage with a clergyman named Sitwell. The friendship between Colvin and Stevenson lasted until the death of the latter in 1894; its history is told in the Vailima Letters and the volumes of Stevenson's correspondence which were published by Colvin in 1895, 1899 and 1911. How much the younger man felt and valued his older friend's care and advice found expression in the poem "To ——," which appeared in the "Songs of Travel," published after his death. In a letter of April, 1886, Stevenson wrote of this poem that it was "a little too intimate as between you and me. I would not say less of you, my friend, but I scarce care to say so much in public while we live." The poem ends :—

For thee, for us, the sacred river waits,
For me, the unworthy, thee, the perfect friend.
****So when, beside that margin, I discard
My more then mental weakness, and with thee
Through that still land unfearing I advance;
If then at all we keep the touch of joy
Thou shalt rejoice to find me unaltered—I,
O Felix, to behold the still unchanged.

In 1884 Colvin was appointed Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. This involved his severing his connexion with the Fitzwilliam Museum, though he continued to hold the Slade Professorship until 1885. During his later years at Cambridge he had published an essay on Flaxman's life and genius and a life of Landor, followed by a selection from Landor's works. Colvin's studies and experience at Cambridge proved of great value to his work as Keeper of the National Collection of Prints and Drawings. He reorganized the arrangement on more modern lines, undertook a critical revision of the drawings, and had the majority of them remounted on a system which has since been imitated in all the leading collection on the Continent. His relations with collectors and influential persons, whom he advised and guided in their studies, and his all-round knowledge of history, literature and scholarship were invaluable to the Museum. During his Keepership there were acquired by purchase the Malcolm collection of drawings and prints, the Reeve collection of drawings and etchings of the Norwich School, the finest collection of existing drawings by Lucas van Leyden, a remarkable series of drawings by Tintoretto, a fine collection of Japanese woodcuts and drawing, and many other accessions generally chosen with fine taste and judgment and bought for the most part at prices which have prevailed since 1910. The most notable gifts and bequests to his Department were the Mitchell German woodcuts, the Cheylesmore mezzotints, and the Salting engravings and drawings. An important branch of his work was the arrangement of exhibitions, admirably chosen and catalogued, in the gallery of the department. The guides to these exhibitions were excellent; the Rembrandt catalogue especially is a document of great importance for the study of the master's work, which had never before been placed in chronological order. Towards the end of his Museum career he took a great interest in Japanese art, just before the great rise in prices which would have made it impossible for the Museum to compete with collectors of Japanese drawings and woodcuts. Colvin remained at the British Museum until 1912, and was knighted on his retirement.

During his life in London, his literary activities had been mainly devoted to editing Stevenson's works, especially the "Edinburgh" edition, and the collections of letters. He contributed a life of Keats to Morley's "English Men of Letters" series, and edited the letters of Keats and the literary remains of Professor Fleeming Jenkin; he also edited Finiguerra's Chronicle, the collection of drawings by old masters at Oxford, and published a work on early engraving and engravers in England, besides numerous official catalogues. After his retirement he resumed his study of Keats; the result5 appeared in his "Life of Keats" which was published in 1918. It was followed in 1921 by a volume of "Memories and Notes," a work of much interest for its appreciations of the many distinguished figures in art and literature with whom he had been acquainted. He had honorary degrees from Oxford and St. Andrews and was a member of many learned and artistic societies and institutions.

Colvin had the virtues and the limitations of the academic mind, and his books are cultivated, careful, and thorough rather than inspiring. His most attractive quality was his loyal constancy to his friends, whom he was never tired of helping and encouraging. The most famous of them was Stevenson, to whom, when poor and unknown, he rendered invaluable service; and if later on it became rather foible of Colvin's to discover young and unappreciated talent, it was at a generous and kindly foible.

Colvin's marriage in 1903 to Mrs. Sitwell was extremely happy, and her death in August, 1924, was felt deeply by the many people who appreciated her social charm and her gift of enjoying and diffusing happiness.

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