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After Keats: The Return of Joseph Severn to England in 1838

  • Grant F. Scott

…plus d’informations

  • Grant F. Scott
    Muhlenberg College

Corps de l’article

The artist Joseph Severn is best known for his heroic service to the dying Keats. His fateful decision to accompany the poet to Italy on short notice and his unstinting kindness and loyalty to Keats in Rome are now legendary. Severn nursed the consumptive poet in his last months and recorded this experience in detailed journal-letters he sent to his friends in England. These letters were shared among members of the Keats circle and earned Severn their lasting sympathy and admiration. After Keats’s death he raised funds to erect a tombstone and memorialized the poet in his letters, reminiscences and portraits. Forty years later as British Consul in Rome he was still entertaining visitors with anecdotes about Keats and working on paintings based on the poems. Before his death in 1879 he requested burial next to Keats in the Protestant Cemetery and in 1882 his wish was granted. Lord Houghton composed the epitaph which first commemorates his friendship with Keats and then notes his contributions as painter and diplomat.

Given this familiar sketch and the fact that Severn himself often emphasized his fortunate association with the poet in surviving letters, it is understandable that literary history has stressed Severn’s companionship with Keats at the expense of his own career: “It augments the honour due to Severn ... that his devoted attendance on the dying Keats imperilled his prospect of obtaining a travelling pension from the Royal Academy by retarding the execution of the picture which was a necessary condition” (DNB 17: 1215-1216). The fifty-eight years he lived after Keats’s death are typically represented as a long twilight in which Severn basked in the glow of the poet’s steadily increasing fame. Literary history has thus seen the balance of his long life as a commitment to Keats’s memory, to the publication and promotion of his works and to correspondence with the poet’s friends and admirers. As his first biographer William Sharp writes: “There was literally not a year of his life, in the close on sixty years which followed the death of Keats, wherein he had not cause to congratulate himself on having accompanied the dying poet to Italy, and to feel half perplexedly grateful to the abiding influence of his dead friend” (202). After February 1821, in effect, Severn’s career became Keats.

My recent discovery of hundreds of unpublished letters to his wife Elizabeth written over a thirty-year period complicates the orthodox view of Severn as primarily “the friend of Keats.” I have discussed the circumstances of this extraordinary discovery elsewhere. [1] Suffice it to say here that the letters in the new collection are highly valuable for many reasons, not the least of which is their existence in numbered sequences, chronicling Severn’s day-to-day life during his various travels throughout Italy and the British Isles. The letters fill significant gaps in the record of Severn’s life, particularly during his twenty-year stay in England (1841-1861). We now have reliable factual information about who he knew, where he stayed, what he painted and his aspirations as an artist. The letters are also far more candid than any of his previously published material, chiefly because they are addressed to his wife and no formal letters to her have ever been printed. [2] Severn is unabashed in his judgments of other artists and members of the nobility, forthright in his assessment of London life and disarmingly honest when it comes to his own motivations.

Above all, the letters testify to the centrality of Severn’s own career as a painter. In nearly four hundred letters, remarkably, there are only five brief references to Keats and all of these in passing. Keats’s legacy was not continually on his mind, as most commentators believe; rather, Severn was pursuing his own aims and ambitions, refining his talents as a painter of frescoes and portraits, religious and historical scenes. He was showing his work regularly at the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy and British Institution. He was lobbying for a more public function for art in lectures and articles, and he was working on designs he submitted to several national competitions for decorating Westminster Hall and the Houses of Parliament. We might expect his letters from the 1850s to show his attempts to capitalize on Keats’s burgeoning reputation after the publication of Richard Monckton Milnes’s biography in 1848. Instead they reveal his own efforts to find patrons for his religious art and to subsist as a portrait painter.

In this essay I provide annotated transcriptions of two new letters from this collection that form part of a complete sequence Severn wrote to Elizabeth during the summer and autumn of 1838. I offer commentary on the sequence as a whole including the two specific letters printed here. I have chosen this period not only because it represents a defining moment in Severn’s career and because virtually nothing is known about it, but also because it sheds light on various aspects of his character that have long been obscured by the intensive concentration on his friendship with Keats.

Although the “flying visit to England,” as Severn’s first biographer William Sharp called it (170), represents his return to his native country after an eighteen-year absence and plays a crucial role in his decision to move his family back to England in March 1841, both of his biographers were unable to describe the visit because of a scarcity of material. Sharp admitted that “few letters of his, from 1835 to 1860, seem to have been preserved” (183), and managed to state only that “his stay was a brief one, ... nor did he spend any time of it in the house of his parents: indeed, he seems to have encountered few even of his old friends. In August he left England again for Italy” (187-88). Sharp does print three letters from this time – Brown to Severn, 2 June 1838; Severn to Brown, 21 August 1838; and Brown’s response, 23 August 1838 – but the first was written before Severn arrived and although the latter two address Brown’s efforts to publish his Keats memoir, they have been read in isolation and made to stand as representative of Severn’s main object in returning to England. This brief exchange has thus confirmed the standard view that Severn’s visit was prompted by his “conviction that Brown would never complete the Memoir of Keats unless he could see him and force him to it” (Illustrious Friends 110). In fact, the two men never met in England and Severn’s reference to Keats in the 21 August letter is the only mention of the poet in his twenty letters of this time that survive. [3]

The sequence of sixteen journal-letters to his wife now affords us a wealth of information about Severn’s London sojourn, establishing its duration and purpose along with his places of residence, meetings with patrons and friends, and various other activities. Each letter is carefully numbered and addressed to Mrs. Severn, 155 Via Rasella, Rome. Many are crossed, written in a hurry and with palpable energy and enthusiasm, Severn bemoaning the fact that he cannot write and paint simultaneously. (At one point he confesses that he has “never read a newspaper since I have been here” [14 July]). We learn that he traveled to England by steamer and the journey took ten days, beginning on 7 June 1838. Like his eventful voyage with Keats to Naples in September and October 1820, the journey home was beset by rough weather and seasickness. Along the way he posted brief missives from Leghorn, Genoa, Marseilles and Paris, where he visited the Louvre. On 17 June he arrived in England and the next day experienced an emotional reunion with his family. The first night he slept at the house of his youngest brother Charles and then removed to the home of Dr. Seth Thompson, 19 Brook Street, London, where he spent the majority of his stay. Thompson was an old friend of the family whom Severn had met in Rome in 1829-1830 and whose aunt Maria had married the Reverend Colonel Finch, one of Severn’s patrons. Toward the end of August a cold snap brought on “a bowel attack” and Severn accepted an invitation by John Temple Leader, MP, to convalesce at his villa in Putney, where he remained for a week (“I think his excellent bordeaux recoverd me” [18 Sept.]). After a hectic but profitable few months, Severn set off for Italy on 20 September, [4] accompanied by Captain Baynes and two other artists. They toured Antwerp and Brussels, taking delight in seeing the works of Rubens. They then headed down the Rhine, traveling through Innsbruck, Verona and Bologna, finally reaching Rome on 18 October 1838. In all, Severn was away from Rome a little over four months.

Severn’s visit coincided with an ebullient mood in London surrounding the coronation of Queen Victoria, which occurred on 28 June and which Severn attended (“the Sun shining on the Peeresses was the finest thing I ever saw”). Through Lady Cavendish he was able to procure a “first rate place” in Westminster Abbey, make a sketch of the ceremony and witness his youngest brother sing in the choir. His visit also came as Severn was enjoying his most productive period as an artist. Between 1838 and 1841 he exhibited twelve pictures at the Royal Academy which demonstrated his range and versatility as a painter. The works featured subjects drawn from religious, literary, historical and Italian genre painting and were reviewed favorably in the local press. [5] Severn not only found buyers for each of the four pictures he showed at the 1838 exhibition, and took orders for copies of his “Ariel” and “The First Crusaders in Sight of Jerusalem,” but also received major commissions for two canvasses he would later show in the academy exhibitions of 1839 and 1840: “Rienzi amid the ruins of Rome” and “The Roman Ave Maria” (“The Pantheon”). Painting with what he boasted to his wife was “a facility quite extraordinary,” he managed to finish six works during his stay, collect £500 and secure another £500 in promised commissions (18 Sept.). His “pockets well lined with yellow boys,” he returned to Rome in high spirits and with renewed confidence (8 July).

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Severn caused a mild sensation in London art circles. Again and again he describes how kindly he is treated, how often “praised & carressd.” Because of his wit and conviviality, not to mention his astonishingly “young looks,” he made a splash with the nobility, who purchased his sketches of Italian peasants and commissioned portraits of family members. At one point there was even talk of him painting the Queen. [6] A number of prominent politicians also took a keen interest in his work. Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, William E. Gladstone, Lord Lansdowne, John Temple Leader, Henry Monteith, and Sir Thomas Redington all expressed their admiration for his paintings and placed orders. They were so favorably disposed toward him, in fact, that they invited him to a session of Parliament. In late July Severn gained permission from the speaker of the House of Commons to sit among the members and soon after visited the House of Lords where he felt welcome enough to agitate for the inclusion of Thorwaldsen’s bust of Lord Byron in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey. It helped, of course, that Severn was good-natured and humorous, always ready with a plentiful stock of anecdotes from Rome. He was an enjoyable companion and this led to a flurry of invitations – from the Duke of Bedford to visit Woburn Abbey, from the Duke’s brother Lord William Russell to tour Windsor, and from Temple Leader to stay at his villa in Putney. Severn was unable to accept all the offers but he did travel to Putney where he met Edward Trelawny, whose full length portrait, “full of force & effect,” he executed in a week.

Rather than envying his reception, Severn’s fellow artists joined in the celebration of his return and the general commendation of his work, which struck many as fresh and original. The Scottish painter David Wilkie, for example, toasted him in a public dinner written up in the London newspapers, [7] “setting [him] in the highest rank as a Historical painter” (27 June). And in perhaps the highlight of his visit, he was invited on July 31 to attend a special dinner for members of the Royal Academy in honor of Queen Victoria’s Birthday. [8] As he reports to his wife, it was “a brilliant affair in the large room of the exibition” where he was made “quite the Lion of the day.” He was given the place of honor across from the president, Martin Shee, and praised by Thomas Uwins, who drank his health “in a very beautiful speech ... about Rome.” Uwins’s mention of the recent placement of Severn’s Revelations altar piece in the church of St Paolo fuori le Mura drew a round of applause. [9] In response, Severn improvised “a speech in good style” which “pleas’d them very much.” No doubt prompted by this success – and the possibility that his election as an associate of the RA was in the offing – Severn received frequent invitations to breakfast at the home of the poet Samuel Rogers where he dined with, among others, Caroline Norton, Henry Crabb Robinson and Mary Shelley. [10] “If I did ever dream about and desire distinction,” he writes excitedly to his wife, “’tis now that I have it full to the brim.”

Although he won the backing of several important patrons on his visit, none would be more valuable or loyal to him than William Gladstone, whom he had first met in the spring of 1832. Gladstone had visited Severn’s studio in Rome and expressed deep admiration for his artwork, recording his impressions in his diary: “enjoyed the visit much both from the man & from his works ... All his works are full of poetry: & of a higher class in this respect than any I have seen in Rome, either in painting, or Sculpture, except only Thorwaldsen’s – if even those” (Diaries 1: 474). Before leaving Rome on 5 June 1832, Gladstone returned to Severn’s studio observing that “his pictures lose nothing on a second visit” (Diaries 1: 513). Gladstone visited Rome again in the winter of 1838-39 and reiterated his praise for Severn’s artwork, especially “The Infant of the Apocalypse,” which he called “a bold effort, a new subject, fierily conceived and executed” (Diaries 2: 527-528). He was awestruck by the figure of John the Divine: “Has much been painted within the last 200 years which is of a higher order than Severn’s Saint John?” (Diaries 2: 548). Impressed by Severn’s skill, Gladstone later commissioned him to paint his portrait, which Severn began shortly after returning to England for the second time in March 1841.

It is noteworthy that Gladstone never mentions Severn’s friendship with Keats in his extensive diaries, a fact that implies that he sought out Severn not for his association with the poet, as many other visitors did, but for his talent as a painter. [11] That Gladstone also trusted Severn’s judgment about art was apparent from his chance meeting with him in the Vatican on his second visit in December 1838. Severn offered commentary on “a considerable part of the statues,” providing detailed visual analyses of the Belvedere Antinous, the Laocoon and the Minerva Medica. Indeed, Gladstone felt “fortunate” in having such a knowledgeable guide and carefully noted down Severn’s remarks (Diaries 2: 524). Back in England in 1841, he invited Severn to go with him to a picture-dealer’s and a few months later conversed with him and Baron Bunsen on the subject of fresco (Diaries 3: 108, 150). Gladstone continued to be an admirer of Severn’s work well into the 1840s, purchasing a number of his paintings, advancing him money, introducing him to other patrons, and finally in 1860 recommending him for the post of British Consul at Rome in spite of the fact that Severn’s advanced age (67) exceeded the restriction by seventeen years. Even after this appointment, Gladstone remained on friendly terms with Severn. As late as 1866, we find him soliciting Severn’s help in securing an apartment in Rome and then, on arrival, paying him numerous social visits. As he had done thirty-four years earlier, Gladstone again called on Severn to accompany him in various expeditions to picture galleries and historic sites. [12]

Severn renewed the acquaintance of another old patron during his visit, though not quite as eagerly. After the death of Keats, he was introduced to Lady Jane Westmorland who quickly became one of his most generous and loyal supporters. It was she, in fact, who wrote on his behalf to Sir Thomas Lawrence about “The Death of Alcibiades,” the picture he had sent to the Royal Academy in hopes of winning the traveling pension that was initially lost. In addition to his painting, she admired his musical skills and his congenial nature. As a consequence, Severn was a frequent guest at the Palazzo Rospigliosi where in 1827 he met Lady Westmorland’s ward, Elizabeth Montgomerie. They began a clandestine courtship, and against the strenuous objections of Lady Westmorland, were married in October 1828. Although she attended the wedding ceremony, Lady Westmorland vowed that she would never speak to either of them again. As Birkenhead relates, the next day Severn “received a long, violent letter, full of hints and insinuations which were obviously intended to make him doubt the purity of his wife’s conduct before her marriage” (Against Oblivion 199). She circulated false rumors about Severn’s behavior and then in all likelihood was responsible for financing a fraudulent lawsuit for back wages that was brought against the Severns by their servants. Although Severn eventually prevailed, the lawsuit was prolonged and exacted a heavy emotional toll on the early years of his marriage.

Birkenhead writes that after sending the vicious letter Lady Westmorland effectively vanished from Severn’s life “for ever” (199). As we learn from the newly discovered letters, however, she was back in England at this time, learned of Severn’s visit and endeavored repeatedly to see him. After several unsuccessful attempts they finally met in London on August 12, 1838 and although their conversation was cordial, Severn wondered about her motives: “I suspect the old devil still that she was only spying upon me in coming in to Thompsons house.” She flattered him and promised to write to Elizabeth, but he remained wary – “I shall consider her as the same person.” His desire to see her again, perhaps to resume her patronage, was dampened by his inability to read her and his suspicion that she was “disposd to stir up a row in any way.”

If relationships like the one he forged with Gladstone were invaluable and his overall reception warm and encouraging, Severn was not always so sanguine about his future prospects in England or about moving there permanently. For all the good fortune he relates to Elizabeth in these letters, and their prevailing tone of exuberant optimism, Severn was never quite sold on the charms of a London life. After spending nearly twenty years in Italy, he found the city daunting, “a vast overgrown place” (24 July) that seemed “one scene of confusion” (27 June). It was expensive and difficult to navigate: “I should think London a most disagreable place to live – noisy, dirty, always in a bustle – & too large to visit in – the people live in solitude who have no carriages” (13 July). Although he dined out and paid nothing for his room and board, he fretted about the expense of carriages and clothes. He compared the infernal hubbub of London with the tranquil paradise of Olevano, an idyllic town in the Apennines where his family was staying. The pleasant warmth and natural ease of this place were a far cry from the “artificial state of existance” in London where “bustle & fear” were the rule. “Give me the simplicity of nature,” he writes, “simple food & single heartedness.”

In other letters he complains about the oppressive atmosphere, the sooty air which is “painful to the eyes” and the muted tones of the light: “the prismatic fresh effect of light does not exist here, a mistiness prevades every thing.” The physical environment of London seemed anathema to the production of art, especially to the composition of scenes from nature and rural life that Severn had been perfecting in the various mountain retreats outside Rome. After a few weeks he began to sense why his Italian peasant drawings were such a hit in London. They conveyed a quiet exoticism and a purity of language that appealed to the urban gentry. He tells his wife that he feels lucky to have “faggd and sufferd over ... my Crusaders, for they all agree that such a work could not be produced here” (31 Aug.). Still, he worried that his popularity would fade and that to succeed in London he would have to abandon his greater ambitions in historical and religious art and settle for a career in portraits: “Nobody here sells any thing like a work of invention – Turners pictures never sell” (13 July). His visit thus dealt a temporary blow to his idealism and to the lofty goals he envisioned for his art: “I can see that every one is screwd up to the last penny and this is in doing things for money only – the fact is here the Art is made into a common trade & therefore the higher classes do not care about it” (8 July). In spite of the conviction that his “painting shall yet triumph in style,” he recognized that the London art scene was a lottery of taste and preferment: “a decent fellow stands little chance here – there is so little true taste or knowledge of Art, every thing is recommendation & jobbing” (14 July).

Severn was concerned too that if he remained in England much longer he might become “fascinated with all the incense thrown in my way” and “be seduced away from my hard earnd & honest fame” (31 Aug.). A strain of anxiety counterpoints the bravado of his letters, a fear that living in the city will mean having to compromise the independence he has achieved as an expatriate artist. And yet, as the letters printed here show, he is tempted by the possibility of gaining a foothold in the art establishment. Although he derides the Academy’s interest in him in his assessment of the dinner – “how curious that my success here ... has influenced the Royal Academy in my favor, how pleasant for me not to care a fig about them” – he revels in the attention he receives and elsewhere expresses keen interest in the rumors of his election as an associate member. It should be recalled that Severn spent his formative period under the tutelage of the Royal Academy Schools and that winning the gold medal for “The Cave of Despair” effectively launched his career in 1819. His early years in Rome were sponsored by the RA, whose sanction he actively sought on a number of occasions, most notably in applying for and then receiving the traveling scholarship which freed him from the drudgery of miniatures and allowed him time for his historical paintings. In 1823 the RA also began making regular contributions to the British Academy of Fine Arts at Rome, which Severn helped to found, and subscribed funds for its maintenance throughout the 1820s. While he was deeply ambivalent about the institutional influence of the academy’s aesthetic values, then, he nonetheless worked hard to win their recognition and approval.

By the end of July he had grown sick of dinner parties and sight-seeing excursions and was eager to return home to his family. But he had to balance his distaste for society with a strong desire to sell his pictures and win new commissions. The genuine excitement that Severn felt on first arriving in England eventually gave way to a cynicism about what constituted success in the London art world. In the last line of his letter of 13 July 1838, he offers a revealing self assessment: “All my doings here are wholly interested – I care not for any thing but the actual money – yet ’tis my good fortune to be able to conceal my anxiety by a gay & talking exterior – I am the man made for these things – save as regards myself – I hate them.” It is clear from a reading of these letters as a whole that his ambition to “speedily make a fortune” was less a matter of basic greed than a means of paying off debts at home [13] and underwriting his own artistic independence. His disdain for “face makers” like Hayter and Pickersgill [14] gradually subsided as he began to look with more favor on the “common trade” of making portraits. In the letter of 13 August transcribed here, for example, he proposes coming to London for a brief spell each year and doing “a dozen or so of portraits.” This plan he believed would allow him to avoid the expenses of maintaining a studio by staying with friends. Despite his ambivalence about the genre, Severn could not overlook the fact that the “ready cash” he earned while in England derived wholly from his painting of portraits.

In addition to describing his reunions with friends and family members and his numerous social engagements, the new letters now provide a clear sense of Severn’s motivations for returning to England in 1838. From his various comments to Elizabeth over the course of his four-month visit we learn that he intended to capitalize on his recent success in the Royal Academy exhibitions, earn money to pay his debts and subsidize his long term artistic goals, and investigate the possibility of election as an Associate of the RA. He was determined to generate new commissions, cultivate new patrons and rekindle his relationship with old ones. Less pressing aims included finding a church for another altar piece, “The Holy Sepulchre,” which was still in its preliminary stages, and locating a school for his eldest son Walter who was just turning eight.

It may come as something of a shock to discover that the plan to lobby his friend Charles Brown over the publication of the Keats memoir was a minor concern. The final days of his visit were consumed by painting Trelawny and by plans to solicit King Leopold over a portrait of the Queen. He never found time to meet Brown, neither did he manage to see William Haslam, who had first introduced him to Keats and whose friendship he wished to renew. Rather, the focus of his trip was to sell his paintings, bring back new “com’s,” and bolster his reputation, “laying the groundwork of fame & fortune.”

Parties annexes