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.

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

11 thoughts on “John Keats by Joseph Severn”

  1. Hello my name is Shannon Gale, great granddaughter of Joseph Severn. I’m curious if you know the identity of his wife’s mother. Thank you, Shannon

  2. Hi Shannon,posted 4th Aug. ( Just plain bizarre!-124 year old book with VERY weird parallels to 2016-17… *MrMBB333* .)
    On Friday the 4th Aug. 2017, in the late afternoon, my beloved watercolour by Christian Seven, titled “Eigg & Rum” fell off the wall, the wall fixing and wire stringing were intact. The frame had just opened up and ejected the painting and glass, both were undamaged. On the back of the mounting was written, “Island of Eigg & Rum from the coast of Moidart.” £5. Just before bedtime, some eight hours later, I checked out Dutch’s site and learned of the E.Q.’s …. I went down the rabbit hole and found *Joseph Seven (John Keats)*.. Jemima Blackburn.. Roshven House.. Joseph and Elizabeth Montgomery had seven children, three of whom became noteworthy artists: Walter and Arthur Severn and Ann Mary Newton, nee Severn. Ann had married Charles Newton, the Keeper of Antiquities at the British museum. Arthur married John Ruskin’s cousin, Joan. Still no sign of Christian. Finally, in an article “Whistlers Etchings: Biography” by University of Glasgow, I found HER, Walter’s children included Christian, Cecil and Nigel. all artists. I live some 80 miles from the epicentre and felt nothing, but a friend in Moidart tells me that someone else’s painting fell off the wall in Moidart. Next mission… the owner of that painting and the artist’s name. !!! Joseph Severn/John Keats…. Hyperion… Dark Tower…James Grenville. .. etc. !!!
    Rubin Schmidt 2 days ago
    “Fall of Hyperion” John Keats. 1830. 197 years ago. (Staring Joseph Severn.) Christian Seven’s water colour painting 1890… 127 years ago. ???

    1. Dear Marshall, Thank you kindly for sending me this information. I have been busy researching my Severn family for years…dashing around Europe in search of my family history. This is an unbelievable surprise! It is my birthday today and I’m painting a large canvas, as I’m also an artist, as are my 2 boys. Aidan, my youngest has an uncanny resemblance to Joseph Severn and is musical as well as artistic. The family genes are strong! I wonder if I might ask you to send my a photo of the painting and back inscription too? I hope it’s not too much trouble. I have compiled a lot of information and hope to have it bound for my children. My hope is to compile a story of Severn and Elizabeth too…Claudia Severn, their oldest daughter married Fred Gale, my gg grandfather. They had a son, Goddard Frederick Gale, who left England as a painter and landed in California..Beautiful water colour landscapes, Early California Plein Air, well k own. He is my Great Grandfather had a son Frederick Gale, my Granfather who Had a son John Goddard Gale, my father, who had me.. and I was raised In CA. I am so relived to know you’ve kept the painting safe and sound and you’ve survived the earth quake too! I have so much information on the family, but you share something new to me! I would love to share more info and will look up where you live. Thank you for the special birthday present! Yours, Shannon Gale

      Sent from my iPhone


    2. Dear Marshall,
      I was in Scotland in September researching
      my ancestors..The Montgomerie’s.
      Elizabeth Montgomerie married
      Joseph Severn she is the daughter
      of Maj. Gen. Archival Montgomerie,
      Lord Montgomerie…son of
      Archibald Montgomerie,
      Earl of Eglinton.

      1. Hi Shannon, Yes, I know, Christian Severn’s Granny. What an interesting family. I wouldn’t have imagined how interesting researching Christian’s painting would be, and the connections that it turned up, John Keats, John Ruskin, Hugh and Jemima Blackburn etc. They must have had an influence on each other. I always thought Christian was a male and I never bothered to research the painting, which has been hanging on my cottage wall for decades. I love “Eigg & Rum” but not together. Nice to hear from you. Best Wishes, Marshall.

      2. Hi Shannon, The pictures are ready to go, where do I send them.? Regards, Marshall.

  3. Hello Marshall,
    I looked Jemima Blackburn up and
    see there are many connections to my family.
    One significant connection is John Ruskin.
    Arthur Severn married his niece and
    Jemima was a pupil and friend of Ruskin.
    This is most interesting! Thank you.
    Any possibility of posting or sending
    a photo of your artwork?
    Shannon Gale

    1. Hi Shannon, Yes, I know. I have now a self portrait of (copy of course) Anne Mary Newton nee. Severn, measles,what a shame. Pictures already taken. Hope to get them off to you tomorrow. Regards, Marshall.

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