In the autumn of 1820, John Keats (1795-1821) left England for Italy. Desperately ill from tuberculosis, he hoped the warmer climate might extend his life. An apothecary-surgeon by training, he had foreseen his appalling demise in February that year, when, observing blood on his pillow, he said: ‘That drop of blood is my death-warrant — I must die.’
Travelling by his side was the painter Joseph Severn (1793-1879), who, at 26, had agreed to accompany the dying poet. ‘They were close friends,’ says Books and Manuscripts specialist Mark Wiltshire, ‘but I suspect Severn originally agreed to the trip for the sake of his art — he wanted to study the masters in Rome.’
Yet over the next six months, Severn nursed Keats attentively through his great suffering, and the letters he sent back to England during the winter of 1820-21 bear witness to the poet’s final months.
On 9 December, pre-empting the 200th anniversary of the poet’s death on 23 February next year, a posthumous portrait of Keats by Severn, and the poet’s death mask, will be offered for sale at Christie’s.
‘This is the second version of Severn’s famous painting of the poet on the day he composed Ode to a Nightingale,’ says Wiltshire, ‘after another now held by the National Portrait Gallery.’
The artist had visited Keats at his home at Wentworth Place in Hampstead on that day in May 1819, later writing to the watercolour painter George Johann Scharf (1788-1860): ‘I found him sitting with the two chairs as I have painted him and was struck with the first real symptoms of sadness in Keats so finely expressed in that Poem.’
In the same letter, the artist explained that ‘after the death of Keats the impression was so painful on my mind and I made an effort to call up the most pleasant remembrance in this picture which is posthumous.’
‘The picture, which was painted in 1834, captures Keats on the day of his greatest creative act,’ says the specialist. ‘That is why it is the go-to image of the poet.’
Severn was fastidious in replicating the room at Wentworth Place in which Keats sits: ‘The room, the open window, the carpet and chairs are all exact portraits, even to the mezzotint portrait of Shakespeare given him by his old landlady in the Isle of Wight… I had a drawing of the room, chairs etc done by Mr Charles Brown who was still living in the same house.’
Concealed in the frame is a lock of the poet’s hair. ‘This is incredibly special,’ says Wiltshire. ‘Keats died at 25, and left relatively few of his possessions behind. Something so intimate as a lock of his hair is very rare indeed.’
Severn gave the painting as a thank-you to John Hunter, who was a relative of the influential literary critic Francis, Lord Jeffrey (1773-1850), editor of the Edinburgh Review. ‘Hunter had convinced his uncle to write a favourable review of Keats’s last poem, which the poet received in Rome as he lay dying,’ explains Wiltshire.
Keats’s last days were agonising, partly as a result of his doctor’s misdiagnosis. Dr James Clark had put him on a starvation diet of one anchovy and a piece of bread a day. ‘You cannot think how dreadful this is for me,’ Severn wrote in turmoil. ‘The Doctor on the one hand tells me I shall kill him to give him more than he allows — and Keats raves till I am in a complete tremble for him.’
The final, tragic twist of the story is that Severn denied the poet laudanum, which could have eased his suffering. He had asked Severn to buy a bottle of opium before they left England, which he may have wanted as a possible resource if he decided to commit suicide.
‘When he asked for the opium, Severn wouldn’t let him have it,’ explains Wiltshire, ‘and eventually the doctor took it away, leaving Keats to go through dreadful agonies.’
It was a terrible ending for the poet — a man who, like Byron and Shelley, had revolutionised poetry. During a period of political repression, these radical artists had been able, through rich poetic language full of metaphor and classical allusion, to reveal the hidden processes of the imagination.
The death mask offered for sale was cast shortly after Keats died. Severn sent for a cast-maker who took an impression of the poet’s foot, hand and face. ‘The hand and the foot disappeared, but two casts of the face remained,’ says Wiltshire.
One was kept by Severn to use as the basis of his posthumous portrait, while the other was sent back to Keats’s publisher John Taylor (1781-1864).
‘Both are now lost, but somehow the mould was preserved, and at the end of the 19th century a man called Charles Smith created several versions from the original mould.
‘As far as we know, there are only nine copies of the death mask in existence. Five of them are in public collections, including the London Metropolitan Archives, the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, and Keats House in Hampstead.’
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Wiltshire is fascinated by the fact that, even 200 years after Keats died, it is difficult to separate thoughts about the poet from his untimely death. ‘So often he alludes to his own death in his poetry. He had a degree of foresight in those early days that is almost uncanny.’
And what happened to Severn? He lived a long and busy life, predominantly in Rome, where he continued to paint, and was later appointed British Consul. Together with Keats’s other close friends, he helped to promote the poet’s work and ensure accuracy in matters of biographical detail. He died in 1879, and was buried next to Keats in Rome’s Non-Catholic Cemetery.