I’ve just visited the house the poet John Keats lived in from December 1818 to September 1820; the address is now Keats House in Keats Grove, Hampstead but, back in 1818, it was the charming newly-built villa, Wentworth Place.
Wentworth Place, nowadays called Keats House
It was designed to look like one largish house with attractive wrought iron railings and four stone steps leading to a central arched doorway with an elegant fanlight. There is a basement area for the domestic offices; two French windows on each side of the front door on the ground floor and three windows on the floor above. But appearances are deceptive and, in fact, it comprised two separate homes.
Wentworth Place from the back. Note Eliza Chester’s extension on the right.
The first people we know who lived there was the Dilke family on one side and Charles Armitage Brown, a businessman who devoted himself to literature, on the other. It was Brown who went on a walking holiday, first to the Lake District and then to the Scottish Highlands, with the 23-year-old poet, John Keats. They got on well. In December 1818, Keats wrote to his elder brother George, ‘I am quite thick with Brown and indeed I am going to domesticate – that is, we shall keep house together – I shall have the front parlour and he the back one.’ Keats’ bedroom window is top right in the photograph above.
Keats was anxious to be in Hampstead; a number of his friends already lived nearby, like the Radical Leigh Hunt, and the artist, Benjamin Haydon. Keats’s much-loved younger brother, Tom, had recently died of TB, and Keats’s own health was beginning to cause him concern, and Hampstead was known to be a healthy location.
Keats’s bedroom, photographed through the bed posts; it is not a very big room
During my visit a number of people mentioned that Keats’ bedroom had a very peaceful atmosphere. They were right and I stayed there quietly for a few minutes.
The Chester Room, prepared for a lecture
But the house we visit today is not quite the house Keats and Brown lived in; in 1838, it underwent a major alteration. Nearly twenty years after Keats lived there, Wentworth Place was lived in by a retired actress called Eliza Jane Chester who enjoyed entertaining. She built an extension on the right hand side of the house, which nowadays is the venue for a variety of special events: poetry readings, lectures, workshops, and so on. She also turned the house from two homes into one, which entailed a lot of alternations inside: new stairs, old rooms knocked through, and so on.
Charles Armitage Brown’s bedroom
Very few of the objects in the rooms were owned by anyone who had once lived there – except for a few personal belongings. What Keats House has tried to do is to give a period feel to the rooms, and, where the wallpaper colour or carpet design is known from a painting, say, they have matched it as near as they can get. The furniture is right for the period.
Keats and Brown sometimes shared Brown’s parlour and entertained friends there. It is a pleasant room on the ground floor, rather more spacious that some of the other rooms – but that may, of course, be due to Eliza Jane Chester’s alterations. As I said, Keats House is really about essence of place, rather than strict truth.
One of Mrs Brawne’s rooms
When the Dilke family left, a Mrs Brawne moved in in April 1819; she was a widow with three children, one of whom was Fanny Brawne, with whom Keats, later, fell in love.
Fanny Brawne’s bedroom
It is not always certain which of the Brawne rooms was used for what and by whom. In the photo above what we know to have been Fanny’s bedroom, the contraption on the wall above the chaise longue allows the visitor to press the button of his or her choice, and hear one of Keats’ Odes beautifully recited. Keats’s own room was next door.
Fanny’s engagement ring
At some point in the autumn of 1820, Keats and Fanny became secretly engaged. The ring he gave her is an almandine, a variety of garnet; it is set in gold, in a scrolled shouldered hoop. It was not expensive, which reflected Keats’ financial situation. Even though Fanny married in 1833, about 12 years after Keats’s death, she wore his ring for the rest of her life.
The dresser in the kitchen
The kitchen in the basement was used by both families and it’s not easy to see how that worked; it would certainly have needed Mrs Brawne’s cook and Brown’s housekeeper, the fiery Abigail O’Donaghue, to find a way of working together. But Brown and Keats’s was a bachelor household, and they may have sent out to the nearest baker’s shop or inn and bought cooked food in, which was not uncommon at the time.
‘Give me books, fruit, French wine, and fine weather.’ John Keats
One would like to know what happened about the laundry, too. Did a washerwoman collect their laundry and bringing it back washed, dried and ironed – as the child, Charley, does in Dickens’ Bleak House? Perhaps the redoubtable Abigail dealt with that. She was certainly important to Brown, for they had an affair and, according to the DNB, married in August 1819 in a possibly illegal ceremony.
Keats’s parlour. There is a painting of Shakespeare. one of Keats’s heroes above the mantelpiece. Photo courtesy of Keats House.
Even though Keats left Wentworth Place for various visits on and off over the twenty-one months or so that he was at Wentworth Place, it was undoubtedly his most important period as a poet.
The Melancholy border
The information board on the garden outside says: ‘The Melancholy Border. Pure white and deep plum tones recreate the sombre mood of Keats’s ‘Ode to Melancholy’, written here in 1819.’ You can see the colours in the photograph. This is a modern garden, but it echoes Keats’ ability to pick up mood.
Wolfsbane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine/
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kissed/
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine; /
Make not your rosary of yew berries, /’
From Ode to Melancholy, 1819.
Keats wrote most of his odes at Wentworth Place – including Ode to a Nightingale, supposedly inspired by a nightingale who’d built her nest in the garden. The nightingale reminds us that Wentworth Place was only a hundred yards or so from Hampstead Heath and the woods there.
Keats had had a medical training and he knew that he had consumption, the disease which killed his brother, Tom a few years before. His health was failing, and it became obvious to his friends that another winter in England would kill him. They rallied round and found the money to send him, with his friend, the artist Joseph Severn, to Italy.
In September 1820, Keats and Severn set sail for the warmer climes of Italy and, they hoped, an improvement in his health.
House where Keats had rooms on the Spanish Steps, in Rome. The red board hung on the drainpipe says ‘John Keats’ House’. There is a small museum.
Keats and Severn left England for Italy in September, soon after Keats’s betrothal to Fanny. It took three weeks to sail to Naples; from there, after some delay, he was carried by special carriage to Rome where James Clerk, the English doctor there, had taken rooms for them on the top floor of a house at the bottom of the Spanish Steps. Keats died of TB on 23rd February, 1821. He was twenty-five.
Keats’ House is open Wednesday to Sunday 11 am to 5 pm www.keatshouse.org.uk
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