Saturday, 5 September 2015

Keats House

10 Keats Grove
Hampstead NW3 2RR

Thursday September 2  2015

This being firmly Autumn, and with Jo off blackberrying and jam making, Linda went in search of a little poetry in possibly the leafiest postcode. Two Overground trains delivered me to the very nearby Hampstead Heath station from where it is only a short walk to Keats Grove – known as Wentworth Place when he lived here and the house, looking like one villa, was in fact subdivided.   (In the photo  I am talking about the white property in the foreground only) The site has been managed by the City of London corporation since 1998, having previously been in the hands of various smaller trusts, but ‘saved for the nation’ since 1920.

The room where you finish the tour is known as the Chester Room after Eliza Jane Chester, an actress and protegée of the King’s  (William IV) who ran something of  a salon here, and it was she who joined the two units together and moved the staircase – its former ghost still visible under the carpet! The room is now used for educational sessions and there is a piano also – it is the room that looks somewhat like a conservatory from the outside. A large magnetic board complete with an extensive collection of words allows you to play the old fridge game of  'Magnetic Poetry'.

You can learn about John Keats’ brief life either by watching the short film in the basement or by reading the information boards in a succession of rooms which also display original artefacts and manuscripts. The rooms are imaginatively displayed and there is plenty of ‘sitting space to allow you to read or be read to whilst reclining on a series of chaises longues. Each room has a theme – so John Keats’ Parlour for e.g. ‘Inspiration & Creativity’

John Keats was born in London, close to Moorgate, the eldest child of an ostler father and innkeeper mother, who obviously earned enough to have their children educated – John went to school in Enfield with what was for the time quite an enlightened regime of no beating but a reward scheme to encourage learning.  Sadly he lost both parents before completing his education.  He left at 14 to be apprenticed to an apothecary /physician from where he went on to medical school at Guy’s, in fact passing his (surgical) exams first time.  He was all qualified to become a ‘dresser’ (see our earlier blog on 'The Old Operating Theatre')

However the success of having his first poem published in 1816 made him abandon his studies and career path to concentrate on poetry. His literary influences are explained clearly in one of the rooms – Shakespeare, Milton and Spenser, and within his own circle he was close to Leigh Hunt and certainly met both Shelley and Wordsworth. He lived with his two brothers George and Tom. Tom unfortunately caught consumption (TB) which accounted for 1 in 3 deaths in London at the time – they moved out of London to Hampstead’s Well Walk for ‘fresh air’ which for years was seen as the only cure of course it wasn’t.

Another room, the parlour of his friend Charles Brown upstairs, sets out their circle of friends – who were generally seen as more anti-establishment liberal in both political and religious leanings. The texts remind you that the impact of the French Revolution and the move towards greater democracy was another influence on this circle of friends, and their literary output.

Also part of the group was Charles W. Dilke, editor of the poetry magazine and not to be confused with the politician and baronet. It was this Dilke who was already living in one half of Wentworth Place in Hampstead, and after John had nursed Tom until his death aged 19, Charles Brown (another friend) invited the already published poet to share his half of Wentworth House.  They had two rooms each (Brown’s were bigger and he probably subsidized his friend, whose income was always limited) consisting of a parlour and bedroom apiece.  They are more sparsely furnished than they would have been at the time but with period furniture. The 17 or so months Keats lived here were very productive, and with some ‘poetic licence’ were charmingly depicted in Jane Campion’s film Bright Star' which almost exactly covers this period.

When the Dilkes moved out, possibly for him to take-over an editorship of Dickens’s, Mrs Brawne, a widow, moved in with her daughters and Fanny Brawne and Keats began a friendship  later to be a romance.Fanny has her own room in the museum reflecting her interests – she was skilled at needlework and dressmaking but also enjoyed reading and seemingly held her own in conversation with Keats.   They exchanged rings and her engagement ring is exhibited alongside her collection of fashion plates.

Most poignant is the corridor between the friends’ bedrooms .  Keats returned from London having, for financial reasons, chosen to ride outside the coach and clearly chilled he woke up coughing and the first spot of blood appeared. Keats called Brown to bring a candle and when he saw the blood he said ‘I Know the colour of that blood – it is arterial blood; I cannot be deceived in that colour. That drop of blood is my death warrant – I must die.’

Keats’ friends decided to pay to take him to a  warmer  country and  Joseph Severn, artist rather than writer, (one of the gang so to speak) accompanied Keats on a rather fraught trip to Rome via Naples. Keats only had a few months to benefit from Rome before his condition deteriorated and he died in Severn’s arms – the last sketch very clear and personal. Keats is buried in Rome, possibly with Fanny’s unopened letters. Twelve years later she married and had three children and the other Fanny, John’s sister, was the only other survivor.  Several of  Joseph’s works are round the house, along with portraits of the other main players –Hampstead itself is also well depicted.

Meanwhile down in the basement , if you did not start your visit there, you will find the ‘standard issue’ National Trust period kitchen complete with decorative plates and fake food. More typically the two bachelors were more interested in having a wine cellar to fuel their muse. Brown and Keats fell out somewhat as Keats suspected his house share of flirting with Fanny, but Charles obviously sought comfort elsewhere, namely the servant girl Abigail O’Donaghue with whom he had a child. At least two of the main players in this house’s history went onto a further generation but though Keats died at 25 his work endured because he captured and distilled so much of life’s meaning in a largely accessible way. To visit his last home is to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of not just the man but the man in his time, and his convictions and poetry and the heritage he left us.   

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