John Keats by Joseph Severn

John Keats by Joseph Severn (1821)

My Daily Art Display today centres around one of the greatest English poets, John Keats, and one of his most devoted friend, the English portrait artist Joseph Severn.

Joseph Severn was born in Hoxton near London in 1793.  He was one of seven children and the eldest son of a prosperous middle-class family.  His father was a music teacher and Severn besides being artistically talented was an accomplished pianist.   In 1807 his father arranged for him to be apprenticed to a London engraver, William Bond, a master of the stipple engraving technique.  When Severn was twenty-two years of age he enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools in London and four years later his first works were exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition.  That same year he was awarded the gold medal for his painting, Una and the Red Cross Knight in the Cave of Despair, the inspiration for this work being the epic poem by Sir Thomas Spenser entitled the Faerie Queen.  This prestigious award was even more special as the Royal Academy hadn’t awarded the medal for eight years.

It is thought that Severn first met the writer and poet John Keats around 1814 when he became part of the artistic circles of London.  He was not one of Keats’ closest friends but was one of Keats’ circle of literati and artists.  In 1817, John Keats and his brother George had to take time to nurse their brother Tom, who was suffering from tuberculosis.    In June 1818, Keats began a walking tour of Scotland, Ireland and the Lake District with his friend Charles Armitage Brown and his brother George and his sister-in-law Georgina before the latter pair set sail from Liverpool for a new life in America.  When Keats returned from his trip he continued to nurse his brother Tom and in doing so, exposed himself to the disease and it is thought by many that it was at this time that the disease took hold of John Keats.   His brother, Tom died in December 1818.

Tuberculosis took hold of Keats and he was counselled by his physicians to move to a warmer climate for the winter months.   Keats agreed to such a change of venue and a suitable travelling companion for him was sought.   Most of his close friends could not or would not go with him for various reasons and despite not being one of Keats’ “best friend” it was Severn who offered to accompany Keats to Italy for what was hoped to be an aid to the poet’s recovery.  Severn had always wanted to visit Italy and this proposed trip with Keats was his ideal opportunity. Severn was keen to study the great Italian Masters and be enthused by the beautiful landscapes of Italy. As he had just been awarded the gold medal by the Royal Academy he was eligible to apply for a travelling fellowship which gave him three years of artistic freedom funded by the Royal Academy. In order to receive this grant, Severn needed to paint an original in oil and have it shipped back to London. Once the painting was approved by a panel of judges, he would receive the precious fellowship and since Rome was the art capital of Europe, it made sense to Severn to travel there. His decision to leave England with Keats was not universally popular.  When he told his father of his plans, his father was horrified telling his son that he was risking his career and health by travelling with the ailing Keats and ordered him to remain in England. In Grant Scott’s book Letters and Memoirs, he recounts part of Severn’s late memoir in which he talks about this harrowing meeting with his father:

“…in his insane rage he struck me a blow which fell me to the ground…”

Severn was never to see his father again. However, Severn would not be deterred, packed his bags and embarked on what he believed was a voyage of convalescence, for his companion as Keats’s doctors had assured him that a stay in Rome would cure his condition.   It is extremely doubtful whether Keats believed the optimistic views of his doctors but it never crossed Severn’s mind that his companion would not fully recover once living in the favourable climate of the Italian capital.

In September 1820 Keats and Severn set sail for Naples on the vessel, Maria Crowther.  Although at the start of the voyage Keats’ illness seemed to be far from serious in the eyes of Severn, weeks into the voyage Keats became feverish and began to cough up blood and these physical signs of Keats’ illness affected Severn mentally.  In one of his letters he wrote of his time during the voyage with Keats:

“…He was often so distraught, with moreover so sad a look in his eyes, sometimes a starved, haunting expression that it bewildered me…”

The voyage itself had its problems.  The weather was constantly changing.  Stormy weather battered the ship one day and then the weather would completely change and the vessel would be becalmed lengthening the duration of the sea passage.  They finally arrived at the Italian port but then had to endure ten days in quarantine as news had travelled to Italy of a suspected outbreak of cholera in Britain.    Eventually the two men left Naples and travelled by carriage to Rome.  The pair eventually set up home in a villa on the Spanish Steps which is now the Keats-Shelly Memorial House Museum.  Keats’ health detonated and despite the ministrations of the medics he died on 23 February 1821 and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome and so, to carry out the last wishes of Keats, he was placed under an unnamed tombstone.  Joseph Severn and Keats’ close friend Charles Armitage Brown had the stone erected, which under a relief of a lyre with broken strings, was the epitaph:

“This Grave

contains all that was Mortal

of a

Young English Poet


on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart

at the Malicious Power of his Enemies


these Words to be

engraven on his Tomb Stone:

Here lies One

Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821″

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is simply entitled John Keats and was completed by Joseph Severn in 1821.  Severn had painted a number of portraits of Keats but this was one which he painted after the death of his friend and whilst he was still in Rome.  Severn wrote about this painting saying that it was painted to evoke a last graceful memory of his friend around the time when Keats first began to feel ill.  It had been on a morning visit to Keats’ house in Hampstead and Severn said that the position of the two chairs was exactly how he remembered the scene.  All the individual items such as the carpet, chairs, open window and even the engraving of Shakespeare hanging on the wall in the background were faithfully recorded in Severn’s work.  Look how Severn has depicted the room with all its atmospheric shadows.  It is a wonderful portrayal of the young poet reading his book and in the background we see a heavily gathered curtain pulled aside allowing us a glimpse of Keats’ Hampstead garden.  Severn said that his visit coincided with the time Keats had just written his famous Ode to the Nightingale and Severn later said that he was struck with the first real symptoms of the sadness Keats had so finely expressed in that poem.

This portrait of Keats is, beyond doubt, a Romantic portrait of one of the unsurpassed Romantic poets.