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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 40, novembre 2005

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/012458ar

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

Grant F. Scott

Muhlenberg College


The recent discovery of hundreds of unpublished letters from Joseph Severn to his wife Elizabeth complicates our standard view of “the Friend of Keats.” The new letters emphasize Severn’s own career as a painter who exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and highlight his work in fresco and portraiture as well as religious and historical subjects. This essay discusses Severn’s important visit to England in 1838, offering annotated transcripts of two new letters from this time. These letters afford us valuable new information about Severn’s visit, his meetings with key patrons and friends and his motivations for returning to England. The complete series of sixteen letters from the summer of 1838 invites us to revise our conception of Severn’s character and his relationship with Keats.


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.”



31 July, 1, 3 August 1838

Address: To / Mrs Severn / 155 Via Rasella / Rome[15]


London July 31st 1838

My dear Eliza

 As you have now got some of my letters with good news and as I trust you are at that nice Olevano in peace & quiet I think of you with some little less agitation, for I was much concernd about it you wrote in such low spirits – I suppose you were troubled in the wind up of your affairs before leaving and you fancied you had spent a great deal of money – however never mind, if you want any money borrow it of Gibson,[16] not telling him any why and wherefore, but simply borrow – Well, my two months will soon be up & I shall nearly accomplish every thing and be on my way, in another ten days to Rome.[17] – the portrait I mentiond in my last I have nearly done, and at the very commencement Mr Leader,[18] to whom I namd the price of 30£, very handsomely gave me 50£ so now in all I have pocketed 100£ & 500£ in commissions – I was with Lord Lansdowne[19] for two hours at his house & he treated me very kindly – my warrior & lady looks very well far better than the small one – he comes tomorrow to see my heads, the Duke of Bedford[20] is to take me down to Woburn Abbey on Monday, he is very kind to me – Lord W. Russell[21] was very pleasd to see me and is to take me to Windsor. – There is another portrait they wish me to do; and as it will bring me 50£ almost without trouble, and with 3 days sacrifice I shall certainly do it – so then I shall have plenty of ready cash for all my purposes including Torlonias[22]

 To day is the Royal Academy dinner, and they have invited me, and some of my friends tell me I may have to make a speech which I hope not, but I’ll do all I can to please all parties as I am so short a time here – I went to dine at Mr Burgess’s[23] and who should be there to meet me just arrived from Naples but Lord Chealsea[24] he was very civil to me and gave Burgess a very flattering account of our parties – I am glad to have brought him too – Perhaps the Duke may give me a commission and I have a hope of Lord Lansdowne – certainly I am sure of ample employment, and what I like – the Otway Caves[25] are very kind to me – they shortly set off to Italy as I told you – I am sorry for it on account of poor Siga Claudia[26] as they would have been of great use to her – I dont think we should ever like London as a residence, for I assure [you] the people live in solitude who know each other. – If a turn were to show itself in my favor in portrait; so that I might speedily make a fortune, you would have no objection to it I dare say for this place is a lottery, ’tis all caprice, and if they were to take a liking to me I could carry all before me – certainly the portrait painters are very low just now there is an opening for any one who could do the thing well; now this I am not sure of, tho’ my begginning is well yet I dont know how I might paint the fair beauties, the Lady[27] I am painting is dark, however it must not be this year – ’tis better I come back to Rome & begin on the Pantheon & the Rienzi[28] now, and then we can talk it over. – I cannot send the 100£ to Torlonias yet as I shall leave myself without but the moment I get <it> 50£ here I’ll send it & be damn’d to them I have not yet sold all my heads,[29] now this may be soon – What a noble sum of money it would be if all the kind people who have given me dinners had but given me the money instead. – Baynes[30] is not yet come from the country, when he comes we shall fix on the day of departure, and I shall write & tell you to look out for me – how I long to be with you again & leave this noisy scene

 August 1st The dinner of the Royal Academy was a brilliant affair in the large room of the exibition, and to my great surprise they made me quite the Lion of the day – they gave me a place in the center of the table opposite the President,[31] and drank my health in a very beautiful speech of Uwins[32] full of all the facts about Rome that could interest them, there was applause at the mention of my Altar piece[33] – As I was prepared, at least I thought they possibly might show me some attention I made them a speech in good style, & pleas’d them very much I think I hit it exactly – how curious that my success here, that is the kind manner in which the fine people have received me evidently has influenced the Royal Academy in my favor, how pleasant for me not to care a fig about them, and to go on so independently of them. –

 August 3rd[34] Now here[35] more good news I am pretty certain to bring back with me a clear 1000£ – half in commissions, and the other in ready money – I[36] have just had an application from Mr Gladstone[37] to buy anything of mine that may be unsold in the exibition – he has a magnificent collection and is also executor of the rich Mr Bludenell[38] you wrote me about, so I am sure of an Altar piece – he knew me in Rome – he wants to buy the copy of the Altar piece, I think I shall sell it as I can easily get another done – the Masque[39] I suppose he will take, tho’ I saw him only for a moment as he was running down to the Commons. – My Lady Portrait I have nearly finishd it has taken me not 3 days & I have 50£ for it –

 There is nothing I like but writing to you yet it is a sad interuption to me as I ought to be painting – Wont it be pleasant to return with plenty of money – when once I have hook’d the last sum you’ll see how I’ll fly off to you, next week I think will be enough I have to do the portrait of Sir W. Molesly,[40] a young man of Genius, who has a fine head & will paint easily – There are four others proposed to me but I will not stay any longer as it will be better that I get on with the two pictures – I have agreed to do the other portraits when I come next year – My portrait is considerd to surpass all the others & I have just heard that the lady Mrs Carr[41] is just confined so it is fortunate that I got on so quick – I had to allow for [her] pall’d look, all which I have done well

 August 3rd The Bankers Harries & Co showd me in their books that Mrs Strattan[42] received her money on the 28 May last but they could not give me any information about her so I must search her out as well as I can – she has always received it regularly – So I fear we must have offended her somehow – I’ll do all I can to find her as ’tis possible that somebody else might be receiving the money. – I have got home my Masque from the Ex[43] – Mr Leader was greatly struck with it & inquir’d the price & said he must carry it off – there is no fear amongst them all but that I shall sell it – It was seen sadly in the exibition & more so as the frame was only as broad as a finger – I want it gone as I have the Campagna[44] – Lord Lansdowne just paid me a visit – but I made nothing of him as regards my pictures – he may bite. –

 I am getting “sick for home”[45] and nothing but large sums for what I am doing would keep me here – I dont care about sights or dinners, or even friends now, I have such a deal of it, and with the serious idea in my mind always of doing best of playing my cards properly. – So far I am pleasd with every thing but the thousand pounds must set the seal on my doings & then I am off like a shot to you – Lady Westmorland[46] has sent again to me – she is very civil, but her distance & her hours dont suit me quite – I dare say after all I shall come away without seeing the Tunnell[47] I am so wholly bent upon one object – I say to myself that I can see all the Lions when I come again – I have not been to the Opera, save the rehearsal when I arrived[48] – I begin to have a sickness & distaste for every thing but going back – now I must wind up, so heres good bye, may God protect & bless you all in my absence for my sake

Your ever loving Sev

Mr Dilke[49] has got his picture, and likes it much, tho’ I have not seen him, nor shall I as he is too violent about it –




13 August 1838

Address: To / Mrs Severn / 155 Via Rasella / Rome[50]


19 Brook St

Aug. 13th 1838

Molly my dear

 What a nice blowing up you have given me about the coronation,[51] I really have enjoyd it, for I have been so praised & carressd here that I was in want of a little taking down – Well, do you think I am going to be obstinate & make myself an undutifull hub, indeed you say as much, but you are mistaken I am not going to do any such thing, for I not only mean to follow your advice but go beyond it. – your idea is not altogether original – I am doing a sketch of the coronation and intend fully to paint the Queen if Leopold[52] comes in time & behaves himself well. – So that the only new hint on your part is to give him the sketch, which I think a hit – Now it happens well, for on the very day your letter came, the news came that he is to be here in a few days, now this will be pleasant, as I shall have compleated what I am doing. – You will be glad to know that I am pocketing with ease more than 50£ a week & have been a month at it – my power in portrait life size even astonishes myself – on Saturday in 3 hours I painted Leader the member so perfectly that I dont know if they will ever let me touch it again and they are pleasd at my pocketing the money so quick – frames are orderd for them in a moment – Now what a nice thing for me to come over here every year and do a dozen or so of portraits, this I can do without keeping up an expensive establishment – indeed some friend will always take me in and be glad. – The coronation itself I dont think I should succeed in but a portrait of the Queen I can do well & will when Leopold comes. – It seems that the Royal Academy wish to elect me think of that[53] – they wish to have a painter as well as a sculptor at Rome – Redington talks of a large picture he is very kindly disposed to me, indeed I see that I stand so high here that I can do any thing, now as I want only a good pocket full of money that shall be my object, I am determined to bring back a thousand pounds in money & commissions 800£ I have got, and if I could sell the Masque it would do. – this I have still good hope of –

 Capt Baynes is to come back with me, O, how I envy you at Olevano, tis so cold here & evey thing is so common place that there is nothing enjoyable, – Lady Westmorland I saw last night, She had been here 3 times, & staid for hours – I found her very pleasant & civil, she made me play on the Piano Forte & told me that I had a greater talent for Music than painting, but I suspect the old devil still that she was only spying upon me in coming in to Thompsons[54] house – She told me that I lookd far too young & handsome to be trusted in London & that she should write to you – How little she knows me after all, how narrow minded, and disposd to stir up a row in any way – at all events I shall consider her as the same person. –

 I shall send the 100£ to Torlonia the next post – Mrs S.[55] I have not yet been able to find – but will trace her out by the directions I have with me, I told you in my last that she had received her last money from the bankers, tho’ as I[56] said it might be someone else, this I will ferret out – Lady W. told me that Ld Eglinton[’s][57] property had encreasd greatly, the port[58] was succeeding and that all his debts had been sometime paid – the whole of them come to Rome this winter. – She wanted to know if I had meet Ly Montgomerie[59] which I have not – I am writing in great hurry – to night Lord Brougham[60] brings forward a motion in which you will find an honorable mention of me, it is about Lord Byrons statue the one of Thorwaldson[61] which has remained in the box at the custom house 6 years because the dean of Westminster[62] would not admit it to Poets corner as Byron was an immoral poet – the whole had been forgotten ever since – I have had the honor of stirring it most gloriously up. –

 These friends & admirers of mine insist on my painting none but men of Genius & women of beauty, of these I can command any number – On Saturday after my 3 hours at Leader, seeing they were so struck – I said “that if I were sure that no one in London but myself could do so much, so quick & so well that I would consent to paint some portraits,” Leader instantly said I’ll find you any number in two days –

 Good bye, may God bless & protect you & our dear little ones – Your ever dear Sev.

– Poor Cappelli[63] – remember me most kindly to him & also to Mayer[64] {– I}[65] long to see them

I stay here so restlessly, although I [am] doing so well – I must be with you by the 3rd of Septr, even the Queens portrait will not take long[66]

I am sick & tired of dinners, friends, & every thing, I long to be back – I cannot remain beyond the 20th – I am so home-sick – 10 days will bring me to you, what delight we shall have at our meeting

What made you write “Mr Severn Esqr” on my letter, pray never do such a thing again – I am ashamed of it – nobody saw it[67]





See Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs and “Sacred Relics.” For a catalogue of the new letters, see Appendix I in my edition.


Sheila Birkenhead printed a sampling of Severn’s brief love notes to Elizabeth (1827-1828) in Against Oblivion.


In addition to the sixteen letters in the newly discovered collection and the one in the Pforzheimer Library (Severn to Brown, 21 Aug. 1838), there are unpublished letters to W. E. Gladstone (MS: British Library, 3 Aug. 1838), Henry Crabb Robinson (MS: Dr. Williams Library, 16 Aug. 1838) and William Haslam (MS: John Rylands Library, Manchester University, 21 Aug. 1838). A letter of 10 Aug. 1838 to Mr. Vaughan was sold at auction in 1943 (Winifred A. Myers catalog).


According to his letter of 18 Sept. 1838 (#14).


See, for example, William Thackeray’s warm review of Severn’s paintings in Fraser’s Magazine 17 (June 1838): 762.


The portrait depended on a recommendation by Severn’s patron King Leopold, whose stay was too brief for Severn to meet with him. In the end the commission went to George Hayter.


The anniversary dinner of the Artists’ General Benevolent Institution held on Saturday, June 23. Among the guests were the Duke of Sutherland, the Marquis of Westminster and several academicians, including Sir M. Shee, J. Rennie and D. Chantrey (London Times 25 June 1838: 5, col. F).


“Resolved that a Dinner be held at the Academy on Tuesday the 31st July, in honor of Her Majesty’s Birthday, on the same scale as last year – i.e., each Academician to have the privilege of introducing One Exhibitor. The tickets to be 20 shillings each. The Dinner to be provided by Mr. Willis at 25 shillings pr. Head” (Council Minutes, vol. 8, p. 420). For a good discussion of the social politics of academy dinners, see Hoock 216-221. See also Hutchison 98-99.


See note 33.


Caroline Norton paid him “the most elegant compliments on his painting,” and Mary Shelley was evidently pleased enough by his work that she commissioned a posthumous portrait of Percy B. Shelley several years later (“Shelley in the Baths of Caracalla,” exh. RA 1845).


In his memoir “Incidents of My Life” (1857-1858, Papers) and in a letter to his sister Maria (23 April 1875, MS: London Metropolitan Archives), Severn does say that Gladstone was drawn to him through Keats and more specifically through Shelley’s mention of him in his famous preface to Adonais (see “Incidents,” no. 15), but the list of Gladstone’s extensive reading does not include a single work by Keats. I’m indebted for this observation to Sue Brown, who is currently at work on a new biography of Severn.


See Gladstone’s entries for Oct. and Nov. 1866.


On 31 August Severn warns Elizabeth: “Mind never let any one know how poor I was then & when I came to England.” On several occasions he mentions his obligation to Torlonia’s, the Roman banking firm, and tells his wife that if she must to borrow money from the sculptor John Gibson. In the first letter printed here Severn also refers to circumstances surrounding payment to a Mrs. Strattan, who remains unidentified.


George Hayter (1792-1871) and Henry W. Pickersgill (1782-1875), English portrait painters.


The number “10” is written at the top left corner of the address page, and at the top right, by Severn, the date “Aug. 3rd”. This was the tenth in a series of sixteen letters to his wife from England.


John Gibson (1790-1866), English sculptor and friend of the Severn family.


He did not leave England until Sept. 20.


John Temple Leader (1810-1903), radical MP for Westminster.


Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne and 4th Earl of Kerry (1780-1863), who in 1828 commissioned “A Venetian Warrior taking Leave of his Wife,” which Severn exhibited at the RA in 1830 (Graves 7: 81).


John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford (1766-1839), one of Severn’s earliest patrons, who commissioned “The Vintage at Gensano in Italy” (exh. RA 1827) and placed it in his cabinet of modern paintings at Woburn Abbey (Graves 7: 81).


Lord William Russell (1767-1840), who purchased Severn’s “Vintage” for his older brother, the Duke of Bedford (see note above). In 1840 he was murdered in his bed by his Swiss valet who was swiftly brought to justice and hanged.


Roman bankers.


Possibly the Reverend Richard Burgess (1797-1881), English chaplain in Rome from 1823 to 1836, formerly rector of Upper Chelsea. With Severn and some others, he was present at the burial of Shelley’s ashes in the Protestant Cemetery on 21 Jan. 1823.


Henry Charles Cadogan (1812-1873), Tory MP Reading 1841-1847; Dover 1852-1857, styled Lord Chelsea until he succeeded as 4th Earl Cadogan in 1864.


Robert Otway Cave (1796-1844), MP for County Tipperary 1835-1844, who in 1833 married Sophia Burdett (1794-1849), eldest daughter of Sir Francis Burdett.






“The Roman Ave Maria (The Pantheon),” commissioned by Charles Scrase Dickins (1794-1875) and exhibited at the RA in 1840. “Rienzi amid the Ruins of Rome,” commissioned by Sir Thomas Redington (1815-1862) and exhibited at the RA in 1839 (Graves 7: 82).


Sketches of Italian peasants.


Captain W. G. Baynes, a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, who shared a house with Severn in 1824 and would accompany him back to the continent in September.


Sir Martin Archer Shee (1769-1850), Irish portrait painter and president of the RA, 1830-1850.


Thomas Uwins (1782-1857), English painter, illustrator and engraver. In 1824 he traveled to Italy where he spent seven years, mostly in Naples. He was elected a full academician of the RA in 1838.


“The Infant of the Apocalypse saved from the Dragon,” commissioned by Cardinal Thomas Weld (1773-1837) and presented by him to San Paolo Fuori le Mura. It was the first time that a painting by a Protestant artist had been hung in a Catholic church in Rome. For Severn’s exertions in placing the altar piece, see Sharp 293-301. A study for the altar piece was exhibited at the RA in 1838 (Graves 7: 82).


An error for August 2nd.


For hear?


From this point to the end the letter is crossed.


William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), Prime Minister and English liberal statesman who visited Rome – and Severn’s studio – in 1832, in the winter of 1838-39 and again in 1866. He was one of Severn’s most loyal and enthusiastic patrons. In August 1838 he purchased the study for “The Infant of the Apocalypse” (the altar piece) which is now in the Tate Gallery.


Charles Robert Blundell (1761-1837), the last male heir of an ancient Lancashire Catholic family with its seat at Ince Blundell near Seaforth. He left the bulk of his estate to Thomas Weld-Blundell (1808-1887), nephew of Severn’s patron in Rome, Cardinal Weld.


“The Finale of a Venetian Masque at the Summer’s Dawn,” exhibited at the RA in 1838 (Graves 7: 82) and the British Institution in 1839 (BI).


Severn probably means Sir William Molesworth (1810-1855), 8th Bart., radical politician.


On 31 Dec. 1838, Mrs. Carr of Lee-terrace, Blackheath, gave birth to a son (London Times 1 Jan. 1839: 8, col. A).




Exhibition (of the Royal Academy).


“Shepherds and their Flocks in the Campagna of Rome,” exhibited at the RA in 1834 (Graves 7: 81) and the British Institution in 1835 (BI). It was eventually purchased by Gladstone in 1843 and is now owned by the present Lord Coleridge.


Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale,” l. 66.


Jane Huck-Saunders, Countess of Westmorland (1775-1857), the second wife of John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmorland (1759-1841), and one of Severn’s earliest patrons in Rome.


Severn probably means construction on the Thames Tunnel, which was begun in 1825 by (later Sir) Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849), French-born engineer, and supervised by his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859). After a number of accidents and delays the pedestrian tunnel running from Rotherhithe to Wapping eventually opened to the public in 1843.


His friends took him to see the rehearsal of Mozart’s Figaro on or around 21 June.


Charles Wentworth Dilke (1789-1864), friend of Keats and Severn. While visiting Rome in 1826, he had commissioned a copy of the landscape background of Raphael’s Madonna di Foligno (c. 1512). Severn arranged for a German copyist to do the work. When the copyist died Severn offered to do it himself, but procrastinated and then eventually forgot about the painting, in spite of the fact that Dilke had already paid for it. Charles Brown mediated in the dispute and Severn finally completed the picture. The postscript indicates that Dilke was still upset by Severn’s dilatoriness. See Rollins 2: 10 and Sue Brown.


The number “11” is written at the top left corner of the address page.


The coronation of Queen Victoria on 28 June 1838, which Severn had described, perhaps too briefly, in his letter of 27, 29 June, 1 July 1838.


Leopold I (1790-1865), son of Francis, Duke of Saxe-Coburg. In 1816 he married Princess Charlotte Augusta (1796-1817) and in 1831 he was elected King of the Belgians. He was introduced to Severn by Lady Westmorland in 1822 and subsequently became his patron.


The minutes for the Annual RA Meeting of 1840 show that Severn was nominated as an associate but that Turner successfully opposed him, citing his status as an émigré painter.


Dr. Seth Thompson, who had known Severn earlier at Rome.


Mrs. Strattan. See previous letter.


Written over she.


Archibald William Montgomerie, 13th Earl of Eglinton and 1st Earl of Winton (1812-1861), Elizabeth (Montgomerie) Severn’s half brother who had incurred heavy debt for sponsoring the rain-drenched Eglinton Tournament in August 1839. Elizabeth received an annual allowance from him.


Ardrossan, on the Firth of Clyde, near Irvine in North Ayrshire.


Lady Mary Montgomerie (1787-1848), the wife of Archibald, Lord Montgomerie (1773-1814), Elizabeth’s father. A year after Lord Montgomerie’s death, she married Sir Charles Montolieu Lamb of Beauport (1785-1864).


Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux (1778-1868), Lord Chancellor 1830-1834, and Whig MP.


Bertel Thorwaldsen (1770-1844), Danish neoclassical sculptor and longtime resident in Rome. His full length statue of Byron was executed at Rome and arrived in England in 1834, where it remained in the Custom-house awaiting a spot in Poet’s Corner. Despite the petition presented by Lord Brougham on behalf of Leicester Stanhope, the statue was ultimately refused a place in Westminster Abbey and was finally moved to the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. See the London Times 13 Aug. 1838: 3, col. A.


John Ireland (1761-1842), Dean of Westminster 1816-1842.


A learned Italian gentleman that the Severns met while staying in Olevano during the Roman cholera epidemic of 1837. Severn writes about him in his memoir, “Incidents of my Life,” no. 36 (Papers).


Henry Mayer, the adopted son of Colonel Finch and a friend of the Severns; he was present at the christening of their daughter Claudia in 1829.


Torn seal.


Severn wrote this postscript above the salutation and address. He wrote the following ones upside down along the top and bottom of the first three pages, against the grain of the letter text.


Elizabeth’s lapse in epistolary etiquette. “J. Severn, Esq.” would have been the correct form of address.


Works Cited


Birkenhead, Sheila. Against Oblivion. New York: Macmillan, 1944.


———. Illustrious Friends: The Story of Joseph Severn and his Son Arthur. New York: Reynal, 1965.


Brown, Sue. “Fresh Light on the Friendship of Charles Brown and Joseph Severn.” Keats-Shelley Review 18 (2004): 138-148.


Burke’s Peerage & Baronetage. Ed. Charles Mosley. 2 vols. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999.


Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. 34 vols. New York: Grove, 1996.


Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. 27 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1937-1939.


The Gladstone Diaries. Ed. M. R. D. Foot and H. C. G. Matthew. 11 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1968. (Diaries)


Graves, Algernon. The British Institution, 1806-1867: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and Their Work from the Foundation of the Institution. London, 1908. (BI)


———. The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and Their Works. 8 vols. London, 1906. Vol. 7. (Graves)


Hoock, Holger. The King’s Artists: The Royal Academy of Arts and the Politics of British Culture 1760-1840. Oxford: Clarendon, 2003.


Hutchison, Sidney C. The History of the Royal Academy 1768-1986. 1968. 2nd ed. London: Robert Royce, 1986.


The London Times, June, Aug. 1838; Jan. 1839.


Rollins, Hyder E., ed. The Keats Circle. 2nd ed. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1965. Vol. 2.


Royal Academy of Arts, Council Minutes. 1838. Vol. 8. DOI:10.1080/10509580500210303


Scott, Grant F., ed. Joseph Severn: Letters and Memoirs. Aldershot, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.


———. “Sacred Relics: A Discovery of New Severn Letters.” European Romantic Review 16 (2005): 283-295.


Sharp, William. The Life and Letters of Joseph Severn. London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1892.

Auteur : Grant F. Scott
Titre : After Keats: The Return of Joseph Severn to England in 1838
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 40, novembre 2005
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/012458ar
DOI : 10.7202/012458ar

Copyright © Michael Eberle-Sinatra 1996-2005 — All rights reserved

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